News broke today (August 18) that a spin-off to the cult 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski is currently being worked on. But it won’t be another movie from the masterful Coen brothers as they’re reportedly not involved. Over 32 years Joel has either directed – or co-directed with his brother Ethan – a whopping 17 films. 17! From horror-thriller Blood Simple to neo-Western True Grit to screwball comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? there’s not a bad one in the bunch. So it’s a tough ask to whittle down their stellar canon to just ten gleaming cinematic moments. But we’re nothing if not committed and someone’s got to do it. So without further ado, here are the ten best Coen Brothers films.
10. Raising Arizona
Slap bang in the middle of Nicolas Cage’s ‘experimental’ phase – see David Lynch’s completely mental Wild At Heart – is this unhinged black comedy about stealing babies. An infertile couple, H.I, (Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) – yup, that’s right – are desperate for children, so they figure kidnapping is a perfectly viable option and head straight out to nab a wealthy furniture store owner’s little nipper. Safe to say, things don’t go to plan and recently released ex-con Hi ends up back on the run from the law. There’s a lot of fun to be had with the Coen’s zany second feature, but it just doesn’t have the coherency of their later output and only just sneaks into this top ten. Still, “Son, you’ve got a panty on your head,” remains one of the brothers’ funniest lines to date.
9. True Grit
Often harshly treated by critics, the Coens’ 2010 remake of John Wayne classic True Grit is much better than people often give it credit for. Boasting one of Jeff Bridges’ finest recent performances (even if he is tricky to understand), the ten-time Oscar-nominated Western is probably the least Coen-esque entry on this list. But boy is it thrilling. Barely a moment passes without some scrawny gunslinger firing up his pistol. And the resulting shootouts would make even Clint Eastwood proud. It would be higher up if it weren’t for Hailee Steinfeld. Her dire portrayal of whiney farm girl Mattie Ross might just be the most irritating in cinematic history.
8. Miller’s Crossing
For their third outing, the Brothers Coen abandoned the absurdist shtick of Raising Arizona and went full on serious. Miller’s Crossing, about a senior mobster caught between rival gangs, did a lot better with critics than audiences, so reactions oscillate wildly. However, John Turturro’s crafty turn as a broker marked for ‘wacking’ is inspired, and the slow-building tension will have you gasping for air by the blood-soaked finale.
7. The Man Who Wasn’t There
A bit of a wildcard on this rundown, the totally black-and-white 2001 effort from Joel and Ethan isn’t for everyone. But if you’re a fan of moody, thoughtful talkies with the odd sudden splurge of the red stuff, then you’ve come to the right place. Billy Bob Thornton excels as a practically mute barber beaten down by his two-timing wife and there’s even a bit part role for old Tony Soprano. Its critics called it ‘The Film That Wasn’t There’, but sometimes the best movies are the ones that don’t jump up and smack you on the nose.
6. Burn After Reading
Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand. With a cast as starry as that it’s hard to go wrong. But how wrong it went, for the characters that is. It’s one disaster after another in this batty comedy about two gym trainers drawn into an ill-managed CIA investigation. But there’s no stroking of A-list egos here. Anyone can be offed at any time, regardless of whether your name’s Pitt, Clooney or even Krapotkin (it wouldn’t be a spy movie without the Russians now would it?) Oddly, it’s the lesser-known JK Simmons who ends up stealing the show, with a nutty comic act that’s barely on screen for five minutes.
5. Barton Fink
Joel and Ethan’s fourth project was so dominant in 1991 that it caused Cannes Film Festival to change its entry rules. Not a bad effort for a duo deemed to be in terminal decline after two poorly received pictures. Equally steeped in psychological terror as it is physical comedy or industry satire, Barton Fink is the captivating story of a Hollywood writer fighting to retain honor amidst the corrupt indulgence of his debauched colleagues. Instantly unlikable as ever is John Turturro in his most famous Coens role. While pinging his braces as he goes is walking sweat-ball John Goodman – who plays a plucky insurance salesman with a hidden dark side.
Oh boy, here we go. This was the biggest darn tootin’ film of the brothers’ career at the time, sweeping up two Oscars and a Bafta. No Country For Old Men would eventually bag more awards, but there’s a special place in the heart of every Coens nerd for pregnant Minnesota cop Marge Gunderson. Previously criticised for being too precise in their movie-making, Joel and Ethan froze the naysayers in their tracks with this wildly unpredictable tale of small-town violence in the frosty north. Downright hilarious and savagely gripping, its fans are fiercely loyal, just like the funny-talking characters.
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
There’s always one miserable fucker who pipes up when conversation turns to George Clooney’s madcap trek across the deep South. “It’s stupid”, they say, “Comedy for morons!” Well there’s a reason they’re in the corner on their own, it’s because they don’t know how to have a good time. And that’s exactly what O Brother is – a mighty fine good time. Gleefully trite in its mannerisms, the Coens’ eighth follows the adventures of three escaped convicts in 1930s rural Mississippi. Frankly ridiculous in some of its sequences – the musical Klu Klux Klan set piece springs to mind – O Brother holds together thanks only to its whippet smart script, replete with some of the brothers’ funniest gags. So tell ‘that guy’ to shut up and go buy the popcorn.
2. The Big Lebowski
Constantly cited as the ultimate ‘stoner comedy’, The Dude’s effortless tranquility has won over a whole generation of sofa surfers. It may appear straightforward in its plot lines, but that’s half the charm of an actually complex story. Jeff Bridges is an inspired casting as the main protagonist – an LA slacker caught in a web of big city businessmen and scheming porn stars. There’s even a bizarre cameo from Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame – he plays a psycho German musician who for some reason pretends to have kidnapped the real Big Lebowski’s girlfriend. Originally a total flop, The Big Lebowski has now become the most loved Coens film of all. And why not, man?
1. No Country For Old Men
Swerving from viciously sinister mystery to spellbinding psycho-thriller, No Country is less about words (there are few) and more about the Coens’ awesome sense of spectacle. Essentially a western set on the streets of 1980’s Texas, the Minnesota natives’ Cormac McCarthy-adaptation is all gorgeous wide shots and sudden, sweaty close-ups. In this quadruple Oscar-winning epic the camera is king. There’s really no other choice as number one. From Josh Brolin’s out-of-his-skin performance as a Vietnam vet on the run with two million in drug money to Tommy Lee Jones return to form as an aging southern sheriff the acting is faultless. The final star on the banner is the sort of deliciously malevolent villain that Javier Bardem was born to play. 11 out of ten.