Brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen might be the finest directorial duo to have their films grace the silver screen, in large part due to their confidence and self-assuredness. Given the nature of their debut, Blood Simple, it is easy to see how their filmmaking prowess comes so easily. With films that almost always have either noir plotting, noir atmosphere, goofball comedy, slapstick humor, or a sense of existential dread that permeates its lead characters, the Coen brothers filmmaking duo created their own brand of filmmaking.
Updated October18th, 2022: If you’re a fan of the acclaimed filmmaking duo, you’ll be happy to know this article has been updated with additional content.
Also, indebted to the works of Dashiell Hammett and Stanley Kubrick, their films are always referential across mediums, lending not only to their entertainment value but the puzzles and moral quandaries in the subtext of all their works, leaving behind cult classics like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona but films that have garnered mass critical acclaim and box office success like the great 2007 movieNo Country For Old Men. The Coen brothers are two of the best to ever do it. Here are the best Coen brothers films.
11/11 A Serious Man
One of the Coen brothers later works less concerned with the plot but narrows the focus to its characters concerning particular philosophical and moral quandaries, A Serious Man is a film that has deep contempt for definitive answers. With only one-time collaborator in the lead role as a professor whose life seems to be slipping into the realm of chaos, Michael Stuhlbarg is a revelation. The film’s actions and conflicts don’t necessarily lead us to answers but are instead an ode to the total randomness of the universe and how people look for deeper meaning in what should otherwise be taken as coincidence.
10/11 Blood Simple
One of the great debuts of the late 20th century, Blood Simple was a film by two directors that showed you all of their interests and foreshadowed a career to come. A sparse noir swept with existential dread in every corner but also a sly, southern goofball sense of humor, Blood Simple was the arrival of a dynamic duo whose filmmaking voice would never waver. With long-time muse and later wife to Joel Coen in the lead, Frances McDormand showed all the acting chops that would go on to land her three Academy Awards.
9/11 O Brother, Where Art Thou
Honing in on their love of old folk music that would later come to fruition in their film Inside Llewyn Davis, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a road-trip comedy that takes loose inspiration from Homer’s “The Odyssey”. With an undeniably fun trio of George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and their forever muse, John Turturro, the three play escaped convicts on a wretched traverse to find buried treasure. Though the treasure seems both near and far, they end up unknowingly becoming folk stars with a brief recording as The Soggy Bottom Boys.
The film also grapples with the American South’s racist history and its intersection with mass communications making the goofball adventure one of the Coen brothers’ more political films as well. The film also spawned a soundtrack that won “Album of The Year” at the Grammys.
8/11 Inside Llewyn Davis
One of the Coen brothers’ saddest films in their long filmography, Inside Llewyn Davis takes us to the East Village of Manhattan during the folk renaissance of the early 1960s and the artists who inhabit the scene. Oscar Isaac plays the titular character as his free fall through artistic and money struggles doubles as one long ride through hell. Punctuated by the Coen brothers’ fine eye for character ridiculousness which eases some of the emotional weight on the audience. Inside Llewyn Davis is a thoughtful endeavor into how hard it was to make it in the Big Apple.
7/11 True Grit
A remake of the John Wayne Western classic and adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, True Grit features an Oscar-nominated performance by Jeff Bridges and tells a harrowing tale of revenge and retribution sought out by a 14-year-old girl and a booze-loving, gunslinging lawman.
The Coens were determined to create a more faithful version of the literary work than Wayne’s 1969 film, infusing their unique brand of dark humor, endearingly eccentric characters and breathtaking cinematography to bring the Portis story to life. True Grit was a critical and commercial hit and the Coens were praised for capturing the magic of the Western genre, and though it went on to nab 10 Academy Award nominations it shockingly won none.
6/11 Raising Arizona
The first of many looney tune, goofball adventures, Raising Arizona is in part a Road Warrior parody and a film about parental anxiety. Featuring a near, outer-worldly motorcycle mercenary on par with the devil and a finely tuned southern performance from Nicolas Cage, the Coens’ first foray into their moral parables is a classic. Not only showcasing the sly philosophical whips they would later be known for but their fine eye for random characters that punctuate a seemingly surreal world.
After the box office failure of a big studio picture like Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen’s decided to make a move towards the minimal, sparse landscape of Noir that put their name on the map. Fargo is an early crime masterwork from the Coens that acts like a savage tale of desperation and lowly criminals who abide by no moral code. Filled with an incredible lead role from Coen muse Frances McDormand, which earned her first Oscar. Fargo mixes the funny goofball earnestness of the Midwest with brutal, senseless violence to a chilling degree.
4/11 Barton Fink
In part a cautionary tale of artistic arrogance but also a wholly terrifying dive into the mind of a writer experiencing a creative block, Barton Fink is one of the more terrifying films in the Coen brothers filmography. Filled with a Stanley Kubrick-like dread in the halls of a creepy Hollywood hotel, the Coens lead us through the corridors of the mind of John Turturro as he battles his angst, external pressures, and a land full of smarmy liars feigning vagaries in an attempt to cover their creative facades. Barton Fink is effective because it comes from the Coens’ distaste for the film industry and their treatment of writers like factory workers. For many people, this is arguably the greatest Coen brothers film.
3/11 No Country For Old Men
Heralded as an instant classic upon release and met with surprising box-office success, given its bleak worldview and graphic violence, No Country For Old Men is another perfect, sparse noir in the same tune as Fargo from the directing duo. This time swapping out the blanket white snow for the dry, brown landscape of the Texas desert, the Coens’ film doesn’t give us easy answers.
Cemented by a terrifying and chilling performance from Javier Bardem who leaves his victim’s fate up to a coin toss, No Country For Old Men would go on to win the brothers their first and only Best Director Oscar. While the ending of No Country For Old Men confused many, upon reflection it’s one of the most haunting, fascinating finales of recent years.
2/11 The Big Lebowski
The depth of the Coen brothers films across genres is a credit to their long line of referential material and metaphor in subtext. The Big Lebowski, on its face, is a stoner comedy about the laid-back life of “The Dude” caught in the cross-hairs of a kidnapping scheme. But, the cult status of The Big Lebowski suggests more. Equal parts philosophical jests with how to live life, a noir mystery, and also a commentary on America’s involvement in the Middle East. Lebowski is more than just a comedy of endlessly quotable dialogue and that is why it has the legs of one of their finest works.
1/11 Miller’s Crossing
The last film long-time cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld would shoot with the Coens — before becoming a successful director in his own right – is a period piece dripping in existential dread and fine criminal detail. The Coens’ masterpiece taps into the moral dilemma all great gangster films do but soak up the characters in the unique Coen brothers syntax that none could repeat and some of their great Tommy-Gun littered set pieces. With incredible supporting performances from rival bosses Albert Finney and Jon Polito, whose onslaught of quotable lines like “What heart? I’m talking about ethics!” only helps add to the parts that make Miller’s Crossing the best Coen brothers film.