For years the Coen Brothers seemed destined to forever operate on the fringes on filmmaking, getting acclaim but never getting the box office love or awards triumphs that would push them into the elite stratosphere. All that changed over the course of three years when their 2007 dark thriller No Country For Old Men won four Oscars, including two for the brothers themselves, and then their western remake True Grit broke through at the box office, becoming a major hit and nabbing 10 Oscar nominations to boot. With the release of their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, I thought I'd take a look back at my personal top five favorite Coen Brothers films. This is one of the tougher top fives I've ever done, and could easily have rearranged these or added others. In other words, this is my top five for the moment in which I'm writing this article, and could easily change tomorrow.
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Like so many of the brothers films, this one took time to grow on me, but I can now confidently call it one of my favorites. The depression era retelling of Homer's Odyssey finds escaped convicts "Ulysses" Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) traveling through the South, encountering sirens, a cyclops, and a musician who sold his soul to the devil and helps the boys become a radio sensation. The film's soundtrack is hands down the best to come out of a Coen Brothers film, and this was the film that made me think that George Clooney was actually a great actor (keep in mind he was most famous for ruining Batman at this point in his career), and it still stands as his best performance. Couple all that with fantastic cinematography by long time collaborator Roger Deakins, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? stands the test of time as one of the goofiest comedies of all time.
4. Miller's Crossing (1990)
The Coen Brothers have proven to be masters of whatever genre they're working in, and while they bring their unique sensibilities to every film they make, it feels like a bit of a cheat to say that Miller's Crossing seems the least like a Coen Brothers film of any they've made. It's likely because they were able to craft such an impeccable crime saga and it's verisimilitude in its design elements make you forget you're watching a Coen Brothers film. There's none of their usual quirkiness to be found, and apart from the film's relaxed manner and their usual stable of actors like John Turturro and Steve Buscemi, there are none of the hallmarks of their other films to be found here. Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne have also never been better in this prohibition era film about warring factions of the Irish and Italian mafia. This film is, for my money, a slightly more successful companion piece to their acclaimed No Country for Old Men. I place this film slightly ahead of that one mainly for its amazing cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld in their final collaboration together before he left to become a director himself.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
It's funny to say it now, but The Big Lebowski was far from successful when it was released in 1998. As I covered in my article about least deserving box office flops, Lebowski took a while to find its audience, but it's now rightly recognized as a masterpiece. It's certainly the Coen Brothers' most revered film, and rightly so. Their Raymond Chandler-esque story of mistaken identity and a man getting in over his head by trying not to do anything at all has its roots in film noir, but it's a much goofier, yet no less cynical, look at the underbelly of society. Bowling, performance art, porn, surfing, nihilists, kidnapping, rugs that tie the room together and white russians all collide in this sublimely silly film that features a career best performance from Coen regular John Goodman.
2. Fargo (1996)
Still the gold standard for its collision of comedy and shocking violence, Fargo retains almost all of its punch some seventeen years after it was made. In the wake of Pulp Fiction there was a wave of pale imitators, and many initially wrote off Fargo as just another one of those, but this is a film in a genre all its own. Billed as being based on a true story, this wholly fictional film tells the story of a down on his luck car dealer (William H Macy) who hires two suspicious characters (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in hopes of collecting on a ransom from her rich father (Harve Presnell). When the thugs murder a cop, a pregnant small town cop (Frances McDormand, in her Oscar winning role) begins to investigate and uncovers more nefarious things than she could have imagined. The film is the perfect blending of the Coen's comedic sensibilities (Raising Arizona) and their hard edged, cynical view of the world (Blood Simple). I selected it as the best film of 1996, and I stand by that today. Fargo is a masterpiece.
1. Barton Fink (1991)
If there's one film that best sums up the Coen Brothers sensibilities, it's Barton Fink. Created in the aftermath of a terrible case of writer's block, Barton Fink tells the story of the eponymous playwright (John Turturro) whose most recent show "Bare Ruined Choirs" has attracted the attention of a Hollywood studio that offers him plenty of money to write under contract for them in Los Angeles. Holing himself up in a seedy hotel, Barton soon encounters shady insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), and he begins losing his mind. Or maybe he doesn't. Barton Fink is the most convoluted and difficult to decipher of all the Coen Brothers films, but it also rewards multiple viewings more than any other film they've made. Is it about the dangers of fascism or capitalism? Is it about how living inside your own mind can drive you insane? Or is it about the ills of Hollywood and its once popular vertical integration system? Who can say for sure, but it may just be about all of those things and more. Anyone who's ever struggled with writer's block will instantly connect with Barton's dilemma, and even if you don't, there's something here for you to latch on to. It's got so many layers, it's truly unbelievable.
Just Missed The Cut: Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men, The Man Who Wasn't There