10 Best Movies Recommended by the Coen Brothers


Joel and Ethan Coen are among the most beloved directors ever, responsible for an eclectic collection of classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. Their movies are famous for their one-liners, quirky characters and frequently sharp, nuanced exploration of morality. Few filmmakers are so adept at being simultaneously thoughtful and entertaining. Although they had indicated that they would retire, it now appears that they may be working on a new project together. On top of that, Joel Coen is set to release his next solo feature, Drive-Away Dolls, early next year.

Like most great directors, the Coen brothers are passionate film fans who have praised scores of movies over the years. Their tastes are as diverse as their own filmography, including everything from war movies to musical comedies to bleak documentaries. These are some of their finest recommendations, which should appeal to fans of the Coens’ own work.

10 ‘Salesman’ (1969)

Directed by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

Salesman is an influential documentary about four door-to-door Bible salesmen who travel from Boston to Florida peddling expensive editions of the Good Book. Their efforts appear futile, with the men undertaking a bleak journey against a backdrop of cheap motels and dingy diners. The salesmen are confident and fast-talking, but beneath the affable facade, they wrestle with frustration and disappointment.

The film was shot in the cinema vérité style by directors Albert and David Maysles, along with Charlotte Zwerin, using then cutting-edge lightweight and highly mobile sound and camera equipment. This had a deep influence on subsequent documentary filmmakers. It remains a sharp snapshot of late ’60s capitalism and, in particular, that era’s pervasive, rising feeling of social malaise. Ethan Coen selected it as one of his all-time favorites.

Watch on Criterion

9 ‘Brother’s Keeper’ (1992)

Directed by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger

Brother's Keeper 19920

Another documentary, Brother’s Keeper focuses on four elderly siblings, the Ward brothers, who lived together in isolation on their dilapidated farm, surviving off the grid for decades. Their seemingly tranquil life is upended when one of them, William Ward, is found dead under suspicious circumstances. The documentary follows the subsequent legal proceedings and the unwavering loyalty of the Ward family, who rally around the accused, Delbert Ward, their brother, and assert that the death was a result of an accident.

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky engage with different perspectives on the brothers and their community, contrasting their self-perception with the media’s more sensationalist take. Ethan Coen has ranked Brother’s Keeper as one of his five favorite movies of all time, and some have suggested that it was an influence on Fargo.

Watch on Tubi

8 ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’ (1972)

Directed by John Huston

the life and times of judge roy bean0

Paul Newman stars in this John Huston Western as a former outlaw who appoints himself as the judge of his own court in the desolate wastelands of the Texas frontier. Bean dispenses his unique brand of justice with a blend of humor and ruthlessness, often making absurd rulings that keep the local criminals and misfits in check. However, he faces a new kind of challenge when the enigmatic Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner) appears, challenging Bean’s authority.

The movie’s oddball sense of humor overlaps with that of the Coen brothers’s more violent dark comedies, and they included it among their thirty favorite films. Interesting bit of trivia: the theme tune for the film appears during the final scene of Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Rent on Apple TV

7 ‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976)

Directed by Michael Ritchie

a little league team screaming from the bench

A somewhat surprising choice that made Ethan’s all-time top five is The Bad News Bears, a cult sports comedy about Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), a down-and-out ex-minor league baseball player who finds himself coerced into coaching a group of misfit kids in the least likely little league baseball team. Filled with an assortment of socially awkward and unruly children, the Bears initially struggle both on and off the field.

But under Buttermaker’s unconventional and often irreverent coaching style, the team begins to bond and improve, culminating in a climactic championship game against their more talented, and better-funded, rivals. It’s an archetypal underdog story, whose DNA lives on in everything from The Mighty Ducks to The Sandlot. It was praised for its unvarnished, realistic portrayal of the kids, as well as the comedic chemistry between Matthau and the team.

Watch on Hoopla

6 ‘The Fortune’ (1975)

Directed by Mike Nichols

the fortune 19750

Comedy legend Mike Nichols directed this black comedy about two con artists, Nicky (Warren Beatty) and Oscar (Jack Nicholson), who are attempting to get their hands on the fortune belonging to the wealthy heiress Fredericka (Stockard Channing). However, their plot takes an unexpected turn when they discover that Fredericka is not as gullible as they presumed, and she’s got a plan of her own.

It’s a farce through and through, like a ’70s take on a 1930s screwball comedy. Not every joke lands, but ultimately The Fortune works because Beatty and Nicholson are at the height of their powers, and it breezes by at just 88 minutes long. It was another movie that Ethan named among his all-time top five.

Watch on Tubi

5 ‘The American Friend’ (1977)

Directed by Wim Wenders

the american friend 19770

The American Friend is a neo-noir directed by Wim Wenders, the filmmaker behind Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas. Dennis Hopper is Tom Ripley, a charismatic but amoral art forger living in Germany. Seeing an opportunity for revenge, Ripley manipulates a terminally ill picture framer, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), into carrying out a hit on a rival gangster. What follows is a dark odyssey through the European underworld.

This sounds like the premise for a high-octane action flick, but Wenders plays the whole thing as an atmospheric, mediative drama – though without letting up on the suspense. It’s interesting to compare it with the 2002 film Ripley’s Game, starring John Malkovich and Ray Winstone, which was adapted from the same source novel. The parallels with the Coens’ own filmography are obvious, and they have cited it as a favorite.

Watch on Criterion

4 ‘High and Low’ (1963)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kenjirô Ishiyama, Takeshi Katô, and Tatsuya Nakadai hiding under a table in High and Low
Image via Toho

High and Low is a classic police procedural directed by Akira Kurosawa, which Joel Coen listed as one of his all-time top five movies. Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a wealthy businessman who becomes embroiled in a tense kidnapping situation when his chauffeur’s son is mistakenly taken instead of his own. The film’s second act shifts from the upscale confines of Gondo’s home to the gritty urban landscape, where the police race to rescue the abducted child and bring the kidnapper to justice.

It’s a fantastic blend of crime thriller, domestic drama, and social commentary, tautly constructed and engagingly told. On top of that, it’s a fascinating picture of a rapidly changing postwar Japan, where economic and technological changes are transforming the landscape. Here, Kurosawa flexes his considerable directorial muscle, while Mifune delivers one of his very best performances.

High and Low

Release Date
March 1, 1963

Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa



Watch on Criterion

3 ‘Dames’ (1934)

Directed by Busby Berkeley and Ray Enright


Dames is a pre-Code musical comedy about Ezra Ounce (Guy Kibbee), a straight-laced millionaire who becomes swept up in a series of comedic misadventures due to the meddling of his overbearing nephew, Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell). When Jimmy tries to modernize his uncle’s life, chaos ensues as he attempts to stage a risqué musical production with the help of a talented composer, Scotty (William Warren), and a chorus girl, Barbara (Joan Blondell).

Jam-packed with slapstick comedy and infectious musical numbers, Dames is a delightful and quintessential piece of ’30s cinema which Joel included among his five favorites. The story takes a while to get going, but the climactic dance numbers are fantastic, with elaborate choreography and eye-catching costumes.

Rent on Amazon

2 ‘Separate Tables’ (1958)

Directed by Delbert Mann

separate tables 19580

This character-driven drama revolves around the residents of a quiet British seaside hotel. The film brings together an ensemble cast that includes notable performances from David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, and Wendy Hiller. In one narrative, a retired army officer, Major Pollock (Niven), grapples with personal demons and the disapproval of his fellow guests. In the other, a reclusive and rigid woman, Miss Pat Cooper (Hiller), confronts her past when her estranged ex-husband, John Malcolm (Lancaster), reenters her life.

Both Niven and Hiller won Oscars for their performances, while the script adapted from Terence Rattigan‘s original plays also received a nomination. It’s a real sprawling project, with a poignant mix of romantic drama and melancholy. Joel Coen placed at number four on his all-time top five.

Watch on Tubi

1 ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton

where eagles dare0

Where Eagles Dare is a World War II movie about a small group of elite Allied soldiers, led by Major Smith (Richard Burton) and Lieutenant Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), on a perilous mission deep behind enemy lines in the Bavarian Alps. Their objective: to infiltrate a heavily fortified Nazi castle and rescue an American general who holds critical knowledge of the impending D-Day invasion. It’s a men-on-a-mission movie of the highest order, which can be a little cheesy at times but makes up for it by being endlessly entertaining.

The film is chock-full of shootouts, explosions, and grim Nazi castles; a combination that would inspire later video games like Wolfenstein. High production values, a thrilling score, and some surprisingly complex characters elevate the flick over the rest of the competition. Not for nothing, Joel included Where Eagles Dare as one of his five favorite films ever.

Where Eagles Dare

Release Date
December 4, 1968

Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Patrick Wymark, Michael Hordern



Rent on Amazon

NEXT: 10 Great Movies Recommended by Hayao Miyazaki


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *