The Coens’ new comedy, Hail, Caesar! hits theaters February 5, and to get Coen fans and newbies caught up on the brothers' movies, Film Forum is mounting a chucklesome career retrospective. From Jan 29–Feb 4, the theater will screen 14 films, from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to The Big Lebowski. Fargo gets its own weeklong run, playing Fri 22–Thu 28.
The Coen brothers have scaled Hollywood’s highest heights—winning the Best Picture Oscar for 2007’s No Country for Old Men—and plumbed the depths of a distinctive brand of comic misanthropy. But Joel and Ethan Coen, with 16 features and several shorts, mean more to their fans than the totality of their accomplishments. With every movie, the NYC-based sibling auteurs invite us into a fiercely independent world of sparkling dialogue and success on their own terms.
Overwhelmed by all the good films to choose from? Here are our (ultra-opinionated) five favorites.
Barton Fink (1991) Their first three films—Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing—are no small beer, but the Coens truly come into their own with this Palme d’Or–winning Hollywood fantasia, a brilliant depiction of (and offscreen triumph over) writer’s block. Barton Fink forever marked them as outsiders looking in on the Dream Factory, always with a caustic eye.
Fargo (1996) Minnesotans by birth, the filmmaking brothers returned to the Midwest to make this bitterly cold crime comedy, their mainstream breakthrough. They brought along some of the sharpest actors of the indie scene, including Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy and Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife). They left behind the gory wood chipper.
The Big Lebowski (1998) Keep an eye out for the films that follow up the Coens’ big successes; those projects are often their most daring. After Fargo, few expected the brothers to double down on a fully baked L.A. detective story featuring a tubby stoner hero (the immortal Jeff Bridges), a howling Vietnam vet (John Goodman) and a kinship with that shaggiest of ’70s classics, The Long Goodbye. It’s their most intensely beloved film.
A Serious Man (2009) Always dogged by the criticism of excessive caricaturing, the Coens took a leap into the unknown with this Book of Job–like reminiscence, inspired, in part, by their own ’60s Jewish boyhoods. It vibrates with humor, sadness and a scary mystique (“Accept the mystery” is a key line of dialogue).
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) The sibs have always known their way around a stellar soundtrack (the multiplatinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? disc virtually saved Appalachian music). But it’s this dark valentine to the Greenwich Village folk scene—a hard place on six-string strummers not named Dylan—that stands as their most tuneful and mature work to date.