Best Movies of the 2010s
#14 – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
I’ve gone on record naming the Coen Brothers as my favorite filmmakers, so it should come as no surprise that they landed two films on my Best of the 2010s list.
I will wait until I get to the next one to talk about the Coens’ decade overall.
But today, a few words about the brothers’ last film of the decade, the Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Today the countdown of my favorite films of 2018 comes to a close with my #2 and #1 picks. First, a recap of the list so far:
10. First Reformed
9. Black Panther
8. Support the Girls
7. Crazy Rich Asians
6. The Favourite
5. Isle of Dogs
4. Minding the Gap
3. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
There isn’t much suspense over my top two films, as I’ve written pretty extensively about both of them on the blog already. So I won’t go into a lot of detail here.
The final segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, to paraphrase Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, really ties the film together.
‘The Mortal Remains’ depicts a quintet of passengers riding in a stagecoach to a mysterious hotel. Two of the passengers, the Englishman and the Irishman, are revealed to be bounty hunters (or “harvesters of souls,” as they put it) while the other three are a trapper, a gambler and an upright religious sort. Each offers a monologue on, essentially, the meaning of life.
The penultimate segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, titled ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled,’ is the film’s longest. In fact, I could see this one being effectively fleshed out to feature length had the Coen Brothers wanted to go in that direction.
Starring Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young woman following the Oregon Trail to the vague promise of an arranged marriage, and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp, one of the cowboys charged with escorting the caravan, this is one of the most earnestly romantic stories the Coens have ever told.
‘All Gold Canyon,’ the fourth segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is the only one in which a main character doesn’t die. It’s also the only one adapted entirely from another source — in this case, Jack London’s short story of the same name.
An unrecognizable Tom Waits stars as a prospector who ventures into the most beautiful, pristine canyon you’ve ever seen and begins digging for pocket gold.
The third chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by far the bleakest. Following two darkly comic segments, ‘Meal Ticket’ is just plain dark.
Liam Neeson stars as an impresario who travels from town to town with his act, an armless, legless man nicknamed Harrison the Wingless Thrush (played beautifully by Harry Melling, Dudley in the Harry Potter films). While he might look like a carnival side show act, Harrison’s talent is in his oratory. He eloquently delivers poetry, Shakespeare, Biblical verses and famous speeches from atop a stool.
The second segment of the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is titled ‘Near Algodones’ and stars James Franco as an outlaw cowboy who can’t win for losing.
This segment is a lot less cartoonish than the opener but it’s the second most comical of the six. The Coens ease viewers into the darkness, which hits with a wallop in the next chapter.