I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 15 years.
Ever since their 1984 debut film Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have been a singular, vibrant voice in cinema. Of their 18 feature films, four of them have been nominated for Best Picture. When you read the words “Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen,” you know that even if you don’t necessarily like the film itself, you know you will have seen a unique vision that remains pretty much unchanged since Blood Simple.
Even box office success hasn’t compromised their artistic integrity.
From the “You betchas” of Fargo to the eminently quotable The Big Lebowski (“That’s a beverage, man!!!”), there’s no denying a Coen Brothers movie when you see it.
Even their lesser works (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy) leave you with touches of greatness, even if/when the movie itself falls short.
This list ranks the top 10 of the Coen Brothers 18 feature films (not counting their shorts). Be sure to vote for your favorite Coen Brothers film.
1. Fargo (1996)
The failure of The Hudsucker Proxy led the Coen brothers to make this low-budget crime thriller. We’re all better off for it. 20-plus years later, it’s more of a cinematic crime that an overstuffed and overly long period drama like The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture over the far superior (you betcha) Fargo. From the deceptive title card lying to your face that this is a true story, to every time you imitated the Minnesota accent after you watch it, Fargo remains one of the best crime movies ever made, while also being one of the funniest. Frances McDormand won and deserved her Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief with the impeccable manners and even better instincts. Marge doesn’t appear until half an hour into the movie, but she dominates it…in the nicest way possible. If it’s been years since you’ve seen it, there’s no excuse not to watch one of the best movies of the 90s. Possibly one of the best ever made.
2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen Brothers finally got their elusive Best Picture win while also winning for Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay in one of the gloomiest (and best) movies of the aughties. It features a singularly terrifying villain in Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem in his Oscar-winning role) and two other lead actors (Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones) that never meet. Yes, it’s very violent, but nothing about it feels exploitative or unnecessary. Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss is no stranger to violence, but he’s never faced anyone like Chigurh, setting up a showdown that will never happen. Constantly defying expectations of the genre, No Country is bleak. So much so that it forces Jones’ weary Sherriff Bell into retirement (“And then I woke up”). It's uncompromisingly dismal, yet we can’t take our eyes off it. One negative effect of No Country’s success: That one person in your office who kept on calling you “Friend-O.”
3. Blood Simple (1984)
The Coen’s impressive debut is so drenched in sleaze that you can practically smell it coming off the frame. It features a memorable turn by the great M. Emmet Walsh as a detective so corrupt you’d be surprised if there’s a scene in which you’re not disgusted (yet enthralled) by his presence. Frances McDormand’s Abby feels out of place in a movie filled with so many wretched characters as she’s seems like the only decent person (or is she?). It's an amazing debut that still holds up decades later. You may not like most of the characters in this movie, but you can’t ignore them. It’s that simple.
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4. True Grit (2010)
The Coen remake of the John Wayne western classic more than holds its own and in some ways surpasses it. Jeff Bridges was nominated for an Oscar playing the role John Wayne played…which was pretty much John Wayne. From what I’ve heard, Bridges plays Cogburn closer to what he was in the novel and it looks like he’s having the time of his life. But the film is carried by a preteen (also Oscar nominated) Hailee Steinfeld. If you thought a cast with Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin could never be overshadowed by a 13-year-old girl, you’d be wrong. True Grit is a genre exercise by the Coens, and it’s a good one. Truly.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Hipsters love this movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great. After the credits roll, you realize that Llewyn Davis really isn’t all that great a person, but he’s magnetically played by Oscar Isaac in a star-making role. All the other characters revolve around him, even if they know they shouldn’t (Carey Mulligan’s exasperated girlfriend…or whatever she is to him). The “commercial” scene with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver is one of the funniest things the Coens have ever shot. And you can’t help but sing along.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Pretty much the definition of a cult hit. Every fourth person you know can quote this movie by heart. As a movie, it’s all over the place and there are scenes that really don’t add up to much. But then you think about it and that’s pretty much how The Dude (Jeff Bridges in his iconic role) lives his life. Not a lot of the movie follows a traditional narrative structure, and about 10 minutes could have been cut by not having characters repeat the same line of dialogue over and over. But it doesn’t matter because certain scenes (and lines) are pure perfection. The late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman quietly steals every scene he’s in as the sycophantic Brandt. This may be the best thing Tara Reid has ever been in. You’ve either seen this once and it didn’t work for you or you’ve seen it 50 times. Sometimes there’s a man…
7. A Serious Man (2009)
I’ll admit that it took me a second time seeing this before I recognized it’s wince-worthy brilliance. The Coens’ Jewish-centric story involves a good, but serious, man named Larry (a haplessly brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life is crumbling around him. Try as he might, nothing is going his way. It’s not his fault that God may have it in for Larry. You watch and hope something, anything will work out for Larry. Other characters see it possibly before you do. It’s not Larry’s fault, but it’s best not to be around him if you want your life to function. Seriously. An incisive black comedy that makes you glad you’re not Larry.
8. Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink won the Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1991 and garnered a lot of prestigious awards that same year. When you see it, you think it will be one of the best movies ever made. Then you realize it just might be that 1991 didn’t have a lot of other options. That isn’t to say that Barton Fink isn’t a particularly good film. It is, but it’s one that leaves you cold. The film is well acted by John Turturro, John Goodman, and an Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner, but most of the movie seems like an intellectual exercise as opposed to one that moves you in any real way. If you didn’t know this was a Coen Brothers movie in the first place, you’d think this was reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. Maybe I’d like it more seeing it again, but nothing about it made me want to since the 90s.
9) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The only reason this Ballad isn’t higher on this list is because I have only seen it once. As is par for the course, anthologies (by their very nature) are hit-and-miss, and while most of the six stories in this violent comedy/drama/musical are well done, it’s the ones that don’t quite work that keep this movie from being great to merely “very good.” An eclectic cast (James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson) do their able best, but this isn’t an acting showcase. It’s the Coen's storytelling bravura all the way. You might not like every single story told, but it’s audacious as well as (blood) simple in its storytelling. For that it’s worth a watch…or two.
10. Burn After Reading (2008)
Brad Pitt’s scene devouring performance as the gleeful idiot Chad Feldheimer is why this cracks the top 10. The black comedy is far from perfect, but it creates such over-the-top characters and has its share of genuine dramatic touches that it can’t be ignored. The cast is spot-on (Frances McDormand is sympathetic, Richard Jenkins is lovelorn, John Malkovich is pretty much playing John Malkovich) as it boasts five Oscar winners (now, not at the time) all having at least one scene to shine. Though not all the jokes work (the basement scene seems juvenile and out of left field), the movie is a breezy 90 minutes that is easy to digest. You won’t have to burn what you saw after watching.
For 30-plus years, the Coen Brothers have been synonymous with singularly great storytelling. Once you see the words “Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen,” you know you’re in for something original. Of their 18 features, these are the top 10. Even though another eight could easily make someone else’s top 10.
What’s Your Favorite Coen Brothers Film? Part Two
Coen Brothers Collection
Noel Penaflor (author) from California on May 01, 2021:
Some people really love it.
Caila Daniels from Chicago on April 30, 2021:
I have heard of this movie and I've seen the Endgame Thor reference but I still don't think I have ever watched this before.