Selected filmography: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009)
If one were only to consider the first half of the decade, Joel and Ethan Coen’s placement at the top of this list would seem suspect. Though the new millennium began in a promising fashion with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which scored more than $75 million at the box office (their biggest take at the time) and coincided with a renewed interest in American folk music, the Minnesota natives’ subsequent desire to experiment with the moviemaking medium led to some of their most unfortunately mediocre output.
In 2001, The Man Who Wasn’t There—about a soft-spoken barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini) and aims to do something about it—hinted at a return to form for the noir-loving filmmakers, but instead ended up as proof that even the Coens weren’t immune to creating a film that had more style than substance. (The film did rightfully earn one Oscar nomination, for Roger Deakins’ cinematography; the legendary DP, who has been working with the duo since 1991’s Barton Fink, has helped to create their signature and very recognizable visual style.)
In 2003, they tried a throwback to the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges with Intolerable Cruelty, which pits a merciless divorce attorney (George Clooney) against a professional gold-digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) with less than entertaining results. Film Threat claimed the film was “destined to rank among the Coens' least memorable achievements,” noting that “the pair would be wise to put aside this obsession with screwball comedy’s heyday and take a cue or two from their own golden age.”
In 2004 they produced—or rather, reproduced—a fairly faithful remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, starring Tom Hanks as the leader of a team of burglars operating under the nose of their church-going landlady. Given the brothers’ flair for originality, the film—and its fidelity to its 1955 incarnation—seemed an odd pairing.
It would be another three years before moviegoers would get their next taste of the Coens, but it would be well worth the wait. In 2007, the filmmakers fell back on the same sort of darkly humorous crime capers that made them household names in the first place with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. This utterly perfect film, which traces the unfortunate circumstances that bring together a sociopathic murderer (Javier Bardem), an unwitting hunter (Josh Brolin) and a small-town lawman (Tommy Lee Jones), didn’t just negate the filmmakers’ earlier missteps, it overwrote them completely.
Flawlessly executed, No Country for Old Men won four of its eight Oscar nominations, including one for Javier Bardem as Best Supporting Actor and matching statues for Joel and Ethan for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director (it’s worth noting that the Directors Guild of America only officially granted the brothers co-director status in 2003; before that, Joel was given sole directing credit with Ethan as the producer). Universally lauded, the film served as a potent reminder that no one investigates crime like the Coens. But whereas their earlier efforts could take fun, Fellini-esque detours toward the surreal side, No Country for Old Men remains their most restrained effort, with only a paper-thin line separating suspense from humor. (Bardem’s coin toss scene is a mesmerizing example of this.)
Though Burn After Reading was largely dismissed as an inconsequential blip on the brothers’ filmography, the $163 million it earned at the box office (about $430,000 more than No Country for Old Men) made it clear that that they hadn’t lost their kooky (not to mention mean-spirited) edge. And that audiences were hungry for more than just remakes, sequels, and by-the-numbers adaptations.
That the Coens closed out the decade with the semi-autobiographical A Serious Man, about a Jewish mathematics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can only sit by and watch as his own life crumbles around him, seems befitting. If the 1980s were about establishing themselves within the industry and the 1990s were where they found their voice, the 2000s were about experimentation and easing into a place of comfort—establishing a genre unto themselves where seemingly straightforward stories are made cinematic by the personal quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters that inhabit them, resulting in what can only be described as “A Coen Brothers Film.” —Jennifer Wood