Few have mastered the fine art of modern cinema like Joel and Ethan Coen have. Their directorial range and filmmaking style has proven them to be amongst the most versatile filmmakers in cinema history, setting them apart from their contemporaries.
They've done it all—comedy, drama, Homer, and beyond—and they've done especially well at blending their big screen stories with Hollywood's finest acting talent to create truly unique films.
Joel and Ethan are modernists. They quickly embraced the streaming revolution while still supporting classic theatrical releases, and that's just one way they've demonstrated their ability to keep with the times. But it's their filmography that speaks most loudly for them.
Here are our picks for the best Coen brothers movies that truly capture the essence of what Joel and Ethan Coen can do.
8. Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading shouldn't really work as a film. It has so many intersecting plot threads and so many layers that it should come off overly complicated—yet it doesn't. Quite the opposite! The film feels contained and fun despite its expansive cast.
Following a bunch of people around Washington DC, Burn After Reading never relents on its baffling humor. More specifically, it's a film about one mistake that means very little to anybody, yet is greatly misunderstood by those involved as being important.
In the end, the film represents the Coens' sense of unique play and comedy, as they take you on a journey that's both serious and utterly meaningless at the same time.
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a retelling of Homer's The Odyssey set in the 1930s. On first watch, it has all the makings of a great comedy—but on repeat viewings, you'll find that there's something more sinister brewing beneath the funny veneer.
When three convicts escape prison together, one of them tells the others about buried gold and the promise of wealth. However, on their journey through the American South, Pete and Delmar find out that Everett might not be as honest as they thought.
Starring George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro, the film feels as though lifted from Greek mythology and placed in a Mark Twain story. You wouldn't be surprised to see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sail past at any time during this film.
6. Raising Arizona (1987)
When Edwina (a policewoman) marries Hi (a former convict), they appear to be helplessly in love with one another—and all they want to complete their happy home is a baby.
But when Hi learns that he's infertile, he endeavors to steal a baby from a local businessman whose wife has recently given birth to five. As the couple choose to raise the stolen baby as their own, their conscience and wider life begin to unravel as a result.
Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter's performances hold us in our seats, as the actions of Edwina and Hi remain unpredictable from one scene to the next. But Raising Arizona's real strength is its ensemble, with the likes of John Goodman and Frances McDormand in supporting roles.
5. A Serious Man (2009)
A Serious Man is about the life of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher who's simultaneously dealing with a divorce and a professional crisis. It makes for one of the Coens' most underrated films.
As Larry tries to prove he's worthy of tenure and that he can cope with his wife's affair and subsequent separation, Larry's whole faith comes into question and he ends up finding himself on a strange new path.
Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry is one of the Coens' most layered and interesting characters. A Serious Man has garnered a cult following over the years, which goes to show how richly detailed the film is and why it's one of the Coens' best pieces.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Arguably one of the greatest comedy movies ever made, The Big Lebowski stood up from its slow start (it underperformed at the box office) and has become a beloved part of pop culture.
The Big Lebowski is the spiritual journey of The Dude and his buddy Walter. It tells the tale of Jeffrey Lebowski, who, after being attacked in his home by people who've got the wrong man, tries to get a new rug from the person responsible.
The twisting madcap story of The Dude has endured over two decades to become an example of modern comedy filmmaking, with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman putting in career-best acts as The Dude and Walter.
3. Fargo (1996)
Fargo feels like the movie the Coens were working up to during their early career. Everything they'd learned from their previous films had given them the skills needed to craft and perfect the tactile and visceral environment of Fargo's cold, dead exterior.
When two criminals perform a kidnapping at the request of an indebted car salesman, they end up killing a cop at a roadside stop. As a result, they're pursued by the heavily-pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson, who relentlessly seeks the truth despite her beguiling smile.
With a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy, and Peter Stormare, Fargo is comprised of spectacular individual sequences that join to become even greater than the sum of its parts.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
A search for money, the road of avarice, and a briefcase that only causes death for whomever carries it.
No Country for Old Men has a lot in common with Fargo, but despite whatever similarities they share, No Country for Old Men pushes the boundaries of dramatic tension further than nearly any other film.
When Llewelyn Moss comes across a drug deal gone wrong, he takes the briefcase full of cash and immediately runs. It's a close call, as he's almost caught by the people who come looking for it.
But his nightmare has only just begun—because the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh, develops an interest in the money, too. Thus begins a chase across Texas that pushes all involved down the road to oblivion.
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin all deliver note-perfect performances in their roles, with most of the brilliance coming down to Roger Deakins' cinematography.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
If Fargo felt like the film that the Coens' were building up to from the start of their career, then Inside Llewyn Davis feels like the film that would define the Coens for all future generations.
Llewyn Davis is a musician in the 1960s who rises up through New York's Greenwich Village scene. He has a life of his own, but he's a homeless musician who sleeps on friends' couches most of the time, all the while trying to get his sound out into the world.
His journey across the Midwest to meet a record producer in Chicago sees Davis pushing for his shot, while feeling like an odyssey through the moment when Llewyn's life becomes as hard as it can be.
The Coens' film garnered little in the way of major awards recognition, but as it seeped into the minds of critics and audiences over the years since, it's clear that this film is the Coen brothers' masterpiece.