Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The top 10 Coen brothers films (and the rest)

In honour of the excellent Inside Llewyn Davis, we rank the Coen brothers’ oeuvre in a pointless hit parade.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014, 16:57

   

There aren’t too many working film-makers who offer the time-wasting nut enough material for a meaningful top 10. John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman would oblige, but they all had long, long careers before death caught up with them. Martin Scorsese, now 71, just about does the business. Only a few still above ground might sneak in.

Yet, though both still in their fifties, the Coen brothers offer no barriers to such pointless ranking. What a consistent career it has been. There was a tiny lull at the start of the century — neither The Ladykillers nor Intolerable Cruelty make it into our top 10 — then they were right back at the top of their game. Just consider their last three films: A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis. That’s a hat-trick to conjure with. I have added a postscript mopping up those left out. There are, after all, still gems to come after the top 10. However do they do it?

10. BARTON FINK (1991)

YouTube Preview Image

It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (indeed, its sweep of all major awards triggered a change in the rules). It received rave reviews. But nobody went to see it. Fools! A delicious dissection of Hollywood’s mad machine.

9. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001)

YouTube Preview Image

This might be the boys’ most unfairly neglected film. A sad celebration of noir tropes, the picture found Billy Bob Thornton playing a barber sucked into increasing danger. Lovely black-and-white photography. Great mournful tone.

8. O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? (2000)

YouTube Preview Image

The soundtrack ended up becoming better known than the film itself. Never mind. Though some critics were sniffy the Coens’ take on the Odyssey — by way of Preston Sturges — it is still a hoot from beginning to end.

7. TRUE GRIT (2010)

YouTube Preview Image

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord. The Coens finally had a hit at the box office. And with a western to boot. An entirely different class of picture to Henry Hathaway’s take on Charles Portis’s novel, this really does “return to the source material”.

6. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

YouTube Preview Image

As the only Coen film to win best picture at the Oscars, No Country is, in some sense, their official Greatest Movie. It’s very good indeed, but, extremely short on humour, it sits slightly uncomfortably in the canon.

5. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

YouTube Preview Image

It is finally with us. With characteristic shiftiness, the Coens prove themselves simultaneously in love with the early folk scene and wary of mythologising that world. A very sad film. A very funny film. And the music is majestic. Its near-total exclusion from the Oscars is a disgrace.

4. BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

YouTube Preview Image

“What the heck is this thing?” we said happily. Nearly a decade before the arrival of Mr Tarantino, the Coens’ debut showed that post-modern chicanery could be great fun. Here’s a worthwhile observation: by the close, not one of the characters correctly understands what has just happened. Watch it again. I’m right.

3) THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

YouTube Preview Image

It was a real grower. It didn’t get great reviews. It didn’t do terrifically well at the box office. But the film gradually picked up more mainstream love than any other Coen film. Up there with Withnail and I and Spinal Tap in the quotability stakes.

2. FARGO (1996)

YouTube Preview Image

Somehow or other the relentless oddness never quite gets in the way of the noirish narrative drive. It’s a little like a mainstream thriller that, left too long in the snow, has curled and warped into an uncategorisable new beast. Oh, and Frances McDormand is, of course, wonderful.

1. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

YouTube Preview Image

No really. Not everyone loves the thing. But A Serious Man strikes me as the film that most effectively winds the Coens’ playfulness with their awful pessimism. ”I didn’t ask for Santana Abraxas. I didn’t listen to Santana Abraxas,” the hero screams. One of the greatest endings in any film of the current century (though even Beckett might have thought it it a little bleak).

AND THE REST…

11. Raising Arizona (funny). 12. Burn After Reading (frantic). 13 The Hudsucker Proxy (under-praised). 14. Miller’s Crossing (over-praised).  15. The Ladykillers (an honest failure). 16. Intolerable Cruelty (their only genuine dud).

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email for the activation code.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 10 days from the date of publication.