The Top 5 Coen Brothers Films…So Far

I am not one for hyperbole, especially when it comes to my assessment of films. I won’t write it if I don’t fully believe in what it is I am pontificating. That said, as I was walking out of the move theater this weekend to see the remake of True Grit, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are there any better American filmmakers working today than Joel and Ethan Coen?” I am of course aware of heavyweights such as Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Eastwood, and Spielberg (to name a few), but since their impressive debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, all they have done is repeatedly churn out stylized, profound and highly entertaining works on a consistent basis that is quite uncanny. I am sure the most ardent of Coen Brothers fans can even excuse the much more commercially targeted Intolerable Cruelty, as I do. The only other director who I see as coming close to this ridiculously high batting average is the brilliant P.T. Anderson, but I will reserve judgment until he builds more of a resume. True Grit marks the 15th feature film for Joel and Ethan Coen and it surely did not disappoint. More on that terrific film in a later post. First, since coming to the realization of where the Coen Brothers stand at present, I thought I’d celebrate this earth-shattering epiphany with what I view their Top 5 films to be. With so many good ones, this was pretty tough to put in order. Also, if you can think of another director who releases one brilliant work after another for as long as they have, I would love to hear it!

5. A Serious Man (2009)

This slot could have easily been reserved for Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men or even their latest, True Grit. But I was so taken aback with this oeuvre (rightly deserving of its Oscar nom for ‘Best Picture’) for its tremendous profundity, dark wit, and waters yet unchartered by the master filmmakers. To me, this is their most personal, most mature work to date. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor of mathematics who is used to solving formulas and equations with ease. But he is left helpless when, bit by bit, coincidental events take hold of his life which is slipping through his fingers. Stuhlbarg was robbed of a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination and his work here is extraordinary. Richard Kind plays his brother, Uncle Arthur and brings a great deal of empathy to the role. Fred Melamed is a joy to watch as Sy – the man who steals Larry’s wife away from him. The screenplay is taut and insightful, the mood, ominous throughout. Again, the Coen Brothers don’t serve up all the answers for you on a silver platter – they challenge their audience, letting you solve the puzzle on your own. I was glad to see the filmmakers tackle on such issues as God, faith, the Jewish religion, fate and karma in such a forward manner. This film is unlike any other they have ever done –a bold project to be sure, though the Coen Brothers never seem to shy away from new challenges and new frontiers. A small gem of a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

I’m not sure what to say here except when I first saw the film, I never would have guessed the enormous cult following and staying power that this ridiculous comedy would endure. Like most Coen Brothers films, this one gets better with additional viewings. Many of their dramas have a lot of comedic elements and humorous nuances, but this one (like the very funny Raising Arizona), is straight up funny, bordering on the farcical. With “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges creates a character that will surely go down as one of the most comical in film history. Bridges makes it all look so effortless, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not a brilliant performance. Like his Almighty rug, this Dude ties the movie together. John Goodman is loud, maniacal, and uproarious. Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman add more laughs – and John Turturro, with about 5 minutes of screen time, steals the show as The Jesus, the master bowler who will fuck you any day of the week. I also love Sam Elliott as The Stranger, the film’s narrator…perfect voice for it. The pacing of the film in non-stop and it’s one absurd incident after another, one insane line after the next. You sit back, and go along for the ride. It is pure Coen Brothers comedy – and there was no way I could omit it from this prestigious Top 5.

3. Fargo (1996)

I vividly recall the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert proclaiming this to be their #1 film of 1996, stating that this was the reason they went to the movies – that this was one of the finest American films to be released in that decade. Though the Coen Brothers were already critical darlings for a few years, this one seemed to put them over the top, garnering a number of Oscar noms, while taking home two. One of the many things that the Coen Brothers are brilliant at is giving the viewer a sense of time and place. Fargo is the perfect example of this. As a wanna-be writer, I would love to be a fly on the wall to study and see how the two writers go through the process of writing their scripts because their framework and dialogue is so masterful. The script here is what every writer should strive for, capturing the characters and their regional vernacular so exquisitely. The film is bloody, dark, funny, and at times, quite touching. The score also plays a pivotal role (which is true of just about any of their films) and depicts the mood perfectly. The unbelievably talented Frances McDormand shines here as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police officer. But it is William H. Macy’s incompetent car salesman that sets the wheels in motion. Everything falls apart for poor Jerry Lundegaard and so many others pay the heavy consequences. In many ways, the film remind’s me of David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet – exploring the dark and violent side of suburban America. An outstanding piece of filmmaking — considered by most critics to be their signature work and has already gone down as one of the finest films ever made.

2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

When I think of finest screenplays written, I always think of this masterful mobster flick. The dialogue cracks, sizzles and keeps coming at you at a fever pitch – so authentic to the prohibition era that it is set in – and oh so very smart (“take your flunky and dangle”). As is the case with all of their films, the Coen Brothers get wonderful performances from their impressive ensemble that includes Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito (again), and J.E. Freeman. Gabriel Byrne is perfectly cast and the wise-cracking poetry just oozes from his lips like honey. As the film’s nucleus, Byrne holds it all together – he is strong, witty and merciful. And it should be to no one’s surprise that John Turturro as Bernie Bernbaum rocks the house. It constantly amazes me how much Turturro adds to the supporting roles he plays (see Film #4). The climatic scene where Byrne’s Tom Reagan takes Turturro out to the middle of the woods (Miller’s Crossing) to shoot him dead is riveting and always has me on the edge of my seat. It is wonderful work and Turturro doesn’t hold back one tiny bit. One of their more violent films, Miller’s Crossing is beautifully shot and the costume design and art direction are without flaws. It also keeps you on your toes – who is double-crossing who? Who is working for who? Who is going to get rubbed out next? I know we all think of The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas when we think of cinema’s greatest mobster flicks, but this deserves to be strongly placed in the Top 5. And that, my friends, is the rumpus!

1. Barton Fink (1991)

This one is a no-brainer for me. This haunting (oftentimes funny) film has always fascinated and entertained me, while never losing tread on the wheels with many repeat viewings. In fact, I seem to catch something new each time. John Turturro, one of our most underrated actors, takes the lead here as a New York playwright who suddenly becomes the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success and money reels him in and Barton now finds himself in a hellish west coast hotel writing a motion picture about a wrestler. John Goodman is brilliant as his ominous neighbor, Charlie Meadows. Turturro is mesmerizing as the often-troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Judy Davis and Jon Polito turn in outstanding performances as well. The film is filled with quirky characters and dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers’ works. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941. Exquisite art direction, a haunting score and superb cinematography – the film never caves in and gives you all the answers. It challenges its audience and forces you to figure it out, which I admire and appreciate. Not a movie for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’, to be sure. But a brilliant film — perhaps their closest to a masterpiece yet. Then again, perhaps it is.

In my estimation, these are some of the finest films made in the past 25 years — and they don’t show any signs of slowing down or fading out. The Coen Brothers are master storytellers who seem to do just about everything right — and to this one film buff, have no equal in the industry at present.

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18 Responses to The Top 5 Coen Brothers Films…So Far

  1. Phil says:

    Great article. I too would love to be a ‘fly on the wall’ to see how they work through their intricate plot structures and trademark snappy dialogue… I will admit that although I’ve grown to appreciate Barton Fink over the years as an excellent film, it still doesn’t crack my top five (though it’s closer than my first viewing).

    For the record:
    5. No Country for Old Men
    4. Fargo
    3. The Man Who Wasn’t There
    2. Miller’s Crossing
    1. The Big Lebowski

  2. rtm says:

    Happy belated birthday, Peter! Sorry I missed it, hope it was a happy one.

    Well, it’s always educational to read your blog. I’m not well-versed on Coens as I’ve only seen Fargo from your list (a must for every Minnesotan :D) But I’ve just put Miller’s Crossing on Netflix this morning as I follow Gabriel Byrne’s fan site on Twitter and just read a post on it. Well your writeup just makes me want to see it even more! “Strong, witty and merciful’ OH MY!

    I have no interest in seeing No Country however, just from what I’ve heard from friends/blogs, etc., I knew it’s not something I’d enjoy at all.

  3. Aaron says:

    I can’t disagree with any of these films, nor your discussions about them. Good work, Peter.

    • Thank you much, Aaron. I can see where others would put in No Country, Hudsucker or True Grit — but they are all so damn good…which was my point in the first place. Hope you are well!

  4. Wow… Barton Fink is also my favorite Coen Brothers movie. I’ve thought about doing an Auteurs essay on the two. The problem is that I haven’t seen all of their stuff. I haven’t seen the entirety of The Ladykillers (only in parts and I wasn’t enjoying it) and The Hudsucker Proxy (which I have never seen in its entirety) along with a short film called World Cinema for an anthology film project.

    They’re just great guys and I anticipate in what they do next.

    • I would watch Hudsucker from start to finish. Great film that gets better with each viewing. Ladykillers is their 2nd subpar film and I suggest skipping it. Barton Fink is phenomenal. Not many rank it as #1, so I am glad to see I have some company.

  5. Japan Cinema says:

    Most of these lists make Fargo #1, I personally think it is good, but a bit overrated. No Country should be on the list though.

  6. John says:

    You beat me to the punch! I’ve been re-watching all of those old 80’s and early 90’s Coen films to do a very, very similar list. Your top 5 and my top 5 are very similar. Miller’s Crossing wouldn’t have been in there for me; I’d have to choose between O Brother and No Country for that 5th slot. I was gonna go 1. A Serious Man, 2. Lebowski, 3. Barton Fink, 4. Fargo, and then 5… I guess No Country. And I don’t think it’s hyperbole at all to say they’re the best working today. It’d be a coinflip between the Coens and Scorsese, in my opinion, but they’re a completely reasonable entry into the answer bag there.

    Anyway, welcome back.

    • Glad to see you give A Serious Man such weight. It is a wonderful work. I LOVE Miller’s Crossing and it was a firm #2 for me. O Brother is great fun and so well done. Love the soundtrack too. Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers ever and has made some of our very best films. His films have been hit-or-miss for me the past 15 years or so as I did not go nuts over Aviator, Shutter Island, his Stones flick, and even The Departed. I would love to make a Top 5 Scorsese list — tough to do, but the usuals would be there…I could listen to him talk about movies all day long.

  7. Richard says:

    Happy Birthday, Peter!

    Nice idea for a list. I agree that the Coens are probably the most consistently excellent filmmakers working today. They’ve even raised enough to credit to be forgiven for the awful remake of The Ladykillers. 😉

    I’m with you on all on these except Miller’s Crossing, which I always thought was a little overrated. Just couldn’t get round the dialogue. For me, it’s got to be The Big Lebowski at number one. There’s just no other movie like it. And where’s The Hudsucker Proxy? You know, for kids.

    Great work, dude.

    • Haha — LOVE Hudsucker! Great movie that is severely underrated. Ladykillers was not so great, I will agree. I’m totally the opposite on you with Miller’s Crossing as I always regarded that as having an ingenius screenplay. But that’s me. Did you see True Grit yet? I have to write up something on it. Lebowski is phenomenal – I can’t deny that. I would think it would be #1 on many lists….

      Thanks for the birthday wishes — greatly appreciated, man!

  8. Aiden R. says:

    Hey Now! Glad to have you back, man, and happy birthday to boot!

    Very interesting list, mainly because I saw Barton Fink in High School and had EFFING idea what to make of it by the end. Apparently I need to see that again, but something tells me I still won’t be able to make heads or tails out of it. Man, I really need to go on a Coen marathon one of these days for that matter, no idea what’s taking me.

    At least let me get some love for Raising Arizona?

    • Thanks Aiden. Very much appreciated. I had the same reaction when I first saw Barton Fink in the theatre. I was at NYU at the time and me and my 2 friends had no idea what to make of it. But it grows on you and you get more each time you see it. I would recommend you give it a chance now — you seem to know your movies and can certainly analyze them quite well. I did put a little shout-out for Raising Arizona as a brief mention, though hidden in parenthesis. It’s a hilarious film….very funny and I always enjoy it. True Grit was sensational and inspired me to write this list. I am hoping to write on a more regular basis – the move down here took all of my blogging power away — so hopefully I will keep up and follow the blogs that I always enjoy, such as yours!

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