Since their debut film in 1984, writer/director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have made some of the best and most innovative movies of the last 30 years. Whether comedy or drama, the Coen brothers have carved out a unique niche in American cinema with quirky offbeat stories and characters that are larger than life and stick in people’s minds. And with nearly 20 movies under their belts, and no signs of slowing down, Goliath takes a look at the 10 best movies made by Joel and Ethan Coen to date.
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
A black and white movie that pays homage to film noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the Coen brothers’ most underrated creations. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as an extremely quiet barber who blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money so he can invest it in the fledgling new venture known as “dry cleaning.” In classic Coen fashion, the scheme goes horribly wrong with major consequences for everyone involved. Co-starring James Gandolfini and Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s real life wife), this movie has many of the trademark Coen quirks and there is plenty of black humor to go around. However, the movie is mostly a serious drama that has moments of extreme violence. And Billy Bob Thornton’s chain smoking in the film could be a public service announcement. Definitely a movie worth checking out.
9. O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
Starring George Clooney and loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” O Brother, Where Art Thou follows the adventures of Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) and his companions Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) in 1930s Mississippi. Escaped from a chain gang and trying to reach Everett’s home to recover the money from a bank heist, the three men encounter a series of strange characters along the way—including sirens, a cyclops, bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson, a campaigning politician, a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, and a blind prophet who warns the men that “the treasure you seek shall not be the treasure you find.” Quirky, funny and strange, this is a classic Coen brothers’ film that has the added bonus of featuring a great bluegrass soundtrack. In fact, this movie is credited with reviving interest in bluegrass music.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Set amidst the New York City folk music scene of the early 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis follows a young musician as he tries to make it big and navigate the predicaments of his own life. Played fairly straight, this movie succeeds in evoking a particular time and place—Greenwich Village circa 1961. It also explores the intersection of people’s talents and expectations, and how people cope with disappointments and setbacks in life. With strong performances by Oscar Isaac as the title character, as well as actress Carey Mulligan and singer Justin Timberlake (yes, that Justin Timberlake), Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ more understated movies, but still interesting and compulsively watchable. It, too, features a great soundtrack full of classic folk songs that have been given a traditional spin by contemporary singers—including Mr. Timberlake.
7. Barton Fink (1991)
Winner of all the major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, 1991’s Barton Fink stars Coen brother favorites John Turturro and John Goodman in the tale of a 1940s playwright who tests his luck as a screenwriter in Hollywood and ends up embroiled in a serial killer investigation. Funny, tense and scary (often at the same time) this is one of the Coen brothers’ most inventive and over the top movies. Tasked with writing a wrestling movie, the intellectual and high strung Barton Fink (John Turturro) comes down with a severe case of writer’s block while staying in the eerie Hotel Earle. His super friendly neighbor, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), tries to help, but not all is as it seems. Featuring great acting and humor that crops up at seemingly inappropriate times, Barton Fink is a movie that leaves audiences feeling unsettled. Yet it is a hugely entertaining movie and one that you cannot take your eyes off of.
6. Blood Simple (1984)
The first feature film by the Coen brothers, and one that got everyone’s attention, 1984’s Blood Simple remains one of the writing/directing team’s best. About a wealthy man who suspects his wife is cheating on him and hires a private investigator to kill both the wife and her lover, Blood Simple takes a conventional plot and turns it on its head with the use of a number of unexpected twists, misunderstandings and plenty of backstabbing. Nothing in the movie goes according to plan and the results are far from simple. Starring M. Emmet Walsh in a standout performance as the private detective hired to carry out the murder, this thriller also has a number of innovative filming techniques that had not been seen previously, including rays of light shining into a dark closet after bullet holes have been shot through the door. Critically acclaimed when first released, Blood Simple continues to grow in esteem as time passes.
5. Fargo (1996)
Probably the most overexposed of the Coen brothers’ movies, Fargo, released in 1996, is another movie about a crime gone wrong—this time a kidnapping. But what makes Fargo memorable is its quirky characters and sense of place. The film perfectly captures the people who live in Fargo, North Dakota, both their manner of speech and their stoic demeanor. Ironically, this story about a car salesman who plots to have his wife kidnapped so that his father-in-law will pay the ransom is based on a true story. Like the best Coen brothers’ films, Fargo combines moments of humor, violence and tension together to make an unforgettable movie. The performances of everyone involved are great, but actress Frances McDormand stands out as pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson, and she deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in this movie.
4. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
A gangster film about warring crime bosses during the 1930s Prohibition era and the henchman who plays both sides, Miller’s Crossing is a stylized movie that is thoroughly entertaining. And this film stands out for its complex plot, unique dialogue and black humor. Actors Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne are fantastic as mob boss Leo and his right hand man Tom, and actress Marcia Gay Harden is a standout as Leo’s tough talking girlfriend, Verna. Full of plenty of double-crossing and double-talk, Miller’s Crossing is populated with amoral characters who do what they have to in order to survive in a corrupt world. Stylized violence and plenty of surprises keep audiences engaged and paying attention until the last frame of this movie. One of the Coen brothers’ very best.
3. Raising Arizona (1987)
An unapologetic screwball comedy, Raising Arizona stands as one of the funniest movies ever made, and the best film of actor Nicolas Cage’s career. About a small time crook (Cage) and his police officer wife (played by actress Holly Hunter) who steal a baby from a rich couple who had quintuplets, Raising Arizona is hilarious from start to finish. Full of funny dialogue, outrageous scenes and lots of action, Raising Arizona remains the Coen brothers’ quirkiest film. With a great supporting cast that includes John Goodman and William Forsythe as escaped bank robbers, and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb as an apocalyptic bounty hunter who specializes in recovering stolen babies, this movie broke new ground for comedies and set the benchmark for quirkiness. Nicolas Cage’s performance, which he described as a “human Woody Woodpecker,” is miraculous. Raising Arizona is a movie that never gets old.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers’ best straight ahead thriller, No Country for Old Men is the movie that got the brothers’ their Oscar recognition. This film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Writing—all of which Joel and Ethan Coen shared. No Country for Old Men also won actor Javier Bardem the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his chilling turn as psycho killer Anton Chigurh. About a man who is forced on the run after he stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and decides to keep more than $2 million dollars in cash, No Country for Old Men is based on a novel by author Cormac McCarthy. However, many critics feel the movie surpasses the book, with film critic Roger Ebert calling No Country for Old Men “a near perfect movie.” The plotting, direction and action sequences are filmed with great energy and passion. And the performances in the movie, particularly by Tommy Lee Jones as a veteran police officer, are terrific. The dialogue, too, is as crisp as any in the Coen brothers’ cannon.
1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The movie that has become an institution, The Big Lebowski is by far the Coen brothers’ most popular and beloved film. About a slacker named “The Dude” (played by actor Jeff Bridges) who is mistaken for a millionaire and seeks restitution for the rug in his apartment that is damaged, The Big Lebowski is ridiculous fun. It has more memorable lines than nearly any other movie made in the last 30 years. From “Nice marmet,” to “The Dude will abide,” “The rug really tied the room together” and “I hate the f***in’ Eagles, man.” The Big Lebowski has achieved a massive cult following, and the character of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski can now be found on t-shirts and coffee mugs. The film also features hilarious scenes involving bowling, nihilists and a dream sequence set to Kenny Rogers’ song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” For pure funny and hilarity, the Coen brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski takes the cake. A modern classic in every way. See this movie!