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The best Coen Brothers movies, ranked

The best Coen Brothers movies
The Coen Brothers movies. Pic credit: ©ImageCollect/Featureflash

The Coen Brothers got their start making movies in the ’80s and they were a massive part of the rise of independent films.

Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in Minnesota, which played into the locations of many of their future films.

They got their start alongside some other up-and-coming filmmakers at the time, even rooming with Frances McDormand and Sam Raimi at one time. Joel ended up marrying McDormand in 1984 and they have worked on several movies together, including Fargo, which picked up McDormand an Oscar nomination.

As for Raimi, who went on to direct blockbusters like Spider-Man and Alice in Wonderland, he and the Coen Brothers helped each other start their careers, working hand-in-hand on many of their early films.

Through their careers, the Coen Brothers have specialized in an absurdist form of humor, creating several dark comedies based in the world of crime fiction. They have ventured outside this genre on occasion, with Oscar-contender True Grit a perfect example, but they remain best known for their off-kilter black comedies.

With so many fantastic films under their belt, resulting in 13 Oscar nominations, here is a look at the 10 best Coen Brothers films of all-time.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. Pic credit: CBS Films

In 2013, the Coen Brothers released a musical drama that starred Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker) as a folk singer.

Isaac was Llewyn Davis, a singer who was trying to reach success in the music industry while also trying to keep his life from falling apart.

A work of fiction, the Coen Brothers based this story loosely on the real-life musical Dave Van Ronk. The movie picked up a lot of praise for its soundtrack, which included songs produced by T Bone Burnett.

Also starring in the movie are Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and fellow Star Wars veteran Adam Driver.

Inside Llewyn Davis won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and received a limited release in the United States.

It ended up picking up two Oscar nominations (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing).

9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou
George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Pic credit: Buena Vista

Inside Llewyn Davis wasn’t the first Coen Brothers movie based on music.

In 2000, the brother released the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This movie starred George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Black Nelson as three convicts who escape a chain gang following the Great Depression and set out to find the treasure, supposedly hidden by Clooney’s Ulysses McGill.

The film is based on Homer’s poem The Odyssey, in which the Coen Brothers added much mythology from the American South.

The music is almost all bluegrass and folk music, and the film won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year (only the second movie soundtrack to ever achieve this).

The movie uses a fictional band known as the Soggy Bottom Boys when it comes to the music used in the film.

It also picked up two Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

8. Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona
Nic Cage and Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona. Pic credit: Fox

In 1987, the Coen Brothers released one of Nic Cage’s most beloved movies.

Raising Arizona starred Cage as H.I. McDunnough, an ex-con, while Holly Hunter is his wife Ed, a former police officer. The two meet while he is getting his mugshot and they marry soon thereafter.

The couple wants to have children but Ed can’t. They also can’t adopt because of his criminal record, so they choose another method. A wealthy man in town had quintuple sons, so they figure he didn’t need them all and kidnap one to raise as their own.

Ethan Coen claims that this was the last movie they made that made a lot of money, as it received great critical acclaim and was a mainstream success as well.

The American Film Institute has it listed as the 31st movie on its list of “100 Years… 100 Laughs.”

7. True Grit (2010)

True Grit
The Coen Brother’s True Grit. Pic credit: Paramount

In 2010, the Coen Brothers remade the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit.

In this version of the western, based on the novel by Charles Portis, Jeff Bridges stars as Deputy U.S. Marshal Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn.

Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a young girl whose father was murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She wants revenge, so she hires Rooster to go after Chaney.

Matt Damon also stars as a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is also tracking Chaney for the murder of a state senator.

This was a massive critical success for the Coen Brothers.

True Grit picked up 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

However, it didn’t win any of the awards.

6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Miller's Crossing
The Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing. Pic credit: Fox

In 1990, the Coen Brothers made a straight-up gangster film in Miller’s Crossing.

The film stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, the right-hand man for an Irish mobster and politician in the Prohibition Era named Lee O’Bannon (Albert Finney).

O’Bannon decides to offer protection for a bookie named Bernie (John Turturro), which might cause a gangland war. Soon, O’Bannon learns that Tom is in an affair with his lover Verna, who is playing everyone against each other, and he disowns Tom.

Tom ends up going to the rival gangster, Johnny Casper, and is told to kill Bernie to prove his loyalty, which puts him in the middle of the two powerful crime bosses.

5. Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple
The Coen Brothers Blood Simple. Pic credit: Circle Films

In 1984, the Coen Brothers released their directorial debut with Blood Simple.

This was also the debut of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct Men in Black, and the big-screen debut of Frances McDormand.

The film, whose title was pulled from the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, was a neo-noir crime film.

The film takes place in Texas, where a wealthy saloon owner hires a divorce detective to kill his young wife and her lover. However, as expected, everything goes wrong and misunderstandings turn into a pile of dead bodies.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and made the brothers hugely sought after talent.

4. Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink
John Turturro in Barton Fink. Pic credit: Fox

Barton Fink remains one of the Coen Brothers’ most brilliant films.

John Turturro stars in the movie as Barton Fink, a playwright who is trying to catch a break. He ends up getting paid a large amount of money to write a motion picture, something he feels is below him.

The movie is a wrestling film and he ends up staying in a Hollywood hotel as he tries to get past a case of writers’ block to finish the script. However, his wallpaper seems to be moving and the man in the room next door (John Goodman) might be a murderer.

The film won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including Best Director, Best Actor, and the Palme d’Or. It also picked up three Oscar nominations.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski
Jeff Daniels, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. Pic credit: Focus Features

The most popular Coen Brothers movie is easily The Big Lebowski.

Jeff Bridges plays Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, a slacker who wants to do nothing but go bowling and drink White Russians.

However, when some thugs come and rough him up, confusing him for a wealthy man named Lebowski, things get out of control. They realize they have the wrong man, but one of them pees on his rug.

Soon, The Dude’s bowling partners (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman) convince him to go and force Lebowski to pay for the cleaning and he ends up involved in a giant conspiracy that includes communists.

This is easily the most quoted Coen Brothers movie ever made.

2. No Country For Old Men (2007)

No Country For Old Men
Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Pic credit: Miramax

In 2007, the Coen Brothers reached their highest level of success with the movie No Country for Old Men.

This was a crime film based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy that eschewed most of the brothers’ comic sensibilities and played out as a grimly dark western crime thriller.

Josh Brolin starred as a welder in Texas who finds the aftermath of a shootout. He finds a suitcase of money there and takes it with him. This puts him in the crosshairs of a hitman sent to retrieve the money in Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh was a ruthless force of nature and was a representation of death itself.

The film picked up eight Oscar nominations and won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem).

1. Fargo (1996)

Fargo
Frances McDormand in Fargo. Pic credit: Focus Features

In 1996, the Coen Brothers created the movie Fargo, their first movie to see widespread success at the Oscars.

Frances McDormand starred as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant Minnesota police chief who is investigating a series of roadside murders.

However, a second case takes precedence when a car salesman’s wife is kidnapped and held for ransom. Two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) kidnapped her and there is more to the crime than anyone knew.

The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Director award, along with a nomination for the Palme d’Or.

Fargo also picked up seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It won for Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay.

Fargo has since become an anthology television series.

Shawn S. Lealos has been a freelance writer for 25 years, starting with magazines and newspapers before moving to the internet. He has been published... read more
Shawn S. Lealos

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