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the best of the coen brothers

The film critic Anthony Lane once wrote of The Coen Brothers: “There remains a nagging sense that the Coens are not so much investing their emotions in a cinematic genre as picking it up, inspecting it, and then setting themselves the task of constructing a perfect copy.” Maybe true, maybe not, but after 16 feature films it’s pretty clear Joel and Ethan from Minnesota are capable of a damn sight more perfect copies than most of us. As their new film Inside Llewyn Davis is released, i-D picks the Coens top five…

Text Tom Seymour

  • No Country For Old Men

    When asked how they adapted Cormac McCarthy’s original screenplay, Joel Coen said: “I held the book open, Ethan typed.”Taken from the William Butler Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium, No Country For Old Men opens with a hunter named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) training the telescopic sight of his rifle on a herd of antelope grazing on the prairies of the Tex/Mex borderlands. Llewelyn misses, and he scans the landscape as the antelope leap away. There he sees another hunt: bullet-ridden vehicles and, scattered on the ground, dead cartel. Shot by Roger Deakins, it’s a tour de force in sparse, tight, almost primitive storytelling; about sound the sound of a silenced shotgun, or the eyes of a dying man asking for water. Or the compressed suck of a stun gun, the type normally seen in a slaughterhouse, pressed against an innocent’s temple, as Chigurh lectures him on the nature of choice, destiny and fate.

  • Miller’s Crossing

    The Coens openly admitted to writer’s block during the writing of Miller’s Crossing, their light-touch gangster noir set in America’s Prohibition. As Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) plays rival gangs against each other in a plot too complex and numerous to recount, it’s Article A in the Coens ability to further a genre movie while, at the same, providing a detached, wry commentary of it’s own artifice. Look out for cameos by director Sam Raimi, with whom the Coens collaborated on his Evil Dead, and Frances McDormand, who made her debut in Blood Simple and starred in Fargo (and Burn After Reading).

  • Big Lebowski

    Jeff Lebowski, the Dude, "the laziest man in Los Angeles County,’the most loved, the most quoted, the most iconic of all The Coen’s characters with the gel sandals, the goatee, the potbelly and ponytail - is allegedly based on a movie producer and distributor named Jeff Dowd, who worked behind the scenes on their debut film Blood Simple. Raising Arizona was the Coen’s first exhibitionist ensemble comedy, with its never-ending cast of strange characters and its lovely, off-kilter dialogue. But Lebowski was the first to find a wide and enduring audience; how many White Russians have been bought in bowling lanes since 1998, how many kids have shouted “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”

  • Blood Simple

    The Coens debut was met with coolness, even confusion, when it was first released in 1984. “Blood Simple has no sense of what we normally think of as “reality,”and it has no connections with “experience.”It’s not a great exercise in style, either,”Pauline Kael wrote in her review. But time has set her wrong. Set in a dirt road town in sun-scorched Texas, Blood Simple is a taught and ambient low-budget noir of cheating wives and husbands plotting revenge. Watching it back now, it seems already vintage; highly-composed, highly-controlled, with the air of violent fetish. It’s twenty years old, and hasn’t aged a day.

  • Inside Llewyn Davis

    It might seem like a rush of blood to the head, but the Coens new film is surely worth its place in a their top 5. It’s a very human portrayal of a very committed artist, but an artist questioning whether he can carry on. Llewyn's a “preservationist,”a singer of old folk songs, spending his evenings doing open mic at the Gaslight cafe, seeing his single record collect dusk in his manager’s office, feeling himself waver as life stubbornly refuses to hand him a break. A subtle, loose, soulful performance from Oscar Isaac is backed up by a delightfully sweary Carey Mulligan, with Adam Driver, Jesse Eisenberg, Garrett Hedlund and the ever-present John Goodman making good on cameo performances. But the Coens are the stars here, making New York’s Greenwich Village in the bleak winter of 1961 look like a thousand unique album covers.