In September, the work of Joel and Ethan Coen will have been available to the public for thirty years. As soon as Blood Simple debuted at the 1984 Toronto International Film Festival, it became clear that cinema had found a new voice, one of sardonic wit and a penchant for the unpredictable, but also one with an astonishingly firm grasp on the act of filmmaking. Since then, their films have grossed almost $800m, earned 35 Academy Award nominations (winning six) and developed a strong following all over the world. Despite a dip in the mid-2000s, the Coens have become reliable sources of great cinema, and some of their work has become nothing short of iconic. Here are the ten best films they’ve released so far:
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Easy enough to follow, yet difficult to make any sense of, O Brother, Where Art Thou? sees Joel and Ethan bringing their spectacular brand of weird to Depression era America. Based on Homer’s Odyssey, inspired by Sullivan’s Travels and with a Grammy-winning soundtrack to work from, the Coens shot George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson off on a zany road trip as a trio of idiot fugitives, who somehow become regional superstars after an impromptu recording session made in the middle of nowhere.
9. Raising Arizona
The Coens love their morons, and Nicolas Cage was the perfect fodder for their 1987 surprise hit Raising Arizona. No doubt the funniest film in their catalogue, it’s also their most consistent, featuring sprightly performances from Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman as well as one of the most bizarre chase sequences in film history. Humour and darkness often come hand-in-hand with the Coens, however, and Arizona is no exception – it taps into a sobering outlook on the trials of parentage, which is surprisingly mature in tone when compared to the movie’s overriding sense of slapstick.
8. Blood Simple
A startling, largely self-financed debut feature, Blood Simple oozes along with a nauseating rumble through its mood-lit environments, with foreboding around every corner, and death pervading its heavy atmosphere. It introduced Frances McDormand, the future wife of Joel and subsequent Oscar winner for Fargo, but more importantly it announced one of the greatest filmmaking teams in cinema history. This is where the Coens made their mark, squeezing as much as they could out of their meagre $1.5m budget and wowing critics across the globe.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
To say that Llewyn Davis is the biggest prick in the Coens’ filmography is to say something indeed. A folk act who burnt out before ever hitting any form of stride, Llewyn is caught in the chokehold of his own self-destruction complex: he’s broke, homeless, and subconsciously determined to stay that way. Shot with weary-eyed cinematography and beaten lighting, to watch Inside Llewyn Davis is to be constantly stuck as to whether or not you should be laughing at, or feeling sorry for, its idiot lead character. Schadenfreude is always a good shout, however.
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There
In slight deviation to the descriptor attached to his character, Billy Bob Thornton mostly seems like the man who isn’t there. Emblematic of the Coens’ fascination of contrasting loudmouths with quiet-types, Thornton’s Ed Crane is as taciturn as they come, yet he’s somehow magnetic in his relative inactivity. Watching life pinball Ed into the darkest recesses of bad luck is soul-sapping, mainly because he’s not a moron like the Dude, Llewyn Davis or Hi McDunnough – he’d much rather everyone had an easy life, and if that meant not interfering with anyone’s day, then so be it. Sadly, that’s not the way things go.
5. The Big Lebowski
The previous three movies on this list are all technically better than The Big Lebowski. The Coens’ 1998 psych-out cult-classic runs out of steam well before it wraps itself up, thanks to its poor pacing and gradually depreciating interest in giving a flying fuck. But Lebowski contains some sort of magic in its immense quotability, its stupidity and its varying idiosyncracies, so much so that it’s become a cultural monument all of its own. It’s an acquired taste, and no-one knows what to make of it the first time around; however, it’s hard to deny for too long. And if you can, then that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.
If you’re looking for a concise library of the Coens’ trademarks, look no further. Fargo is a beautifully shot, morally complex tale full of terrible luck, quirky humour and savage violence. Despite its desolate, snow-pervaded settings, this Oscar-winning movie is full of warmth – mainly exuded from Mrs. McDormand – and every single moment seethes with life, the Coens granting a refreshing dose of sympathy for their characters. For once, we also get a capable protagonist in the form of Marge Gunderson, a pregnant policewoman caught up in working the case of kidnap gone tragically wrong.
3. No Country for Old Men
What gives No Country for Old Men the edge over Fargo is that it’s basically its evil, sadistic twin brother. The two movies are practically interchangeable on paper, but watching them play out onscreen is something else. No Country takes the benevolent morals of Fargo and twists them into something utterly cruel and devastating, focusing the attention on Marge Gunderson’s complete opposite, the id to her superego, the Hyde to her Jekyll, delivering death where she brewed life. Javier Bardem’s menacing turn as Chigurh, the all-American punishment machine, sucks the life from his surroundings as he routinely claims souls, partly for his own advantage, but all too often for entertainment.
2. Miller’s Crossing
The Coens’ most pure and tightly-constructed movie, Miller’s Crossing is a pitch-black tale of Prohibition-era backstreet politics. Even in terms of their impossibly-varied filmography, their 1990 masterpiece has a wholly unique feel to it, as if this is some perfectly-realised statement of personal vision. Yet despite this, it’s that full of homages to gangster classics that there’s any wonder the movie has any space left for the Coens’ own voice. There is, thank God, meaning that Miller’s Crossing is everything that it possibly could have been, and more. Too bad Goodfellas came out in the same year; this movie deserves more spotlight.
1. Barton Fink
The story told by Miller’s Crossing is that complex that the Coens eventually hit writers’ block trying to commit it all to paper. They decided to channel their energy into a new project to be filmed afterwards, and that project became Barton Fink, their troubled (and troubling) crowning achievement. Nightmarish in its approach, Fink spends its time slipping in and out of sequences of stark, intense imagery, before stunning its eponymous character with bizarre events, ranging from the death of a lover to his hotel’s malformation into Hell.
While spilling dark humour on a regular basis, every single moment of Barton Fink feels haunted, from its eerily deserted Hollywood locales to its consistently descending camera movements. It’s also unique among the Coens’ filmography in that it doesn’t stick to a specific tone throughout; instead, it gradually spirals out of its unnerving slow-drip into sheer chaos. And what’s more, it’s the only one that doesn’t need the benefit of familiarity – you’ll never forget the first time you saw Barton Fink.