Picking the best films of the Coen Brothers (Ethan and Joel) is a nearly impossible task akin to selecting which perfectly cooked medium rare steak is the most delicious. (Apologies to the vegan/vegetarian crowd.) Throughout the past 30 years and 15 films, with their 16th film, Inside Llewyn Davis, releasing in limited release this week, the Coens have triumphed over almost all other working filmmakers. It began with Joel directing and Ethan producing (although they were actually both directing and this separation was a guild regulation) with both brothers now co-directing all of their films. Perhaps even more impressively, they have written the screenplay for every one of their films, with co-writers on only two of them: Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy. Their mastery lies in their ability to balance differing tones and work in any genre while making that genre feel distinctly theirs. At once their films can be brutally, darkly hilarious while also revealing the painful depths of the human soul. Their proclivity for noir-esque narratives is perhaps trumped only by their love for idiosyncratic, misanthropic characters. They are not afraid to bring a sense of self and Jewish cultural identity into their work which makes their films all the more personal. They are auteurs, and what is so fascinating is that here we have two men who share in the same vision.
The Coens have cultivated a repertory cast of actors they work with time and time again – John Goodman, George Clooney, Francis McDormand, Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Peter Stormare – while also finding new talents to inspire into greatness. Their artistic collaborations extend to their often used, masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins, their frequent composer Carter Burwell, and their editor Roderick Jaynes. Jaynes is, of course, a pseudonym for the Coens themselves; they edit their own films. Perhaps best of all is that the Coens have no interest in “playing the game.” They are pioneers charting their own course, refusing to play by the traditional Hollywood rules, and making the films that they want to make. The fact that they are now on film 16 (that averages out to a film every 2 years for the past 3 decades) and have retained their integrity is astonishing.
It is no secret that I am a fan of the Coens and I approach each new film as a personal event. Even their few partly misguided films are far more interesting and passionate than much of what is released and always shows the Coens trying new things, maturing and evolving their style, and continuously mastering their craft. Each of the films on this list is excellent in its own way, although I highly recommend that you experience everything that the Coens have to offer. I very easily could have swapped in some other terrific titles and the list would have been just as solid, but here I feel that I am highlighting a group of 10 films that mean something in particular to me. I expect much disagreement over this list, but that is part of the Coens’ charm. There is no major consensus as to what their best films are because so many of them are of high quality and they range in style and genre, playing to a myriad of individual tastes. A note: I have seen and loved Inside Llewyn Davis, but I am excluding it from this list for the simple fact that it is so new.
10. Blood Simple (1984)
In their debut film, starring John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh, and Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife), the Coens crafted a noir with all of the tropes intact – suspected philandering, a private detective, murder, and money – and then imbued it with their wicked dark humor. One can trace the entire career of the Coens back to this film, and in that regard it is a remarkably assured work for new filmmakers. Their love of film was clear from the get go. It also stands on its own as a terrific, nasty bit of business that exaggerates those tropes I mentioned to an almost gleeful degree. It is utterly nihilistic, a characteristic that many future Coen films would share. Barry Sonnenfeld’s (who would go on to direct Men in Black, etc.) cinematography is down and dirty, emphasizing every violent detail, every shadow. Blood Simple presents a taut and twisted narrative with not one of its 97 minutes wasted.
9. Burn After Reading (2008)
This may be one of my more contested choices, but I simply adore this hilarious celebration of the morons that walk among us. The film works as a bizarre and biting black comedy, a complicated (read: convoluted) and surprising spy thriller, and a clever commentary on the response to No Country for Old Men’s ending. Furthermore, the film has resonant and thoughtful subtext about the Bush administration and the War on Terror hiding underneath the outrageous antics. The ensemble of goofballs is terrific (I still laugh thinking about John Malkovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir”), but it is Brad Pitt as gym employee Chad Feldheimer that brings the film’s comedy into the stratosphere. It is a genius performance. Here, the Coens have used the guise of a silly comedy to vent on their many internalized issues, whether political or career based, and it is very sharp indeed.
8. True Grit (2010)
Film remakes are always a risky proposition, but having the Coens involved certainly quells one’s initial hesitations. Charles Portis’ source novel, first turned into a film starring John Wayne in 1969, is a classic of the Western genre, and this adaptation more than does it justice. What is immediately striking about this film, once you can move on from Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, is the language. Joel & Ethan’s screenplay is a delicious work of time and place specific articulation. Remarkably, the Coens strip away many of their usual proclivities and focus on honoring the western genre. Their work is unaffected but imperative in setting the tone and getting the best possible performances out of these actors. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon give terrific, garbled performances, but it is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who proves most impressive as this young woman more than holds her own opposite two screen icons giving some of the most fun and eccentric performances of their careers. The western genre is sadly under-represented in this cinema era, but True Grit does it proud.
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This film is one of the brothers’ most purely entertaining, but it holds a special place in my heart for the simple fact that it was the first Coen film I saw in the cinema. The details of the day are hazy, but the impact of the experience remains clear. I was a teenager only beginning to find my place as a cinephile, and I was taken away on this bizarre adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey that is filled with incredible love (and sly references) to cinema history. With a terrific bluegrass soundtrack produced by the great T. Bone Burnett, the film drips with a folksy vibe thanks to Roger Deakins’ once again stunning, almost sepia toned cinematography. The trio of actors at the center of the film – George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson – are winningly wacky, but it is John Goodman that makes the biggest impression as the “cyclops.” This film, more than almost any other, feels like the Coens having fun, and it is infectious.
6. Barton Fink (1991)
One has the feeling while watching Barton Fink that there’s something deeply personal going on here. The Coens are writers much like the “hero” of this film, Barton Fink (John Turturro), and although he is clearly a fictional creation there is the idea of the metaphorical transference of identity or the symbolic roman à clef. Throughout their oeuvre there is perhaps no more surreal and no more startling film than this one. We track Mr. Fink after the success of his play, faced with an offer to write scripts for films. What clever Hollywood satire lies within. He moves to Hollywood and checks into the Hotel Earle, and as the film progresses and Barton’s work stalls, evolving into an intense form of writer’s block, physical manifestations of his psyche begin to overwhelm the picture. This point is up for interpretation, but if one thing is clear it is the almost overwhelming amount of references to literature, film, and religion. It is absurdist and perhaps lacking in cohesion as murder (there it is again!) comes in to play, but in this case that is what makes it so wonderful. I have rarely seen a film so expressively capture the very idea of what it takes to turn something from your head into the written word.
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Since its release 15 years ago, this film has become a major cult phenomenon. Multiple books have been written, conventions are held, midnight screenings occur frequently, and the film is quoted endlessly. This is all for a good reason. The Big Lebowski is brilliant, and not just because of its high humor quotient. Utilizing a wrongfully accused man narrative that Hitchcock and many others to follow loved so much, the film is equal parts mystery and existential examination of manhood. The surreal and the absurd are once again utilized and there is that sense of a certain lack of cohesion, but one suspects that the Coens know exactly what they are doing regardless. This film touches me because of the wonderful friendship at the center, and Jeff Bridges’ laid back performance as The Dude is essential. Once again, though, it is John Goodman and his beautiful and angry strings of profanity that is truly genius. These are idiosyncratic and innocent men caught up in something way over their heads, and the particular joy of this film is watching The Dude try to get his rug back, man.
4. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
This is the last film that Barry Sonnenfeld would serve as the director of photography on with the Coens before he began his own career as a director and they began their fruitful partnership with Roger Deakins, and in this beautifully stylish gangster world Sonnenfeld goes out with a bang. Once again the Coens’ love of noir is present and the influence of the great Dashiell Hammett and his complex narratives is clear. Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is the quintessential brooding noir lead that plays his own desires against two warring cultural gangs. With the fedoras and suits and purposefully picked locations, the film feels like a perfectly designed idealization of the classic gangster picture. It crackles with heat and intensity, with just a wink of underlying dark humor, and this is some of the finest dialogue the Coens have composed. The characters are larger than life (John Turturro, Albert Finney, and Marcia Gay Harden in her first major film role are great) and fill out the frames with a robust energy. Miller’s Crossing is one of the most artfully composed gangster films you’ll see complete with that unique Coen touch and a bevy of moral complexity. Terrific.
3. A Serious Man (2009)
A Serious Man is an existential gem and likely the most personal film the Coens have made. If they are obsessed with the idea of the misanthrope who’s life is falling apart due to circumstances out of their control, then as a character Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, sublime) is the most pure manifestation of this concept. No film the Coens have made is as imbued with their own Jewish identity and culture, and I will admit that the jokes, nuances, and examination of the Jewish faith hit a particular chord within me that may not connect with others. Beyond that, though, anyone can identify with Larry and his philosophical quest for understanding. As his family and his work crumble around him a rich parable unfolds that asks the big cosmic questions while only leaving an answer of uncertainty. This is audacious and thoughtful filmmaking, beautifully composed with texture and rhythm that shows the maturation of the Coens as artists even if they are still ultimately dealing with many of the same themes. Plus, Roger Deakins. Woah.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
It was often thought that the novels of Cormac McCarthy were “unfilmable,” so leave it to the Coen brothers to prove that wrong in a major way. Winning 4 Academy Awards, including the big trio of Picture/Director/Screenplay, this film is a miraculous adaptation that somehow manages to also feel purely Coen. It leaves behind much of what the brothers had done for the past 10 years and returns back to the style of their earlier works, notably Blood Simple and Fargo. This is a nihilistic, dour, incredibly intense modern western thriller and every element is note perfect. It excels in its formal construction; the sound design, the written word, Deakins’ gorgeous imagery, the rhythm. The ensemble is dirty and explosive, with a grim star turn from Josh Brolin, thoughtful contemplation from Tommy Lee Jones, and one of cinema’s great truly amoral and thus frightening villain performances from Javier Bardem. Yet it is the film’s notion of age and manhood, and the way it subverts convention in each corner, that makes it truly genius. There are taut shootouts and foot chases a plenty, the orange sun basking over the dirty landscapes, but the film plays like pure poetry.
1. Fargo (1996)
A framed poster for Fargo hangs on the wall of my office, as it has for many years. Few films have shaped my taste and identity as much as the film. The nihilism, schmucky characters, and noir elements that the Coens love so much have never been realized with a more astute understanding of self and cinema. The film is as funny as it is violent, and gives Frances McDormand and William H. Macy the roles of a lifetime. The Coens achieve a remarkable sense of place; the film bubbles with a distinct Midwestern flavor. As we traverse through the snowy landscapes of Minnesota an elaborate and shocking narrative of murder evolves in which bold characters with small lives get involved in things far bigger than they are capable of handling. The disturbing nature and absurdity of the human experience has rarely been as evocatively depicted and it is achieved under the guise of a darkly comic thriller. One might say that Fargo is the film that turned the Coens from indie darlings into major players. Others might call it a masterpiece and leave it at that.