#2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
(down one spot from previous ranking)
I think it was the Coen Brothers’ third film, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, that cemented them as my favorite filmmakers. I was a college freshman, interested in film as a career, when I sat in the theater and let this gorgeous, funny, dark, poetic film wash over me.
That same fall, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas came out. I’m not sure which I saw first, but I remember being amazed at how such completely different gangster films could both work so well. A couple of years later, I wrote a paper on mob movies for a film class, focusing on those two extraordinary achievements.
Miller’s Crossing follows Tom Reagan, the consigliere (or whatever the Irish call the #2 man) to Leo O’Bannon, a powerful mob boss running an unnamed city. Leo is at odds with rival gangster Johnny Caspar, head of the Italian mob, over the scheming brother of Leo’s mistress. A complicated tangle of double- and triple-crosses ensues, as Tom risks his own life and standing to make sure Leo ends up on top.
The plot is clever, but it hardly matters. The Coens take a Dashiell Hammett framework and reimagine it with their own verbal and visual language. “You’re giving me the high hat,” complains Johnny Caspar, and Leo dismisses him and his right-hand man with a gruff “Take your flunky and dangle.” That’s in the first scene.
The cinematography and sound design, the period costumes and lavish production design, Carter Burwell’s haunting score… every detail of this movie evokes a time and place from some alternate history. Not the actual 1929, but an oil painting of 1929 come to brilliant life.
Gabriel Byrne delivers career-best work as Tom, the coolest sonofabitch to ever lead a movie, even if he’s getting his ass kicked half the time. Albert Finney brings his towering presence to Leo, and gets a tour de force scene in which he fends off a team of would-be assassins to a recording of ‘Danny Boy.’ Marcia Gay Harden is the jaded mistress Verna, smarter and tougher than the men scrambling at her feet.
Jon Polito and John Turturro round out the principal cast. Polito’s Johnny Caspar is a crook who insists on living by an ethical code. Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum is the opposite — a grifter with no code at all who will sell out anybody to gain an advantage.
And then there’s the hat. The film’s opening credits show Tom’s bowler hat skittering away through the woods. He’ll spend the whole film chasing it, both literally and metaphorically, despite telling Verna there’s “nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”
That idea is key to all of the Coen Brothers’ films. We spend our lives chasing things — love, money, meaning — even though we know it’s foolish. What other choice do we have?
#1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
(up one spot from previous ranking)
Llewyn Davis is certainly chasing something — recognition, fame, acceptance — but he can’t stay out of his own way. The Coen Brothers’ best film so far, Inside Llewyn Davis, is about that hopeless journey.
Set during a week in the life of a struggling folk singer, this movie is short on plot but rich in atmosphere. And in Llewyn Davis, the brothers have created their most heartbreaking lost soul yet.
Mourning the suicide of his friend and musical partner, Llewyn floats from couch to couch and gig to gig, hoping to hit it big but too proud to do it the easy way. Oscar Isaac turns in one of the greatest-ever performances in a Coen Brothers film, revealing the hurt behind Davis’ eyes even when he’s at his most caustic.
This movie leap-frogged Miller’s Crossing into my top spot because, in my sentimental old age, I have to give it bonus points for moving me so deeply. The Coens’ movies usually hit me hard in my brain and my funny bone, but this is the one that does the most damage to my heart.
The biggest gut-punch was my realization that this is a movie about a man who loses his creative partner told by two men who have been creative partners for three decades. With each rewatch, it’s clearer how much the loss of Mike hangs over Llewyn and over this film.
Consider the film’s most devastating and crucial scene — in which Llewyn auditions for legendary producer Bud Grossman at his Chicago folk club. Davis plays a gorgeous ballad, after which Grossman sits stone-faced for a beat, then says “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
That’s the killer line. But the conversation continues, as Grossman suggests Llewyn team up with other singers. “I had a partner,” Llewyn says, and Grossman replies “My suggestion? Get back together.”
“That’s good advice. Thank you, Mr. Grossman,” says Llewyn, after hearing that the one thing he’s missing is the one person he can never get back. But of course he knew that all along.
Inside Llewyn Davis has more to offer than existential sadness. Bruno Delbonnel’s desaturated cinematography is breathtaking, bringing life to the period album sleeves the Coens used for inspiration. The folk music soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, is every bit as good as O Brother Where Art Thou‘s Grammy-winning set. The film’s recreation of 1961 Greenwich Village is charming.
And then there’s the cat. Tom Reagan chased a hat in Miller’s Crossing, and Llewyn Davis chases a cat throughout this film. What does it represent? Llewyn himself? His ambitions? I read a great article suggesting the cat is a stand-in for Mike, and Llewyn’s need to finally let his partner go.
Or maybe it’s none of the above. “The film doesn’t really have a plot,” Joel Coen dead-panned during the Cannes film festival, “That concerned us at one point – that’s why we threw the cat in.”
The Coens have been throwing metaphorical cats into their movies for 36 years, and in the process have created one of the most diverse, entertaining, and thought-provoking filmographies in all of cinema. I treasure each and every one of their films, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little expedition.
Coen fans, please feel free to post your own rankings in the comments. With these guys, nobody has the same top five and everybody’s top five is exactly right. I’d love to see yours.