Burn After Reading: The 16 Best Coen Brothers Films


They're cinema's ultimate tricksters. Even when the films are sincere there's a sense of play to the framing, the dialogue, the use of music, the special oomph in a performer's delivery. As writers they are unparalleled for exaggerated, quotable quips. As visual stylists, they revel in both perfectionist mise-en-scene as well as frantic, often madcap camera moves. If you like cinema, it's pretty hard not to like the Coen brothers, and not only because their resume runs the gamut from dark, brooding “serious” films to insane screwball comedy.

Their 16 pictures are – and I want to make this very clear – all great. They've simply never made a sub-par feature. If you disagree, well, write your own damn list feature. I gave myself the unenviable task of trying to rank these films in sequential order, and believe me when I say I ended up weeping like Bernie Bernbaum.

I didn't get into the sidebar stuff. For example, Sam Raimi's “Crimewave,” which Joel and Ethan co-wrote with Raimi, is not on here (though that much maligned movie does have some positively fantastic “Coens-esque” moments). “The Naked Man” isn't on here either, even though Ethan co-wrote that, too (I have a VHS of it, though no VHS player). Same goes with the remake of “Gambit,” a Coens-scripted caper which is supposedly such a stinker that the powers at be refusing to grant it an American release.

It's interesting to realize that 10 of these 16 movies have some sort of criminal cock-up at their root. All of them pivot on a deception of some kind. Two mention the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And one prominently features a toe.

I look forward to reading your angry reactions to my picks.

16 - True Grit (2010)

“If you would like to kiss him, it would be all right.”

So, in case you didn't read the preamble, we'll state it again: there are no bad Coen Brothers films. [Ed. note: I ran into Jordan minutes after he first saw "True Grit", and he instantly hailed it as a masterpiece and the year's best film].

I spent far more time worrying about what should land in the “worst” spot than I did for the “best.” Each time I tinkered with this list I felt tremendously sad for whichever movie was the cellar dweller, as I have a true and deep affection for every title on here. Finally, I realized that the only correct move was to besmirch a picture that could take it – the movie that rates far and away as the top financial success of the Coens' career.

“True Grit”'s $250+ worldwide box office makes it the brothers' only bonafide commercial blow-out, not just a critical or cult fave. Plus no less than ten Oscar nominations. You can see why. It's a remake of an already good movie (more on remakes in a bit) and its got big honkin' movie stars like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon working at the top of their game.

While the phrase “the Jakes is occupied” has worked it's way into my everyday lexicon (I say it upon my morning constitutional, even if no one else is in the house – I'm quirky that way), I'll confess that after seeing this marvelous picture twice in theaters, I haven't watched it since (even though I own the Blu-ray.) It is truly masterful, though – funny and thrilling, with gorgeous photography and music and it has an ending that will rip your heart out. But I feel confident in calling it the least essential Coen Brothers film, as it is definitely their (quite successful) attempt to bend their voice to make a Big Hollywood Classic.

15 - Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

“Darling, you're exposed!”

“Intolerable Cruelty” was the first film the Coens made that wasn't entirely sprung from their own imagination, and there are one or two brief flashes where you can kinda tell (it began as an original screenplay for Imagine's Brian Grazer to produce with Ron Howard directing).

The Coens gave it a working over, my guess adding Edward Herrmann as Rex Rexroth, the Edward Everett Horton-as-sexual-fetishist character. Also, the ridiculous framing of George Clooney's astoundingly white teeth.

It's all part of an absurd (and necessary!) farce about divorce lawyers and a classically '30s screwball notion of litigating affairs of the heart. Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones play to their strengths as movie stars, the lines zip and zing at lightspeed and if they every make a T-shirt aping Paul Adelstein's “Objection!” it will be the hippest, deep cut dud anyone could ever wear. [Edit: I just checked Zazzle and, of course, it already exists.]

14 - O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

“You shall see a cow on the roof of a cottonhouse, uh-huh, and oh so many startlements.”

You'd think any film whose title was a round-the-back reference to Preston Sturges would have to rank higher on Film.com, but no one ever said doing this was going to be easy. Look, I love this movie, and I've watched it probably close to fifteen times, but I'll admit that it is something of a surface entertainment. Despite taking its cues from one of the first stories (“The Odyssey”) one could look at this film from a certain angle and recognize that it is just a bunch of (brilliant) set pieces that doesn't really go anywhere.

But on to its positive qualities: this was the first movie to introduce George Clooney the Doofus into the world. That is an undeniable good. Also, the music fed NPR for at least five years. Then there's Charles Durning with his pants hiked up over his enormous belly doing a jolly dance, pretending to support integration if it means being reelected.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is the goofy terminus of the “old, weird America” that Harry Smith and Dylan and the Band were hip to far earlier than anyone else – its blood and violence replaced by John Turturro transforming into a “horny toad.”

13 - The Ladykillers (2004)

“Rococo, huh? Well, I guess that'd be okay.”

So here's where I cause some controversy. Get ready to throw your computers off the side of a bridge (landing, hopefully, on a barge full of garbage.) Not only do I think the Coens' only dismissed (if not maligned) film is great, I think it is (hold on to your pearls cause here it comes) better than the Ealing Studios original!

Okay, now that you've taken a hit of smelling salts, I'll continue. “The Ladykillers” is arguably the nastiest and darkest of the Coens' films. Everyone is a jerk, even the victimized old lady. It's also the most filthily prurient (Marlon Wayans is in rare form) as well as scatological (J.K. Simmons and his IBS.) Ultimately, this is a compliment: artists take in the whole of the world around them. Also, the strange verbiage between Clooney and John Goodman in “O Brother” was just a warmup for the periphrasis and circumlocution of one G. H. Dorr, PhD. Everything Tom Hanks does in this idiotic movie cracks me up.

12 - The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

”Jesus, bingo--BINGO!”

“The Man Who Wasn't There” had the misfortune of coming out a little less that two months after 9/11. Just when the shock had worn off and the collective depression really sank in. A treatise on fatalism that was in parts sardonic but arguably nihilistic was just not what the doctor ordered.

It's time to reexamine this one, however, because it is absolutely spellbinding (Roger Deakins in black & white) and features what might be Billy Bob Thornton's best performance. It follows fairly typical Coens-ish themes of criminal acts gone wrong and the rippling effect of poor decisions. Tony Shalhoub's central discourse on the Uncertainty Principle prefigures “A Serious Man.” I can't tell you exactly what the whole UFO bit is about, though. Part of the reason I like this movie so much.

Also, there's a theory out there that Thornton's Ed is a homosexual, closeted to the rest of the world and even to himself. I'm not sure if I buy that, but watch it again with that in the back of your mind and it is certainly an interesting reading.

11 - Blood Simple (1984)

“Where the hell's my windbreaker?”

A helluva way to come out of the gate.

The silent scream nightmare of trying to wash away endless puddles of blood is, really, the hallmark of so many of the Coens' most memorable sequences. Add some unexpected music on the soundtrack (and some great camera movement) and this frightening/funny dissonance is what elevates the brothers from mere thriller directors to cosmic tricksters.

“Blood Simple” has outrageous characters (M. Emmet Walsh or Dan Hedaya – who is more repulsive?) a twisty plot and a genuine punchline at the end. If you are like me you fell in love with this on VHS so maybe you prefer the non-director's cut – for the gag with the cigarette butt if nothing else.

10 - Burn After Reading (2008)

“He agrees my ass could be smaller. I mean, not in a mean way. It comes from a place of humor.”

Here's a key thing about the Coen Brothers. Sometimes you go into their films with such high expectations that the movie seems a little underwhelming initially. I'll be honest, I was less-than-impressed the first time I saw this. I mean, I laughed a lot, but I didn't think it built to anything.

Then I saw it a second time. And a third. And a few more times until I became fully convinced that it wipes the floor of “The Hurt Locker” as the finest cinematic representation of Bush's War on Terror.

Iceberged political sentiment aside, “Burn After Reading” is one of the strongest group performances this decade. Everyone is firing on all thrusters and there isn't one line, one word, one gasp of breath that isn't heavily mannered for maximum comedic benefit. It really is silliness to the nth degree, but played off as incredibly serious (oh, that music!) and needlessly complex. (Like so many Coens plots, don't ask me to draw a road map off the top of my head.)

Why does George Clooney keep talking about floor paneling? Why?!?!

9 - Barton Fink (1991)

“You need guidance? Talk to another writer. Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink – throw it hard.”

This was the one that really sent the Coens into the stratosphere. Setting a precedent by winning three awards at Cannes (Palme D'Or, Best Director and Best Actor for John Turturro) and being so deliciously filmy that mainstream press like the New York Times wrote a lengthy article just about its sound design. (Hey, look at this, haven't read this in twenty-two years. [http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/18/movies/film-when-sound-is-a-character.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm])

It's likely the finest film ever made about the struggles of the artistic process – and that's because it doesn't take that struggle very seriously. Don't tell that to Fink, though, who is so proud of the artistic majesty that is his Wallace Beery wrestling picture that he wags his finger in the faces of fighting men, then points to his noggin' and says “THIS is my uniform!!!” (Oh, was there ever anyone more deserving of a sock in the jaw?)

If I ever truly can't make a deadline I want the halls of my building to burst into flame and for John Goodman to shout “I'll show you the life of the mind!!!!”

8 - The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

“Say, what gives?”

The Coens took all the critical good will that came out of “Barton Fink,” and somehow convinced Joel Silver to give them an enormous budget for an old script they'd done with their chum Sam Raimi. The result was the box office disaster “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which I was lucky enough to see opening night in New York City and, let me tell you, it brought the house down.

Its mix of frenetic camera movement, rapid fire dialogue, perfect music cues and exaggerated production design was the promise of what the creators of “Raising Arizona” (and, yes, “Crimewave”) could do with a big budget. Timothy Robbins' dumb guy Norville Barnes is sweet and terrific and the hula hoop montage (set to Aram Khachaturian's “Sabre Dance,” a/k/a “Comedy's National Anthem” ) is one of the few, pure joys that exists in this world.

Long live the Hud!

7 - The Big Lebowski (1998)

“You mean coitus?”

Those who root through this impenetrable narrative in search of a thorough philosophy may be, in the parlance of the times, a little cray, but that isn't to say there isn't great mirth to be found with repeat viewing of this, the Coens' most culturally celebrated film.

It was another one that left me puzzled with the first viewing. Funny, yes, but I felt it wasn't that rich. Now I consider myself among the true believers (uh, that's achievers) who'll tell you that every single line in this movie is hilarious. The Coens themselves have kinda disowned the movie – though I don't think it's because they dislike it, they just don't quite know what to make of its fanatical devotees.

As we slowly lurch farther away from the '60s it'll be harder to tell who are true hippies and who are just mimicking what they saw in movies, but the ones in cardigans drinking white russians may very well be the ones who, uh, aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again.

6 - No Country For Old Men (2007)

“That's all right. I laugh myself, sometimes. There ain't a whole lot else you can do.”

We're at the part of the show where we're talking about varying degrees of perfection. “No Country For Old Men,” based on a Cormac McCarthy novel I haven't read, is uncanny in its ability to be both complex (what really happened in that motel room?) and extremely straightforward (this is a movie about death with a capital D and pretty much that's it, stop hurting yourself looking for more).

Its portent is slapped on thick, but man is it earned. The violence is daring, the suspense is visceral and the performances are delicious. They achieve Hitchcock levels of suspense perfection with the beep-beep-beep chase scene in the border town hotel, another of those slow motion nightmares the Coens do so well. For a movie that is big in scope, the details shine through – this is the only movie ever made where a wall indentation from a blasted door knob leaves its mark.

5 – Fargo (1996)

“I wanna be in compliance.”

Inside, we are all Jerry Lundegaard – a put-upon putz who just wants a little respect. Luckily, most of us snap out of it before we concoct an absurd scheme to cheat our way there.

Arguably the ur-Coens movie – a crime debacle that puts all others to shame, mixing unpredictable violence, quotable lines, arguably condescending mise-en-scene (those car lot establishing shots!) and a melodramatic musical score that seems, at first, to not quite be in line with the story at hand. “Fargo” is hilarious, but also tragic, because the characters are so frighteningly believable. There's a title card declaring this to be a true story. Turns out that isn't the case, just another example of the Coens being tricksters, but I'll admit to falling for it during the first go-round.

4 - Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

“I don't see a lot of money here.”

Whoa whoa whoa – should we be placing this brand spankin' new one so high on the list? Has it stood the test of time? Listen, in five years it may end up even higher – that's how good this one is.

And, strangely, it's a very different film for the Coens. There isn't a lot of the zippy, exaggerated dialogue. There aren't that many moments of tableaux, where the art direction is just so and characters manipulate the frame like perfectly aligned planets. They're there, though (it's a gorgeous film) but the scenes are more about getting us in the head of a specific individual and, at times, sacrifices gags for emotion. It's very much like “Barton Fink” with some of the beloved artifice stripped away.

It also happens to be a topic very true to my heart. I spent quite some time enamored of the folk revival scene of the 1960s and I used to live down where this movie was shot. And, strangely, in my memory, it was always snowing. I even met Dave Van Ronk a few times – the guy Llewyn Davis is very, very, very loosely based on.

But my personal attachments aside, this is a gorgeous, melancholy and, dare I say it, important film. You can feel the warmth emanating from Akron as Davis zooms by in his freezing car. Everyone knows self-defeating behavior, everyone knows heartbreak, everyone knows what its like when the cat owned by the Columbia prof who lets you crash at his pad zips out into the hallway and the door locks behind you. All of us, even the ones who sing beautifully, spend some time going around in circles.

(Read my full review here).

3 - Raising Arizona (1987)

“We ate sand!”

There were some that were hip enough to discover the Coens with “Blood Simple,” but for me it was the endless repetition of “Raising Arizona” on cable TV. I have a weird memory of it airing one night on both HBO and Cinemax, but one was a few minutes behind the other – so when there was a particularly funny bit (“See, there's something wrong with my semen!” always killed me) you could switch over and watch it again. These are the things we did back before we downloaded everything.

“Raising Arizona” is a sweet little movie about an unconventional family, but it hits like a double-barrel shotgun to the face of any burgeoning film buff. The streaking camera moves and wide angle lenses, the over-the-top performances and the hilarious lines. And the cutting – man, this movie moves, ranking alongside “Annie Hall” and “GoodFellas” as the most ferocious and relentlessly paced openings in all of cinema. It was a gateway drug for screwball comedies for many, for yodeling for a few others. Awful nice cereal flakes.

2 – Miller's Crossing (1990)

“As mud.”

Arguably the Coens' most grand picture, this fantasy riff on noir and gangsters and the last shot from “The Third Man” was just about the coolest thing anyone had ever seen in 1990. Was this revisionist? Was it post-modern? Well, maybe, since it seemed to overplay certain conventions and had no qualms about turning Albert Finney into Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Danny Boy” echoed over the sound of machine gun fire. But then it also worked on its own terms – it was a really cool yarn.

But complex – you'd basically “get” the movie on the first go, but each viewing brought a deeper understanding. What are Tom's motivations throughout this film? Is he playing all the angles or is he just chasing his hat? We'll be chasing that hat for two more decades I'm sure.

1 - A Serious Man (2009)

“Be a good boy.”

The Goy's Teeth > Before The Law (because of Hendrix, naturally).

Listen, I don't know whether or not this is a more “personal” Coen Brothers film as some people say. Sure, they grew up at this time, as Midwestern Jews, and their father was a professor. Maybe they even wanted to watch F-Troop. It doesn't matter. “A Serious Man” is arguably the most Jewish movie ever made, but part of what makes Jewish literature so resonant is how an outsider's status is relevant to everyone.

Everyone is Larry Gopnik yearning to get just a drop of meaning from Rabbi Marshak as Sy Ableman and the Columbia Record Club and Mr. Park slowly chip away at your patience. At least Llewyn Davis can sing! Larry Gopnik looks up at his enormous blackboard of mathematical equations and (the Uncertainty Principle again) announces “we can't ever really know what's going on.”

After the Oscar win of “No Country For Old Men” and the bigger-than-expected money maker “Burn After Reading” the brothers capped the trifecta with a masterpiece that is tremendously sincere, while also retaining their brand of world-weary wit. When I think about how blessed I am to have this film in my life, I'm terrified the phone is going to ring and my doctor will tell me he wants to have me come in and talk.