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The 10 Best Performances in a Coen Brothers Film

29 January 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Dan Carmody

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Born and raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have been consistently ambitious in crafting their own unique brand of inimitable and fascinating pieces of cinema throughout their long-spanning careers.

Starting out in the 1980s, they have since become ground-breaking pioneers in genre blending films, skilfully engineering several masterpieces, each of a diverse and distinctive nature. Initially using a number of varying genres such as Westerns, thrillers, neo noir, satire, crime, and comedy, the brothers not only write and direct their work, but produce and edit it, among other technical roles.

As well as their ability to spin exceptional tales in various styles, they are proficient in creating bold and unforgettable characters who spout instantly quotable dialogue. These characters are brought to life with the aid of frequent Coen collaborators as well as by first-timers, who, more often than not, are hand selected by the brothers themselves.

Filling their films’ scenery with a combination of long-term regulars such as John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand, as well as utilising new and exciting talent and veteran entertainers, the pair never fail to elicit captivating and awe-inspiring performances from their entire cast. Ahead of the release of the sibling’s latest motion picture “Hail Caesar!,” here are the ten best performances in Coen Brothers movies.

 

10. Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis

With a number of supporting roles in “Drive,” “Che,” and Ridley Scott’s embarrassing “Robin Hood” reboot, Oscar Isaac was a relatively unknown actor upon the release of 2013’s subdued character study, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This black comedy is a beautifully made, melancholic study of a folk musician in the 1960s as he tries to survive within the music scene and find happiness in his life.

Based very loosely on the experiences of wandering musician Dave Van Ronk, the film depicts the struggle of finding success through one’s personal artistry. It is both darkly humorous and inspiring while also, on occasion, surreal and punishing. In the wake of his musical partner and friend’s suicide, Llewyn Davis endures the failure of his first solo album as he crashes on a friends’ sofas and is accompanied everywhere by a ginger cat.

Beating the likes of Michael Fassbender for the role, Oscar Isaac is absorbing in his portrayal of the enigmatic character, a man that is enthusiastic and at times arrogant, yet is deeply unhappy with his life. Alongside Oscar Isaac are Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver as other (more successful) musicians.

Unlike the fruitless tribulations of his character in the film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” led Oscar Isaac to great accomplishments, including his stellar performances of many musical numbers in the film. “Inside Llewyn Davis” was without a doubt a key role that brought him to the attention of other filmmakers and earned him significant roles in the science-fiction hits “Ex Machine” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Memorable Quote: “Well, I could say we should talk about this when you’re less angry but that would be… that’d be…when would that be?”

 

9. Steve Buscemi in “Fargo” (1996)

fargo buscemi

The brothers’ snow-covered comedy-thriller “Fargo” was recently brought to the attention of new audiences following the successful transition to the small screen in an anthology-style TV series. With the original film serving as inspiration and with the Coens on board as executive producers, the adaption is a reimagining rather than a remake. Sticking to the style of the 1996 classic, it has a smart script layered over an enthralling storytelling, brutal violence, gripping plot twists, and unforgettable characters.

The film “Fargo” follows a case of kidnapping gone wrong, which leads to several grisly murders, spilling blood onto the white snow of the Minnesota town in which it is set. It features outstanding performances from all involved, including William H Macy, Frances McDormand, and the remarkable Steve Buscemi.

At the peak of his career following a string of phenomenal performances working with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, Steve Buscemi, alongside Peter Stormare as his partner in crime, was drafted into the film as one of a pair of inept criminals in charge of the kidnapping at the heart of the film’s story.

Playing the foul-mouthed and villainous Carl Showalter, Buscemi is not only conniving and deceitful, but absolutely hilarious. He is without a doubt an actor that has perfectly executed the crossover between loathsome and hysterical on more than one occasion, here producing one of his most memorable performances as his immoral character tries to make the best of a botched felonious act, only to further negative consequences.

Memorable Quote: “‘No?’ That’s the first thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s a fountain of conversation there, buddy! That’s a geyser!”

 

8. Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona” (1987)

Raising Arizona

The Coen Brothers’ directional debut, “Blood Simple” in 1984, was a stunning neo noir thriller starring a terrifying M. Emmet Walsh. With its gripping and bold narrative, the film paved the way for the brothers to undertake further projects with more backing from production studios. However, it was their follow-up feature, “Raising Arizona,” that brought their names to the forefront, amplifying attention from movie-goers to their unmistakeable skill set.

A dark comedy with highly questionable subject matter, the film portrays a husband (Nicolas Cage) and wife (Holly Hunter), an ex-convict and an ex-cop respectively, who unfortunately are unable to conceive a child. Consequently, they proceed to help themselves to one of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona’s babies, deeming him selfish for having quintuplets with his wife. What follows are several manic episodes in the unconventional family life of the couple and their kidnapped infant.

In one of his first roles, the famously polarising actor Nicolas Cage is in fine form as H.I McDunnough, right at home in this bizarre comedy. He is endearing and captivating as the ex-convict turned eccentric and unconventional family man. With excellent chemistry with Holly Hunter, Cage’s morally ambiguous McDunnough is brilliant as he teaches dubious life lessons and robs convenience stores all in the name of raising a child.

Memorable Quote: “Biology and other peoples’ opinions kept us childless.”

 

7. John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski” (1998)

The Big Lebowski

The Coen’s immediately quotable and universally loved comedy, “The Big Lebowski” marked the fourth collaboration between the brothers and John Goodman, having previously worked together on “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink,” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Along with Frances McDormand, John Goodman stands as the actor to collaborate most frequently with the siblings.

The film that made being a jobless slacker with a keen interest in bowling and a taste for White Russians seem like an inspiring career path, “The Big Lebowski” is an effortlessly cool film, packed with witty dialogue and a rich supporting cast, including turns from Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the unforgettable John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam War veteran. His character was partially based on screenwriter, John Milius, and is now cemented in Internet history as a popular meme.

An irreplaceable entity in the classic comedy, Sobchak is a conflicted character that at times shows signs of psychological trauma due to his experiences in the war. He is not afraid to exercise his right to bear arms, pulling out his gun as an argument-settling device on the bowling lanes, and displaying anger towards everyone who comes across his path.

With a number of standout scenes, most notably one in which he destroys a car with a metal bar, screaming profanities with absolute madness throughout the act, Goodman has stated that this is his favourite of his own films. Without question, it is impossible to imagine anyone else doing justice to the role of Walter Sobchak.

Memorable Quote: “Smokey, this isn’t ’Nam, this is bowling. There are rules.”

 

6. Michael Stuhlbarg in “A Serious Man” (2009)

a serious man (2009)

“A Serious Man” is one of the more low-key pieces in the Coen catalogue. With a cast of fairly unknown actors and a relatively modest budget, the Coen’s proceeded to hold casting auditions in their childhood community of Minnesota, as well as providing acting opportunities to a number of infrequent performers.

A very dark comedy telling the story of Michael Stuhlbarg’s tortured character, Larry Gopnik, a Jewish man in 1960s Minnesota, as both his professional and personal life begin to fall apart following his wife’s request for a divorce. Succeeding this, he begins to question his faith, suggesting the idea that God is not only vengeful, but cruel and vindictive. A highly underrated actor, most notably recognised for his work in HBO crime drama “Boardwalk Empire,” Stuhlbarg is fascinating as the broken man at the film’s heart.

Subject to a number of sudden incidents that send his life spinning out of control, Gopnik is a man conflicted by feelings of pain and uncertainty. He searches for answers and understanding all while the sensations of continuous hopelessness and futility wash over him. Michael Stuhlbarg makes incredible use of the Coens’ rich and bleakly humorous script in a performance that saw him nominated for a Golden Globe. Still criminally underrated, Stuhlbarg is slowly building momentum towards larger roles.

Memorable Quote: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you, not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.”

 

 

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  • sikele

    Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane was good too

    • Matthew Sutton

      My very first reaction. BB Thornton made the movie. Tony Shalhoub as the star lawyer gave a wonderful performance as well.

  • Harris K Telemacher

    This list could contain 30 entries. But these all well chosen and we’ll written too.

  • ‫אלון י‬‎

    John Goodman in The Big Lebowski should be waaay higher

  • williamdais

    Right ON, Frances!… geez, yeah, I’m just sayin’ here….

  • Klaus Dannick

    I preferJennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy over most of these. And John Goodman in Barton Fink > John Goodman in The Big Lebowski.

    • Matthew Sutton

      Agreed Goodman really made Barton Fink, which is altogether much stronger than Lebowski.

  • Carl Peter Yeh

    JK Simmons.

  • Wyatt W.B

    Dan Hedaya was terrifying in Blood Simple

  • Duke Duke

    1.John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski”
    2. John Turturro in “Barton Fink”
    3. Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”
    4. Frances McDormand in “Fargo”
    5. Steve Buscemi in “Fargo”
    6. Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”
    7. M. Emmet Walsh in “Blood Simple”
    8. George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
    9.John Goodman in “Barton Fink”
    10. Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona”

  • Jed Leland

    William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard is at the top for me.

  • Matthew Sutton

    What about BB Thornton in the Man Who Wasn’t There or Goodman in Barton Fink (probably better than his performance in Lebowski)?

    Really I thought Macy/Presnell/Buscemi really carried Fargo. McDormand was great as always but the cast was so strong and the characterization so balanced in the writing on Fargo that it’s impossible to really single out a single performance over any others.