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Communication Breakdowns: The Coen Brothers' top five films

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The Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House Museum of Photography and Film are in the middle of their film series in tribute to one of the, I mean, two of the pioneers of American independent cinema, Joel and Ethan Coen. The series chronicles at great length the prolific and highly celebrated career of the dynamic duo and their spectrum of films filled with the driest of humor and absurd characters. What better way to celebrate than to highlight the best of their films?

But first, what makes the Coen Brothers special visual storytellers? Through meticulous writing and an attention to detail towards a certain time and place, the Coen’s work well with presenting stories where malfunction is inevitable because no one in the story can ever grab a hold of their situation. The key word here is ‘miscommunication.’ Much of the Coen’s brilliance comes from their mastery of incommunicative narratives, where their characters can never understand what in the world is going on but proceed to believe they do.

As clarification, though, this list isn’t anywhere near scientific. I have actually not seen two of their films (The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty). Nevertheless, the list will be fruitful and it will highlight what makes each and every Coen film a great cinematic experience. Also worth noting is that Inside Llewyn Davis will not be on the list. For it to be considered the film needs to have been out for at least four years…you can’t really measure a classic through immediacy. Anyways, here is the list, enjoy!

The schedule of the Dryden theater and their screenings of the Coen's work can be found here.

5. Blood Simple (1984)
5. Blood Simple (1984) Circle Films

5. Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen’s debut film is hailed as one of the most assured debuts in American film history. When one man’s jealousy of his wife’s affair sets off a chain reaction of unfortunate misunderstandings, the viewer witnesses the banality of such trifling. M. Emmet Walsh steals the show as the grimy detective. This film launched the careers of Joel and Ethan and quickly established their career-long relationship with renowned composer, Carter Burwell.

4. A Serious Man (2009)
4. A Serious Man (2009) Focus Features

4. A Serious Man (2009)

Quite possibly the Coen’s most personal film, albeit maybe their most scathing. Here is a parable about the obscurity of faith as an individual’s life is being ripped apart (akin to the story of Job). Set in a Midwest Jewish community in the late 60s, here is a film that is both cynical about faith yet respectful enough to develop a nuanced exploration on its function. Complete with a memorable and depressing performance by Michael Stuhlberg as the lead role. It is still hilarious, just in case you were wondering.

3. No Country For Old Men (2007)
3. No Country For Old Men (2007) Miramax Films

3. No Country For Old Men (2007)

The Coen’s Oscar winner has been hailed by many critics as, literally, a perfect film. It is their version of the western and with one of the most chilling portrayals of a villain with Javier Bardem as the ferocious Chigurh headlining a chase across what seems to be a tired-looking western landscape.  Like the soundtrack, the dialogue is sparse with few monologues (Tommy Lee Jones offering two as bookends) but what is said helps enunciate the brothers’ attempt to explore how we view violence. Indeed, this story might even be a reflection on their use of violence in their own films.

2. The Big Lebowski (1999)
2. The Big Lebowski (1999) Gramercy Pictures

2. The Big Lebowski (1999)

The greatest story about nothing in the history of film. As opposed to the last entry, a lot is said in this film (amplified with a lot of expletives) but nothing really, well, means anything in a film about a man (Jeff Bridges in his most famous role as The Dude) who just wanted his rug back. With incredible performances by not just Bridges, but also John Goodman as a man who is the complete opposite in every sense of the word yet is the best friend to The Dude. If you watch this soon, listen to the dialogue. Listen to how nothing is essentially gained from these conversations. There are many ideologies being thrown around in this film, with each character occupying a specific indeology, but the Coen’s hallow them out by placing them in a context where they mean nothing…even nihilism. For aspiring screenwriters, here is one of the great screenplays of modern cinema delivered so hilariously by an incredible ensemble cast.

1. Fargo (1996)
1. Fargo (1996) Gramercy Pictures

1. Fargo (1996)

The film noir as told by the Coen brothers, where instead of shadow projecting impressionistic insight into a character’s psyche it is the endless white snow. Fargo is the zenith of genre inversion and of the Coen’s concoction of unique character dynamics and narrative symmetry. The film is dominated by redundant dialogue that increasingly exposes the stupidities of the antagonists’ decisions. Of course, the characters are forever etched in the history of film, with one of the greatest female roles in Marge Gunderson. Her warm sensibilities and Midwest hospitality are being matched by unabridged tragic masculinity; the dichotomy presents us with one of the great battles between pure good and pure evil, and the Coens effortlessly drape this convention with their stapled cynical humor and attention to detail of the heavily snowed region of Fargo, Brainerd, and Minneapolis. Frances McDormand, who played Marge, won an Oscar for her perfectly executed portrayal as a heroine mixed up with hopeless actions of cornered men. Fargo is the exhibition of Joel and Ethan Coen’s diverse skillset as unique storytellers and unique vessels of philosophical intrigue.


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