Time to channel my inner Minnesotan fandom and rank the best films of the beloved Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, the duo responsible for procedural epics and cult comedies. Every film of theirs is different. Over nearly forty years, the Coens have directed 19(!) feature-length films. They’ve tackled the Irish mob, runaway prisoners, aspiring folk singers, Billie Shakespeare, and many other themes and ideas. They haven’t all hit, for example True Grit, their 2010 mainstream effort, felt like much of what they had already attempted to do and succeeded with without adding anything new. Their recent release, The Tragedy of MacBeth, felt tedious and uneven regardless of the A-list acting and the gorgeous cinematography. At the very least, the Coens are always ambitious.
What makes the Coen Brothers so iconic is the range. This is the duo that created slow-burning, cat-and-mouse chases like Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men while also creating black comedies such as A Serious Man and Barton Fink. The common threads that intertwine these titles are the reoccurring performers and the off-kilter main characters that can’t seem to get out of their own way.
For the month of January, I made it my mission to fill in the gaps of the Coens’ filmography that I hadn’t seen. I spent some time with Mr. Fink and had a cup of joe with the Jewish community. I didn’t have to go back and revisit their more recent releases that I have seen quite a few times over the last decade or so (a couple that may show up towards the top of this list).
The Coens have two very distinct sections of their careers. I’d be hard-pressed to find a director(s) with a better string of hits to start their career than Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. That’s Bill Russell running the league for a decade. These four films alone are career-defining works, but they won’t all make the list because of another stretch they had starting in the late-aughts.
No Country for Old Men is a seminal piece of filmmaking. It’s a blown up, highly detailed drama starring Javier Bardem as one of the most vicious and terrifying individuals of the 21st century. It’s a culmination of 80s and 90s dramas they made, including Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. They followed that up with Burn After Reading (a likeable, albeit inconsequential outing), A Serious Man, True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis. That’s another killer stretch of films from the duo.
They embody being different. Filmmakers don’t make Raising Arizona – it’s too weird and mind-numbing. They don’t make The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens are adventurers. It’s an admirable quality, and one I wanted to dive into for the month and pick my five favorites. Let us pour one out for Fargo and Miller’s Crossing (which unfortunately just missed the cut) and rank the five best Coen brothers’ films:
5. The Big Lebowski
Everyone has the friend or relative that insists on quoting The Dude at least twice a day. It might just be the most quotable film ever made. It’s a fever dream of outrageous plot points and settings. A White Russian-drinking, bowling-loving Jeff Bridges is iconic and gives the best performance of his elongated career.
The surrounding roles step up to the plate as well. John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro…. The list goes on and on. It may feel criminal to put this film at five, but it’s a testament to the top of the list. This film is great, but there are better.
4. Raising Arizona
One could make the argument this is their most important film. That’s right, not their dark and muddy debut or their Oscar winning megahit. It’s their sophomore, quirky kidnapping romp that shouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. If this flopped, we may have never seen the brothers rebound. We may never get the goofy, Midwesterner side of the Coen Brothers that is responsible for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and many others.
This is all before we even dive into how hilarious this movie actually is. Nicolas Cage gives what is possibly his best role of his career, and the story and pacing is able to keep up with him perfectly. Holly Hunter costars in brilliant fashion.
3. Blood Simple
A shocker, I know. This might be an idiosyncratic choice, but debuts are not supposed to be like this. It’s slick and perfectly framed. Every shot is killer and there’s not a second waisted. It’s in the pantheon for best directorial debuts ever.
When I watched over films during this month, I was quickly reminded how out-of-this-world the front of the Coen brothers’ catalogue is. Jumping between their first few films feels like a Greatest Hits album. Nothing totally makes sense when it is fit together, but it just works. It’s a watershed moment in American filmmaking. I need the Criterion copy.
2. No Country for Old Men
And as the worthy successor to Blood Simple’s style and build-up, No Country for Old Men barely beats it out for the number two spot. Please, just take me back to 2007 – when a film like this and There Will Be Blood can be Oscars heavy hitters despite being as depressing and upsetting as any big film released that year.
The casting could not be more perfect as the three leads all run away with their parts. Javier Bardem gives his best performance of his American filmmaking career, and Josh Brolin inches towards his best. It’s engaging and deep, violent and deranged. Simply put, it’s one of the best films the 2000s had to offer.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
But it’s barely beaten out by one of the best films the 2010s had to offer. Inside Llewyn Davis is a tribute to those that could’ve made it but got in their own way without knowing it. There’s so much truth in every scene of this film. The fact that, no matter how great you can be at something, if you aren’t on your A-game, you won’t make it. Oscar Isaac stars as a struggling drifter and wannabe-folk singer.
This film offers a few of the best scenes the Coens have ever put on screen. The final sequence is as symbolic as anything they’ve done. It’s their magnum opus for a reason. And it’s all blanketed by the Coens’ natural sense of color, humor, and charisma.
There we go. The five best. I know a few of these might be hot takes, especially considering I live in the tundra we call Minnesota and decided to leave off Fargo, but that’s what list making is for – to start conversation. Next month, I’ll be starting my watch (or rewatch) of Noah Baumbach! I’ve seen his more recent hits, more specifically Frances Ha and Marriage Story. I’m looking forward to checking out his earlier works and starting to formulate a list of my favorites, starting with Kicking and Screaming.
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