I won’t mince words. The perception of a surge in moviemaking activity in Minnesota in the 1990s was real. But only because up until the ’90s, Minnesota may as well have been Siberia for all the impression it had made on Hollywood moviemaking. Furthermore, the tally of movies shot in Minnesota outnumbers the list of films actually and explicitly set in Minnesota by quite a bit. So the list of the best movies set in this state is relatively sparse, and would be sparser still without the presence of hometown heroes Ethan and Joel Coen. That said, there are some classics to be celebrated among the following. In chronological order.

credit: Universal Pictures

The Great Minnesota Northfield Raid

(dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972)

The only movie on this list that dates in the BP era (that’s “Before Prince”), this 1972 drama pits Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall against the authorities as Cole Younger and Jesse James. The two and their posses join forces to rob what was then called the largest bank west of the Mississippi River in Northfield, Minn.

credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Purple Rain

(dir. Albert Magnoli, 1984)

To be honest, the movie itself isn’t all that much. Once you get past the scene of Prince telling Apollonia to purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, you’ve got way too many shots filmed in Los Angeles passing (poorly) for Minneapolis and a bunch of corny subplots involving Prince’s home life and rival Morris Day’s unchivalrous treatment of women. That said, it also has at least a half-dozen electrifying performances from inside First Avenue of songs that helped define the decade (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy”).

credit: Walt Disney Pictures

The Mighty Ducks

(dir. Stephen Herek, 1992)

I still remember when a few of my elementary school friends said they got to be extras on a movie called Bombay. When the movie finally showed up, its name had changed to The Mighty Ducks. The movie leaves no sports cliché unturned, but you’ve gotta love all the local sights, from the Mall of America to Rice Park.

credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grumpy Old Men

(dir. Donald Petrie, 1993)

Minnesota’s 1990s Hollywood kick was in full swing by the time this Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau comedy proved a sleeper hit. Their arguments over proto-cougar Ann Margaret are worth the price of admission, but all the greatest zingers belong to Burgess Meredith as Lemmon’s salty pop.

credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer


(dir. Joel Coen, 1996)

Ground zero, and unquestionably the best movie ever set in the North Star State. (Or worst, depending on who you ask.) The Coen Brothers’ sixth film came just as the reputation their early successes Blood Simple and Raising Arizona had started to wane. Wisely hewing close to the womb, their ice-cold sense of humor and penchant for blood and carnage all but obliterated everyone’s notion of “Minnesota Nice.”

credit: Paramount Pictures

A Simple Plan

(dir. Sam Raimi, 1998)

Sam Raimi’s thriller turns the screws so expertly, you may not even realize just how suspenseful this wintery noir throwback actually is. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton play brothers caught in a whirlpool of deception and suspicion after finding $4.4 million inside a downed plane. The moral choices they are forced to consider end up wreaking a terrible price.

credit: New Line Cinema

Drop Dead Gorgeous

(dir. Michael Patrick Jann, 1999)

Every great film has to have a vulgar copycat, right? If so, Fargo‘s brat wannabe is this mockumentary, an unbelievably mean-spirited satire of small-town beauty pageants that leans waaaaay too hard on the hilarity of overdone Minne-soh-dah accents. And yet, it really pulls no punches. It’s probably the least politically correct comedy of its vintage. Only Jawbreaker compares.

credit: Libero, LLC

Sweet Land

(dir. Ali Selim, 2005)

Minnesota’s sleeper hit of the last decade, director Ali Selim’s period drama is a low-key but hard look at life on the prairie in the early part of the 20th century through the eyes of a couple whose romance is not looked upon kindly by the rest of the townspeople. Filmed in the Montevideo area, Sweet Land also boasts performances by Alan Cumming (also co-producer) and Ned Beatty.

credit: Warner Brothers

A Prairie Home Companion

(dir. Robert Altman, 2006)

Robert Altman is one of America’s all-time greatest directors, and his fictionalized account of Garrison Keillor’s famous radio program was his final film. Fittingly, it’s a wise, witty meditation on the end of the analog media that fascinate both Altman and Keillor.

credit: Focus Features

A Serious Man

(dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

Thirteen years after they sunk their teeth into Minnesotan passive-aggressiveness, the Coen Brothers look back with a mixture of fondness and revulsion at their own Jewish upbringing in 1960s Twin Cities suburbia. A Serious Man is a perfectly-realized, merciless modern-day retelling of the Book of Job which pins its protagonist against the wall (but still makes sure he takes a pit stop at one of those old Red Owl convenience stores).

Eric Henderson is a web producer at WCCO.COM.