Crème de la Coèn: A Countdown of the Best Coen Brothers Movies

Will Schiffelbein

by: Will Schiffelbein
December 24th, 2010

Well, it's Christmas time at the movies and nothing says "celebration" better than a darkly comic Western from Joel and Ethan Coen. That's right movie geeks, like you, I'll be celebrating the Christmas holidays by seeing TRUE GRIT at the theater this weekend. I've been a huge fan of the Coen brothers for years; I can't tell you how many times I've seen their movies. Nothing cheers me up quicker than the Huggies sequence in RAISING ARIZONA or Brad Pitt making Schwinn jokes in BURN AFTER READING.

In celebration of the latest Coen brothers film, TRUE GRIT, I've compiled a list of my favorite movies from my favorite filmmaking team. Hit the jump for my inevitably divisive and contentious list.

14. THE LADYKILLERS

Well, this was an easy choice. This is far and away the least fantastic of the Coens' filmography. Tom Hanks stars as a criminal who poses as a musician in order to find lodging for himself and his band of lowlifes. J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans also co-star. A lot of the humor falls flat for me, as the screwball comedy just doesn't work. This isn't to say it's a bad film. It just doesn't quite measure up to their other works. It was made in the most obvious of lulls in thb Brothers' work, as it was made back to back with the next film on my list.

13. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY

Again, just because this film rounds out the bottom section of my list doesn't make INTOLERABLE CRUELTY a poorly made film. This is easily the most mainstream of the films of the list, as it takes the form of a basic romantic comedy. Well, as basic of a film the Coen brothers could make. It's still filled with great screwball humor and the infamous "Massey Prenup." George Clooney plays the lead as a famous divorce lawyer who falls for a scorching hot golddigger - Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's much better than a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but like THE LADYKILLERS, it just doesn't measure up to their greater works.

12. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY

Tim Robbins starred in this quite funny homage to screwball comedies of years past. It's got a lot to love - well-executed humor, a likable protagonist who you can't help but root for, and a really well-written script (which Sam Raimi co-wrote). It's fatal flaw lies in Jennifer Jason Leigh, who delivers one of the most annoying performances I've ever seen. It worked for plenty of people, but I found myself cringing every time she popped up on screen. Then again, you can't argue with Paul Newman, who plays a company executive who hires Norville Barnes, played by Tim Robbins, in an elaborate stock scam.

11. BLOOD SIMPLE

Easily one of the most intriguing directorial debuts I've ever had the pleasure of watching, BLOOD SIMPLE is an incredibly captivating neo-noir film. The story is simple - guy suspects his wife is cheating on his wife, and he subsequently hires a private eye to investigate the matter. Hilarity ensues...kind of. While BLOOD SIMPLE lacks most of the trademark Coen dark humor, it's still a great film that features one of their regular actresses, Frances McDormand, who plays the aforementioned wife. The end of the film, which consists of one of the best scenes in the Coen library, serves as one of many great finales on this list.

10. THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE

This film, which is notable for its unique black and white cinematography, is one of the most beautiful films in the Coen brothers' repertoire to date. Roger Deakins, a regular on their sets, delivered some of his best work in this neo-noir film starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who blackmails his wife's boss. Naturally, there's some fantastic dark comedy involved with stellar performances given by all involved. This film is one of the more divisive in the Coen filmography, but I see it as a true testament to their creativity and willingness to deliver bold new ideas.

9. MILLER'S CROSSING

Many diehard Coen fans would insist that I've placed this film too high on my list, but I'm a sucker for a good gangster flick. This film features Gabriel Byrne playing a wily gangster who wittingly plays both sides in a heated war between two mob bosses. Byrne is stellar, as is John Tutorro as the Jewish bookie Bernie Bernbaum. There's plenty of scheming, infidelity, and a great shoot out with tommy guns. What's not to love?

8. RAISING ARIZONA

Sure. Just hang me now. All those Coen fanatics who'd have hung me out to dry over putting MILLER'S CROSSING so high will be doubly pissed to see RAISING ARIZONA so low. This film, often cited as the Coens' breakout hit, is easily one of their funniest. It's got a goofed up Nicolas Cage as Hi McDunnough, who steals a baby for his wife. Of course there's the famous Huggies scene, which is among the funniest in movie history, but there's plenty more to sink your teeth into. For example, John Goodman as an escaped convict and an adorable Holly Hunter as Nicolas Cage's wife.

7. BURN AFTER READING

I've had many a Twitter debate/Facebook comment war/podcast argument/Western shootout about the merits of this 2008 film from the brothers Coen. The deadpan delivery of some darkly comic and often intolerably stupid remarks proved to be off-putting for many. But for me, it was just what I needed from the Coens after 2007's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I couldn't resist John Malkovitch's CIA operative character and Brad Pitt's stunning idiocy. To cap it off, J.K. Simmons plays a CIA director who delivers some of the funniest lines in the film.

6. A SERIOUS MAN

Despite this film falling in at #6, I'd argue I liked A SERIOUS MAN more than most. As sad as it might be, I find it incredibly easy to connect with the protagonist, Larry Gopnik. Larry is failing at everything. He's losing control of his kids (with one of them smoking pot at school), his wife is leaving him for Sy Ableman, he's struggling to make tenure at work. What appears to be a simple tale of a man losing grip on life also works as a broader metaphor for man's relationship with God. Furthermore, it's got one of my favorite endings in recent memory.

5. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Yup, the one that finally didn't get away. After more than fifteen years in the business, the Coen brothers finally walked away with an Academy Award for Best Picture. This noir/Western adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel never lets up. No matter how many times I watch NO COUNTRY, I end up sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire run time. There isn't a working director, or directors for this matter, that could have achieved this level of tension. Not only that, but the duo created one of the most villainous antagonists of all time, Anton Chigurh, whose "Call it" scene still resonates with me years later.

4.  BARTON FINK

BARTON FINK isn't any easy film to swallow. It sports some complex themes, deep allegories, and John Goodman. John Turturro shines here, like he always does. But, in this case, he plays the lead role of Barton Fink. He's just found success on Broadway with the latest play he wrote and has been offered a scriptwriting job out in Hollywood. BARTON FINK tackles the always elusive subject of the creative process. What does it mean to create? What are the implications of creation? In addition to these questions, symbolism has never been more omnipresent in a Coen brothers' film, with John Goodman's character and the dilapidated hotel. Did I mention John Goodman?

3. THE BIG LEBOWSKI

Few movies ever achieve the cultural status that this Coen brothers masterpiece has. It's inspired imitations. It's spawned a festival. It constantly screens as a cult classic in theaters and in movie geeks homes everywhere. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, the ultimate summation of the slacker lifestyle. I'm not sure if you've caught on, but there also seems to be a correlation between the ranking of the film and the degree to which John Goodman is in it. This film proves that rule. John Goodman plays the epitome of post-modern 90's Americana, Walter Sobchak. It's one of my favorite films of all time and a staple of the pop culture zeitgeist. If you aren't a fan of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, then obviously you're not a golfer.

2. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

There have been many points in my life where O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU ranked as my favorite film of all time. To this day, I can't find a single flaw with the film. It's an amazingly well put together saga that follows three escaped convicts played by George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. It's hard to talk about this film without mentioning the importance that music plays in its character development and plot. The movie sparked a resurgence in bluegrass and American roots music, which is something only the Coen brothers could do. Clooney is at his goofiest, John Goodman wears an eye patch,  and there's just enough Dapper Dan pomade to go around.

1. FARGO

And here lies the masterpiece from masters of their craft. The best film from my favorite filmmakers. It's a simple story, at first glance that is. You've got a pregnant police officer who begins investigating a few murders. However, she begins to unravel an unreal chain of events that culminate in a finale worthy of a wood-chipper. Perhaps it's the cynicism of the Coens that always grabs me by the neck, but it's characters like Marge who exhibit kindness and empathy that ground their films. Frances McDormand delivers the performance of a lifetime as one of the greatest protagonists to ever grace the silver screen. She's the only competent character in a story filled to the brim with bumbling villainous fools, which makes this film something to behold. There's plenty of well-constructed suspense and characteristic dark comedy. It's a perfect film if you ask me, and I couldn't be happier to put it at the top of the list.

Now, I haven't seen TRUE GRIT yet. I'm saving it for a family outing on Christmas Day. However, I'm extremely excited to see where it falls into place relative to all my other favorite Coen films. Be sure to leave your comments and thoughts, as I'd love to hear how you agree or disagree with any part of this list. Other than that, have a joyous and safe holiday!

Check out our review of TRUE GRIT here.

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