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1 museum, 2 filmmakers, 13 movies: The MFA celebrates the Coen brothers

Looking at the one-of-a-kind artistry of the two-of-a-kind siblings

Ethan Coen (left) and Joel Coen at the world premiere of "Hail, Caesar!" in 2016.Jordan Strauss

Joel and Ethan Coen have made 18 feature films over the past 35 years. Spanning genres, their pictures are about as diverse a body of work as there is in American film. What unites it are (in no particular order): sly, scalding intelligence; subversive, unpredictable wit; emotional chilliness; an immersion in movie history; stylistic meticulousness; wild unpredictability; and a stock company to die for, headed by Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife), John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and George Clooney.

John Turturro,Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"Merlin Archive

There’s one other defining Coen brothers attribute: consistent artistic excellence. There are no bad Coen brothers movies. Some are more successful than others, but all very much repay watching.


Starting Dec. 5 and running through Dec. 29, the Museum of Fine Arts will be providing an opportunity to watch 13 of those features. In order of screening, they are:

Blood Simple, 1984 (Dec. 5 and 7) The movie is as elemental as the first word of its title and as stripped down as the second. A husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). It’s also elemental the way opera is (why hasn’t anyone thought to adapt it?) and stripped down the way barbed wire is: twisty and sharp.

Miller’s Crossing, 1990 (Dec. 6 and 8) A terse and somber gangster picture in which hats are used as talismanically as Ernst Lubitsch did doors. The forest execution scene may be Turturro’s finest Coens moment, which is saying something. That scene is also worthy of the movie being paid homage to, “The Conformist” (1970), which is really saying something.

Raising Arizona, 1987 (Dec. 6 and 7) It’s as if the Coens wanted to show their versatility as soon as possible. After the brutal directness of their first film, here’s the (very) broad comedy of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter — as ex-con and cop married couple — kidnapping a baby to start a family of their own. Note that Goodman makes his Coens debut.


Barton Fink, 1991 (Dec. 8 and 11) This first Coen movie about Hollywood features Turturro as a very Clifford Odets-like screenwriter in Tinseltown. Goodman’s insurance salesman could be auditioning for “The Day of the Locust.” It’s John Mahoney who steals the movie as a William Faulkner knock-off. “Barton Fink” has the further distinction of being chief contender for title of best Coen set design.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in "Fargo."Anonymous/GRAMERCY PICTURES

Fargo, 1996 (Dec. 12 and 14) Character names don’t come any better than Marge Gunderson, but then neither do characters. McDormand won an Oscar for playing the pregnant police chief of a rural Minnesota town. Marge is as sensible and no-nonsense as her murderous yet bumbling quarry (William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, and Buscemi) most definitely are not.

The Hudsucker Proxy, 1994 (Dec. 13 and 14) This homage to Frank Capra gets unfairly overlooked. With a lockjaw purr, Jennifer Jason Leigh offers a gloriously mannered take-off on Katharine Hepburn. You can feel the fun Paul Newman is having as an evil Mr. Moneybags. “Hudsucker” has the distinction of being the Coens’ first, and surely last, Christmas movie.

The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001 (Dec. 19 and 20) Where “Blood Simple” was noir updated and reimagined, “Man” returns the genre to its midcentury heyday, right down to being in black and white. Which is a reminder to salute the immense contribution made to the Coen canon by the brothers’ favorite cinematographer, the indispensable Roger Deakins.


No Country for Old Men, 2007 (Dec. 19 and 20) The Coens know their westerns, as shown by their excellent remake of “True Grit” (2010) and the exactingly made, if thoroughly repellent, “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018). This adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel is as good a modern-day western as there is and has the Oscars to show for it: best picture, director, adapted screenplay, and supporting actor (Javier Bardem). Anton Chigurh? Smile when you say that name, pardner — or better yet, run.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000 (Dec. 26 and 28) “True Grit” and “No Country" aren’t the only Coen literary adaptations. “Brother” is based (sort of) on Homer’s “Odyssey,” with some help from Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). In the Coens’ career of constant surprises (if not sorrows), the biggest may have been the “Brother” soundtrack winning a Grammy as album of the year.

John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in "The Big Lebowski." Merrick Morton/Gramercy Pictures

The Big Lebowski, 1998 (Dec. 26 and 28) All honor to the Dude (and Jeff Bridges) and the Coens’ reworking “The Big Sleep” so pretzel-illogically. But the greatest “Lebowski” greatness is the madness that is Walter Sobchak and Goodman’s embodiment thereof. His delivery of “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude — at least it’s an ethos" is almost as gobsmacking as the line itself.


Burn After Reading, 2008 (Dec. 27 and 29) Almost every Coen movie has its comic elements. The contenders for their funniest effort are this spies-like-us farce (their broadest since “Raising Arizona”) and the inspired screwball update “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003) — the ultimate Coen brothers title? Although better than its reputation, their 2004 remake of “The Ladykillers” is not a contender.

A Serious Man, 2009 (Dec. 27 and 29) It’s a close race for the title of cruelest Coen brother movie, but the Job-like tribulations Michael Stuhlbarg’s title character has to endure give this one the nod over “Barton Fink,” (a different sort of serious man), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (cruelty is intrinsic to noir), “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013 — if folk music isn’t deserving of cruelty, what is?), and “Buster Scruggs.”

Hail, Caesar! 2016 (Dec. 28 and 29) Where to begin? Channing Tatum’s dance number. The political philosopher Herbert Marcuse appearing as a character. James Brolin’s wondrous turn as a much-put-upon studio executive. Alden Ehrenreich’s charm as a movie cowboy. This comedy about Hollywood at the end of the Studio Era is surely the Coens’ most affectionate movie — not that there’s much competition.

George Clooney in "Hail, Caesar!" Universal Pictures

Mark Feeney can be reached at