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)

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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.


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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.


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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)

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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”.


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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.


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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)

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“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.


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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)

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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)

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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).


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).