Thursday Ten - Performances in a Coen Film

December brings a slew of awards contenders to the mainstream fray, none more likely to register than Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. For this edition of the Thursday Ten, I opted against ranking the Coens’ filmography, instead approaching their work through the rich performances they’ve been able to extract from their eclectic casts. The directorial duo introduced actors like Frances McDormand, Javier Bardem, and Hailee Steinfeld to mainstream audiences - with Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac joining good company. The following ten performances are reflective of the director’s innate ability to provoke the very best out of everyone they work with - the Midas touch if there ever was one.

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Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation 

 

Raising Arizona (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987)

Coming right after Blood Simple, I’m quite impressed that the Coen’s more visceral and comedic instincts were so well defined so early. The Coens tend to bend the rules of comedy and drama nowadays, blending the two types into something all together theirs. Raising Arizona plays more specifically to their comedic sensibilities, ala The Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading. I’m not the biggest fan of their straightforward comedic output, and such is the case, I’m not all too high on Raising Arizona. Nevertheless, I still found plenty to enjoy in Raising Arizona’s formal arrangements.

Cage tones down the crazy somewhat, playing lead character H.I. McDonnough – a reformed convict who falls for a police officer known as Ed (Holly Hunter). The Coens wisely open Raising Arizona with a prologue narrated entirely by Hi. What it serves to do is immerse the viewer in the dialect of its characters, which was bound to defy audience expectations at the time. The film’s premise is established quickly and effectively through the prologue – after marrying, Hi and Ed lead a lifestyle that approaches something of the suburban dream. But turmoil arises when that dream cannot be fully achieved (Ed is not capable of having children and they cannot adopt because of Hi’s criminal record) –the notion of kidnapping a child is a sound solution to their problem.

Intentional or not, the Coens effectively satirize traditional American-dream notions while instilling a sense of other-worldliness. Their recurring theme of justice being served, of the irony of law, fit in organically throughout Raising Arizona’s narrative. It is very much a “Coen” film through its ideas, but if there’s one thing Raising Arizona lacks is the Coen’s visual sense. The visual palette is more reminiscent of Tim Burton, but progressively, the Coens were able to get their visual flair established as well.

7/10

The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen, 2001)

A barber named Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) becomes aware of a business opportunity. Having been nothing but a barber all his life, the quiet man realizes that this may be his ticket. It’s not like his life is particularly thrilling – he cuts hair, survives his brother-in-law’s constant bantering, discovers that his wife is cheating on him, and is generally unhappy with the mundanity of life. But like most things in the Coens’ universe, life is hell, and going through it unscathed is impossible. Things go terribly wrong as Ed blackmails his wife’s boss and lover. But the way things fall into place, Ed seems to have avoided the worst of it – though as the film reaches its conclusion, the universal truth that one cannot escape their sins becomes increasingly evident.

This certainly ranks among the Coens’ best. It utilizes their sense of humor with a noir backdrop that is simply a joy to watch. It unfolds in such an unpredictable manner, where a sense of urgency develops. Roger Deakins once again lenses the film beautifully, evoking the spirit of Citizen Kane with such beautiful black-and-white photography. And Billy Bob Thornton is amazing in the leading role. His narrations recall characters like Phillip Marlowe, all whilst he inhales cigarette after cigarette. After a bit of a dry-spell in my viewings, I’m glad I got to watch something truly great again.

9/10