Joel and Ethan Coen are one of the great filmmaking teams of the last 35 years. Nick Bartlett is bringing us his rundown of their 10 greatest movies.
Joel and Ethan Coen might be the only popular Hollywood directors who have managed to leave their fingerprints on every film they have made, remaining true to their unique style throughout their careers. Each of their films are totally distinct from one another, yet instantly recognisable as a Coen brothers film. Of their 18 films they haven’t made a single complete dud, (although some have come close), so compiling a top 10 list is more difficult than usual. O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and True Grit (2010) could just as easily have been on this list, and even lesser works like Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) have something interesting to offer.
10. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The brothers’ most recent offering is proof that they haven’t lost their touch. No strangers to anthology films (having contributed the excellent Tuileries to Paris, Je t’aime in 2006), The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is nonetheless something of a departure for them. Six short films all set in the old west, and varying dramatically in tone, effectively demonstrating the breadth of the western genre. The films range from a cheery singing bounty hunter and a bank robbery gone wrong to a macabrely gothic sideshow and a wagon trail journey ending in tragedy. Typically the simplest stories tend to be the ones that stick in the memory, especially All Gold Canyon, featuring Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector, and The Gal Who Got Rattled, starring Zoe Kazan, standing out as the best of the bunch – although The Mortal Remains, an ethereal, eerie story of a mysterious coach ride will stay with you long after the film has ended.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coens had flirted with music previously in O Brother Where Art Thou, but with Inside Llewyn Davis, they immersed themselves in the folk music genre completely and, to the brothers’ credit, it paid off. The film tells the story of Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a struggling musician who attempts to launch a solo career following the death of his partner, barely eking out a living as he travels from gig to gig . Isaac has not had a role since that demonstrates his range to this extent; his Llewyn is unapologetically petty, self-serving and self-important, but he somehow makes these seem like admirable traits. Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver and especially Justin Timberlake are all convincing as folk singers, and the songs themselves are by turns catchy, moving and crucially a perfect match for the genre they are emulating – they even get the album covers right. One of their most moving films, this is the Coens at their most elegiac and humane.
8. The Big Lebowski (1998)
A genuine cult classic, with one of the absolute funniest film scripts ever written, and endlessly quotable dialogue. Somehow, in the hands of the Coens, the profane almost becomes poetic, and the mundane almost profound. The way they capture each character’s personality and cadence of speech and wring it for every bit of comedy that it’s worth is absolute genius. A case of mistaken identity lands Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in a world of pain, as he is targeted by nihilists, pornographers, thugs peeing on his rug, and recruited to mediate in a kidnap plot. The surreal, meandering plot owes a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, and works brilliantly due to the unlikely protagonists getting so completely out of their depth. Bridges gave his career a much needed shot in the arm by taking the iconic role of The Dude, but there are excellent comic turnsall round, not least John Goodman as the childlike, Vietnam-obsessed powder keg Walter, a genius comic creation that really ties the film together.
7. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Often overlooked by all but the most die-hard Coen fans, this slice of film noir is their most beautiful looking film bar none, shot in crisp black and white, making striking use of shadows and light. Billy Bob Thornton’s hangdog face and laconic delivery are a perfect fit for noir, and he is decidedly low-key as Ed, a barber who gets caught up in a web of intrigue involving blackmail, murder and dry cleaning. Unusually subdued for a Coen brothers film, the cast follow suit, from Francis McDormand’s melancholy turn as Ed’s wife to James Gandolfini as the salesman coming apart at the seams, and Richard Jenkins giving a masterclass in acting drunk. The exception to this, and the best part of the film, is Tony Shalhoub as larger than life defence attorney Freddy Riedenschneider. He gives a truly magnetic performance, and his meditation on The Uncertainty Principle is utterly mesmerising.
6. Blood Simple (1984)
An incredibly assured, mature debut, Blood Simple almost serves as a mission statement for the brothers, as well as being an iconic neo-noir in its own right. All the elements that would go on to be trademarks are already present, albeit slightly more rough and ready than their polished later work. The crime that goes horribly wrong, the brilliantly observed characters, the elaborate dialogue, and most relevant to Blood Simple, people not being as clever as they think they are. Each of the four principle characters becomes paranoid and makes erroneous assumptions about the others, which leads to the supremely tense climax. Despite the noirish plot, there is an undeniable horror quality to the film, with Sam Raimi-influenced camera techniques and some gory, nightmarish sequences. M Emmet Walsh is the standout as the alternately genial and sinister private eye, who seems to have everything under control… until he doesn’t.
5. No Country For Old Men (2007)
So far the brothers’ only Oscar win for best film – this is a pretty faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic modern classic, with some chilling moments and one of cinema’s all-time great villains in the form of Javier Bardem’s ridiculously coiffed Anton Chigurgh. He’s a truly nightmarish villain, operating with a strict code, but no less terrifying for it. The film manages the seemingly impossible task of largely sticking with McCarthy’s harsh, sparse dialogue and yet still feeling identifiably a Coen brother film. It’s unbearably tense at times, and is undeniably their bleakest film, but remains essential viewing.
4. Barton Fink (1991)
“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” A film about writer’s block, written while the brothers were suffering from it themselves. John Turturro plays Fink, an acclaimed playwright afflicted with writer’s block from the moment he arrives in Hollywood. An often surreal blend of the supernatural and the mundane, it’s thick with symbolism, more than any of their other films – the Hotel Earle is the most hellish hotel this side of The Overlook, and Fink’s contract with the studio leaves him in a kind of purgatory. In terms of the cast, John Goodman is a revelation as Charlie Meadows, the seemingly loveable “everyman” with a darker side, whose voice Fink is intent on capturing, yet singularly ignores; Michael Lerner is a force of nature as the dynamic studio head and Turturro does a great job capturing Fink’s arrogant and obnoxious personality, yet makes him vulnerable enough to sympathise with.
3. Raising Arizona (1987)
It’s statling that this is only the brothers’ second film. Already so confident in their vision, Raising Arizona is a madcap, frenetic comedy with sharp dialogue and exaggerated yet nuanced performances from Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage. Almost a living cartoon in places, it’s over the top, but never too much – the puns and visual gags are executed with pinpoint accuracy – and the result is a perfectly judged, touching comedy with a lot of heart. The Coens are often criticised for their misanthropic tendencies towards their lead characters, but here they have a palpable affection for their two leads, which makes the ending all the more moving.
2. Fargo (1996)
Arguably the film that cemented the Coens as a force to be reckoned with. It’s easy to forget how original this combination of black comedy and chilling thriller was back in the 90s, now it’s almost the norm. Alternately Laugh out loud funny and genuinely shocking, what seems on the surface to be a simple crime gone wrong turns into a meditation on the friendly front and banality that can disguise someone’s more sinister side. William H. Macy is great as a truly despicable character who hides behind a facade of, “oh jeez,” vulnerability and is contrasted wonderfully with the basic decency of Frances McDormand’s police chief. Both McDormand and Macy give career-defining performances, but it’s the winning combination of Steve Buscemi’s constantly put upon “funny looking” crook and Peter Stormare’s brooding heavy that sears the film into the memory.
1. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
This homage to American author Dashiell Hammett is still one of the best gangster films ever made. An intricately plotted sort-of adaptation of The Glass Key, but much darker and with more depth given to the characters, Miller’s Crossing remains the Coens’ slickest, most satisfying film. Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the quintessential gangster heel, “the man who stands behind the man, and whispers in his ear”. Spending the majority of the film gambling away his money, getting drunk or beaten up, he is still the coolest, most enigmatic of all the Coens’ protagonists, and the relationship with his boss (Albert Finney) is one of the most complicated and strangely affecting of their filmography. The film also features the brothers’ densest script, populated with rich, colourful characters all speaking a dialect largely invented for the film. The entire cast are pitch perfect, and Carter Burwell’s score is beautiful, but to be honest, the breathtaking sequence where Finney takes on a group of would-be assassins while in his pyjamas would be enough to steal the top spot on it’s own.
So there you have it. The Coens are unique among filmmakers, making idiosyncratic films in a wide range of genres, and constantly evolving their style and exploring new areas. Next up will be another first – Joel is directing without Ethan’s involvement. An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring Denzel Washington sounds decidedly out of his comfort zone – but the brothers have pulled it off before!
What do you think? Should I have included O Brother Where Art Thou? or The Hudsucker Proxy? What would you have put in the number one spot?