Want to start an argument fast? Just ask the people nearest you to pick their favourite Coen Brothers movie. It’s a subject nobody agrees on. In part that’s because the Coens oeuvre spans 16 films (their latest, Hail, Caesar!, marks their 17th in just over 30-years), and almost as many genres; covering everything from westerns to film noir, to screwball comedies, through drama black as tar.
There are those who’ll fight to the death for the Coens’ more lunatic side (embracing the wild flights of fantasy, the moments when it seems as though the spinning plates can’t help but crash to the ground), and those who go all in for the more serious movies (passionate in their defence of the Coens’ long line of losers). Look hard enough and you can even find fans of everything from The Hudsucker Proxy to Intolerable Cruelty—although their clunky remake of The Ladykillers remains a misstep too far for most.
With that in mind, here are two things to bear in mind about the following list.
- It’s highly subjective—these are my favourite Coen brothers’ films. They may well not be yours, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Life would be boring if we all fell in line behind Fargo or No Country For Old Men.
- Speaking of No Country For Old Men, it’s not on this list. Sorry about that. Yes, it’s a technically brilliant film, which is faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s book while paying homage to the magnificent sun-drenched westerns of Sam Peckinpah, but for all its haunting ending in which Tommy Lee Jones’ ageing sheriff contemplates mortality, it leaves me cold.
At this point many of you may well have stopped reading and are preparing your choicest insults to hurl below the line. For those prepared to read on even with a level-head: welcome. Here are the seven Coen Brothers films I love the most—and my reasons why.
Warning, spoilers abound!
7. Fargo (1996)
Prior to No Country For Old Men this was widely considered the Coens’ finest film—and it’s true that rarely has their combination of pitch-black humour, manic plotting, and visually beautiful settings come together so well. Infamously presented as “based on real events”, it was the first Coen brothers film to take place in a recognisably ‘real’ world; that of the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota (notably the city of Fargo itself only appears in the opening minutes of the film, when hapless debt-ridden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard hires small time criminals Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud to kidnap his wife).
Like No Country For Old Men, it’s also a tale written in blood; yet, unlike their later film, it’s not a pitiless revenge tragedy but a story of ‘murder almost by accident’, in which the incongruity of the Midwestern setting offsets the onscreen brutality. The movie ultimately belongs to Frances McDormand’s warm-hearted, heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. Marge is a rare thing in a Coen Brothers’ movie: an uncomplicated, heroic character (there are other heroes in their filmography, as we shall see, but their heroism is often a more difficult affair). Marge is very simply a good person doing the right thing, and by largely focusing the film on her efforts to uncover the truth about the killings (she doesn’t turn up until a third of the way in) the Coens manage to offset the trail of bloody mayhem to create one of their most balanced, straightforward, and satisfying films.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
At the other end of the spectrum to Fargo comes this woozy homage to both Raymond Chandler’s original Philip Marlowe books and the psychedelic 1975 Elliott Gould version of Farewell, My Lovely. The only Coens film to inspire its own religion—Dudeism—and its own regular convention, The Big Lebowski is a shaggy dog tale of film; as stoned as its bearded protagonist. Ostensibly the story of how the amiable, perpetually wasted hero (a wonderfully relaxed Jeff Bridges) gets suckered into searching for a kidnapping victim after being mistaken for a different Lebowski, it’s really a film about… well, everything really. Bowling. Modern Art. German Nihilists. Crime. Punishment. The Vietnam War. The Eagles. Why a good rug can really tie a room together.
Does any of it make sense? No, not really—Joel Coen admitted that “we wanted to do a Chandler kind of story—how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant”—and it runs out of steam slightly before it should. Then again, as the Dude himself could tell you, that’s probably because “this is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s… fortunately I’m adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, uh, limber.”
5. Raising Arizona (1987)
The last out-and-out comedy on this list—sorry Burn After Reading fans—is also one of the Coens most easily likeable films. The story of Herbert I ‘Hi’ McDunnough, a gentle if hapless ex-con (Nicolas Cage); his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter), a cop who can’t help but fall for this loveable recidivist; and their desperate desire to have a baby, which leads in turn to kidnapping, mayhem and regret. Raising Arizona is also the most overtly wacky of the Coens films.
Helped by some nifty camerawork from a pre-Addams Family Barry Sonnenfeld and a delirious score by Carter Burwell that includes banjos, organs, whistling, and yodelling, it’s also incredibly inventive: the famous chase scene is almost Keystone Cops-esque in its slapstick ingenuity, while the kidnapping is wonderfully shot from the POV of the baby it’s happening to. On its release, it felt like a comedic shot in arm, a film that not only appeared completely different from the brothers’ noir debut, Blood Simple, but that also was utterly like any other comedy around. That difference now seems less pronounced—possibly because comedy has moved closer to the Coens’ sensibilities over the years—but it remains a high-octane blast of a film, in which we root for our leading pair as their troubles pile up and their relationship becomes increasingly strained.
4. A Serious Man (2009)
I hated A Serious Man when it came out. Watching it on a plane probably didn’t help, but this take on The Book of Job, in which a Minnesota physics professor is visited by a litany of ever-increasing woes, from divorce through death to the threat of Biblical-levels of destruction, seemed incredibly cruel. What had Michael Stuhlbarg’s amiable sad sack Larry Gopnik done to deserve this endless stream of bad luck? Why this poor schmuck above all others? He seemed like a decent man. A caring father. A loving husband. A dutiful teacher. The level of punishment appeared cruel—Exhibit A in the case for the Coens being little better than boys pulling the wings off insects. And then I watched it again. Properly. And I fell in love. For A Serious Man is that rarest of things: a serious comedy.
It’s a frequently very funny film about faith and loss, action and inaction, about whether it’s worse to do the wrong thing or to stand idly by. In this sense Larry is not simply a persecuted Job but rather a man who’s let his life overwhelm him. He does not act. He reacts. And it is from this passivity that all his woes begin. Is it a cruel film? I don’t think so—in fact, I believe it’s the second most humane Coen brothers’ film (the most humane being the one at the top of my list). When terrible things happen to Larry—his wife’s demand for a divorce, his rival Sy Abelman’s death, the threat of death on both a personal and grand scale which ends the film—the Coens don’t relish them. Instead, they ask the difficult question: is being decent enough? And is Larry really decent or has he instead checked out of life?
How you feel about that will depend on how you interpret the film’s historical prologue—is it, as some critics have argued, a straightforward admission that God has forsaken Larry because of the misdeeds of his ancestors, or is the murderous wife correct? Does she save the family by killing the dybbuk or doom them by murdering a Rabbi? In the same way, when Larry opts to take Clive’s bribe does he bring the wrath of God down on his son Danny’s school, or are his actions meaningless in the larger scale of life and death? The fact that there are no clear or easy answers to those questions is what makes A Most Serious Man so satisfying. Is it a strange film? Definitely. But it’s also a thoughtful one; a movie in which its leading man is perpetually on the verge not of a breakdown but more transcendentally of a breakthrough. That he’s ultimately denied that moment of salvation is a fittingly downbeat end to a clever, constantly surprising tale.
3. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
A.K.A the coolest movie the Coen brothers ever made. I’ve adored this homage to James Cagney gangster classics and the novels of Dashiell Hammett since it first came out. For many years it was my all-time favourite film: the combination of sharply delivered dialogue, double-crossing gangsters, and a wonderfully vivid setting, made it an unforgettable cinematic experience.
It’s a film stuffed with references to other films (from The Godfather to The Third Man), and filled with bravura set pieces (from the famous scene where John Turturro’s Bernie begs for his life— “Look in your heart, Tom” —to the endless shots of Tom’s missing hat floating tantalisingly out of reach, and the magnificent near-silent moment when Albert Finney’s ageing crime boss Leo takes out the assassins in his house to the strains of “Danny Boy”).
The casting is perfect: from Turturro’s weaselly Bernie, to Marcia Gay Harden’s poised Vera playing Leo and Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan off against each other while keeping her own counsel about her heart. As for Tom, marinated in booze and quick with a one-liner, forever in search of his damn hat, he’s the nearest thing the Coens have to a traditional movie hero. Even battered and bleeding he remains charming and cool: a handsome rogue who claims not to have a heart, a down-on-his-luck gambling man whose secretly one step ahead of the game, the one honourable person in a world of liars, cheaters and thieves, and deliverer of more brilliant put-downs than any Coens character apart from The Dude. For this is a film that sings with one-liners: “If I was a horse, I’d be down on my fetlocks praying you don’t bet on me”; “If I’d known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I’d have memorised the Song of Solomon”; “I suppose you think you raised hell” — “Sister, when I’ve raised hell, you’ll know it.”
Miller’s Crossing is the moment when the Coen Brothers’ world (the complicated dialogue, the oddball characters, the visual originality), came into sharp, clear focus—serving notice that here are a couple of filmmakers with a vision so unique that it’s impossible to predict what they’ll do next. If it were a drink it would be an ice cold gin and tonic, slipping down perfectly with just enough of a sting to remind you take to care.
2. Barton Fink (1991)
This follow-up to Miller’s Crossing takes the quirkiest moments of that movie and turns them up to eleven. It’s a film about Hollywood, sort of, in passing; a movie about writing, or rather the failure to write; a sharp-eyed satire of success; a lament to all those great novelists from Fitzgerald to Faulkner who went to Hollywood and fell drunkenly on their faces; a homage to Nathanael West’s ‘locusts’, those poor saps who bet their all on making it in Tinseltown only to end up scrabbling around the edges of the dream factory; a hymn to losers and loners every where; a parable about heaven and hell.
Is John Turturro’s Barton even really in Hollywood? Or does the hotel he finds himself represent hell and John Goodman’s crazed serial killer the devil? Brilliantly, that is never quite clear—Barton Fink remains a film you can interpret in two ways—as the actual tale of a playwright with writer’s block who has the misfortune to hole up in the same hotel as a vengeance-quoting serial killer, or as a twisted allegory about writing and rejection in which Goodman’s killer is actually Fink’s suppressed id—convincing him that the only way he can become free is to give in to kill his darlings, find his muse and write again.
When it came out in 1991, Barton Fink divided critics. Adored by some, it dominated Cannes winning best picture, best director and best actor… it is loathed by others, who see it is as an extended in-joke (90-plus minutes of the Coens sniggering up their sleeves at writerly pretensions and art house movies). On the surface Barton is yet another of the Coens’ loveable losers, a man they bring to his knees and then kick when he’s down. Yet, crucially, when the film opens he’s a success, and despite all the traumas of the story—the terrifying Goodman, the horrors of the box, the collapse of his movie career—he ends the film on a beach glimpsing his muse with the prospect of a brighter future.
Barton may never bring the theatre of the working man to the masses (and nor, you sense, should he) but he is not really a loser in the strictest sense of the word. Barton Fink is not so much a film about failure as about self-loathing. Barton’s inability to recreate ‘that Barton Fink feeling’ in Hollywood, his monstrous self-regard, the slow dismantling of his vanity all congeal together to create a claustrophobic and nightmarish film about creativity and mental block. “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” screams Goodman’s Charlie as he begins his rampage through the faded corridors of the hotel, slashing at the peeling wallpaper with his axe. The wonderful thing about Barton Fink is that that is exactly what it does.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers 16th film, their most humane, and their absolute best. It’s a film about failure from two people who have really only ever known success, a circular journey through one man’s attempts to simultaneously grab the career he dreams of and sabotage it—whether by insulting friends, alienating supporters, or catcalling other musicians when drunk. It’s a mournful mediation on whether success and fame are really worth anything… and also, bear with me, a surprisingly warm look at what the human spirit can achieve.
I know people who adore folk music who loathe Llewyn Davis, and people who hate folk music who loathe it, too. I’ve heard it described as depressing, boring, inconsequential and dull. All those people are wrong. Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate film, certainly, and on the surface as closed off as its leading man (Oscar Isaac, giving one of the all-time brilliant performances in a Coen brothers film; a masterclass of withheld grief, exhaustion and rage). But beneath that icy surface beats a fast, warm heart—and it’s that which makes this a film that not only withstands repeated viewings but also gives you more each time you watch.
The film’s true brilliance becomes clear about three quarters of the way through, when our titular hero, having suffered through a hellish car journey with an abusive heroin-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman, wonderful as always), and his near-silent beat poetry writing chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund), and then abandoned the cat he’s lugged all the way there to an uncertain fate on the edge of the road, trudges through the slush and snow to finally play in front of music impresario Bud Grossman (a wonderful F. Murray Abraham). For this one-shot-chance he chooses to play a difficult, mournful song about the death of Jane Seymour. And he plays it beautifully, pouring all his fear and loss into this haunting tale of love and death. It’s a hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment with a brilliant, brutal sting—because all that pain and rage and skill is not enough.
And this is the genius of Inside Llewyn Davis: it’s not a film about a raging talent who gets discovered after unfairly being cast in the wilderness, but nor is it a movie about a talentless hack just trying to get by. It’s the story of a man who is talented and skilled, who tries hard, keeps his head down, soldiers on, plays his gigs, admits his sins (as the Coens have said he may be an asshole but “he’s a likeable asshole”, in no small part because of Isaac’s charisma and warmth), picks himself up after every small humiliation and tries again—and it still isn’t enough. It isn’t enough that Llewyn Davis has talent, that his voice is good, and his guitar playing better. Because not everyone gets to succeed. Fortune doesn’t always favour the brave and talent alone isn’t always enough to get by. That’s a harsh and bitter lesson to learn, particularly in this era when we stress that everyone is awesome and we will all succeed eventually, but it’s a true and honest one as well.
If Llewyn Davis really were just a film about failure then it would be as depressing as its critics insist. Instead its worth noting that our hero ends the film battered but not broken, his final words “au revoir” suggesting that he won’t give up, that there will be other nights like this one, other near-misses, other glimpses of fame, and moments of humiliation and disillusion and throughout it all Llewyn will stay grouchily true to himself—and, crucially, to his art. He may never find stardom but he won’t sell out either. He may never know the joy of performing in front of millions… but he knows himself. Llewyn Davis may not be heroic but he’s a hero just the same.