2010-2019: Best Films of the Past Decade: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Starring Oscar Isaac

Watching Together While Apart

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Alone/Together in the Dark

I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a film critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronavirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy and undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

For purposes of simplicity, my list of the 30 great movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased. No need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint, and with the perspective of time.

All the film are available on DVD or streaming.

20. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, their fictional tale of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, is their most enthralling feature since No Country for Old Men, which had deservedly won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

“True West,” a remake of the John Wayne 1969 Western, is the Coens’ most commercial film, but, artistically, it’s decidedly not their best.

Like most of the Coens’ features, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is French-financed, world-premiered at the Cannes Film Fest, where the siblings had won several awards, including the 1991 Palme d’Or for “Barton Fink.”

CBS will release the film stateside December 6 in time for serious award considerations. With shrewd marketing and strong critical support, the film stands a chance to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

The multi-nuanced performance of Oscar Isaac, who carries the inevitably fragmented picture on his robust shoulders, should get a Best Actor nomination. In physical appearance, vocal range (he performs his songs) and demeanor, Isaac is so right for playing the flawed (anti)hero, that it’s hard to imagine the saga without him.

Each and every festival, I resist the temptation of seeing one or two films at their first press screenings (and be one of the first critics to review them), instead opting to attend the official premiere, surrounded by spectators who are not critics or journalists. It’s a different experience (which is the subject for another column). I therefore apologize for my relatively late review, though I have to admit that I derived a good deal of pleasure out of the public screening, to which I went without reading anything about the film.

“Inside Llewyn Davis“ may be an intimate film in terms of scale, focusing on one character in a relatively short period of time (tale is set in 1961), but it is not a minor film in the Coens’ oeuvre.

Though the film has serious moments, the Coens have made a darkly humorous satire, one in which the tone navigates from the serious to the comedic, and from the frivolous to the relevant, between scenes and often within the same scene. Shifty, ambiguous tonality, open to subjective interpretation, has always been a forte of the brothers’ work.

Third, though inspired by the life of a particular musician, the tale could apply to any struggling musician, or any bohemian artist who refused to compromise his art for commercial considerations.

In its rich and dense subtext, which is submerged within an admittedly fractured narrative, the Coens offer a portrait “the young artist as a loser,” to borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway. And who else but the Coens to make such a deftly- crafted, highly engaging film about a self-defeating musician, who at the start of the tale comes across as a naïve singer lacking self-awareness, but blessed with strong humanist instincts (of which a cat is the most beneficiary), if not good manners.

Like most of the Coens’ features about artists (“Barton Fink”), “Inside Llewyn Davis” is episodic, and it doesn’t claim to fully comprehend its enigmatic character.  Inevitable comparisons will be made with “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” which was broader (and more commercial), and not only due to the music of T-Bone Burnett, who is credited as executive producer in this picture.

The tale unfolds as a road movie, even if nominally there’s only one trip (though a lengthy and significant one), outside of New York to Chicago, in a snowy winter no less. The journey in this film is both external and internal. The external one is based on the dichotomy of Uptown (where Llewyn’s friends, the Gorfeins from Columbia University, reside, and where he often crashes on their sofa) and Downtown, specifically Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village. Up and Down we see our clumsy hero takes the subway, often with a cat he’s supposed to protect, but manages to escape at the worst possible moments. The Coens come up with a witty idea about the felines’ mistaken identity, and how the male cat is referred to linguistically.

The second, and more important one, is the inner odyssey involving a growing self-consciousness of Llewyn of who he is as an artist, what his goals, strengths, and limitations are.

Is he just a loser, as one of the characters describes him, or a professional who perceives his art as calling and demands to be paid (as little as $40) for his services, and who’s humiliated when asked to sing at dinner parties. Since he always carries his guitar with him, friends ask him to play and sing.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” offers a more poignant, and authentic portrait of bohemian life than recent filmic efforts, such as Walter Salles’ “On the Road” (an honorable failure in dramatizing Jack Kerouac’s seminal book of the same title, which played in Cannes Fest last year), or the undernourished “Howl,” about the gay Jewish poet Allen Ginzberg, a contemporary of Llewyn (who is Irish, by the way).

The opening sequence is stunning: Set at the Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn Davis is seen singing one of his bleaker song about being hanged. After the show, he is told that a friend is waiting for him outside, and indeed, in a dark alley, he gets beaten out by the cowboy-stranger for reasons that neither he nor we understand. The Coens return to this darkly surreal scene at the very end of the saga, which clarifies the encounter and provides a nicely symmetric coda.

The film is deceptively simple, and its plot could be described as a series of crashes on couches (or floors) of benevolent friends and colleagues, some of whom just feel sorry and contempt for him.

Among those is Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan, sporting long dark hair), who’s married to another musician, Jim (Justin Timberlake, impressive in a small role). Sour and unpleasant, Jean claims that Llewyn is the father of her baby (she is not sure, though). In one encounter after another, she puts Llewyn down, demanding money for (illegal) abortion, and suggesting that he uses two condoms in his next irresponsible escapades with women. The inside joke is that Llewyn is sort of a nebbish, a la Woody Allen’s Jewish characters in his 1970s films, but women find his passivity attractive.

There is a brilliant scene, when Llewyn visits a doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion, only to be told that the previous woman he had knocked up, Diane, had decided to keep up the baby but had not bothered to tell him. Thus, Llewyn doesn’t owe the doctor any money for the new abortion.

Llewyn then realizes that he is a father to a two-year old baby (somewhere in Akron, Ohio….)

“Inside Llewyn Davis” adds another singular work to the already distinguished output of the most consistently reliable independent filmmakers working in American cinema.


Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis
Carey Mulligan as Jean Berkey
John Goodman as Roland Turner
Garrett Hedlund as Johnny Five
Justin Timberlake as Jim Berkey
Adam Driver as Al Cody
F. Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman
Stark Sands as Troy Nelson
Ethan Phillips as Mitch Gorfein
Robin Bartlett as Lillian Gorfein
Jerry Grayson as Mel Novikoff
Alex Karpovsky as Marty Green
Max Casella as Pappi Corsicato
Frank L. Ridley as Union Hall Man
Jeanine Serralles as Joy
Ben Pike as Bob Dylan
Bradley Mott as Joe Flom
Marcus Mumford as Mike Timlin (voice)

Production: StudioCanal
Directors and writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Olivier Courson, Ron Halperin
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick James
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett

MPAA: R rating,
Running time: 105 minutes

Budget: $11 million

End Note: The movie was a moderate success at the box office, earning $33 million.

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