Few filmmakers have been embraced by the art house crowd, the cult crowd, and the mainstream in completely different ways like Joel and Ethan Coen have in their 30+ year career. It seems like each movie of theirs that comes out will appeal to a wholly separate group of people. Or won’t at all; that’s also an option. But above anything else, the so-called “Two-Headed Director” have made the movies they wanted to make and haven’t answered to anybody about them. They know what they want, they do what they want, and they get what they want, and it’s usually pretty wonderful.
It’s particularly hard for me to narrow down to just seven favorite films by Joel and Ethan Coen, but challenges are important. So, while it pained me not to include Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, or a certain film with some Soggy Bottom Boys on this list, I feel like these seven are, to me, what the Coen Bros are all about. As always, your mileage may vary.
7) Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Early Coens features some great examples of them just doing whatever it is they felt like. Who’d have expected they’d follow-up a creepy neo-noir and a raucous comedy with a sumptuous and violent ’40s gangster picture? I probably wouldn’t have, even if I’d known about them and film in general when I was six years old. What’s so great about it is how deliciously twisted so much of it is, especially in the form of Jon Polito’s bat-crap paranoid mob boss who says you always need to put one in the brain. Gabriel Byrne makes a very compelling lead and has the swagger of a hardboiled anti-hero down pat. This is someone who gets beat up a whole lot but never loses control. Also, watch out for Coen collaborator Sam Raimi as a gangster with two machine guns who gets shot to death, super violently.
6) Raising Arizona (1987)
The “raucous comedy” I mentioned earlier is this classic about a philosophical ex-con named H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) whose prison guard wife (Holly Hunter) badly wants a baby, so they kidnap one of the quintuplets born to the wealthy industrialist Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). To say this doesn’t work out well is an understatement, especially when a nasty, Mad Max-looking bounty hunter (Randal “Tex” Cobb) gets dispatched. This is a silly and glorious movie and established right away, following the moody Blood Simple, that the Coens were tonal chameleons. This is also the second of three collaborations with the cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, whose use of very wide-angle lenses made the comedy even more absurd.
5) Barton Fink (1991)
After three films, the Coens were in the middle of a bit of a funk. They were acclaimed and sought after, but they were also suffering some writers block. Instead of giving up, though, they channeled their real-life misgivings about the Hollywood machine into one of the best, weirdest, and most haunting films about working in the industry anyone’s ever made. John Turturro plays the titular character, a renowned playwright in New York who is nevertheless broke and agrees to go to Hollywood to make a low-brow Wallace Beery wrestling movie. He stays at a big, weird hotel where his neighbor is a grinning traveling salesman played by John Goodman. Through the course of attempting to write the B-grade effort, he falls for the wife of an intellectual and finds her dead, with all evidence pointing to him. It’s not good times, either, when the devil himself shows up. The devil. Old scratch. You get it. Both a perfect satire and an effective surreal journey into madness, this is easily one of the best of the bunch.
4) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
This is the newest movie on my list, and also one that I didn’t think particularly highly of the first time I saw it. The performances from Oscar Isaac and others were, of course, wonderful, and the folk music was equally great, but, like a lot of Coen Bros movies, it was a bit too oblique for me to really connect with. But I couldn’t get it out of my head; I kept mulling it over and mulling it over until I finally came to some kind of epiphany about this young musician who can’t seem to catch a break no matter how talented he is. I went and saw it again, and it was transcendent. Llewyn is trapped. Every single person tells him he ought to have a partner or he’ll never make it, and he did have a partner but the partner committed suicide. Llewyn then gets caught in this cycle of trying to scrape by, missing out on the big deals in favor of the quick windfalls, and constantly being upstaged, no matter how great he is, by people like – for God’s sake – Bob Dylan. Such a wonderful film; my favorite movie of 2013.
3) The Big Lebowski (1998)
I mean, come on. I went to college in the early-2000s. How could The Big Lebowski not be on my list? Like, I think, a lot of people who discovered the movie, I saw it first on cable (basic cable, mind you, so all the swearing was cut out) and was transfixed by how weird it was. Finally renting it on proper DVD with all the F-bombs in place, I found myself cackling at the constant bickering of the three main characters, the completely out-of-his-leagueness of The Dude, and the fact that no matter what happens, the Dude simply can’t stop being irritated. The whole movie he’s being “very un-Dude.” This movie also works great as a sunbaked L.A. Noir in the style of Raymond Chandler’s best Philip Marlowe books. Like all of the Coen’s films, time and place are exceedingly important here; it could not take place anywhere but Los Angeles at any time but the early-90s. Why? Because that’s when it’s set, darn it. The obligatory Ralph’s and Saddam Hussein references alone are worth that.
2) No Country For Old Men (2007)
To date, this is the only one of the Coens’ movies to win Best Picture and Best Director, and the second of their films to win Best Screenplay. Using Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, they explored the familiar themes of morality, violence, small-time criminality, and things spinning way out of control very quickly. In this film, they have Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the hired killer who is the very embodiment of death itself. You truly can’t escape him or stop him or reason with him or anything other than accept your fate, just like a flip of a lucky coin. This is a very tense, very scary movie that has its typical moments of levity, usually involving the investigation by Tommy Lee Jones’ beleaguered sheriff and Garret Dillahunt’s slightly slow deputy. The movie doesn’t wrap up the way you think it would, because the Old West isn’t a real thing anymore. Criminals don’t operate by the same code as they used to, and as a result, senseless acts of violence happen to people who don’t deserve it, and main characters can die offscreen.
1) Fargo (1996)
And, yes, I did pick the first enormous success as my favorite, because it’s my favorite. Seems easy enough. Right up front, I love the audacity of this movie to begin with titles claiming it to be a true story. In interviews, the Coens never claimed that it was a true story, but they put it on their movie just because. Why the hell not?! Like No Country, this too is a story about small town living and people getting involved in things way over their heads. While there’s no one as outwardly unstoppable as Bardem’s character, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s characters are definitely wildcards who’ll kill anyone if they’re allowed. William H. Macy gives a really pathetic and funny performance as the guy who sets all the wheels in motion and Frances McDormand justly won an Oscar for playing the friendly but confused (and very pregnant) police chief. Carter Burwell, a frequent Coen collaborator, gives one of his most iconic scores for this movie, and it perfectly encapsulates all the weirdness and tragedy inherent in the story. Such a great movie; no wonder they made a TV show out of it.
And there are my Top 7 Coen Bros films. Surely yours will be different, so let me know in the comments below!
Image Credit: Meet the Filmmakers
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!