The Coen brothers are now part of Hollywood’s film legend: They managed to carve out a 30-year-long career in the brutal world of American cinema. However, unlike many of their predecessors, they did this while retaining artistic control over everything. Astonishingly, the Minnesota brothers never lost the lowbrow, geeky demeanor of scruffy film students throughout their career.
The auteur brothers never blinked as the major Hollywood studios pumped out their box office-ready remakes, superhero reboots, and tired rehashes of former glories. Instead, they spent their days writing films based on Homer or adapting verbatim scripts from books by Cormac McCarthy. They even took a break from the Miller’s Crossing script due to writer’s block, only to produce an award-winning film about writer’s block: Barton Fink.
In short, the Coens never wavered from high-quality filmmaking, relying on an ensemble of talented actors such as Francis McDormand, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman. Other muses included George Clooney, Billy-Bob Thornton, and Jeff Bridges. Later in their journey, they brought in fresh heavyweight talent like Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, and Tilda Swinton to join them.
However, things have been changing recently in the Coens’ world. The brothers are now on solo trajectories as directors, writers, and producers. However, even the most ardent fan will forgive them for breaking out of step. For such a long shared career, it was inevitable that they wanted to pursue their own projects one day. Ethan wrote, produced, and directed The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021; Joel released a documentary titled Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind earlier this year.
Spanning a feature filmography of 18 movies, the Coens have credits in many other projects. The successful Netflix TV series Fargo, Angelina Jolie’s powerful drama Unbroken, and even Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies all have the Coens to thank for their writing or producing expertise. Their career has been nothing short of spectacular.
Here are all the films they produced, wrote, and directed as a partnership. This list spans their first release in 1984 to their last release in 2018.
18. The Ladykillers (2004)
This was Joel and Ethan Coen's first remake of another movie. Unfortunately, their version of The Ladykillers, a 1955 Ealing Comedy starring some of England's finest actors, is one that left many fans underwhelmed.
Radiates With Polished Cinematography
Their choice of Tom Hanks for Professor Marcus is the movie's saving grace: his sinister southern charm carries the film and possibly saves it. The original had the exquisite acting of Peters Cushing and Sellers; the Coens' version relied on the quirkiness of its characters and some weak set-pieces. They didn't mess with the plot, but this doesn't cover up some of the forced humor on display. Sadly, The Ladykillers is watchable, but unlike most of their work before it, only one time is enough. It still radiates with polished cinematography, set design, and exquisite acting. Still, it falls at the biggest hurdle for a comedy: being funny.
17. A Serious Man (2009)
The fabric of the brothers’ traditional Jewish childhood is woven deep into this darkly comic fable. The comedy set-pieces of A Serious Man are so dark and understated that it could only be a Coen Brothers film.
A Darkly Comic Fable
Drawing upon their upbringing in small-town ‘60s Minnesota, this story is an interpretation of the Biblical story of Job. Job infamously negotiates the death of his children, his livestock, and the affliction of skin sores. Meanwhile, A Serious Man sees protagonist Larry Gopnik, a science teacher at the local community college, tortured by a similar combination. Gopnik suffers alienation from his kids, enforced separation from his wife, and an ambiguously negative trip to his physician. He even makes a cultural faux pas by refusing a bribe from a Korean student's father, triggering an avalanche of bad luck that culminates in a typically cold Coens ending. Add to this an antisemitic neighbor hell-bent on claiming an evident boundary overshoot with his lawnmower; you have a good sense of the film's depressing yet brazen schadenfreude.
16. Hail Caesar! (2016)
Set during the McCarthy witchhunt of the '50s, this lesser-known Coen film received solid reviews. A jaded Josh Brolin plays real-life Hollywood studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Maddix. He has the unenviable task of protecting the public image of the studio's various acting talent.
A Love Letter to The Golden Age of Post-war Cinema
It features madcap roles for irritated director Ralph Fiennes, a cherubic-faced singer/sailor Channing Tatum, and a pregnant aquatic musical sensation Scarlett Johansson. This film is a love letter to the golden age of post-war cinema. No character summarizes the time more than George Clooney’s insatiable Charlton Heston-inspired actor, star of the sword-and-sandals epic Hail Caesar! His abduction from the set by a group of disaffected communist writers known as The Future is territory only the Coens could navigate.
15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
This movie stars George Clooney (again) in one of his various roles in the Coen library as a hotshot lawyer. Intolerable Cruelty put the Coen brothers in unfamiliar territory: a rom-com. After their excellent run of The Big Lebowski, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, their tilt towards mainstream cinema was a surprise. Nobody can blame them.
The Cut-throat World of Divorce Law
With Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clooney both at the peak of their star power, anyone would have invited such bankable stars onboard. Intolerable Cruelty’s setting is the cut-throat world of divorce law and T.V. game shows. Although it has the Coens' trademark eccentric characters and razor-sharp dialogue, it never quite hits the highs of other films. Nevertheless, it stands tall among its peers of the same genre, and why not? It is the Coen brothers, after all.
14. Raising Arizona (1987)
This film allowed Nicholas Cage to run wild in one of those moments of casting perfection. His character in the Coens’ follow-up to the successful Blood Simple is a two-bit, low-life convenience-store robber intent on going straight.
Chases and Offbeat Jokes
To achieve this goal, he marries an ex-policewoman (Holly Hunter) and steals a baby from a local furniture magnate. He spends most of the film protecting his new family from all the degenerates in his life. It is early Coens, so expect heavily affected speech, disaffected criminal tropes, and plenty of comedic set-pieces involving chases and off-beat jokes. Raising Arizona may not be their best work, but it is worth two hours of your time.
13. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy is another of the Coen brothers' stepping-stone movies set in the pioneering dynamism of late '50s New York City. This tale of stock-price fixing stars a bright-eyed Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes.
Late '50s New York City
This hopeful mailroom clerk tries his luck with an impromptu product pitch to the boss, played by Paul Newman. C.E.O. Sydney J. Mussburger hatches a plan to use Barnes as a lackey, hiring him as president to drive down stock prices before being sold to the public. However, Jennifer Jason Leigh joins the plot as the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Amy Archer, who takes a suspicious interest in the new president.
The film uses camera techniques from the golden age of cinema: extended tracking and panning shots, overblown close-ups, and the distinctive brand of stock role quirkiness to make this a Coen number. It received poor reviews and failed at the box office, but like most of their films, The Hudsucker Proxy retains a vital cult status.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)
This film, like Hail Caesar!, is a love letter to the arts, though this time, we find ourselves in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ‘60s. Soundtracks are a dominant part of many Coen brothers’ movies, and none grab the zeitgeist better than Inside Llewyn Davis.
Greenwich Village Folk Scene
Played by the excellent Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is an aspiring acoustic folk singer/songwriter couch surfing his way through an ironically fruitless musical career. There are nods to Dylan, folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and famous music producer Roland Hunter. The latter leads Davis on a wild goose chase in search of another producer in one of the film’s more hilarious set-pieces.
Inside Llewyn Davis perhaps isn’t textbook Coen brothers material. However, the story moves well with a winning performance by Isaac and co. His tender voice and masterful guitar skills add weight to the protagonist’s unfortunate plight. The movie begins and ends with Davis beaten up outside a bar, and this happens in a figurative sense throughout the film. Yet, it still invests much of the script in deadpan humor, which saves it from being depressing.
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading is almost a screwball comedy. It is another film with Coenisms running throughout. This time, their archetypal schmuck is an alcoholic CIA expert played by John Malkovich.
An Alcoholic CIA Expert
After losing his job, he decides to write a memoir but, in doing so, loses some classified material at the local gym. Things take a nasty turn when two gym-worker knuckleheads, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, resort to blackmailing him for money. With another small role for sex-addict U.S. Marshal George Clooney, the film goes from subplot to subplot as the plan unfolds for the two slackers. There isn't any attempt at a cathartic resolution, which is part of the movie's charm. The brothers once noted that the film was more about writing a funny script with good actors than any political statements.
10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The first anthology movie the Coen brothers made and their first as a Netflix Original, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the flagship of six western shorts. Each one occurs in the post-Civil War, manifest-destiny American wild west. Coen brothers and western movies’ synergy is a match made in Heaven.
Six Western Shorts
As demonstrated in True Grit, they refresh tired western tropes and add zany humanity to their characters. Furthermore, their brand of black comedy makes an ample bedfellow for such a brutally violent period of American history, though with a touch of philosophical optimism. Not all the films hit the mark, but Near Algodones, All Gold Canyon, and the title film justify watching this unique collection.
9. Blood Simple (1984)
When raising funding for Blood Simple, both brothers had never picked up a film camera or even been on a set before. They showed a rough trailer (featuring Bruce Campbell of all people) to groups of local investors and, before long, raised enough money for the feature.
An Unhappily Married Woman
The film stars Frances McDormand in her first role as an unhappily married woman who commits adultery with a local bartender, only to fall into a strange plot of intrigue and murder. As debuts go, it is low-budget and spartan in look. Still, the story and believable characters make up for the lo-fi resolution with high-end suspense. Blood Simple is the perfect entrance for a journey into the Coen brothers rabbit hole.
8. Barton Fink (1991)
In this hard-to-classify psychological drama, John Turturro plays a fictional ‘40s New York playwright. Based on the real left-wing ‘30s writer Clifford Odets, the movie follows the playwright of the title name as he attempts to transpose his theater writing to the big screen.
‘40s New York Playwright
With skin-crawling cameos for John Goodman and Steve Buscemi in this ode to writer’s block (see Miller’s Crossing), this film catches the director/writer pair at peak Coen. The absurdities of Hollywood's machine expose Fink's own sense of self-grandeur. This is apparent when he feels he has written his best work ever for a wrestling movie, only for the studio head to hate it. The film's famous ending ties in a motif that haunts Fink throughout the story and again captures the brutality of the Hollywood system. Barton Fink is a brilliant neo-noir thriller-cum-horror movie that everybody must see.
7. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
This underrated tribute to '50s film noir captures Billy-Bob Thornton in possibly his most poignant role ever. He plays an introverted barber living in a small town of no great description. The plot is simple in this reflective movie, which glides seamlessly at the hand of Roger Deakins' sumptuous camera work.
An Underrated Tribute to '50s Film Noir
Some of the shots in this black-and-white slow-burner are reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. The use of hamartia is a standard Coen tool, and Thornton's protagonist does not disappoint. However, he plays a different kind of schmuck here: a sensitive, unassuming dullard who steps out of character to blackmail his wife's lover. James Gandolfini fills this role with gusto in his only Coens appearance. If anything, this film requires a rewatch for Thorton and McDormand's subtle silences and non-verbal cues. One scene, in particular, steals the show with simmering low-decibel tension. This film belongs up there with their best work.
6. True Grit (2010)
This is the Coens' first full western movie and their second film remake. The dude-at-arms Jeff Bridges stars as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, his washed-up gun-for-hire a perfect foil for outspoken belle Mattie Ross.
To Avenge a Father’s Murder
Hailee Steinfeld makes a strong debut here. Her quest to avenge her father’s murder crosses paths with Matt Damon’s Texas ranger, who is also trailing the murderer. The brothers’ treatment of a classic revenge plot, with the New Mexican scenery as an epic backdrop, makes for an epic adventure. Some hilarious stops happen along the way, featuring Coen-ready characters and comedic moments of sheer genius: the gallows scene is side-splitting. True Grit is a true masterpiece of modern cinematography and storytelling.
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The film that was started before and finished after Barton Fink sees Gabriel Byrne as a mob boss advisor caught up in a mafia war. His character plays a dangerous game of 4-D chess with two powerful mob leaders in an unnamed city during prohibition-era America.
Caught Up in a Mafia War
Albert Finney is irrepressible as one boss and gives the film its necessary menace to Byrne’s silken-smooth mafia diplomat. There will be many Coen lifers who feel this movie deserves the top spot on this list; and rightly so. Influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Third Key, the film flows with the sheen of a modern noir and moves forward with an economy of dialogue that makes it a joy for crime movie buffs anywhere. With nods to gangster films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Byrne, Finney, and a crazed Marcia Gay Harden contribute to a modern noir spectacle of cinema brilliance. There is no surprise Miller’s Crossing frequently visits film critics’ 100 best movie lists.
4. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Following cult classic The Big Lebowski’s slow rise to acclaim, the brothers trod the ground of Greek mythology for their next venture. Their interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey sees three hapless chain gang escapees tiptoe through Great Depression-era Mississippi, becoming recording artists on their journey.
Chain Gang Escapees
Again, George Clooney is at the helm as a modern Ulysses, aided by the evergreen John Turturro and reliable Tim Blake-Nelson. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? sees the three jailbreakers encounter the sirens, a cyclops, and countless other oddities in their quest to save Ulysses' wife Penny from a forced marriage. The soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is the stuff of country and bluegrass legend. It features a stand-out track by blues artist Chris Thomas King, who recreates a lost Robert Johnson character in the film. It is almost the perfect movie, with eye-patch-wearing traveling Bible salesmen, river baptisms, larger-than-life demagogue politicians, and train-surfing hobos all adding to a rich tapestry of feel-good absurdism.
3. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Following a paltry response to their last outing, The Ladykillers, the brothers Coen came out swinging in 2007. No Country for Old Men is a page-for-page adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book about crime in southern borderland Texas.
Crime in Southern Borderland Texas
It stars a gruff Josh Brolin as ex-military loner Llewelyn Moss, who stumbles upon a desert drug deal gone awry. His fatal sense of ethos sees him embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a brutally efficient organized crime syndicate. Possibly the creepiest evil villain (and hairstyle) in the Coen brothers' resume is Anton Chigurh, played by Oscar winner’s-elect Javier Bardem.
The South Texan landscape and minimalist soundtrack sometimes make this film's tension almost unbearable. Chigurh is like the Grim Reaper personified, offering a coin toss to his prey when he meets them. Tommy-Lee Jones plays a grizzled sheriff having a crisis of confidence in the face of a violent escalation in crime at depths he hasn't experienced before. No Country For Old Men is the Coen brothers at their definitive best.
2. Fargo (1996)
A close contender for pole position, this movie is cinematic perfection. Fargo won numerous awards, including two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress. Frances McDormand's pregnant police chief is nothing but loveable.
The Loser Next Door
It works perfectly against the cold backdrop of brutality in the story. The snowy plains of Minnesota also enhance the tone of this juxtaposition. Everything about the film works in harmony: the cheerful innocence of the midwestern accent is an excellent foil for the callous depravity and coldness of this thriller. But, of course, no Coens vehicle can run without its schmoe.
This time, the Oscar-nominated William H. Macy gets his turn as the loser next door. He bumbles through the wintry landscape with sinister nastiness barely concealed by his small-town charm. This film was later loosely adapted into TV, with FX set to release its fifth season sometime in the coming year. Naturally, the Coen brothers are producers. Darn tootin' right they are!
1. The Big Lebowski (1998)
There will be some Coen diehards who sit with mouths agape at the Dude's elevation to the pile, ‘but that's just their opinion, man.' Those who haven't yet seen this masterpiece of dark slacker comedy should ignore the purists and prepare to be dazzled.
A Californian Burnout
The film about a Californian burnout-turned-sleuth is perhaps the Coens' most iconic chapter of their formidable canon. The perennial Jeff Bridges plays bowling-mad lummox Jeffrey Lebowski, or The Dude, in the acting part of his career. Lebowski begins the movie as a victim of mistaken identity and rug vandalism: This rug really tied the room together. He and his hopeless Vietnam veteran buddy Walter's mission to locate lost ransom money is priceless.
Jeff Bridges is in his element with support from John Goodman in the role he was always meant to play. It isn't just the riotous dialogue and memorable characters (never f**k with Jesus) that steal the show in this West Coast odyssey. Lebowski's tour across SoCal's landscape of high rollers, porn barons, and German techno nihilists is awash with incredible visual narrative techniques and a soundtrack to turn up loud. The Big Lebowski is a testament to filmmaking as much as it is a hilarious comedy.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Film reviews, analysis and breakdown, sport, education, travel, food, current affairs, books - in my spare time I like to be outdoors in nature, in the waves, or on a golf course.