Burn After Reading (2008)
After breaking their slump with the grand slam of 2007’s No Country For Old Men (see below), the brothers popped out another Ladykillers-esque, Coen Lite crime comedy, but this time with a full varsity cast including the Cloon, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. They play a gaggle of greedy, gun-toting morons, in a high-energy romp about nothing in particular that somehow managed to gross $161 million — becoming, remarkably, the Coens’ biggest box-office hit to date. (Bonus points to Richard Jenkins, for actually breaking our hearts in the midst of all the madness as the only decent fella in Washington, D.C.)
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Considered classic Coen by some, this Prohibition-era noir always left me cold, despite instances of bravura filmmaking (like the soaring set piece where Albert Finney’s aging lion of a mob boss outshoots a clutch of would-be assassins to the strains of “Danny Boy”). Maybe I’m immune to the humourless Black Irish charm of Gabriel Byrne (as Finney’s conflicted lieutenant), or maybe it’s just that the film plays like a very good episode of Boardwalk Empire, yet lacks the iconoclastic fire of the brothers’ best work.
Blood Simple (1984)
And speaking of low-wattage noir, Blood Simple edges out Miller’s Crossing in the list simply because it was the world’s first taste of the Coen bros’ inventive film-brat technique (exemplified by the wiseass visual gag where a slow tracking shot down the counter of a roadhouse saloon unexpectedly hops over a slumped drunk in the way). Working with a fraction of Miller’s Crossing’s budget, the brothers created twice as many indelible moments and characters in this claustrophobic tale of a deadly Texas love triangle, including redneck detective M. Emmet Walsh’s cackling speech about the film’s title concept, and Dan Hedaya’s ghoulish last stand in a dark, shallow grave.