Joel and Ethan Coen have been directed feature-length movies for nearly four decades. Across that time, the duo has managed to explore a wide variety of genres all while maintaining their affinity for strange humor and a recurring affinity for subverting storytelling conventions. Along the way, they’ve managed to deliver a swarm of motion pictures that have proven unspeakably influential. Even just in terms of quotes film buffs now work into their everyday vernacular, the Coen Brothers have become icons.
The only bad part about such an enormous creative legacy is that it makes trying to pick out the ten best directorial efforts from the duo, in honor of the impending Apple TV+ debut of Joel Coen’s new film The Tragedy of Macbeth, a monumental task. However, with the films for such a list now selected, it’s easy to see how this collection of features exemplifies some of the greatest core elements of their work as artists as well as how these are just great pieces of cinema, full stop. Let’s begin the look at the top ten Coen Brothers movies with an examination of a Western that had grit to spare…
10. True Grit
A remake of True Grit could’ve been an opportunity for some filmmakers to just phone it in and deliver something forgettable, a shot-for-shot rehash of the past. Thankfully, Joel and Ethan Coen utilized this opportunity to create something unique and memorable. For one thing, this was their first full-blown Western, and the Coen’s make use of this genre to deliver characters (like a helpful snow-covered fur trap salesman) that couldn’t exist in any other genre. Plus, the performances, especially Jeff Bridges and his take on Rooster Cogburn, become creations that can have no problem working on their own rather than reminding one of the earlier John Wayne star vehicle. This is also the movie that introduced Hailee Steinfeld to the world in a terrific performance that makes it clear why she’s stuck around in pop culture ever since.
9. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The art form of cinema has been home to many adaptations of The Odyssey over the years. However, none of them have been quite like O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, which takes the skeleton of this classic story and transports it to the South in the early 20th-century. This tale is told through the eyes of a trio of prisoners (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) who are never quite as clever as they’d like to be. Their shenanigans are downright hysterical to watch, especially when one realizes the clever ways Joel and Ethan Coen are reimagining staples of The Odyssey to fit this unique setting.
Even better is how wonderful the film looks, yet another piece of evidence in the history of cinema that comedies can and should be told with remarkable care to the visual details. Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses once-groundbreaking techniques to make the images on-screen look just faded enough that they evoke vintage photographs from the era in which Where Art Thou takes place. These careful choices make the production a joy to the eye, while the incredible soundtrack also renders the film a treat to the ears. On top of everything else, the three lead actors are in rare form, especially Clooney, who seems to be at his best playing Coen Brother buffoons.
Put simply: you won’t be feeling constant sorrow whenever you’re watching O Brother, Where Art Thou?
8. Blood Simple
The very first directorial effort from the Coen Brothers remains one of their best achievements. Titled Blood Simple, this production utilizes classic visual and storytelling hallmarks of film noir but filters them through the idiosyncratic gaze of these filmmakers by injecting further brutal reality into a genre defined by grimy realism. It’s a fascinating fusion of the past and present of filmmaking, one that would define many storytelling motifs in future Coen Brothers works. Even divorced from its context in the history of cinema, though, Blood Simple is still a terrific film, especially with performances like the one delivered by M. Emmet Walsh.
7. A Serious Man
A Serious Man’s prologue told in black-and-white and set in the distant past, seems like a litmus test to figure out if you’ll be on the wavelength of what’s to come. If it seems too peculiar, then it’s better to just jump ship now. But if you can get on its wavelength, you’re in for a very unique piece of cinema as an endless series of complications befall a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). A quietly melancholy piece of work lingering on the everyday struggles of just existing, A Serious Man features a great lead performance from Stuhlbarg and bravura moments (including an ending as jarring as the feature’s prologue) that puzzle as much as they captivate. Plus, A Serious Man changes how you’ll look at parking lots!
6. Barton Fink
Ask any writer and they’ll tell you one of the hardest parts of this job is just sitting down to do the writing. It can be so tricky to get into the headspace of putting one’s thoughts onto a piece of paper and even more challenging to describe those struggles. Barton Fink does a remarkable job conveying the difficulties of its titular character’s struggles to write a wrestler picture screenplay, a genre Fink has no experience with. Struggling to churn out this script results in everything from an encounter with a corpse to a hotel going up in flames, with even the most heightened developments never losing sight of the human emotions they’re supposed to represent.
Long before the FX program of the same name, Joel and Ethan Coen delivered a snowy crime thriller titled Fargo. This story of criminals plagued by Murphy’s Law, Fargo proved fascinating for many reasons, but especially for how its characters represented the absolute best and worst of humanity. While characters played by William H. Macy and Peter Stormare serve as manifestations of weaselly selfishness, Frances McDormand’s cop protagonist and her husband were the flip side of that moral puzzle by depicting the apotheosis of hopeful kindness. The concept of what’s right and wrong and what motivates people to pursue those moral extremes has often been explored through the works of the Coen Brothers. Fargo is one of the most intriguing reflections of this duality, though, especially since it does prove to be so amusing to witness the creative ways the central con goes awry.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
Many of the Coen Brothers movies are beautiful to look at, but Inside Llewyn Davis may be one of their most visually memorable works of all. Every frame is coated in subdued hues while images will often look like they’re being viewed through a windowpane covered in precipitation. Everything has a soft glow while exterior light comes bursting into apartments and bars like angelic light, the visual signifiers of dreams here used to clash against the brutal realities Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) constantly grapples with.
These visual choices lend a distinctive look to Llewyn Davis that transports us into the glib mindset of the titular protagonist, played with remarkable depth by Isaac, while the sound work lends further tactility to every crunch of boots pressing against snowy ground. Though a tale about a folk singer chasing any potential gig, Inside Llewyn Davis is an especially extraordinary work in terms of the images the Coen Brothers and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel deliver.
3. Burn After Reading
There aren’t any good people in Burn After Reading. It’s a movie about conceited people doing conceited things for two hours. In another filmmaker’s hands, it could’ve been too much unpleasantness for one movie. For Joel and Ethan Coen, though, it turned out to be the perfect starting point for one of their greatest works concerning a bunch of gym-obsessed health nuts who attempt to blackmail a billionaire. Nobody involved in this situation has a full understanding of what’s going on around them and it proves reliably hysterical to watch these buffoons navigate the sea of nonsense they’ve all been plunked into.
The chance to play zany bad people allows actors like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Frances McDormand a chance to consume all the scenery in sight and then some. Pitt especially is in rare form here playing a muscle head who thinks he’s a master thief who has all the intellect of Kronk. Best of all, the Coen Brothers let all the mayhem in Burn After Reading play out without attempting to tie everything up in a tidy bow in the third act. Instead, it’s just chaos that eventually concludes with a character played by J.K. Simmons straining to figure out what even the moral of this whole charade was. Who knew people this bad could be so entertaining?
2. The Big Lebowski
Some movies really can have their quality spoken for by how many quotable lines they deliver. One can derive their entire vocabulary from the dialogue in The Big Lebowski, with such lines being extra humorous given the nonchalant ways the largely oblivious characters in the story deliver them. A story of small incidents constantly bumping into one another, all over just a rug and a case of mistaken identity, The Big Lebowski is one of many crime capers in the filmography of the Coen Brothers. However, it’s a unique entry all the same due to its commitment to lackadaisical energy and superbly executed comedy.
The precise timing and camerawork used to execute the gags in The Big Lebowski exemplify how the goofiest jokes can sometimes require the hardest work to pull off. Even better, such moments of humor largely revolve around an unforgettable lead performance from Jeff Bridges as The Dude. There have been many surfer dudes in cinema history, but none of them have been like The Dude, Bridges lends untold layers of idiosyncratic charm to this goofball. With a constantly entertaining lead performance and a steady stream of lines you’ll never forget, The Big Lebowski is the quintessential Coen Brothers comedy.
1. No Country for Old Men
Sure, it’s a tad predictable to put the only Best Picture-winning Coen Brothers movie atop this list. But sometimes, the Academy gets it right and they were especially astute at picking No Country for Old Men as the best film of 2007. An adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, part of what makes No Country for Old Men such an incredible film is its dense tone, which staunchly refuses to be confined into a box. This film can make you snicker at a dark joke one moment before forcing you to clutch your breath the next. Intricate tones have been a motif across all of the Coen Brothers movies, but it’s rarely been this refined and polished.
Permeating the entire movie is this quiet sense of woe, with the very concept of the future being as unstoppable and intimidating as hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The somberness is perfectly exemplified in its third act, which eschews showing a big shoot-out in favor of an extended monologue from Tommy Lee Jones regaling about his recent dreams about his father. It’s not what general audiences would have wanted, but it’s what a movie this contemplative needed. The point of No Country for Old Men isn’t the explosions or bullets, but the people caught up in the grand sweep of life’s most unexpected developments. Our existences can be changed in an instant, for good and especially for ill, and No Country for Old Men allows viewers to contemplate this truth in a haunting fashion.
In its tone and performances, No Country for Old Men feels like the apotheosis of what makes Coen Brothers so exciting. However, its unshakeable melancholy air is something distinct to this 2007 directorial effort and is more than compelling enough to render this the apex of the duo’s directorial career.