The eclectic, eccentric tastes of the Coen Brothers may never be matched in the same way again, perfectly synthesising comedy, drama and their own encyclopedic knowledge of film, to create some of the greatest pieces of modern cinema. Sharing an equal responsibility for the films, the pair don’t split up when it comes to writing each script, they “talk through” the dialogue and “work it out together”, as Joel explained.
When it comes to influences, the Coen’s are inspired by filmmakers from across the globe, including the classic works by Stanley Kubrick, Italy’s Federico Fellini, as well as the work of director and comedian Mike Nichols. Recently, they both contributed five of their favourite films to collate into a top ten, the lists of Joel and Ethan Coen shared some similarities, with their tastes quite predictably being shared.
On both lists is Mike Nichols 1975 understated crime comedy The Fortune in which two bumbling hustlers attempt to gain the vast fortune of an heiress, leading to drastic, murderous measures. Starring Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty in the two leading roles, The Fortune highlights the Coen’s love for the inherent human comedy hidden within acts of violence. Such can be seen throughout their filmography in everything from 1996s Fargo, to 2008s Burn after Reading.
Second on Joel Coen’s list is Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, telling the story of an executive at a shoe company who becomes the victim of extortion after his son is kidnapped for a ransom. From the Japanese filmmaker behind multiple classics such as Seven Samurai and Ran, Kurosawa’s High and Low departed from his usual interest in violence and war to tell this harrowing tale of crime and mystery. The film joins Ethan Coen’s second choice, another very human mystery in the 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The factual film details the strange-but-true murder trial of Delbert Ward, a man accused of the mercy killing of his brother in rural upstate New York. Winning the Audience Award at Sundance, Brother’s Keeper is a dark, existential and deeply moving piece of cinema.
Comedies make up much of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, with much inspiration behind their funniest outings coming from their Jewish childhood, as well as their illustrious knowledge of film history. Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears is next on Ethan’s list, a cute comedy about an ageing, ex-minor league coach who takes a team of misfits through an ultra-competitive California little league. Where the Coen brothers’ comedies usually engage with some sort of dark streak, it’s nice to see them also enjoy an altogether lighter piece of cinema, with Joel Coen too outlining 1934s musical Dames as one of his favourites.
Headed up by Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley, this pre-war comedy follows a multimillionaire who decides to boycott Broadway shows and other forms of “filthy” entertainment and would go on to inspire the work of the Coen brothers in more ways than one. Directly mirroring shots used by the brothers during The Big Lebowski, as well as influencing the large musical numbers of Hail, Caesar!, Dames and other golden-age movie musicals proved truly important for how the Coen’s shaped their future films.
Federico Fellini’s comedy Il Bidone makes the fourth slot on Ethan’s list, a film following a trio of con-men led by a lonesome swindler who must deal with the stresses of their job alongside family pressures. Preceding later Fellini comedies, La Dolce Vita and Amarcord, Il Bidone would grab the attention of the Coen brothers due to the films focus on the struggles of a career in crime alongside the very human ordeals of everyday life.
Joel Coen’s interests seem more rooted in the darker realities of life, rather than its light-hearted moments, choosing Delbert Mann’s Separate Tables as his fourth choice, a sprawling film about several people who are each staying at a seaside hotel in Bournemouth and are told to sit at “Separate Tables”. Starring Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth and Deborah Kerr, the star-studded cast create a riveting romantic drama that would go on to be nominated for Best Picture whilst receiving two awards for leading and supporting roles.
See the full list of Ethan and Joel Coen’s favourite films below:
The Coen Brothers’ favourite films of all time:
- Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
- Il Bidone (Federico Fellini, 1955)
- Salesman (Albert & David Maysles, 1969)
- The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976)
- The Fortune (Mike Nichols, 1975)
- The Fortune (Mike Nichols, 1975)
- High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
- Dames (Ray Enright, 1934)
- Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958)
- Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968)
Salesman, Albert and David Maysles’ influential documentary about four dogged bible salesmen bookends Ethan Coen’s list of favourite films, enjoying the movie for its direct cinema techniques in which a situation is observed with the director acting as a ‘fly on the wall’. Following the salesman from Boston to Florida on a somewhat futile quest to sell luxury editions of the bible, the Maysles brothers’ film would become iconic in their filmography which included Grey Gardens and the Rolling Stones documentary Gimmie Shelter.
Joel’s final choice is very different, however, opting for Where Eagles Dare, the British Metrocolor World War II action film directed by Brian G. Hutton and starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure. This bombastic action-adventure follows allied agents during a daring raid on a castle where the Nazis are holding an American general George Carnaby prisoner, though there’s far more going on underneath the surface. A classic of Clint Eastwood’s career, this campy war thriller well completes the list of the Coen brothers’ favourite films, perfectly illustrating their eclectic tastes.