• Barton Fink

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, has incited the same arguments that arise whenever a new Coen brothers film is released. Some critics consider the Coen brothers and their films mean spirited and misanthropic because they supposedly mock, punish, and judge their characters and, by proxy, the viewers. I find an inherent contradiction in such an argument—namely, it presupposes that movie characters are real people and are therefore exempt from “unfair” depictions. I’ve never bought into the notion that audiences should “empathize” or “root for” a character, mostly because characters are essentially a function of film construction—”rooting” for a protagonist is like “rooting” for editing or sound design, which strikes me as an aimless and illogical pursuit. Ultimately, “empathy” toward a character depends on a viewer’s willingness to meet the filmmaker at his or her level. This is particularly true of the Coen brothers and their films, which are often so subjective that it’s difficult to parse their humanist and sympathetic qualities.

This might make me sound like a Coen apologist, which I’m not—I see no reason to apologize for how much I enjoy their work. You can catch my five favorite Coen brothers films after the jump.

5. Miller’s Crossing (1990) A great rhetorical film about imagined pasts—or, more specifically, imagined pasts created by the movies. It’s a gangster pastiche that finds inspiration in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, but the seemingly complex plot is a ploy unique to the Coen brothers, who revel in red herrings and portentous images that mask the rather simple mechanisms of their storytelling.

4. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) Most Coen brothers movies are, in one way or another, about movies. Such is the case with this peculiar noir riff, which might be called a “neonoir” if it weren’t so actively concerned with undermining every notion of the genre. With cinematography that more closely resembles European art house than American noir, a decidedly dispassionate central character, and a decidedly low-stakes narrative, the film was most aptly described by film critic Graham Fuller when he dubbed it an “antinoir.”

3. A Serious Man (2009) The story of Job rendered in midwestern terms and 70s ephemera. For all its apparent dread (not to mention its foreboding denouement), the film is easily the funniest film the Coens have ever made, particularly in the way it synthesizes popular culture with historic institutions. In his review, J.R. Jones points to the “intermingling of Judaic teaching and the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow LP,” one of many playful conceits nestled among the narrative.

2. Barton Fink (1991) Another playful, pointed pastiche, this time of 1940s Hollywood. The dreamlike, ultrasubjective nature of the film, like so many by the Coen brothers, takes a number of liberties with historical accuracy and realistic characterizations, but the affect has an air of whimsy and genuine curiosity that some misconstrue as malicious and snide. Along with Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink transpires in an apocryphal (almost mythological) milieu that’s cartoonish in nature, yet the film’s eccentric flourishes nevertheless yield a number of insights into films, filmmaking, and film viewing.

1. Fargo (1996) Another noir riff, but a more faithful one than The Man Who Wasn’t There. (As faithful as the Coens can be, at least.) In one of their more inspired gambits, the brothers subvert the two most prevailing character types of the genre: the hard-boiled cop and the femme fatale. Not only are the genders switched—Frances McDormand plays the “hard-boiled cop,” William H. Macy the “femme fatale”—but the archetypical expectations are also thrown for a loop. Macy, for example, is woefully inept as a criminal instigator, while McDormand is far more jovial (though no less cerebral) than your typical noir hero. The thoughtful gender commentary fits nicely within the absurdist crime drama that unfolds.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.