Seven? Only seven? Narrowing down a Coen brothers list to an arbitrary Top 10 is probably an exercise in futility, so we’ll be even bolder–bold like Joel and Ethan Coen–and whittle the rankings down to a smooth seven selections. The incredible thing about the Coens’ offerings is that they almost seem seasonal. And some of the films not making the list, such as Burn After Reading, possess some of the finest moments in any Coen brother film. They all receive honorable mentions, but here are the seven best.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis did not get its due. It was nearly swept under the rug during awards season, and it was virtually ignored by audiences at the box office, but it was an impressive foray into unknown territory for Joel and Ethan Coen. It did get a little love from certain nominating committees, but for some reason it just didn’t possess a mass appeal. Addressing the look of the film, it was a stroke of genius for the Coens to team with French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. It is no exaggeration to say that Inside Llewyn Davis looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The direction of the film is masterful, and Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan supply virtuoso lead performances. Inside Llewyn Davis is an example of a film that envelops you and possesses a perfect tonality, with wonderful style presenting serious substance.
6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Thinking way back to the early run of Coen brother films, here’s another flick that sometimes goes unsung in the grand scheme of the duo’s filmography. While 1990 saw world set to big hair, the beginning of the Seattle sound, and hardcore rap music, the Coens were making Miller’s Crossing, their own tip of the cap to prohibition era period films. When done right, prohibition period dramas are incredibly engaging and represent a wonderful link to a not-so-distant history. For many film buffs, Miller’s Crossing served as the introduction to the incredible acting chops of John Turturro (Can this guy do wrong? Even in something as lowbrow as Adam Sandler’s Mr. Deeds, he’s laying waste to roles). The rest of the Miller’s Crossing cast was also perfectly placed and if you haven’t seen it, remedy this immediately; it really holds up well.
5. Raising Arizona (1987)
Oh, to be in the head of Joel or Ethan Coen for a day. Seeing a film like Raising Arizona makes you really wonder about their childhood and the weird conversations they must have had. Not enough can be said about how important this film was for the Coens and film as a whole, as it opened the doors for reality and absurdity to be intermingled and taken seriously in dramatic filmmaking. It was a real foundation piece for other “the truth may be stranger than fiction” films. The Coens have a panache for such stories and that’s why they are impossible to deny. And the scene with Holly Hunter in the car, speaking about “her” child…? As stated, no spoilers here, but wow! And to think, they made this in 1987. Talk about brassy!
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Who knew people loved bluegrass so much? If you’re going to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, you might as well set it in the American South during the Depression era. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a prime example of more substance with incredible style from the Coen brothers. It is full of more iconic moments in cinematic history, and more moments of “I didn’t see that coming!” that the Coens have become famous for. George Clooney wasn’t having any issue transitioning from a life in television to the silver screen in the late 90s, but he solidified his status as a box office star with this film. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack went on to win the Grammy for Album of The Year, and that is a feat in and of itself. The film was nominated for a slew of awards, including a couple of Oscars, and it served as an introduction to the Coens for many moviegoers.
3. Fargo (1996)
Fargo: the film based on a true story that has inspired other beautifully strange movies, and probably a few real life events as well. Additionally, it is now a hit television series that takes a more in-depth look at the real life events that inspired the 1996 film. The Coens’ Fargo was honored with an Oscar win for Frances McDormand, who also happens to be the wife of Joel Coen. McDormand is incredible in the lead role, playing pregnant sheriff Marge Gunderson. Fargo is so well done, and holds up so well, that it makes for great annual viewing when winter rolls around.
And for the biggest fans of Fargo, you absolutely–and we mean it–must check out Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. It is directly inspired by the 1996 film adaptation of Fargo, and features a young woman who becomes obsessed with something from the Fargo story, that she embarks on an international journey to find it.
2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
The uptight Academy of Arts and Sciences finally broke down and awarded Joel and Ethan Coen a long overdue Oscar for their work on No Country For Old Men, which took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay. An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, the film is a definitive burner. You can try eating popcorn with this one, but it’s more likely you’ll prefer a couple Alka-Seltzer tablets as the film approaches its third act, as this one grinds. And one of the most fascinating aspects about No Country is that the Coens accomplish everything without the use of a score. There is music in the film, but the story is not manipulated by scoring. Silence, anticipation, and subsequent anxiety serve as the only score necessary. And the assembled cast was about as close to perfect as possible: Josh Brolin; Woody Harrelson; Javier Bardem; Tommy Lee Jones — everyone of them is a silver screen icon.
1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski is pretty much everything you hope for in a film. The story is led by an antihero, who is on a quest of sorts: for truth; self discovery; a missing rug. The film is another delightful Coen brother romp through absurdity that takes place in our “real” world, with the scene at the Malibu Police Department is another example of how the Coens offer a little seed of reality to allow the audience to fully buy into what they’re seeing. From the delightfully scattershot, unfocused opening narration offered by Sam Elliott — complete with an intentional mispronunciation of Los Angeles as “Los Angle’es” — to John Turturro playing a convicted pederast named Jesus, the film delivers a reward for the audience again and again. By 1997, when the Coens went into production, there wasn’t an actor or actress who wouldn’t bend over backwards to be in one of their films, and they hooked them all for this one.