If there’s one thing the Coen brothers are great at, it’s juxtaposition. And that’s not just juxtaposition within their films – like cutting from a tense break-in scene to a kick in the nuts in their directorial debut Blood Simple – it’s juxtaposition on their filmography as a whole. They’ll go from a harrowing Oscar-winning drama like Fargo to a zany comedy like The Big Lebowski, or they’ll go from a harrowing Oscar-winning drama like No Country for Old Men to a zany comedy like Burn After Reading. And their movies are consistently impeccable.
10 A Serious Man (89%)
The Coens were raised Jewish in suburban America and pieces of that upbringing can be seen throughout their work, but no more clearly than in their deceptively simplistic Biblical tale A Serious Man, the story of a suburban Jewish father whose life slowly starts to fall apart around him. It’s a retelling of the tale of Job, the man whose faith in God was tested by having his family, his home, and his livelihood all taken away from him to prove a point to Satan, set in ‘60s America. The thematic storytelling gets the point across without being too on-the-nose or preachy, and the breathtaking cinematography by Roger Deakins makes it an engaging visual experience as well as a powerful spiritual parable.
9 Barton Fink (90%)
Considering it was just something the Coens hashed out while they struggled with writer’s block when developing the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is a tremendous achievement. You could watch this movie a hundred times and still not fully understand it. In fact, you wouldn’t even be able to name its genre. Is it a dark comedy? Is it a psychological horror movie? Is it a surrealist film noir? On the surface, it’s about a playwright in the ‘40s who moves to Hollywood to write screenplays, but beneath that, it’s so much more complex. It meditates on religion, labor, humankind’s creative struggles, and the collapse of society, while mocking its own form.
8 TIE: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (91%)
The Coens were initially making The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a miniseries for Netflix before reediting it to be a movie and being showered with Oscar nominations. This film is proof that Netflix movies aren’t all bad, and contrary to what Steven Spielberg thinks, they can be strong awards contenders.
As with any anthology movie, there are some segments that are stronger than others, but on the whole, each segment has a reason to be there. It’s a western movie with all the subgenres of the western represented in its anthology format. And despite the varying tones of the stories, each one is vintage Coen brothers.
7 TIE: Raising Arizona (91%)
It’s often assumed that all of Nicolas Cage’s movies are bad, but the ones that are good are really good, like Raising Arizona. Cage stars as an ex-con who, after discovering he can’t conceive with his cop wife and can’t adopt because of his criminal record, decides to kidnap one of a local businessman’s newborn octuplets and raise it as his own. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and what ensues is one of the wackiest slapstick comedies ever put on film. There’s a common misconception that physical comedy is lazy – it’s not lazy when it’s done right.
6 TIE: Miller’s Crossing (91%)
It was clear from the Coens’ unmistakable and idiosyncratic style that if they attempted a gangster movie, it would be entirely different from the style of gangster movies we’ve come to expect from movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. The Coens’ Miller’s Crossing is a masterclass in thematic storytelling. The plot is dense and complicated, yet the film flies by breezily like a lot of its recurring motifs, so it doesn’t make your head hurt or lose you like most crime epics. The film is also impeccably acted, with one monologue in particular from John Turturro proving to disappointed Transformers fans that he is actually a phenomenal actor when he’s not getting peed on by robots.
5 Inside Llewyn Davis (92%)
It’s a shame that Inside Llewyn Davis wasn’t a bigger hit. It stars a pre-Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a Bob Dylan-style folk artist in the ‘60s, who struggles to scrape a living in the music business. Instead of having an overall narrative, the movie is more episodic, following the titular folk singer on his travels across America, with nothing but his guitar slung over his back and his trusty cat by his side. There’s a school of thought that plot is more important than character, but as an insightful and beautiful character study, Inside Llewyn Davis makes a strong case for character over plot.
4 TIE: No Country for Old Men (93%)
No Country for Old Men proved to be the Academy’s favorite Coen brothers film, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a neo-Western that takes the motifs of the old cowboy movies and transplants them into a modern setting. The film is as bleak and uncompromising as the Cormac McCarthy novel it’s based on. While the story doesn’t have a classical structure and actually subverts the audience’s expectations, like a happy ending and the hero triumphing and the narrative being properly resolved, No Country for Old Men is one of the few cases where such subversions actually work in the film’s favor.
3 TIE: Fargo (93%)
Fargo has a style that is entirely its own. It’s such a unique and definable style that an entire TV show has been adapted from it. A jittery insurance salesman has his wife kidnapped to bilk his rich father-in-law out of ransom money, then the kidnapping goes awry and people end up dead, so a pregnant cop is on the case.
With an impeccable ensemble cast including Frances McDormand in a career defining role, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi, the movie is riveting from the word “go.” Its grim sense of humor, surreal portrait of violence, and “Minnesota nice” accents make it feel more like a visual odyssey than a movie. All movies should be this considered and well-crafted and breathtaking – the attention to detail is sensational.
2 Blood Simple (94%)
The Coen brothers’ directorial debut still stands as one of their finest movies. It has all the hallmarks that have come to characterize their work: dark humor, memorably flawed characters, expertly crafted editing, terrifying night-time scenes, exciting use of lighting, and above all, juxtaposition. The clear highlight of the movie is M. Emmet Walsh’s mesmerizing portrayal of private eye Lorren Visser, while Carter Burwell’s score helps to create the film’s tense atmosphere in every scene, but as a whole, it’s a masterful take on the neo-noir genre that subverts all the most predictable conventions and defines all the best ones.
1 True Grit (96%)
On the whole, remakes tend to suck. However, they don’t when they’re directed by the Coen brothers. Their revisionist reimagining of the classic John Wayne western True Grit is rated by Rotten Tomatoes as the duo’s best film. The original was famous for having an uncharacteristically cynical role for Wayne, and here, that role – alcoholic lawman Rooster Cogburn – is played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges. Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon make up the supporting cast of a movie that eschews the conventions of the typical Hollywood western in favor of a stark, bleak palette that accurately depicts the horrors of the Old West with a cold, minimalist style.