The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
What’s better than a new Western from the Coen brothers? How about six? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a sextet of short films, all set in the Wild West. They follow different characters through wild plots that explore the themes of human depravity and cosmic justice (or injustice) that recur so often in the Coens’ works. The stories and protagonists vary wildly. The eponymous sequence follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a sharpshooting, guitar-slinging cowboy roaming the West and singing of his adventures. In another, a lonely prospector (Tom Waits) digs for his fortune. The stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs fall on the surreal end of the Coen spectrum — they’re somewhat comical, occasionally brutal folk tales that don’t always leave the viewer feeling they’ve learned a lesson.
It doesn’t take an Anglophile to recognize a Monty Python joke. Even those who have never watched an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or who couldn’t name a single member of the British comedy troupe, are probably familiar with a few scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a 1975 comedy based on Arthurian legend. The film follows King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his followers — including Lancelot (John Cleese), Bedevere (Terry Jones), Galahad (Michael Palin), and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) — on their quest to find the Holy Grail. Their mission takes them far and wide through a variety of bizarre scenes, including a duel against a knight who doesn’t know when to call it quits (even after losing an arm or two) and an encounter with a deadly rabbit. It’s a film packed with brilliantly absurd ideas and an all-star cast.
Frances Ha (2012)
For most Americans, their 20s are a decade of transition, of figuring out what they want and laying the foundation for their future; not so for Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig). At 27, Frances is an aspiring dancer apprenticing at a studio that doesn’t seem too keen on her. She lives in an apartment with her best friend, the more successful Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and is so comfortable with the arrangement that she breaks up with her boyfriend when he asks her to move in with him. Unfortunately for Frances, Sophie decides to move to her dream apartment in Tribeca, leaving Frances to figure out what she’s going to do next. Frances Ha is a portrait of a life trapped in amber, as Frances drifts from place to place, struggling to build her own life. Director Noah Baumbach’s decision to film in black-and-white gives the film a stark look reminiscent of French New Wave films like The 400 Blows, which feels appropriate given the film’s existential themes.
With Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow take aim at the prestigious but formulaic biopic genre, telling the ridiculous life story of the musician Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly). As a child, the young Dewey accidentally cuts his brother in half with a machete, a traumatic incident that leads him to sing the blues and discover a love of music. His story only gets weirder from there, as he dabbles in various genres over the decades, meeting musicians like Elvis and The Beatles and trying every drug under the sun. It’s a great comedy, one that manages to continue one-upping itself no matter how absurd each scene seems.
A Serious Man (2009)
“We can’t know everything.” With those words, a rabbi concludes a long, strange, and seemingly pointless story, leaving Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) flustered. A Serious Man, one of many masterpieces from the Coen brothers, follows Larry as his life collapses in slow fashion, a landslide of misery that he can’t comprehend. His wife is leaving him for another man, an anonymous critic is putting his academic tenure in jeopardy, a student is trying to bribe him for better grades, and perhaps worst of all, nobody can explain to him why any of this is happening. The film may sound depressing, and it is, but it’s also a shockingly funny, tragicomic exploration of human suffering in a small corner of the uncaring universe.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Hot Fuzz is basically actor-writer Simon Pegg’s take on the buddy cop genre, though, one spliced with the same comedic elements that made Shaun of the Dead so amusing in the first place. Pegg stars as a former London constable who’s assigned to investigate the sleepy town of Sanford alongside the dimwitted Butterman (Nick Frost). However, things start to become interesting following a string of so-called “accidents” plaguing various members of the town. This biting British film is the second in director Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, which ultimately culminates with The World’s End and capitalizes on the fantastic interplay between Pegg and Frost.
I Love You, Man (2009)
Jason Segel and Paul Rudd embrace the “bromance” in this 2009 film about a man with no friends. While Rudd prepares for his wedding, his fiancee (Rashida Jones) proposes that he finds himself a male friend to occupy some of his free time. When Rudd and Segel meet, it’s a match made in heaven, as both men love jamming to Rush songs. When Segel’s character puts up some billboards featuring Rudd that are in questionable taste, however, the two must decide whether their new friendship is worth saving. A star-studded supporting cast and a hilarious cameo from Lou Ferrigno also help make this a memorable — albeit unusual — rom-com, a good movie for a casual movie night.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Another day, another wacky comedy from the Coen brothers that quickly spirals way out of control. In this black comedy, a former CIA analyst (John Malkovich) loses a CD-ROM that contains meaningless ramblings on various government activities, many of which are intended for his soon-to-be memoir. When two certifiable dimwits (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) find the disc and think they’ve stumbled upon a treasure trove of valuable secrets, hilarity ensues. George Clooney and Tilda Swinton provide excellent supporting performances as well, but it’s the film’s neurotic score and the tight scripting that truly makes it an anti-spy thriller worthy of the Coen name.