Joel and Ethan Coen Movies
A two-headed monster in the land of Hollywood, Joel and Ethan Coen are often referred to professionally as the Coen brothers. It’s an appropriate designation, too, as many of those they’ve worked with describe the duo as having the uncanny ability to know what the other is thinking. And whether they’re writing, directing, or producing together, one thing is clear: Coen brothers’ movies are decidedly different from what you’ll find in mainstream motion pictures.
While several of their films have achieved major box-office success, the remainder have generally been lauded for their unique vision, dark humor, and thoroughly oddball characters. It’s little wonder, then, that Joel and Ethan Coen have won numerous honors at the Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards, and the Cannes Film Festival. Even as I write this article, they’re mere days away from finding out how many of the ten nominations their latest film, True Grit, will convert into Oscar gold.
The following list contains what I feel to be their finest works to date. I’ve limited my list to 10, although I could have easily added more. The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are just that good. If you disagree with my humble opinions, feel free to make your voice heard in the comments section.
- Blood Simple (1984) – Combining elements of film noir and horror, the Coen brothers burst onto the scene with their directorial debut about a seedy bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires an even seedier private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). But things fly off the rails, resulting in betrayal, paranoia, and several cases of unplanned rigor mortis. Carter Burwell’s excellent score would ensure future collaborations on all Coen brothers movies, and M. Emmet Walsh gives the best performance of his lengthy career. And let’s not forget about the camerawork, put together by then-unknown cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who would later become a successful director in his own right).
- Raising Arizona (1987) – My personal favorite of all the Joel and Ethan Coen movies, Raising Arizona is a quirky comedy about a career criminal nicknamed “Hi“ (Nicolas Cage) who marries a cop (Holly Hunter) and tries to go straight. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when the couple learns they can’t conceive and decide to take one of the quintuplets of a local millionaire. Things get even more complicated when Hi’s buddies from prison (John Goodman and William Forsythe) escape and invite him along on a few illegal endeavors. Meanwhile, an almost supernatural bounty hunter by the name of Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) gets on the case of the missing baby. Nicolas Cage has never been funnier, and the film provides plenty of physical comedy to balance out the dark humor about kidnapping, robbery, and other criminal pursuits.
- Miller’s Crossing (1990) – Considered by many critics to be the most overlooked film of the 1990s, this Coen brothers movie is set during Prohibition and features Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, a clever gangster who gets caught up in the intrigues between two rival crime bosses (Albert Finney and Jon Polito), a gun moll (Marcia Gay Harden), and a slimy bookie (John Turturro). Filled with references to numerous gangster films of the past, Miller’s Crossing is a must-see for fans of crime movies. My favorite scene comes when Albert Finney shows off his proficiency with a Tommy-gun.
- Barton Fink (1991) – Classified as everything from a horror movie to film noir, Barton Fink has managed to elude being placed in a specific category for 20 years. John Turturro stars as the title character, a New York playwright who takes a well-paying job turning out scripts for the movie industry. But his time in L.A. comes with a price, as writer’s block sets in and his neighbor (John Goodman) is much more than he appears to be. A surreal masterpiece about art and the struggle between the financial and creative elements in Hollywood.
- Fargo (1996) – Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Coen brothers, Fargo stars Frances McDormand as a pregnant police chief trying to unravel a kidnapping plot filled with numerous twists and turns. One of the great screen roles ever written for a woman, McDormand won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a decent woman surrounded by the scum of the earth. William H. Macy is appropriately slimy as the car salesman who dreams up his wife’s kidnapping in order to collect the ransom money from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell), and Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are the mismatched crooks hired to carry out the plan. As with most Coen brothers movies, the plan goes horribly wrong, resulting in a respectable body count and plenty of opportunities to work black comedy into the proceedings.
- The Big Lebowski (1998) – While it tanked at the box office, this bizarre comedy would later become a cult movie and earn Jeff Bridges the nickname of “The Dude.” After seeing Bridges in interviews in recent years, something tells me this role may be closer to his own personality than many others. He stars as Jeff Lebowski (aka “The Dude”), an unemployed hippie who loves to bowl, smoke weed, and drink White Russians. Due to a case of mistaken identity, he gets caught up in a kidnapping plot involving the trophy wife of a millionaire, and The Dude is tasked with delivering the ransom money. As with all Coen movies, things go awry with comedic–and sometimes lethal–results. John Goodman co-stars as The Dude’s volatile pal Walter Sobchak, a character partly based on director John Milius. Structured in a manner similar to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the film also invokes noir sensibilities as our slacker hero rubs elbows with everyone from porn kingpins to German nihilists. Co-starring Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ben Gazzara, Peter Stormare, and John Turturro (hilarious as a bowling nemesis who refers to himself as “The Jesus”).
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – Set during the Great Depression, this Coen comedy is an updated telling of Homer’s Odyssey. The protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), is a charmer who escapes from prison in order to dig up a fortune in stolen money, and he’s accompanied by two fellow cons (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson). As they journey across the Mississippi landscape, they’re pursued by a hellish sheriff, tempted by a trio of sirens, and mugged by a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman). The ending is happier than most Joel and Ethan Coen movies, but the results are just as entertaining. Co-starring Holly Hunter and Charles Durning, the film also managed to spark a resurgence in bluegrass music thanks to songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – Billy Bob Thornton stars as Ed Crane, an emotionless barber in 1949 California who schemes to raise enough money to invest in a new process called “dry cleaning.” To obtain the funds, he blackmails a local blowhard (James Gandolfini) who may be having an affair with Ed’s wife (Frances McDormand). Predictably, things don’t work out, and soon the bodies begin to pile up in true Coen brothers fashion. Shot in black-and-white, this neo-noir masterpiece co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shalhoub, and Richard Jenkins.
- No Country for Old Men (2007) – The Coen brothers hit Oscar paydirt with this tale of a Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin) who finds a suitcase filled with drug money and becomes the prey of a hitman (Javier Bardem) obsessed with fate. A modern-day western filled with plenty of grit and bloodshed, No Country for Old Men also stars Tommy Lee Jones as a West Texas sheriff who’s starting to feel that time has passed him by. The film captured Best Picture at the Academy Awards, as well as Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Bardem). Fans of Sam Peckinpah should sit up and take notice.
- True Grit (2010) – The first big-screen adaptation of the novel from Charles Portis allowed John Wayne to win his only Oscar, so the Coen brothers had some big shoes to fill. But their version shows the deft touch of veteran filmmakers, from the beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography to the archetypal performance of Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. In case you’ve never seen the original, Cogburn is a one-eyed, ornery drunk who also happens to be a U.S. Marshal. When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) receives word that her father has been gunned down, she hires Cogburn to head into Indian territory and bring the culprit back for a prompt trial and hanging. Matt Damon co-stars as a Texas Ranger on the trail of the same man, and Josh Brolin plays the dim-witted thug who everyone wants a piece of. If you have the slightest interest in the American western, be sure to add this one to your list.
With their filmmaking career at an all-time high in regards to popularity and financial success, expect to see even more Joel and Ethan Coen movies in the future. That’s great news for fans of odd films, as nobody does eccentric like the guys from St. Louis Park, Minnesota.