Joel and Ethan Coen

George Clooney as "the paterfamilias" and Holly Hunter as his wife in O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2001)

George Clooney as "the paterfamilias" and Holly Hunter as his wife in O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2001)

  • Born:  1954  (Joel) / 1957  (Ethan)
  • Rank:  8
  • Score:  839.00
  • Awards:  Oscar / DGA / 2 BAFTA / BFCA / NYFC / NBR / 2 CFC
  • Nominations:  2 Oscars / 2 DGA / 2 BAFTA / 2 Golden Globes / BFCA
  • Feature Films:  14
  • Best:  Fargo
  • Worst:  The Ladykillers

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Fargo – 1996
  2. No Country for Old Men – 2007
  3. O Brothers, Where Art Thou? – 2000
  4. Blood Simple – 1984
  5. Miller’s Crossing – 1990
  6. The Big Lebowski – 1998
  7. The Man Who Wasn’t There – 2001
  8. Burn After Reading – 2008
  9. Barton Fink – 1991
  10. Intolerable Cruelty – 2003

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1985 – 2nd – Blood Simple
  • 1990 – 3rd – Miller’s Crossing
  • 1996 – 4th – Fargo
  • 1998 – 4th – The Big Lebowski
  • 2000 – 3rd – O, Brother Where Art Thou?
  • 2001 – 5th – The Man Who Wasn’t There
  • 2007 – 1st – No Country for Old Men
  • 2008 – 10th – Burn After Reading

They are not for everyone.  They have very odd and very dark senses of humor.  There is a darkness that stretches over all their films, even the comedies.  And most of them are comedies, no matter the body count.  There are definitely people who are put off by their films, especially the films inhabited by very odd central characters (just read Ebert’s reviews of Raising Arizona or O, Brother to get an idea).  But there is no denying their talent.  For years they were worshipped mostly as cult directors before Fargo finally found them out on the critical forefront.  But they stepped back from that again and have bounced back and forth between critical admiration and making films that are clearly not for the critics or the masses.

They actually, like many great directors, began as editors, working on the first Evil Dead film.  This began a lifelong friendship with Sam Raimi (whose Crimewave they wrote) and Bruce Campbell (who appears as a television soap actor in Fargo and Intolerable Cruelty and in a major role in Hudsucker).  Then they made their feature debut with Blood Simple, a hell of a debut film that gained enough notice that it won Best Director at the initial Independent Spirit Awards.  Blood Simple was also the start of the collaboration with Frances McDormand, who would soon marry Joel (and is to date the only person to win Best Actress while being directed by her husband).  Next up was Raising Arizona, the film that established their offbeat sense of humor, with a great performance from Holly Hunter, who had once shared an apartment with not only Fran and the Coens, but also Sam Raimi.  For their next one they went a much more serious route, veering into Dashiell Hammett territory with Miller’s Crossing, which unfortunately got lost in the shuffle of the two big name gangster films of 1990: GoodFellas and The Godfather Part III.  They followed that with Barton Fink, the film that really tests how much the Coens are your cup of tea and firmly established John Goodman as one of the more terrifying actors on screen when you let him get going.  I have a fondness for Barton Fink because John Mahoney as a drunk screenwriter in 40’s Hollywood is essentially playing William Faulkner (and I’m the kind of sick person who finds the whole film hilarious).  But then came Hudsucker Proxy, which in some ways was even stranger, though it had a hell of a performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh in a great Kate Hepburn style role and finally gave a larger role to Bruce Campbell (it also had Steve Buscemi in it and he didn’t die — a true rarity for him in a Coen Brothers film).

Then came Fargo.  It was released in March of 1996, not your standard award release date.  But it got attention and it never went away.  When it finally came to the Oscars, the Coens were nominated for the first time.  Technically, they each received two nominations and each won.  At the time Ethan was listed as the Producer (so he got the nomination for Best Picture) and Joel was listed as the Director, but in reality, they both shared in both aspects.  They both were nominated for and won Best Original Screenplay (while Fran won Best Actress).  But they also co-edit all their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, and were both nominated for Best Editing as well as Jaynes.

After Fargo and all the awards attention, the Coens stepped back into one of those comedies that showcases their sense of humor.  Except this time, while they (unjustly) got no awards attention, they did create what has become one of the biggest cult classics of all-time: The Big Lebowski.  At the time (spring of 1998), I had to talk friends into going to see it and only I came out of it loving it, but these days, it seems that Lebowski is the Coen film most loved by fans.  Where the hell were these people in 1998 when the film only made $17 million?

Then came O Brother and the beginning of their collaboration with Clooney: The Idiot Trilogy (which also contains Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading).  This was the first film that really showed how offbeat and funny Clooney could be and was a brilliant depression-era take on The Odyssey (which the brothers claim they have never read).  Next came The Man Who Wasn’t There, a very dark film (but still funny) with brilliant cinematography.  Next came a Clooney take again, Intolerable Cruelty, probably the closest anyone has come in sixty years to making a screwball comedy.  After that came their only misfire: the remake of The Ladykillers. The problem wasn’t with the film itself but Tom Hanks.  Unlike such people like Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman, Hanks doesn’t seem like he could possibly be a nutball in real life, so his performance feels strained (as opposed to J.K. Simmons in the same film, who feels so natural as a complete weirdo).  The Ladykillers was also the first time that both brothers began to share credit as both producers and directors, so when they did win the Oscar for Best Director three years later, they both received the award.

Three years later came the next step, their faithful and fantastic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.  Anchored around the three amazing performances of Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, the film follows closely to the book, straight down to the dark finale and the dream that ends the film and it (rightfully) won Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay from the Oscars.  Of course, the Coens couldn’t have all that awards attention, so they followed up quickly with the third idiot film: Burn After Reading, asking truly bizarre things of Clooney and Fran.  But it is funny from start to finish and is another triumph.  Next up comes A Serious Man, which gets released in most places this Friday and is already getting serious awards attention.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – #4 film of 2000

“We thought you was a toad,” Delmar says half way through the film.  By then we’ve already had an onslaught of lines that I can look up on the IMdB and hear in a perfect voice, lines that were hilarious when I first heard them on opening night and which still make me laugh now (“Well, ain’t this place a geographical oddity. Two weeks from everywhere!”).  It didn’t need the lines to make it funny.  The basic plot of the story, taking the framework from The Odyssey and moving it to the Great Depression, while importing Pappy O’Daniel (based on an actual governor from Texas – the only man to ever beat Lyndon Johnson in an election), was hilarious enough, especially when we start to understand exactly how the Coens intended to take Greek mythology and place it in the heart of the Depression south (the sirens are beautiful washer women, the Cyclops is a one eyed man complete with one eyed KKK hood).

But there are the classic lines (“Well I’ll be a sonofabitch. Delmar’s been saved.”) and there are the performances.  When George Clooney first crossed over into films, it was anything but success.  He did a standard romantic comedy (One Fine Day), a horrible turn as Batman, and a thriller (The Peacemaker).  But then came Out of Sight and the realization that he could be a star.  Then came Three Kings and there was no question that he was both a star and one hell of an actor.  Then came this and his offbeat, bizarre performance as Ulysses Everett McGill, the damn paterfamilias with a gift of gab, finally started to get him noticed by awards groups (he was nominated for a Satellite award and he won the Golden Globe).  His isn’t the only performance worth noting.  There’s John Turturro’s understated performance (so nice for him to get a more sympathetic role after Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and Big Lebowski).  There is Tim Blake Nelson’s innocent idiot.  Then there is John Goodman in a role that would be as frightening as he has ever been had it not been for his previous performance in Barton Fink.

Then there is the look of the film itself.  There is the amazing washed out look, achieved through extensive technology, to make it look the era itself, full of dust and grime.  There is the visual shot of the cow being gunned down by Babyface Nelson, which was so realistic that the American Humane Association at first didn’t believe it was digital and demanded to see how it was done before they would approve the film for their stamp.  There was the music, the brilliant array of bluegrass that became an instant best-seller and even won the Grammy for Best Album.  And of course the song itself, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, an old folk song that came alive anew and echoed throughout the film.

Then there is the film. It’s not just a re-telling of Homer, but an ode to previous films.  There is the casting, complete with many of the Coen stock performers: Holly Hunter, John Turturro, John Goodman (and of course, Clooney, who would become one of their stock).  There is the title itself, taken from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.  Then there is the KKK scene, complete with references to The Wizard of Oz.  And the way that it crosses the boundaries between genres, combining Crime with Musical with Comedy with Drama and even a bit of Suspense.  Because it is suspenseful as they stand in the barn, the cops surrounding them, having just been betrayed, with fire roaring around them.  And even by then, so early in the film, you know exactly what Clooney has to say.

“Damn, we’re in a tight spot.”

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