For a long time, the Coen brothers have bridged the gap between the domains of the arthouse and commercial cinema by making thoroughly enjoyable films that are artistically innovative as well as widely beloved. Known for their unique creative sensibilities and a very specific vision of cinema, they have produced several instantly recognisable gems.
When it was recently announced that the brothers had disbanded their directorial partnership and that Joel Coen was directing a Macbeth adaptation on his own, it shocked many fans. Ethan has decided to take a step back and focus on theatre while Joel has forged ahead, earning multiple Oscar nominations for his latest creation.
In order to explore the artistic frameworks of their illustrious filmography, we have decided to take a look at ten of their most accomplished productions. While some might object to the absence of other enjoyable works such as Burn After Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy and True Grit among others, this selection just proves that the filmmaking duo have set a very high bar.
Check the full list below.
Coen brothers’ 10 greatest films:
10. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Starring Oscar Isaac as a struggling musician named Llewyn Davis, this film is a tragicomic exploration of the absurdity of human existence and the bizarre life of an artist. Partially based on the accounts of Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis follows the titular character over the course of a strange week in his life.
Now regarded as one of the greatest films of the decade, Inside Llewyn Davis was a critical success and it provided the necessary platform to Isaac who proved that he was one of the most promising actors around. It ended up winning the prestigious Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
9. Blood Simple (1984)
Blood Simple was the incredibly influential directorial debut by the Coen brothers which is still a cinematic spectacle to behold to this day. Containing many precursors to their latest works, the film constructs an irresistibly stylistic framework for violence and crime.
Incorporating elements of neo-noir, independent horror films and pulp fiction, Blood Simple remains an important achievement in the history of American independent cinema. It paved the way for many future masterpieces by one of the most iconic filmmaking duos in recent memory.
8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
A highly intelligent adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is definitely among the lesser-seen works by the Coen brothers which is a shame because it is right up there with their very best. Featuring a fantastic central cast, the film follows the misadventures of three prisoners who break free from a chain gang.
Set during the Great Depression, the brothers draw inspiration from various sources ranging from the Greek epic to the brilliant 1941 masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. The film is a hilarious cinematic experience and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is mesmerising as always.
7. A Serious Man (2009)
A Serious Man is nothing short of an existential masterpiece, starring Michael Stuhlbarg as a physics professor in Minnesota whose life slowly falls apart before his own eyes while the world around him is subjected to some surreal circumstances.
Dealing with professional and personal crises, he finds himself plagued with important questions about the very meaning of human life and his faith in a higher power. A Serious Man managed to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but its legacy goes far beyond that.
6. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Probably the most famous film by the Coen brothers, No Country for Old Men has a lot of iconic moments including a spellbinding performance by Javier Bardem who steals the show by conducting a flawless portrayal of an intelligent, merciless, psychopathic hitman.
A neo-western gem, the film is a highly competent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s eponymous novel which manages to become its own entity. Featuring an engaging narrative with carefully orchestrated action and a deeply philosophical subtext, No Country for Old Men has been rightly regarded as a modern masterpiece.
5. Raising Arizona (1987)
Raising Arizona contains one of the finest performances by the eccentric Nicolas Cage who plays the role of an endearing screwup. Always finding himself in prison, he falls in love with a police officer who takes his mugshots every time he is caught.
The film follows their crazy life together as they embark on an odyssey of crime after getting married, eventually kidnapping a baby from a wealthy family who have quintuplet sons. A sharp satirical take on class divides and criminality, Raising Arizona is simply delightful.
4. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The Coen brothers set out on a magnificent run during the ’90s and this early gem set the ball rolling in many ways. A masterful neo-noir that keeps the audience glued to the edge of their seats, Miller’s Crossing explores the institutions of crime during the Prohibition era.
Gabriel Byrne stars as the right-hand man of a powerful crime boss who gets stuck in a tough spot. Oscillating between various tricks and maintaining different illusions, he tries his best to survive in a city where death is around every corner.
3. Barton Fink (1991)
An uncompromising indictment of Hollywood, John Turturro stars as an ambitious playwright in New York who wants to create the theatre for the “common man” but decides to go to Los Angeles when he receives a very substantial offer to write a Wallace Beery boxing film.
However, it soon becomes clear that Fink’s facade of genius actually covers up the half-baked nature of his ideas as he ventures into uncharted territory as he befriends a Nazi serial killer (played by the inimitable John Goodman). Writer’s block has never been so cinematic or deadly.
2. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Among the most iconic cinematic gems of the ’90s, The Big Lebowski is a neo-noir like no other. Jeff Bridges delivers the performance of his career as The Dude, a bowling enthusiast in Los Angeles whose way of life is characterised by a severe commitment to laziness.
However, his lifestyle is totally disrupted when he ends up in the middle of a serious criminal plot which forces him to take action. Some fans of the film were so mesmerised by The Dude that they actually started a new religion based on the character.
1. Fargo (1996)
Even after all these years and several interesting projects, Fargo is still the Coen brothers’ sublime magnum opus. A quintessential black comedy, Fargo chronicles the chaos that follows when a car salesman hires two criminals to kidnap his own wife in order to get ransom money from her family.
Marketed as a “true crime” film, Fargo is a heavily fictionalised version of real events which is why it is so effective. The logical extension of The Death of a Salesman, Fargo creates a striking contrast between the “Minnesota nice” and the omnipresent horror of crime and violence.