My 5 favorite Coen brothers movies
We live in a world where not everybody knows who Joel and Ethan Coen are, and it’s a minor tragedy to me. Not even ten years ago, they were beloved and Oscarized for their movies. They brought people together and created genuine discussion around their unpredictability, smart, but accessible plotting and biting social satire. Fast forward a decade and our culture of immediacy has almost completely wiped them away from collective consciousness.
But they’re finally back. Their new film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is finally out and its availability on Netflix makes it almost unavoidable. It’s a great addition to their legacy, but the Coen brothers are so good it ranks perhaps top 10 at best. In order to celebrate their glorious comeback, I’m throwing out there my 5 favorite Coen brothers movies with my reasons for liking them so that you can call me names and publicly shame me on the internet for having different opinions than you. Or we could respectfully debate. It’s up to you.
Here they are, in chronological order.
BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
A wise man once told me: you have to master every rule before you start breaking them. Blood Simple is a fantastic, but straightforward film noir about a greedy, double crossing private detective screwing over an unfaithful wife and her estranged husband. The fun and creative biblical metacommentary about adultery and the ruthless efficiency of the screenplay make it, by far, one of the best film noir of all-time. The late, great Roger Ebert said in his review that no matter how diabolically complex the movie became, it never felt like it was piling it on. This is pretty much what great screenwriting is all about.
Not only one of the Coen brothers’ best films, but arguably one of the best comedies of all-time. The Big Lebowski is one of the two movies I must’ve watched at least a hundred times. There are so many awesome elements to this film: the spoof of Raymond Chandler’s iconic novel The Big Sleep, the not so subtle satire of California living, the commentary on slacker culture, the scorching dialogue lines. I must’ve said “a friend with a cleft asshole” in casual conversation as many times as I’ve actually seen the movie.
But The Big Lebowski still adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It created a cult around its mere existence where men are showing up to screenings wearing ratty bathrobes and sipping White Russians, reciting dialogue lines by heart, because it created a cinematic paradigm where even a real, true blue loser could win. Not a young underachieves pretending to be a loser because he can’t get chicks, but a real, over-the-hill, unemployed man with no hope of ever having direction. People find comfort in that.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001)
Perhaps the film you weren’t expecting on this life. It was either The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo or Miller’s Crossing. But I have a weak spot for their counterintuitive pastiche. While stylishly aping the film noir of the 40s and 50s, The Man Who Wasn’t There has a much more contemporary discourse of existential dread and unknowability. It’s an exercise in framing contemporary violence in the romanticized codes of old Hollywood movies, which is a very Coen brothers thing to do. It’s not that different from what they did in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This uncomfortable balancing act is why I loved The Man Who Wasn’t There and why it was mostly ignore by audiences.
I don’t believe in having favorite things as an adult, but if I did, No Country for Old Men would be my favorite movie. The fruit of a collaboration with author Cormac McCarthy that could only go well, No Country for Old Men corrupts and transcends just every aspect of traditional film noir and crime movies, like a goddamn spell of witchcraft. There’s money, but only latent fear and tragedy attached to it. There’s a bad guy everybody wants to stop, but for their own selfish reasons. “Heads or tails” is used to dish senseless violence to undeserving parties.
No Country for Old Men, not unlike Blood Simple, is a biblical tale of greed and violence. It’s their most accomplished and terrifying vision yet because it features a slow and excruciating social collapse around the protagonist Llewelyn Moss, who is ushered into a visceral, almost wordless confrontation with Anton Chirgurh, an avatar of death itself that comes not only for the money, but to punish him for his immoral behavior. I watched this movie ten or twelve times and always find myself breathless and entranced by how the Coen brothers made a bag full of money interesting again.
BURN AFTER READING (2008)
Perhaps the Coen brothers’ most misunderstood and underappreciated films. Mostly because it satirizes something people genuinely enjoy: espionage thrillers. Featuring a star-studded cast, it’s a story of people that lose their shit over something without knowing exactly what it is or if it’s worth losing their shit over. It’s a savage film about the self-important nature of human beings and the brutality of their inconsequence. You know, things people that don’t have a sense of humor about themselves are not ready to hear. That’s why Burn After Reading is bound to forever remain a niche favorite.