7 best Coen brothers movies, ranked

(left to right) Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski
(Image credit: Universal)

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are among the greatest filmmakers of the past 50 years, and almost all of the 18 films they’ve made together could go on a list of their best work. The Coens have won Oscars and have directed actors to Oscar wins of their own, and the Coen brothers' films frequently end up on lists of the best and most influential films of the past several decades.

Although they haven’t made a movie together since 2018’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” both Joel and Ethan have kept busy with separate projects — including Ethan’s new release “Drive-Away Dolls” — and there’s always hope that they’ll collaborate again. Either way, they have a body of work that ranges from goofy comedy to dark thrills, often within the same movie. Here’s a rundown of must-stream Coen brothers movies, from great to greatest.

7. ‘Blood Simple’

The Coens’ first film was made on a small budget in a handful of locations, yet it’s every bit as inventive, both visually and narratively, as their more expansive, lavish productions. When frustrated housewife Abby (Frances McDormand) leaves her bar-owner husband Julian (Dan Hedaya) for one of his employees (John Getz), that simple betrayal spirals into increasingly desperate acts of violence, mostly predicated on misunderstandings and misguided assumptions. 

The plot isn’t complicated, but it’s certainly complex, and the Coens convey it with style and economy, including long stretches without any dialogue. Both the amused cynicism and the love for the absurdity that populate later Coens films come across strongly. “Blood Simple” may have been the brothers’ debut feature, but it finds their artistic vision fully formed.

Watch on Max

6. ‘Miller’s Crossing’

A period piece set during Prohibition, “Miller’s Crossing” stars Gabriel Byrne as gangster Tom Reagan, who finds himself in the middle of a war between his boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and Leo’s upstart rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Of course, much of it comes down to a dame (Marcia Gay Harden), whom both Tom and Leo have fallen for. 

In the first of his many roles for the Coens, John Turturro makes a strong impression as the sleazy operator who sets off the conflict. The Byzantine underworld rules condemn the characters to violent confrontations, regardless of their intentions. The Coens pay homage to classic film noir while also creating their own bizarre, stylized noir world that might as well exist in an alternate dimension. It’s often inscrutable, but it’s always exactly what they mean it to be.

Watch on Paramount Plus

5. ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’

While fellow noir pastiche “Miller's Crossing” is about big-city gangsters, the 1940s-set “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is about ordinary small-town residents drawn into murder and blackmail as a way to escape a humdrum life. Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as laconic, amoral barber Ed Crane, who can’t accept his ordinary existence and manages to completely ruin it in the process of trying to make it better.

Shot in luminous black and white by frequent Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, the movie achieves a sense of eerie, otherworldly calm as it goes on, and Ed’s impulsive decisions result in further violence and tragedy, for both himself and his wife Doris (Frances McDormand). Thornton narrates in a wry, hard-boiled tone that gives every action, from extortion to imprisonment, a sense of weary inevitability. 

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple 

4. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Although singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is fictional, there’s such a strong sense of time and place to this melancholy film that it’s easy to assume that he’s an actual figure from the 1960s New York City folk scene. Aspects of the character were inspired by real-life musician Dave Van Ronk, but he’s fully a Coens creation, undergoing the same kind of existential crisis as so many other Coens protagonists.

Llewyn brings much of that on himself, via a stubbornness that hinders him in both his personal and professional lives. As Llewyn attempts to salvage the remnants of his career, he drifts among various acquaintances, lovers, and family members, managing to alienate almost all of them. Yet his angst is deeply affecting, and both the movie and Llewyn’s music convey an emotional depth that Llewyn struggles to express otherwise.

Watch free with ads on Pluto TV

3. ‘No Country for Old Men’

The Coens’ only film to win the Oscar for Best Picture is a fusion of their darkly humorous sensibility with author Cormac McCarthy’s sparse nihilism, making for a movie that is both bleak and profound. It starts off with a standard thriller plot device, as welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers an abandoned briefcase full of money in the desert, alongside several dead bodies. Taking the money throws his life into chaos and puts him in the sights of sadistic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

Chigurh becomes an unstoppable force of nature as he hunts Moss, balanced out by the honorable intentions of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who remains one step behind the criminals. McCarthy and the Coens present a stark moral universe, but the story subverts crime-thriller expectations, delivering open-ended questions rather than simplistic justice.

Watch on Paramount Plus

2. ‘The Big Lebowski’

A relative commercial and critical disappointment when it was released, “The Big Lebowski” has since amassed a huge cult following that surpasses any other Coens movie, with its own unique subculture. Fans attend conventions dressed as Jeff Bridges’ amiable stoner Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and the entire range of oddball characters he encounters on his meandering quest to replace his soiled rug.

It’s easy to see why “The Big Lebowski” inspires such fervent devotion, with its distinctive characters, hilariously quotable dialogue and deliberately labyrinthine plot that is both hopelessly convoluted and largely irrelevant to the laid-back vibe. It’s the Coens’ best pure comedy, but it also captures meaningful truths about approaching life with openness and curiosity, about withholding judgment and accepting people as they are. The Dude is both a prophet and a guy who just wants to go bowling.

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple 

1. ‘Fargo’

The Coens are at their absolute best in this masterpiece that balances pitch-black comedy with startling violence. Set mostly in Minnesota, “Fargo” starts with a botched kidnapping orchestrated by weaselly car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) as a way to extract money from his wealthy, condescending father-in-law. Jerry hires a pair of criminals to kidnap his own wife and hold her for a ransom that he himself will collect, but the plan immediately falls apart, with deadly consequences for nearly everyone involved.

The plot is engaging and often unpredictable, and the Coens contrast the sleaziness of Jerry and his associates with the refreshing wholesomeness of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a pregnant rural police chief who proves remarkably savvy as she conducts her investigation. This brilliantly constructed movie is funny, shocking, and strangely heartwarming by the end.

Watch on Max

More from Tom's Guide

Josh Bell

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and TV for Vulture, Inverse, CBR, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

  • systemBuilder_49
    This is a complete joke - the movie "Raising Arizona" must appear among the top four Coen movies of all time! It shows the website like Tom's hardware knows nothing at all about movie reviews!
  • COLGeek
    Good thing this isn't Tom's Hardware then!