Top 10: The Films of the Coen Brothers

By Michael Haffner
In Culture

It’s impossible to think about the history of film and not place the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen) among the most significant voices and greatest filmmakers of all time. Thinking about all 17 features they have written and directed is like analyzing the most bizarre and hilarious crime scene, filled with kidnappings, double-crosses, stolen money and murder.

Wikimedia Commons/ Georges Biard

Wikimedia Commons/ Georges Biard

Of course, in typical Coen fashion, the majority of the time these are all conducted by the most inept criminals imaginable. When the Coens aren’t redefining the film noir, they are making you laugh or making you think about the absurdity of life. Even though they have entertained us through many different genres, all of their films seem to be centered on the anxiety associated with attaining the “American Dream.”

The Coen Brothers’ most recent foray is a madcap assemblage of allegories about Hollywood in the 1950s—”Hail, Caesar!” Having only see the film once and given the fact that I believe their films demand at least a couple of viewings due to their complex nature, I’m not quite sure where it will eventually fall in line with the best of the Coens’ films. Composing a list of their 10 best might be as foolish as the characters that occupy their films. Nevertheless, here are The Top 10 Films of the Coen Brothers.

10/ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”
Who would have thought a black-and-white film starring Billy Bob Thorton as a barber of few words who gets involved in a crime and UFOs would work? Yes … UFOs. It sounds crazy, yet, it works. Roger Deakins was nominated for an Academy Award for the stylish cinematography on display, creating rich textures and giving each frame a painterly depth of field. This might be one of the more languid efforts from the duo, but it just might be their most existential and puzzling if you are in the mood to attempt to crack a darker nut.

9/ “Fargo”
Jerry (William H. Macy) is clearly in over his head and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. Before he even starts on his kidnapping plan, you know he’s going to fail. We’re essentially rooting for incompetence, and the Coens deliver in spades. Small-town crime has never felt so epic as in the hands of the Coens, and “Fargo” invites us into their quirky lives with non-judgmental gusto. It’s a testament to their creation that the film and its Academy Award-winning screenplay inspired (now counting) two seasons of a hit television show.

8/ “Blood Simple”
The modern-day film-noir that started it all. It was here where the Coens discovered a love for the everyman (or everywoman). Criminals aren’t always the tough guys in three-piece suits, spouting slick lines, and hitting their targets on the first shot. “Blood Simple,” along with “Fargo” and other crime capers in the Coens’ filmography, shows how people sometimes slip into the wrong side of the law. It isn’t the fact that they are inherently evil—in most cases, the characters are equal parts good and bad—but that some incident drives them to do something they shouldn’t.

7/ “Barton Fink”
The line between reality and fantasy is nowhere to be found in this dry and frequently dark excursion into the mind of a writer. “Hail, Caesar!” wasn’t the first time the Coens explored the pressure that studios press upon those working in Hollywood, but “Barton Fink” is more of a surreal trip into the mind of a neurotic recluse than the hijinks that transpire in their recent film.

In fact, between the title character’s large curly mop of hair and scenes of him looking about in long hallways and sitting alone in his empty hotel room in a state of feverish paranoia, one could make an argument that Fink was inspired by David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” as much as the Coens’ own inner demons.

6/ “No Country for Old Men”
This is their one film that is just drenched in an uncomfortable, ominous and sweaty mood. Who would have thought a pageboy haircut could be so threatening? Anyone who has seen “No Country For Old Men”—which no doubt, is many of you considering the film’s popularity—knows just how terrifying Javier Bardem is in this film.

He’s not only one of the most iconic characters in the Coens’ filmography, but he stands as one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history. It’s hard to see this entirely as a Coen Brothers film considering it’s an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but their signature touch can be felt from start to finish in this tense cat-and-mouse thriller.

5/ “The Big Lebowski”
In the year 2016, it should surprise no one that this is the most-quoted film by the Coens. Yet, in March of 1998, the film only made $5 million during its opening weekend, debuting at No. 6 at the Box-office chart. When it was all said and done, the film only made $17 million during its entire run! It has since grown a massive cult status that few films have been able to achieve.

As hard as some films may try, you can’t plan a “midnight movie” or a “cult classic.” That’s what makes “The Big Lebowski” such a perfect entry into the slot of cult films like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Eraserhead:” it sort of defies explanation. You can relay the plot to someone but it doesn’t truly describe the film. A better way to describe the film might be to spout out superlatives, certain words, or phrases. Bowling. Nihilists. The Eagles. White Russians. The Dude. “That rug really tied the room together.” The Big Lebowski” may not be their greatest film, but it’s probably their most popular due, in large part, to Jeff Bridges inspiring a whole generation of philosophizing, slacker idealists.

4/ “A Serious Man”
“A Serious Man” might have too much to say. It might be a film too rich in ideas that you could spend an entire semester in “film studies” analyzing the symbolism of the Jewish fables it retells in relation to the events that the sad sack main character goes through. You don’t have to be Jewish to relate to the anxiety and misfortune that plagues Larry Gopnik (in a part Michael Stuhlbarg was born to play), but you have to be able to relate to the struggle for answers. A physics professor coming to terms with how life doesn’t make sense and how God doesn’t make sense and how answers can’t be found in some ancient text or textbook is the sort of film topic that can be either too heady or ironically funny—but only in the hands of the right filmmakers. “A Serious Man” might be the Coens’ most personal film and also their most misunderstood because it doesn’t provide easy answers.

3/ “Miller’s Crossing”
There’s barely a funny bone in this Irish gangster’s body. A bloody fat lip and a black eye or two, sure, but “Miller’s Crossing” isn’t a place to go if you want to see the humor that many associate with the clever siblings. A crime opus told through the lens of the Coens still stands apart among the hundreds of gangster flicks that have ignited the big screen with bullets and baddies. “Miller’s Crossing” furthers the visual storytelling that took many by storm in their debut film. From the image of Albert Finney wielding a Tommy gun with a house set ablaze behind him or a sniveling John Turturro begging for his life deep in the woods, the Coens show us that they can leave a mark that cuts down to the bone—even if it isn’t the funny bone.

2/ “Inside Llewyn Davis”
The struggle to produce art for art’s sake is at the heart of this part cautionary tale and part profile of the folk music revival of the ’60s. Llewyn falls in line with many of the characters that take center stage in the films of the Coens. He’s as extremely raw and honest as the music that he performs. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the most simplistic film on this list.

Accompanied with just the clothes on his back, his guitar and an unwelcome traveling companion in the form of a marmalade cat, Llewyn is as stripped down as the film itself. But his bitter musings about music, love, and the hardships of life feel equally as funny as they are unfortunate. When Llewyn sits in front of a record producer and pours his heart into a song with everything on the line, the response he receives in return is one of the best lines the Coens have ever written (while being a fitting metaphor for their own journey in the entertainment industry). Llewyn’s journey becomes richer and more tragic upon each viewing, and yet, it’s hard to feel too sad while watching it given the memorable musical compositions that provide light along the cold and dreary path.

1/ “Raising Arizona” 
So much of modern comedy owes itself to this burst of comedic energy that erupted in 1987. This is the one Coen Brothers film that has it all. You can understand their eccentric personalities and love of cinema through this one film.

Nicholas Cage is often looked at as the butt of an endless array of internet memes, thanks in large part to his penchant for over-the-top action films or unintentionally hilarious attempts at drama. However, the nephew of famed director Francis Ford Coppola has rarely delivered as fine of a performance as he does in this 1987 zany road trip of a film.

What makes this heist film so memorable isn’t just the endearingly dumb characters played by Cage and Holly Hunter; it isn’t just the rapid-fire jokes that the Coens dish out more often than any of their other films; it’s the fact that the unlikely antiheroes aren’t stealing a briefcase of cash or blackmailing someone or holding someone hostage for a hefty ransom… they steal a baby because they love and care about each other so much that they want something that will bring them even closer together. It may be crazy, but that’s love.

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