Charting the Coen brothers movies is to see how the landscape of movies has evolved and changed over the years. Starting with Blood Simple in 1984, they began as cult directors who spearheaded (along with other directors) the emergence of the indie-film movement of the late 80s and early 90s before evolving into solid mid-budget performers after their mainstream breakout success with Fargo. Their commercial and critical peak reached a zenith of sorts with No Country For Old Men bagging them their Oscar and True Grit bringing their biggest box-office haul. And now in the ultimate sign of the evolution of the industry, they now embark as part of the first group of A-list directors to embrace streaming services. Choosing to rank their movies is probably a futile task as their career is marked by very rarely making the same film twice, evoking everything from the Western to the screwball comedy to the film noir and everything in between. But ranking is what I do, so let’s dive in:
18. THE LADYKILLERS (2004)
The Ladykillers is the only real flop in the Coen brothers canon, and it is ironically because of what the Coens usually do so well. They seem intent on infusing this movie with their usual amount of weirdness but the problem is that the original Ladykillers (starring Alec Guinness) was already an odd and eccentric movie to begin with. The end result is a mess of a film where the entire cast of characters (including Tom Hanks, J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, and Irma P. Hall) seem bent on out-funnying one another. This ensures the movie is never boring, but it doesn’t make it any less a mess.
17. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003)
On the opposite spectrum from the over-the-top The Ladykillers is Intolerable Cruelty, easily the most “normal” movie made by the Coens. The movie is a throwback to classic screwball comedies as Miles Massey (George Clooney), a high-powered and very successful divorce lawyer, finds himself having to pit his wits against Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a gold-digging wife. Naturally the two will find themselves both at odds and increasingly attracted to one another in a movie that does very little wrong, but nothing very memorable either.
16. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994)
While most of Ethan and Joel Coen’s output has some element of comedy to them, very few of them are out-and-out comedies. The Hudsucker Proxy is the exception, and easily the jokiest movie the brothers have produced. This makes it both an interesting movie and a not wholly successful one. The performances by Tim Robbins as a simpleton mail clerk turned CEO, Jennifer Jason Leigh as a fast-talking reporter looking for a scoop, and Paul Newman as the silent mastermind behind it all are perfect representations of their classic Hollywood screwball counterparts. But the movie is so satirical as to strip it of any substance, and render the story devoid of any stakes. As we shall soon see, the best Coen brothers films have great stakes.
14. BURN AFTER READING (2008)
Burn After Reading is basically a screwball comedy where all the characters are idiots. As such summarizing the movie’s plot is bound to be a exercise in futility as dumb people tend not to make decisions that are logical. Yet this movie is infinitely entertaining in the moment thanks to the performances of all those involved including Brad Pitt’s dumb jock trainer, Frances McDormand as basically her character in Fargo but if she broke bad, George Clooney as a happily married man who just can’t seem to get the concept of fidelity, and John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton basically doing what they always do in movies.
13. HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
Like many of the lower movies on this list, Hail, Caesar! is a movie that benefits greatly from repeat viewings. The twisty plot involving a behind-the-scenes look at the classic Hollywood studio system proves to be a distraction the first time around as it mostly amounts to nothing. But what Hail, Caesar is however is a series of great moments whether it is Alden Ehrenrich and Ralph Fiennes’ hilarious “Would that it t’were so simple” scene, the over-the-top dance numbers anchored by Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum respectively, or basically every scene Josh Brolin appears in.
13. BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)
And with this pick we come to understand exactly why the Coens deserve to be ranked amongst the greatest of all time: I have heard arguments for each of the remaining movies for why they deserve to be considered their best and these arguments are compelling. Each movie from here on out is great and we only are arguing about the degree of greatness they achieve. With Blood Simple, we see that the Coens arrived on the scene almost fully formed. This taut little thriller displays everything we love about their movies: brutal violence, shocking humour, supreme control from the directors, and an undercurrent of meditation about mortality, guilt, paranoia, and greed beneath their entertaining facade. Blood Simple is as impressive a debut as you will ever see.
12. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001)
Though the Coens have throughout their informally evoked the film noir era throughout their careers (Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men among others) The Man Who Wasn’t There is their direct homage to the golden age of noir. They craft a slow-moving but always compelling black-and-white noir where Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber whose wife (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with her boss (James Gandolfini) which naturally presents Crane a chance to scheme some good old fashioned blackmail. Of course, given that this is a Coens film the final outcome of this scheme turns out much more tragically disastrous and horrific than expected.
11. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The soundtrack for this movie is one of the greatest of all time. This movie, a brilliant (and very loosely adapted) reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey as a Depression-era farce, shouldn’t work and it barely does. That it works at all is thanks to the infectious goofiness brought by the central triumvirate of George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson – a modern incarnation of the the three stooges – as they stumble and traipse their way through the South. The movie may be nothing more than a series of calamitous and funny events, but it is undeniably a good time.
10. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
With The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the Coen Brothers have attained a most unlikely title as the premier directors of the 21st century Western (with True Grit and No Country for Old Men their other standout Westerns). Not only do they successfully replicate and dismantle the Western with their first movie on Netflix, they also have the audacity to accomplish this within an anthology film – a notoriously difficult film format. Like a labyrinth meditation walk, each segment slowly circles around the Coen’s usual obsessions with death, fate, and the seeming unpitying view the universe has toward our plights with such subtle ease that you don’t notice the noose tightening our necks.
9. TRUE GRIT (2010)
Having seemingly learned their lessons from their first remake The Ladykillers, the Coens successfully remake the original John Wayne-helmed True Grit (1969) not by leaning into their usual blend of tragicomedy but rather by counterintuitively being even more faithful to the source material than the original. Jeff Bridges’ lawman Rooster Cogburn may not have the natural swagger of John Wayne, but Bridges brings his “Dude”-like sensibility to the role to turn him into ornery gunslinger who seems more like a homeless drunkard than an arbiter of frontier justice. And then there is the revelatory performance of a young Hailee Steinfeld as the avenging Mattie Ross, who has to bear the burden of being the centre of the narrative while being surrounded by veterans like Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin in her first role. To say she nails it is a bit of an understatement.
8. MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
With Miller’s Crossing the Coens are practically begging you to compare it to The Godfather. The fact that Miller’s Crossing does not come out of that comparison wanting speaks volumes to how great it is. On one level, this gangster flick is a perfect homage to the gangster movies and film-noirs of the 1930s and 40s. But it is also a twisty and dark tale that dismantles the notion of good guys and bad guys and instead asks the more crucial question: whether having a moral code matters at all. Gabriel Bryne is excellent as Tom, the right hand man in a Prohibition-era gang who is tasked with the unenviable task of keeping his crime boss Leo (Albert Finney), and Leo’s position, safe – at any cost.
7. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)
The Coen brothers’ specialty is in creating acerbic and unlikable characters that you inexplicably end up rooting for and this is certainly the case with Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Like Barton Fink, Davis is an artist who seems to be incapable of being satisfied with anything he creates, let alone anybody else’s work and this more than anything else sends him down a self-sabotaging path. Fortunately the music he does create is absolutely fantastic, making the movie’s soundtrack a wonderful ode to the folk music scene of the 1960s. That Davis seems incapable of understanding just how much good music he is surrounded by and of the opportunities right in front of him as he sabotages everything he touches makes this unquestioningly a Coen brothers movie.
6. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
If this were merely a ranking of the best Coen brother’s characters there is no doubt “The Dude” would be much higher on this list. As it is, this movie’s position on the list should not be viewed as an indication that it is objectively an inferior film but rather that the ceiling is exceptionally high for the brothers’ work. The Big Lebowski finds the Coens firing on all of their usual cylinders: exceptional character work, a twisty plot that oscillates between humor and tragedy but never careens out of control, a unparalleled level of craftsmanship, and a willingness to push against the bounds of conventional filmmaking to bring us some place new.
5. A SERIOUS MAN (2009)
Possibly their most mature work to date, A Serious Man plays like a modern retelling of the tale of Job, but in much more banal circumstances. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man who slowly finds his safe and stable suburban life slowly eroded, first by emotional infidelity, then by a threat to his push for tenure at work, and then by several other micro-tragedies that slowly cause his life to fall apart. Stuhlbarg is perfect as someone for whom all his misfortunes seem like a minor cosmic injustice while simultaneously also seeming like he brought it upon himself. But what can he do? After all, he simply wants to be considered a serious man.
4. BARTON FINK (1991)
Never has there been a more likeable but punchable character than Barton Fink (John Turturro). When his proletariat play receives critical success in New York, he is dissatisfied as he sees its success as ultimately beneath his goal of crafting a new and better theatre for “the common man”. Of course he quickly finds himself assigned as a screenwriter for a B-movie in a Hollywood that neither wants nor cares about Fink’s lofty goals – plunging Fink into his own pulpy journey of madness. That it also functions in some way as a treatise to the Coen brothers aesthetic vision is a sign of just how masterful they are as directors.
3. RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
It is quite astounding that Nicolas Cage has only ever appeared in one Coen brothers movie because he seems like a tailor-made actor for the brothers’ cinematic universe. Fortunately his one collaboration with the brothers here is a doozy as Cage and the equally impressive Holly Hunter play a felon and his fiancee who decide to kidnap a quintuplet baby in order to alleviate their hopeless childless situation. With an absurdist humor sensibility that is somehow simultaneously over-the-top and carefully calibrated, this is the movie that established the Coens signature style and signaled them as the preeminent directors to come out of the 80s.
2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
No Country for Old Men, stands as a part of a trifecta of American movies, along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and David Fincher’s Zodiac all released in the same year, that redefined the American epic by telling stories that both confirmed and undermined the myth of the American dream. In No Country’s case, the trio of the deranged killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the well-meaning but ultimately morally weak Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and the principled sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who finds his morals have ill-equipped him for a nihilistic world together weave a tale that strips the veneer of American exceptionalism only to reveal nothing but cruel fates beneath. It is fairly common for directors to receive the Academy Award for their inferior work because it is basically a lifetime achievement award (see: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed). Fortunately this is not the case for No Country for Old Men.
1. FARGO (1996)
Granted, I may be biased since this movie was my first introduction to the Coens but hear me out. Featuring their strongest ensemble cast with Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and John Carroll Lynch each giving great performances onscreen (if not their best) and a plot that is perfectly paced and perfectly macabre, Fargo is also the perfect distillation of the themes in the Coens’ work and their delicate balance between tragedy and comedy has never been better calibrated. Its world-building is so fully formed as to now become shorthand for what Minnesota is like (probably to most Minnesotan’s chagrin), while Marge Gunderson is easily one of the most iconic characters ever created. The movie is also responsible for adding “wood chipper” to the list of words that make us involuntarily wince. For Pete’s sake, this movie is just great.