Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most unique talents in modern film, who since the 1980s have been creating fantastic oddball and exciting work, keeping this high quality throughout their entire career creating multiple masterpieces along the way. Watching a film from these two can sometimes be a challenging experience initially as they often ignore typical story structure and famously have unusual endings to their films. As a result, it may take a second watch to truly love a film from them but once you understand and gel with their style you fully understand how masterful these brothers are, so this list is very subjective and there are a number of films which are worthy of the number 1 spot.
Number 10- True Grit
The remake of the John Wayne classic is as far as I’m concerned superior to the original in that it’s a much more complex and morally ambiguous film with two lead performances far better than the original leads. Jeff Bridges as always is amazing and goes completely different to the version of the character as played by John Wayne but Hailee Steinfeld is the clear standout here giving perhaps an all-time great child performance as the cold and calculating Mattie Ross. The film is very slow moving and does lull in certain moments but still has plenty of suspense and great dialogue. The film ranks lower simply because I prefer the more original content of the Coens but this may be a good starting point to slowly get into the style of the sibling filmmakers.
Number 9- Blood Simple
The first film from the brothers is a tight and precise neo noir which tells a fairly straight forward but riveting story and really lays out the foundation for the style of the Coens. If anything, the film is more in line with No Country for Old Men in that it is incredibly dark with a menacing atmosphere all punctuated by a terrifying performance by M Emmet Walsh. One slight issue is that the two lead characters aren’t especially interesting but the film is so visceral that this is forgiven. It has two clear stand out sequences: one is the 10-minute body burying sequence, and the other is the finale both of which are perfect examples of minimalist suspense filmmaking.
Number 8- O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey this film is a crazy prison break adventure film which sees its three protagonists facing danger and oddball characters around every corner. The first hour or so of this film is utter perfection containing all the oddball sense of humor you could ask for. A major downfall in the film is it reaches a certain point where the film slows down and loses the manic energy established early on. But it eventually picks the pace back up. The highs of this film outweigh the lows and for the longest time it’s a complete blast to watch. Also, the soundtrack to this film is amazing especially if you enjoy folk music.
Number 7- Burn After Reading
Maybe the most underrated film in the Coen Brothers Filmography, Burn After Reading is a wacky, stupid yet hilarious film that has an over complicated plot that really doesn’t matter at all. It essentially is a series of misunderstandings from a bunch of idiotic characters excellently scripted by the Coen Brothers. Unlike O Brother, Burn After Reading maintains the manic energy all the way to the end and actually gradually keeps building the tension which only makes the film funnier. All the performance’s here are brilliant but of course the one everyone loves is Brad Pitt who truly steals the film in the various moments he’s in and of course that sequence between him and George Clooney is one of the most shockingly hilarious in any film by the Brothers. The film culminates in a perfect finale which recaps and puts forward the main point of the film or lack thereof.
Number 6- Fargo
This may be my most controversial placement as many have Fargo no lower than 1 or 2 in their lists and it’s simply a matter of preference here as Fargo is a great movie that I cannot pick any flaws with. The Coen Brothers have two kinds of humor which is the goofy oddball comedy or the Dark oddball comedy. Fargo is the best example of the Dark side to the comedy of the Coen Brothers turning brutally violent moments into comedy gold. Francis McDormand rightfully won an Oscar for her performance here and she truly is amazing in this movie. It’s a perfectly structured crime film in which the mistakes made by characters are the cause and effect of the film and it paces itself so well. It’s also one of the more unique crime films due to the setting and of course those wholesome accents of the Minnesota characters. The film spawned a TV series which actually tops the film (“Fargo” season 2 is a masterpiece) but Fargo still stands on its own perfectly well.
Number 5- Inside Llewyn Davis
As the title would suggest Inside Llewyn Davis is a study of the titular character as he makes his way through the country music scene of the 1960s. The film purposefully takes place just before the emergence of Bob Dylan to highlight an Artist who despite immense talent is just at the wrong time. The film is a look at those who don’t quite make it for one reason or another. It’s very loose on plot and really just is a look into the life of Llewyn Davis played perfectly by Oscar Isaac who has never been better than he is here. The structure of the film is in an almost circular nature giving the vibe that this is an almost standard week for Davis, while it would be easy for the Coens to try make Davis purely a sympathetic character they show moments in which he is awful to people and you realize that part of his failure is down to himself making it all the more tragic. The soundtrack may be the best in any of the Coens films and Isaac performs many of the songs himself. It’s a tough film at times and is very sad but also hilarious at the same time. The best moment in the film comes from an affecting sequence in which Llewyn performs to his dad in what may be the most heartfelt moment in any of the Coens films.
Number 4- Barton Fink
Inspired by the Coens’ time going through writer’s block, Barton Fink tells the story of a play writer’s transition into film during the 1930s as he is hired to write a paint by numbers wrestling picture thus having to compromise his artistic vision. This might just be the most ambiguous film by the Coen Brothers and is a cross between a black comedy and psychological horror. The film’s primary setting of the Hotel Earl almost resembles the terrifying nature of the Overlook Hotel and is a surreal setting with strange inhabitants and melting walls. John Turturro is excellent as the likeable but extremely pretentious and arrogant Barton Fink but it’s John Goodman as his neighbor Charlie who steals the show. The finale to the film is complete insanity and leaves way more questions than answers. The final shot of the film is the most ambiguous ending to any Coen brothers film but also in my opinion one of the best endings to one of their films.
Number 3- Raising Arizona
The second feature film from the Coen Brothers demonstrated how they had no intention of replicating the style of their first film going from a grim Neo Noir to a screwball comedy. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are a married couple who steal a baby due to not being able to have their own. The film is completely over the top almost like a live action cartoon but also has an incredible amount of heart where you care so much for the two lead characters. At 90 minutes, Raising Arizona breezes by and is perhaps the most fun film of the Coen Brothers’ career. The ending to the film was the first of their unusual conclusions but easily the sweetest version of this ambiguous ending and really pulls at my heartstrings every time I watch it. It’s a good film to help get into the Coens as it shows a lot of their quirky style but in a much more accessible manner.
Number 2- No Country For Old Men
Based on the brilliant novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is the darkest and most mature film the Coens have ever made and objectively probably their best. The film on surface is a simple cat and mouse thriller of man on the run after stealing a bag of money. The film is really an examination of evil and its growing influence in the world, showing the futility of fighting against it. The directing is very subtle here with an emphasis on silence which only adds to the tension of the film and creates a sense of dread. The character of Anton Chigur played perfectly by Javier Bardem has become an iconic on screen villain and is essentially a representation of evil in its purest form and one of the most terrifying villains in film due to his realism. Josh Brolin is also just as brilliant as the lead and gives a very physical performance in the role that reinvigorated his career. Tommy Lee Jones deserves so much praise as he does a lot in a role that of the three leads has much less screen time, but toward the end of this film Jones delivers a few powerful monologues in particular the ending which is so powerful and really brings together the film’s examination of evil in the world. No Country for Old Men really shows how diverse the Coens are as filmmakers as it was so unlike anything they did yet at the same time still has the feel of a Coen brothers film.
Number 1- The Big Lebowski
Perhaps the ultimate cult classic film, The Big Lebowski is in my opinion either the top or at least second greatest comedy ever made. Of course, comedy is the most subjective of genres but despite multiple watches I still die laughing at most of the jokes in The Big Lebowski. The Big Lebowski is a film with an extremely complex plot that literally doesn’t have an ounce of importance to the majority of the film. The character will be in a dangerous situation and in the next scene is bowling with his friends. A large majority of this film could be cut out and the plot would not be effected in a major way. That is the whole point of the film though and it works so well due to the pitch perfect dialogue and the delivery of the actors makes much of the humor in the script that much better. I could name the entire supporting cast but clearly there are two performances to be highlighted in this film.
Jeff Bridges as The Dude is an icon. The ultimate lazy, stoner, hippy who is completely loveable, simply put nobody could have played this role except Jeff Bridges. The exact same can be said about his co-star in John Goodman as Walter, a Vietnam vet with, let’s say, some anger issues. On the first watch I didn’t really get The Big Lebowski but it stuck with me and I soon realized it gets better every time I watch it. Almost every scene has multiple lines which are quotable and hilarious both as written and in delivery. It’s a unique film that displays the absolute best of the Coen brothers humor but there is so much to unpack under the film’s surface, with the most memorable characters the Coens have created. Yes I would say No Country for Old Men is more well done as a film but The Big Lebowski entertains me in a special way. It’s one I can re-watch easily and is one the most relaxing films I have seen. If you watched it before and have not been a fan give it a second chance.