Hail, Caesar! (2016)


Written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan

Eddie Mannix, a fixer at a 1950s Hollywood film studio, must contend with a star who’s been kidnapped by communists, another who’s fallen pregnant, and another who can’t act…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tilda Swinton plays two roles. Twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker are both journalists, and are based not that loosely on real-life gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The gag is that they always appear in quick succession, confusing whoever they’re trying to get information from, and Swinton’s having fun with the characters’ clipped voices and supreme confidence.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (4) assays another Coen-brothers idiot. Frances McDormand (8) has a tiny yet comical cameo as an editor. Fred Melamed (2) was also in A Serious Man. Josh Brolin (3), Tilda Swinton (2) and Scarlett Johansson (2) appear again.

Best bit: We see a number of scenes from fictional movies being shot at the studios – a Biblical epic, a Gene Kelly-style musical, an Esther Williams-style swimming film, a Western, a stuffy drawing-room drama… They’re all entertaining in a behind-the-curtain way, with the musical being the best. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is a song-and-dance man who’s playing a sailor in his latest movie. The sequence we see being shot is an elaborately choreographed number called No Dames, which has some dazzling dancing and subversive lyrics.

Review: It’s not awful, but there’s a relentless sense with this film that it’s not as good as it should be. It’s a sketch show rather than a wholly satisfying movie, and like most sketch shows is very hit and miss. The Acorn Antiques-style fictional movies, for example, are tremendous fun, while there are a number of classy and funny performances – not least from Ralph Fiennes, who nearly steals the entire film as uptight-yet-polite English director Laurence Laurentz. But the story is so lightweight and scattergun. Threads seem to get picked up then dropped on a whim, while Scarlett Johansson’s subplot is beyond cursory. The film meanders and never seems to rise above a mildly interesting second gear. There’s also, sadly, a smugness about the proceedings. It’s a funny film, but nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

Six Soviet submarines out of 10

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, is crashing on friends’ sofas and pestering his agent for money… Will he have to give up his music and return to the merchant navy?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Sally Sparrow from Doctor Who gets lots of shouting and swearing to do, but it’s not a huge role.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (6), in a wig and with an affected voice, crops up for a section in the middle.

Best bit: The comedic Columbia recording session.

Review: Well, there’s plenty of lovely music, often with the songs being played in full. But I found this really quite dull. The first half has been meandering along – neither grippingly nor unpleasantly – but then a lengthy road trip involving John Goodman sucks all the energy out of the film and I just wanted it to end. Characters come and go, but none is especially likeable. A disappointing way to end this 16-movie viewing of the Coens’ canon.

Five cats out of 10.

True Grit (2010)


Written by Joel and Ethan, based on True Grit by Charles Portis; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

In the post-Civil War Wild West, 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Hailee Steinfeld is just brilliant as the headstrong, smart and astute Mattie.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Jeff Bridges (2) is having great fun playing Cogburn, while Josh Brolin (2) plays Tom Chaney, the man they’re looking for. JK Simmons (3) has a voice-only cameo.

Best bit: Our first sight of murderer Chaney.

Review: As full-blooded in its commitment to a genre (here, the Western) as, say, Blood Simple or Miller’s Crossing were. But this is more successful because as well as conventions it has conviction. There’s real heart to this movie. We get clear storytelling, playfully elaborate dialogue, interesting characters, good performances and stunning production design – and unlike in the last two Coen movies, we also have an emotionally satisfying ending. The best one in this watch-through since O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nine half-bitten-off tongues out of 10.

A Serious Man (2009)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

A schoolteacher’s wife wants a divorce, his dream job’s under threat, his brother’s sleeping on the sofa, his neighbour’s crossing into his garden, his son’s dealing with a bully, his daughter wants access to the bathroom, and a student’s trying to bribe him… How will he cope?

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Ooh, look: it’s The Big Bang Theory’s Howard as a young rabbi.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): None.

Best bit: The shaggy-dog story about the dentist.

Review: A strange one. The way Larry’s life gradually crumbles apart around him is fun to watch and is well paced, and there are lots of good actors in fun roles, but it’s hardly the most gripping 100 minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. The movie begins with a seven-minute prologue – all in Yiddish and set at some indeterminable Ye Olde time – which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the film. And, like in Burn After Reading, the story just stops rather than having an ending.

Six TV aerials out of 10.

Burn After Reading (2008)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Joel and Ethan

When CIA analyst Osbourne Cox loses his job, he decides to write his memoirs – but the sensitive document falls into the hands of two gym workers, who plan to blackmail him…

Seen before? Yes, on DVD about three years ago.

Best performance: The headline five – sex addict George Clooney, self-doubter Frances McDormand, angry John Malkovich, childlike Brad Pitt and severe Tilda Swinton – are all terrific.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): McDormand (6), Clooney (3), Richard Jenkins (3) and JK Simmons (2).

Best bit: When Linda and Chad attempt to extort money from Cox.

Review: There’s a really odd clash of tones in this one. It begins like a Tony Scott techno-thriller (something like Enemy of the State or Spy Game). There are shades of One Foot in the Grave in Cox’s forced-retirement blues. It’s partly a twisted romcom, at times like a 1970s paranoia thriller, and becomes more Hitchcock-esque the longer it goes on. Despite (or maybe because of) this, whenever the script hits a crossroads it turns down the road with the fewest clichés, which keeps it interesting. Perhaps the film loses its way at the death (the end is sudden and perfunctory), but mostly it’s enormous fun.

Eight sex swings out of 10.

No Country For Old Men (2007)


Written by Joel and Ethan, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Joel and Ethan; produced by Joel and Ethan

Llewelyn Moss stumbles across a bloody crime scene – a drugs deal gone bad – and walks off with a bag full of money. Psychopathic murderer Anton Chigurh gives chase…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tommy Lee Jones. An obvious casting choice for a world-weary, grizzled Texas sheriff – but nevertheless a good one.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Stephen Root (3) has another small role, and Josh Brolin (1) plays Moss.

Best bit: The tense nighttime chase in the desert.

Review: The Coens’ fifth movie set in the American South is a splendid return to form. They know how to shoot and populate wide, open spaces so well (compare with the studio-bound Ladykillers, which felt so dreary). We’re back to the slow and methodical style of Blood Simple: there’s little humour, lots of sequences have no dialogue, but it’s engrossing. I constantly wanted to know what was going to happen next. A prime slice of film soleil.

Eight motel rooms out of 10.

The Ladykillers (2004)


Written by Ethan and Joel, based on 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers by William Rose; directed by Ethan and Joel; produced by Ethan and Joel

‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) rents a room in the house of a religious, elderly woman so he and his gang can use her cellar in their plan to rob a casino…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Cloak, white suit, odd facial hair, false teeth, geographically unsure accent – what the buggering fuck is Tom Hanks doing?!

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Bruce Campbell (4) has a cameo, Stephen Root (2) has a small role, and JK Simmons (1) is one of Dorr’s gang.

Best bit: An American football game filmed from a player’s point of view.

Review: Tiresome beyond belief. Good comedy is based on truth, but this drivel is about outlandish cartoon characters played by actors more concerned with being eccentric than being interesting. If you ever wondered what 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven would be like if you took away the wit, style, panache, likeability, skill, talent, tension, comedy, charm, charisma, class, subtlety, surprises, twists, intelligence, good cast, cool music, sharp dialogue and enjoyment levels, then this is the film for you.

One irritable bowel out of 10.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)


Written by Ethan, Joel, Robert Ramsay and Matthew Stone; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

A divorce lawyer meets his match when he comes up against a gold-digging wife…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Catherine Zeta-Jones is lovely to look at. But performance-wise? No one comes out of this well.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): George Clooney (2) plays lawyer Miles Massey. Richard Jenkins (2), Billy Bob Thornton (2) and Bruce Campbell (3) have small roles.

Best bit: N/A.

Review: This clearly wants to be a screwball comedy, like something directed by Billy Wilder, but instead it feels like someone inelegantly copying the Coens’ style. It’s forced rather than free-flowing, laboured rather than light. It’s the brothers’ first contemporary movie since Raising Arizona, eight films ago (even Fargo and The Big Lebowski are period, being set in 1987 and 1991 respectively). But sadly it gets more tedious the longer it goes on – and is just not funny at all. If you’re going to make a film about such unlikeable characters being idiots, it needs wit and panache. However, this is just misogynistic rubbish.

Three Tenzing Norgays out of 10.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)


Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

A mild-mannered barber discovers his wife is having an affair, so plots to blackmail the man she’s sleeping with…

Seen before? Yes, on 15 November 2001 at the Metro – an independent cinema in Derby run during the evenings in my university lecture room – with Stuart Oultram, Andy Fisher and my ex-housemate Hilary Neale.

Best performance: Frances McDormand as the cheating wife, Doris.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as McDormand (5), there’s Jon Polito (5) as a crooked businessman, Richard Jenkins (1) as a piano-playing teenager’s father, Tony Shalhoub (2) as the slick lawyer, and Billy Bob Thornton (1) as lead character Ed.

Best bit: The scene where Ed ‘invents’ a story about what happened on the night of the murder – the lawyer buying it as a fiction, but both Ed and Doris understanding that he’s telling the truth.

Review: Barton Fink to O Brother was a run of five really entertaining movies, full of vim and fun and especially heart. This, however, harks back to the feel of Miller’s Crossing – both films are lovely to look at (in this case, black-and-white and stylized 1949 design), but it’s difficult to care about the characters or get invested in the story. It’s so cold and detached. Soulless, in fact.

Six Heavens to Betsys out of 10.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Three convicts – Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O’Donnell and Pete Hogwallop – escape a 1930s chain gang and set out to recover some buried treasure. Along the way, they inadvertently become singing sensations…

Seen before? Yes, on 25 October 2000 at a cinema in Derby with my then-housemate Hilary and some university mates.

Best performance: George Clooney’s having an absolute blast playing pomade-obsessed Ulysses. Batman notwithstanding, he’s fantastic every time I see him – From Dusk Till Dawn is still one of my favourite films. He’s a movie star not afraid to take character roles.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): Pete is played by John Turturro (4) while Holly Hunter (3) plays Ulysses’s wife. Clooney (1) will be back. John Goodman (5) shows up as a one-eyed Bible salesman, Stephen Root (1) as the blind guy who runs the radio station, and Charles Durning (2) as Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (2).

Best bit: The sirens. Blimey.

Review: Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey (no, I’ve not read it either), this is a madcap comedy with lots of pleasingly bizarre twists. It’s very episodic, so we get a succession of new characters/incidents – rednecks, gangsters, politicians, musicians, the Ku Klux Klan – all entertaining and fun in their own right. It’s also pretty much a musical in disguise and looks beautiful: daytime scenes are dusty, sunkissed, almost sepia, with lots of oranges, browns and mushroom greys. Really enjoyable stuff. I loved seeing it again.

Nine tins of Dapper Dan out of 10.