7. The Death of Queen Jane (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Just as they have used their songs to represent wonderful comedy, the Coens have also used them to represent heart-breaking tragedy. The song serves as the cruel punchline to the entire film, and just in case you didn’t understand it Llewyn himself has the message spelt out to him in cold, hard facts. But instead of coming across as conventional and obvious, it only makes the scene more emotionally brutal.
Having slowly made his way across America, sacrificing his career, relationships and integrity in the name of his art as well as the countless hardships he has faced to get there the aspiring folk singer finally finds himself face to face with Bud Grossman, the man that can either make or break his career. He showcases the fruits of this artistic honour that he has been so devoted to upholding in a gut wrenching performance.
The result of this display of talent is that Llewyn is told that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a solo artist. Grossman even suggests he become part of a trio. It’s a kick in the teeth to any previous misconceptions of artistry and integrity, flying in the face of what Llewyn and the viewer believe. Once again the Coens see the tragic irony of the situation and even amid the most potentially depressing scenes they remain faintly optimistic and unusually hopeful.
6. Is This Your Homework (The Big Lebowski)
What’s amazing is that this scene is actually partially inspired by real events. A friend of the Coens and partial inspiration for Walter Sobchak, script consultant Peter Exline once told the duo a story of how his car was once stolen and recovered with a piece of homework in it.
Along with actor and writer Louis Abernathy they tracked the homework’s owner down and confronted him, even taking a briefcase full of plastic evidence bags with them. Apparently the kid’s father was living in the front room on a hospital bed.
So if anything that only makes the bizarre circumstances of this scene even funnier. But it also stands on its own as a hilarious display of interrogation techniques. The way that the Dude tries to cut straight to the point, the fact that Walter initially tries to remain calm and formal only to break into a hysterical rage about what happens when you … a stranger in the ass and attacks the car outside with a crowbar.
Then there’s the constant blank stare that Larry gives, not to mention how the interrogation style of the Dude and Walter seems unfocussed to say the least. They stray from arguing about who should lead the questioning, what questions to ask and as to whether or not the Vietnam War has any relevance within the range of the interrogation. Also, does anyone else laugh just at the fact that Donnie is still waiting in the car while all of this is going on?
5. I’ll Show You the Life of the Mind (Barton Fink)
A moment of sheer lunacy or inspired symbolism? We can’t decide but frankly it could well be both. In a film where Hollywood is hell and its inhabitants are forced to write screenplays as part of their endless cycle of punishment it all comes to fruition in this sudden and horrifyingly hilarious outburst from John Goodman.
Having been suspicious of the true nature of the already quirky Charlie Meadows, John Turturo’s titular character is just as surprised as we are when he bursts into a sudden and violent rage against two unsuspecting detectives as he is suddenly revealed to be not only a notorious serial killer, but the very epitome of hell, where the satanic overtones take a far more literal meaning.
The combination of Goodman’s ferocity, the almost psychedelic nature of the corridor that seems to go on forever and the real hell fire spreading its way across the walls all serve as a way to make this scene one of the most brilliant, subversive, over the top and amazingly spectacular moments of the Coens’ entire filmography.
4. Jesus Quintana (The Big Lebowski)
The Big Lebowski is a film about stoners that feels like it is also high on drugs. It deviates continuously, remains unfocussed and hallucinogenic and contains moments of such a bizarre and nonsensical nature that one may be tempted to rewind the movie just to see if such a moment really happened.
When you stop to think about it, Jesus Quintana has no direct impact on the plot or characters of The Big Lebowski. So why is it that he is given one of the most spectacular entrances in cinema history? It’s hard to know exactly what makes the scene so perfect, the camera angles, cinematography, image of John Tuturo in a codpiece, the slow motion strut down the alley under the glares of Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi, the way it’s orchestrated or the rendition of Hotel California.
Then of course we are treated to yet another brilliant conversation between Donnie, Walter and the Dude. Like every other aspects of this movie, it deviates as it covers bowling, sex offenders, kidnapping theories, Lenin quotes, Beatles quotes, Walter’s buddies who died face down in the muck and insults directed towards Donnie. If you don’t like this scene, well …you know…. that’s just like ….your opinion man.
3. Picking Up Diapers (Raising Arizona)
At its heart, Raising Arizona is a live action cartoon and no other scene encapsulates that ideology more perfectly than this one. It’s difficult to find anything in their career as humorous or as memorable as Nick Cage running down a high street, pantyhose over his face and a box of Huggies under one arm.
Feeling the strain of parental pressures, H.R McDunnough reverts to his old criminal ways while on a supply run. The resulting chase sequence only escalates in its bizarre and outlandish nature as he runs across slathering dogs, trigger happy police officers and senile truck drivers who can’t help but remark on his unusual headwear as well as the whole inexplicable party being coat tailed his own wife and child in hot pursuit.
It’s shot in such a frantic and chaotic style that it’s almost impossible to laugh as the situation escalates and moves in such a fluid yet seemingly random order. The folkish soundtrack adds another layer of humour to the scene, and of course it’s all linked by one brilliant element, Cage himself.
Though his crazy outbursts have become a parody over the years this is Nick Cage at his best as his hectic energy is almost infectious as he bounces off the walls of the screen, making you laugh right to the end of the road.
2. And It’s a Beautiful Day (Fargo)
It is tempting to go with the iconic body through a wood chipper scene, but this scene towards the end of Fargo is the moment when it was well and truly elevated to a masterpiece of modern cinema. Amid all of the violence, murder, plotting and ugliness, Marge Gunderson has uncovered the criminals hideout and arrested one of the kidnappers. He sits quietly and blankly in the back of her patrol car as she quickly deduces the remaining details of the case.
But she doesn’t stop there, she lets him know exactly what she thinks of him and this whole situation. She contemplates why anyone would ever do such a horrific thing and whether it was worth it just for a little bit of money, especially on a day as beautiful as this. There is a genuine feeling to this scene, thanks in no small part to Frances McDormand who brought to Coens’ finest character (sorry Dude) to life.
The scene is just overflowing with emotion and empathy. It is the warmth, humanity and optimism of Gunderson that provides a counterbalance to the cold brutality we have witnessed throughout Fargo both from the characters and the weather. Her words may seem simple, but they carry a greater intelligence, more profound sense of wisdom and deeper meaning than anything else said in the film. It is an achingly and beautifully human scene that shows the Coens at their very best ….. almost their best.
1. The Coin Toss (No Country For Old Men)
There are few other examples of a singular piece of filmmaking that is more masterful, more suspenseful and more intricately perfect than the iconic coin toss from No Country For Old Men. The atmosphere and detail just oozes from every second of screen time and the stakes only climb higher and higher as the scene progresses.
It is enough to put you on the edge of your seat instantly and leaves you anxious for days afterwards. What makes it especially remarkable though is, like many great scenes from Joel and Ethan,
it isn’t even what you could regard as an essential scene. It doesn’t advance the plot, but the amount of depth it provides is unprecedented. Anthon Chigurh has stopped at a gas station and begins conversing with the clerk, eventually the two become involved in a wager only one of them fully understands, the coin flip will determine whether or not Chigurh kills the clerk.
The cat and mouse nature of their encounter in almost hypnotising, with the clerk repeatedly trying to crawl out of the trap he has been placed in, with Chigurh cutting off his ever escape attempt. Chigurh believes that if he is not destined to kill this man then fate will give him a sign, that is his world view, his way of comprehending the chaos of the universe around him.
It’s almost a microcosm, a chilling portrait of a psychopath and his world view, a masterpiece of suspenseful filmmaking that rivals Hitchcock. It is almost definitely the greatest scene ever directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Author Bio: Joshua Price considers himself more of a fan that happens to write near insane ramblings on movies and directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Bergman, Kubrick and Lumet rather than an actual critic and other insane ramblings can be found criticalfilmsuk.blogspot.co.uk.