Barton Fink (1991)
One of the best films ever made about Hollywood and the perils of creativity, Barton Fink is perhaps the tightest and most consistently enjoyable of all the Coens’ films, with barely a wasted shot or moment in its puzzle-box depiction of “the life of the mind.” John Turturro delivers an iconic performance as the ultimate tortured writer, and every line of dialogue, murky colour scheme, and drop of wallpaper goo fits together in a perfect symmetry of gnawing, claustrophobic, black-comic desperation.
But, really, how could the top spot not go to Fargo? Ironically, some derided Frances McDormand’s Sheriff Marge Gunderson — one of the most relatable, memorable and likeable heroes in modern cinema, let alone the Coen bros’ oeuvre — as a mean-spirited caricature, simply because she spoke in a funny accent. But aside from that, this tale of a small-town kidnapping gone tragically awry is the most humane and hopeful of all the brothers’ films (even if they’re too cool to admit it), depicting both the potential for human evil and also the simple acts of decency that constitute goodness.
All of the Coens’ strengths are on full display in this commercial and critical success, from the smart script and stellar cast to the film-school ingenuity of the direction and production design. And that’s not to mention the mischievous indie streak running through the (relatively) mainstream production, like a bright red spray of blood on the gleaming patch of snow over by that wood chipper.