In My Opinion: The Top Ten Coen Bros. Films

Ethan and Joel Coen circa 1990 while promoting Miller’s Crossing
Top Ten Coen Bros. Films

With the upcoming release of A Serious Man, the brand new film from the Coen brothers, I decided to put together my personal top ten list of their films. A task that proved much harder than I would have originally imagined.

I agonized over this list. Why? Because love isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel about the Coen films. No, something more akin to reverence mixed with a healthy bit of obsessive adoration would be much closer to my relationship with their work. They are the kind are filmmakers who make us think, as we sit in the theater, they are unspooling the yarn just for us. Sure, the Coens weave tales of great violence and isolation, but somewhere in there a quiet grace is achieved too.

PLACES 11, 12 & 13
Photo: Universal Pictures / Touchstone / Focus Features

There are three segments to the thirteen Coen movies I considered. First off is the “Lesser Coen” Canon, which we’ll call our honorable mention. To me that includes the films ranked 11, 12 and 13. I speak of Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Tom Hanks stars in Ladykillers, and that’s about all you can say about the work. It’s buried under a layer of cuteness, and it feels a lot like The Coens fell into the trap of building a script around a big-name star instead of their specialty — crafting original work with their normal cast of excellent character actors.

The rumor around Intolerable Cruelty was that it was a product of a 9/11 mentality, Joel and Ethan just wanted to do something frivolous and unimportant. Zeta-Jones and Clooney are winning, but it’s not a piece that “matters” in any real sense. Which brings us to Burn After Reading, a film I’m told I should give another chance. I saw it once in the theater and to me it seemed somewhat aimless.

If you’re interested, overflowing with cash or completely disagree, you can buy Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading by clicking here.

So those are my “Lesser Coen” films, but here are the biggies. The ones that matter. My Top Ten Coen films, equipped with quick commentary and quirky clips. You gotta love it…

Blood Simple (1985)
The first of four films I’d call “Solid Coen”, Blood Simple shows off much of the potential that the next 25 years will unleash. A foxy Frances McDormand is the only Coen regular (although Emmet Walsh also appeared in Raising Arizona) present, and the tone is serious. For some directors this would be considered their best work, but I’d call it about a B- for The Coens. The moody string music is forced and the plot meanders a bit. There aren’t enough of those solid Coen moments yet, as the guys hadn’t quite figured out how to string them all together. Still, Blood Simple is well worth watching, you’ll see the first examples of many scenes that play in future films, including the obsession with late night driving, a single yellow line and an oncoming set of headlights providing tension.

Barton Fink (1991)
This is a film for fans of the Coen stable of actors. John Goodman (5 films), John Turturro (4), Steve Buscemi (5), Jon Polito (5), and Tony Shalhoub (2) make appearances. Turturro isn’t able yet to completely carry the film, which is part of the issue with Barton Fink, but the movie has a ton to say about the studio system, writing, and the creative process.

Turturro is a young playwright who’s whisked away to Hollywood to write a “wrestling picture”. Buscemi is simply fantastic in his three minutes as “Chet” — encapsulating all that’s endearing and aggravating about the hotel check-in process. But the film is just too quiet to have maximum Coen impact, it’s like a hole in the ocean for much of its running time. Does it end with a bang? You betcha. And the quote “Writers come and go… but we always need Indians” is still apt.

Fargo (1996)
I know this will be a controversial choice, but allow me to explain. The Coens seem to have two styles of filmmaking: dark and moody or lighter and quirky. Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Miller’s Crossing form the moody branch. The quirk factor shines through in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy (The Man Who Wasn’t There is a bit of a tweener). You’ll notice I favor their lighter work, it’s just the way I’m built. I know plenty of people who would flip this list upside down and be completely happy, I bear no malice against those folks. It’s just what you want out of your Coen experience.

Now then, Fargo, the moment the general public woke up to what was going on with the fellas. The Oscar win for Best Screenplay saw to that. But the fascination with Midwestern dialect, the quick and brutal problem solving methods employed by psychopaths, the gruesome disposal of a body, it’s all been done better by the Coen brothers. Fargo, as a film, is clearly very strong, but I wouldn’t watch it ahead of any of my top seven, and that’s the only logic I could turn to when compiling this list.

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