#18. A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick
Another bizarre and wholly unique film from two of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood, the Coen Brothers. A Serious Man is a much different film than anything Joel and Ethan had tackled in the past, and many critics have agreed that the film shows just how much the two directors have grown up over the years. Their 2009 film follows a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his life slowly, but surely, falls apart around him. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is getting in trouble at school, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a respected member of the Jewish community, and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is involved in some less than flattering legal problems. On top of all this, Larry’s application to receive tenure at the university is in jeopardy. A Serious Man is another in a series of Coen Brothers films that sees a person’s life drastically changing for the worse, employing some of the classic dark humour found in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Barton Fink. Though it’s a much more subtle humour than some of their films, the screenplay is a masterwork in terms of character study – Larry Gopnik is an immediately compelling character almost entirely due to how unlucky and unfortunate things are going for him. Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Larry is pitch perfect – his frustration is always apparent, even though he almost never has the opportunity to give it a voice. Every time things seem to be going better for Larry, something else becomes muddled or another question is raised, creating more frustration and unhappiness in our unfortunate lead. Fred Melamed’s supporting turn as Sy Ableman is hilariously maddening, with Ableman making Larry out to be the bad guy even though Sy is directly challenging his family dynamic. While I hesitate to use a word like “underrated” for A Serious Man (it was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2010), I feel as if it does get lost in the Coen Brothers’ impressive filmography. It feels like a deeply personal project for the two brothers, and delves into complex and subtle themes of faith and destiny that are incredibly compelling and intriguing. It’s a darkly hilarious and intelligent look at one man’s misfortunes, which is something the Coen’s do better than any other active American filmmaker. A Serious Man is an unsung masterpiece, and deserves to be put on a pedestal beside films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and other Coen Brother masterpieces.
#22. Fargo (1996)
Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
Fargo is perhaps the most iconic film in the impressive and prolific filmography of the Coen Brothers, thanks in part to the film’s many quirky idiosyncrasies. Fargo follows Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) as a pregnant police chief investigating the killing of a local State Trooper. The murder has occurred after the pre-arranged kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)’s wife Jean. Lundegaard is in desperate need for money, and has arranged for his wife’s kidnapping in order to extort his father-in-law for a ransom. The two men responsible for the kidnapping and the murder are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who run a sloppy and uncoordinated operation. Their mistakes eventually lead Marge Gunderson straight to the source, complicating the extortion plot and leading to a series of betrayals and backfires. Fargo is the Coen Brothers are their very best from a writing perspective – the complicated and unfortunate situation of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is immediately established, and his motivations made clear, the lack of chemistry between antagonists Carl and Gaear is shown, and the investigative prowess and critical thinking skills of police chief Marge Gunderson become clear in time. Every character is perfectly written and realized, with every one of them having their own idiosyncrasies and ticks – most famously Marge’s thick Minnesotan accent and good-natured attitude, Jerry’s nervous, innocent, and immediately suspicious demeanor, and Carl’s nonstop motormouth. Fargo has been made famous by the sheer quotability of its dialogue, most notably the amount of “oh yeah”’s featured – even twenty years later anybody who has seen the film can’t hear “oh yeah” without immediately associating it with this film. Frances McDormand’s endearing Marge Gunderson is one of the great screen characters of the 1990’s, “oh yeah”-ing her way all the way to an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1997. Frances McDormand’s Marge is unintentionally hilarious, tough as nails, and far more complex than she is initially portrayed as – her awkward and uncomfortable scene with Steve Park’s Mike Yanagita and her subsequent revelations about his lies is one of my all-time favorite movie moments. The Coen Brothers’ hilarious and suspenseful crime film is the basis for the highly successful television show of the same name, which has almost managed to match Fargo in terms of quality and bizarreness. If you’re a fan of the television series and have somehow managed to avoid the film, do yourself a favour and see Fargo as soon as possible – it’s one of the funniest, quirkiest, most unique movie experiences you’ll ever have.
#77. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
Widely regarded as the best movie of the 2000’s, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is an undeniably powerful project. It’s a story about circumstance, destiny, greed, and taking unnecessary risks – and is full of morally ambiguous characters and situations. The film introduced the world to Javier Bardem’s terrifying Anton Chigurh, perhaps one of the most frightening villains of the modern era. No Country for Old Men took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay, beating out one hell of a stiff competitor in the same year’s There Will Be Blood. The plot of the movie is simple – Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds two million in cash at the site of a drug deal gone bad. Moss is pursued by a dangerous and emotionless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hired to get the money back, and by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a nearly-retired sheriff in pursuit of both men. What follows is a bloody, suspenseful, challenging thrill ride matched by few films before it, and one whose influence can be seen in many films that have followed it. The screenplay by the Coen Brothers is perfectly paced, gripping the audience from start to finish. It never panders to its viewing audience by imitating popular thrillers, but is instead more than happy to take its time in telling an intelligent, and at times frightening story. Javier Bardem is unpredictable as Anton Chigurh, bringing an unrivaled sense of dread to the film. While Bardem is far and away the highlight of No Country, we also get impressive turns from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, all of whom do their best to match Bardem’s iconic performance. The awards and praise earned by No Country for Old Men are all deserved, as is its status as one of the great films of the 2000’s. It’s just that damn good.