Best Coen Brothers Movies

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Originality has become as precious as antimatter in the film industry. Joel and Ethan Coen, better known as the Coen brothers, consistently create brilliant movies and, quite frankly, don’t give a damn about how it’s “supposed to be done.”

Which of their offerings are the best? It’s nearly impossible to pick, but here are the best Coen brothers’ movies.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)


Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito

Available on: Hulu, YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

 

Though Miller’s Crossing would most likely be described as a gangster movie, the non-linear story structure and elements outside its gangster foundation make it much more than that. Actually, it’s more of an operatic tragedy.

There are many twisting narratives in this story of two rival gangs, revolving around an enigmatic protagonist.

Gabriel Byrne executes an outstanding performance as the mysterious Tom Reagan. Tom has to figure out exactly how to juggle morality, love, and loyalty while embroiled in a dangerous feud.

Its high style and thought-provoking imagery make Miller’s Crossing an outstanding gangster film, with that iconic Coen brothers touch.

 

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman

Available on: Philo, YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 77%

 

The explanation of this film is bananas. It’s a modern adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, but it’s set in Mississippi in the 1930s. The main characters are satirical southern buffoons on the run from the law.

Nonetheless, the absurdity of O Brother Where Art Thou? is precisely what makes it an outstanding film. This exceptional adaptation of an old epic is, quite cleverly, accomplished with few imagery choices.

A proud but sometimes overconfident leader sets the course for an adventure. A rambunctious cyclops opposes our heroes (played by John Goodman in an eye patch). The sirens—laundry ladies—seek to undo our heroes by turning them into law enforcement.

This film is a prime example of just how dexterous the Coen brothers can be.

 

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)


Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco

Available on: YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

 

“The Coen brothers’ left turn” was coined by famed film critic Leonard Maltin, and of all the Coen brothers’ movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There embodies that idea best.

This deliciously bleak noir flick has a very slick and old-timey style, which lends itself well to the story. Billy Bob Thornton plays a broken shell of a man suspicious of his wife, played by Frances McDormand.

Although modern noirs typically feature a great degree of violence, The Man Who Wasn’t There takes more of an interest in cause and effect. Consequences for actions and lust are the villain.

Spinning transitions and a black-and-white style also make this film a real “tip of the cap” to the 1940s.

 

A Serious Man (2009)


Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed

Available on: YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

 

It’s no secret that the Coen brothers have a uniquely dry sense of humor. They have an uncanny ability to find levity in the most soul-crushingly dull moments.  A Serious Man is the epitome of laughing through darkness.

The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), is a physics professor hoping to achieve tenure. Gopnik always does right by karma. So why does everything awful happen to him?

Conversely, why do we as an audience find it so hilarious?

A Serious Man is the most “Coen brother-y” of all the Coen brothers’ movies. Not only is it intensely autobiographical, but it also has little to no structure, yet is teeming with thematic relevance.

The ending isn’t what one would deem satisfying, but says so much about life. This film also begs the age-old question, “What the hell is going on?”

 

Barton Fink (1991)


Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis

Available on: YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

 

Barton Fink is a love letter…to the hatred of Hollywood’s disgusting behavior.

Self-importance and extreme lack of self-awareness make the characters of this dark comedy hilariously lost. John Turturo plays Barton Fink, an acclaimed playwright turned writer for “the pictures.”

Fink takes a hostel in Hollywood, while trying to write a wrestling film for a big-time Hollywood producer. While there, he adamantly preaches being a real writer and champion of the common man…all while paying zero attention to his common neighbor and his many red flags.

The film’s setting is, itself, an essential character. Barton’s shabby hotel room is a constant reminder of the looming danger.

Barton Fink is a hysterical commentary on just how insufferable artists can be.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)


Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman

Available on: Amazon Prime, YouTube (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

 

You’ll find melancholy, struggles, and self-sabotage in this outstanding period piece. What’s more, the soundtrack is outstanding.

Oscar Isaac perfectly plays Llewyn Davis, an asshole folk artist with all the talent in the world— and an uncanny ability to get in his own way.

In the sixties, New York City was a folk mecca. Unfortunately, not everyone can be Bob Dylan. Inside Llewyn Davis is a refreshing take on trying to make it as a struggling artist. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and sometimes things don’t work out how you want.

But, between all of the shit that gets thrown in your face, there are also moments of kinship and peace. You just can’t be too much of an asshole, or you’ll miss them.

 

Raising Arizona (1987)


Cast: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Trey Wilson

Available on: Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

 

When you think of comedies, rarely do you think of the term “explosive style.”

Raising Arizona is as much an action flick as it is hilarious satire. This movie’s brilliance lies in its cartoon-like characters and circumstances, despite an intense situation.

Nicolas Cage plays H.I. McDunnough, an idiotic and scruffy criminal trying to become an honest, law-abiding citizen. Of course, he fails miserably.

Holly Hunter plays former police officer Ed, H.I. McDunnough’s wife. The two commit an awful crime when they kidnap a baby. Though this would usually make audiences loathe the characters, the Coen brothers masterfully weave one of the most charming couple dynamics ever.

 

The Big Lebowski (1998)


Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi

Available on: Peacock, YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

 

It is insane that this movie didn’t have tremendous box office success. The Big Lebowski is one of, if not the most, beloved cult classics of all time.

Its precise wit, absurdity, and elegant dialogue makes this movie one of the most quotable flicks ever. “The dude or his duder or el duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing” is a shockingly content bum played by Jeff Bridges, who gets thrust into a wild hostage situation when he’s mistaken for a slimy millionaire.

On its crust, it’s a stoner detective movie where the protagonist just wants a new rug (it really tied the room together). Once you dig into the core of The Big Lebowski, however, you’ll find it’s actually a social commentary on the muddy nature of the gulf war.

 

Fargo (1996)


Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi

Available on: Sling TV, YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

 

Coen brothers’ movies often share some typical traits. For example: there’s usually an absurd situation, made worse by a few morons that think they’re right, but actually have no idea what they’re doing. Fargo definitely ticks that box.

The shining difference in Fargo is Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand). She’s one of the only true heroes the Coens have ever produced. In fact, McDormand’s brilliant portrayal of Marge rounded out the film perfectly, and landed her an Oscar.

But of course, there are still those idiots looming.

William H. Macy plays Jerry Lundergaard, a cowardly worm who hires two goons to kidnap his wife, all so he can coerce money from his hard-ass father-in-law.

Fargo is a meticulously layered story. Each scene, player, and set play off each other to set up a seethingly dark yet hilariously funny tragedy. Turns out gut-wrenching violence and silly Minnesota accents form a powerful combination.

 

No Country For Old Men (2007)


Cast: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson

Available on: Hulu, HBO Max, Sling TV, YouTube (for rent), Amazon Prime (for rent), Google Play (for rent), iTunes (for rent)

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

 

No Country for Old Men is one of the greatest films ever made. The story’s adaptation, the cinematography, the unique film techniques, and the incredible performances make this movie a decisively bucket-list item.

The story is a searingly intense cat, mouse, and dog game between a psychopathic killer (Javier Bardem), a savvy Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin), and a veteran police officer (Tommy Lee Jones). The film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel, and its script is painstakingly faithful to the source.

The movie features some of the most intense and scary scenes you’ll see in a non-horror film. This is especially impressive when you consider the movie has no soundtrack. Instead, its skillful use of in-scene sounds make every sequence intensely stressful.

 

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Whether it be an intense murderous cat-and-mouse game, or just a struggling folk artist trying to find his way, the Coen brothers’ movies have set them apart from the rest of their industry. With their iconic dry sense of humor, folk noir style, and masterful meandering, their irreverent style is unmatched.

For more recommendations, check out the best Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, or David Fincher movies.