Haunting, blasted landscapes. Crisp, lived-in dialogue. Sweaty, bellowing fat men.
These and many other elements comprise the films of Joel and Ethan, but don’t begin to approach the totality of their vision. For more than 30 years the Coen Brothers have punctuated American cinema with their eccentric sensibilities. Hell, they can’t even get a commercial film right; there’s too much visual flair, too much courage of conviction, to ever be mistaken for a generic cash-grab. The Coens are uniquely themselves, whether in success or in failure.
But never fear, there are far more triumphs than failures. The Coens write and direct a movie within an inch of its life, earning a reputation for perfectionism. (For a clear example of their meticulousness: while filming “Fargo”, they politely objected to Peter Stormare’s utterance of “pancake house” instead of “pancakes house” as written in the script). You could look at almost any one their films and declare it formally flawless. That the Coens make it look extraordinarily easy is testament to their cinematic experience and know-how.
While I’ve endeavored to rank the Coens’ filmography as fairly as I can, it’s inevitable that lists like this represent one’s personal taste. So good are the Coens that I had to make several difficult decisions (especially because I think #8 – #1 deserve to be called “great”). That said, I’ll still attempt to justify my inevitably subjective choices. And please bear in mind: even the worst Coens Brothers film is worth seeing, something that can only be said for the greatest directors.
[Note: Included only are the feature films directed by the Coen Brothers. I have excluded films only written by the Coens (such as Crimewave or Gambit) in the interest of maintaining auteurist sensibilities.]
16. The Ladykillers (2004)
Yes, even the Coen brothers hit a low point in their careers, and this disappointing heist-comedy was it. Remaking a classic British comedy that starred Alec Guinness, the Coens substitute roguish charm with wacky affectations. The film is engineered for laughs and not much else, but the morbid style of humor tends toward “morbid” more than “humor”. We’re treated to such comedic low-lights as J.K. Simmons’s flatulence (Mr. Simmons deserves better) and a dog suffocating in a gas mask. Still, at least the film stays watchable throughout, and Irma P. Hall delights as the perceptive landlady who will not be duped by Tom Hanks and his band of ne’er do wells.
15. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Co-Writer(s): Sam Raimi
The Coens meet Capra in this story of a mailroom worker who ascends to company president. Like many of the Coens’ less-than-great ones, the film ends up feeling more like a genre-pastiche than a coherent narrative, resulting in set-pieces that hit or miss seemingly at random. Its manic version of New York doesn’t leave out the fantastic (including a clock-tower battle between the personifications of good and evil). Despite a cast that includes Tim Robbins and Paul Newman, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the film as a Hildy Johnson-inspired reporter (she’s so good, you wonder why the film couldn’t have centered on her). Ultimately the film probably plays better as a collection of clips, with its emotional core mired under homage after homage.
14. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Co-Writer(s): Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, John Romano
Two very bankable stars stand at the forefront of what should have been a romantic comedy slam dunk. Like Hudsucker, it has moments of brilliance surrounded by meaningless fluff. Clearly there’s a callback to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s (you can feel George Clooney straining for, but not attaining, the comic instincts of Cary Grant), but the comedy skews too broad, even by screwball standards. What’s more, the Coens put too much emphasis on funny faces and caricature when they should have focused on tightening the banter between its two marquee names, considering their palpable chemistry. Still, the end is oddly touching, thanks to a perfectly modulated Catherine Zeta-Jones performance.
13. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Putting this film so far down on my list is likely to be my first controversial opinion in these rankings. While I respect and admire its aesthetic (as someone who doesn’t listen to bluegrass, I think the songs are fantastic), the film feels like a surrender to a particular time and place, playing out like one long running gag. None of the characters change or have meaningful arcs of any kind, and the allusions to The Odyssey are more circumstantial than anything else. True, Tim Blake Nelson is particularly inspired as the dullard Delmar, but Clooney feels miscast in the lead role as a grungy charmer. There are some well-earned laughs, but the film lacks any real emotional stakes. Immensely watchable but ultimately tiny in its ambitions.
12. Burn After Reading (2008)
The epitome of Coen-brand incompetence and desperation, all wrapped up in a densely plotted spy caper. While ostensibly a farce, it’s surprisingly poignant in the way its characters futilely pursue criminal means to ease their psychological angst. The result is a mostly funny but always zany comedy of errors, where mistaken identities and botched plans often lead to fatal results. The chaos doesn’t add up to much, but that’s sort of the point, and the film obviously recognizes it. Burn might not measure up to their better comedies, but it’s a defiantly absurd diversion in the Coens’ canon. Brad Pitt has rarely been funnier in his turn as an ill-fated musclehead.
11. True Grit (2010)
Grit is somewhat of an anomaly in the Coens’ filmography because it may be their most traditional film (at least by their standards). Harkening back to classic westerns, it also showcases some great frontier dialogue and a star-making turn from Hailee Steinfeld as vengeance-seeking Maddie Ross. Jeff Bridges’s “Rooster” Cogburn may occasionally devolve into Dude-lite histrionics, but he’s a fitting introduction to the gallery of weirdos we inevitably encounter. In addition to fleshing out a bizarre and beautiful western landscape, the Coens paint a surprisingly dark portrait of Maddie Ross and her uncompromising personality. Grit has character and idiosyncrasy to spare, but somehow lacks the staying power of their more iconic films.
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
And so we go from the Coens’ most traditional film to their most overlooked. A black-and-white neo-noir, Man evokes Albert Camus’s The Stranger in which a seemingly emotionless man commits a passionless killing, and ultimately pays for it. For a modest production, the Coens manage to fit in everything from suburban malaise to tragic misunderstandings to UFO paranoia. Such disparate elements make the film lose some cohesion, but it gains much from the central performance of Billy Bob Thornton, who turns understatement into an art form. There’s something terribly heartbreaking about a man who learns how precious life is, too late.
9. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
What was that I was saying about understatement as an art form? That’s Gabriel Byrne’s performance here. Like The Man Who Wasn’t There, this gangster film embraces genre aesthetic while infusing it with the Coens’ trademark touches (anticlimactic slapstick, breathless repartee, and of course, bellowing fat men). Their humor helps undercut serious gangster tropes even while the plot proves as thick as a Raymond Chandler novel. In addition to its sharp-tongued dialogue, the film is a showcase for set-pieces, including a show-stopping assassination attempt on Albert Finney’s crime boss Leo. Though it suffers from more genre worship, Crossing has more than its share of disquieting truths.
8. Raising Arizona (1987)
My favorite pure farce from the Coens, and still one of Nicolas Cage’s finest roles as the loquacious H.I. (“call me Hi”) McDunnough. A former small-time crook, “Hi” learns that his wife (a fiercely affecting Holly Hunter) can’t conceive, and so turns to baby-napping to fulfill their supposedly mutual dream of nuclear familyhood. Predictably, chaos ensues. It’s a wild, off-the-wall romp, but one that is firmly grounded in universal anxieties of marriage and parenthood (even when it involves an apocalyptic motorcycle assassin). When you’re not splitting your sides, you’re laughing out of empathy for the eminently likeable cast of characters. It’s a crazy idea and crazily fun.
7. A Serious Man (2009)
Here’s another film that flew under the radar, thanks to an esoteric concept (a suburban Job suffering in 1960s Minnesota) and a conspicuous lack of movie stars. Never fear; the film probes questions of faith and divine will while also doubling as an uproarious comedy. It plays like a religious nightmare with wake and dream overlapping, circumstances changing on a dime, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s hapless, beleaguered protagonist Larry Gopnik struggling to make sense of it all. The film stays deeply committed to its ambiguous atmosphere, especially in its whammy of a final shot.
6. Blood Simple. (1984)
The Coens’ first film is a callback to old film noir, but one that’s wholly suffused with their own personality. As well as launching the career of Frances McDormand (who’s mesmerizing in her screen debut), the Coens mark their first foray into frontier philosophy and create nail-biting suspense even on the smallest of budgets. Thrills and chills spring naturally from the biases and paranoia of the characters, unfolding in sequences that would make Hitchcock jealous. You’ll have a difficult time predicting who will still be alive at the end of this twisted Texas tale, but death does not come cheap: each comes with weight, solemnity, and a new set of problems.
5. Barton Fink (1991)
More than Miller’s Crossing, Fink manages to marry style with substance in this dark fable of a New York playwright-turned Hollywood screenwriter. John Turturro stars as the crazy-haired writer, bursting with talent and vivacity, but also stewing in self-doubt and naiveté. Struggling to complete a script for a B-movie, he makes the acquaintance of several bizarre but influential characters who hold the keys to either artistic liberation or certain perdition (particularly John Goodman’s enigmatic Charlie Meadows). As the Hollywood hellscape threatens to engulf him, Barton compromises everything from his craft to his ethics, all in pursuit of the perfect script. Writer’s block has never seemed so lurid, so intoxicating.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
(Original Review here)
Yes, the Coens’ most recent film deserves a high ranking on this list, as it distills big ideas about artistic ambition into a lucid mood piece. Our eponymous hero is Oscar Isaac’s down-on-his-luck folk musician in early 1960s Greenwich Village, bumming couches when he can, caring for a cat left arbitrarily in his care, and suffering for his art in the cold and rain. Drawing upon their experience with Barton Fink and A Serious Man, the Coens craft a fine character who must contend with a fickle music industry as well as his own ideas of artistic integrity. Boasting beautiful nuanced work from Isaac (the Coens have a knack for coaxing career-defining performances from their actors), the film also boasts a soundtrack teeming with passion and regret.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Well folks, you have me. Here’s a film I love unabashedly yet find difficult to describe precisely why. Suffice to say it’s a film that feels absolutely right from opening to closing frame. Set in the most seemingly random of time periods (1992 Los Angeles), we follow the iconic slacker-of-all-slackers, the Dude himself, as embodied completely by Mr. Jeff Bridges. Bursting forth with creativity in every department, Lebowski is a celebration, an encapsulation, of not taking ourselves too seriously and waiting for all the pieces to fall in place. So brilliantly are the characters drawn (pairing the laid-back Dude with the trigger-happy Walter Sobchak is sheer genius) that by the end, we’ve achieved a truly moving coda.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
(Best Picture Review here)
If you’ve seen my countdown of the Academy’s Best Picture winners, you know how much I cherish this film, considering I had it at my #1. (See my rankings here.) I feel there’s little more I can say about it, except this: despite its undeniably bleak overtones, it’s full of surprisingly tender moments. Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss (what is it with these double L-named protagonists?) abandons all sense to deliver water to a dying man. A wounded pit bull turns to look at Moss for a moment before it limps off into the wastes. A young boy offers a makeshift sling to help an injured man, not realizing he’s helping a murderer. No Country plunges headlong into the depths of evil, but plumbs deep enough to find faint glimmers of hope.
1. Fargo (1996)
This choice will likely come as little surprise, considering it’s usually ranked as their best. I will say it edges No Country out by a smidge, mainly because of Frances McDormand’s iconic police chief Marge Gunderson. As we oscillate between befuddlement and slow understanding when it comes to the film’s many bungled crime ventures, Marge maintains the film’s warm and compassionate center. Despite Marge’s ever-cheerful demeanor, McDormand and the Coens manage to beautifully develop her train of deduction over the course of the picture, leading to some hilariously awkward encounters with many a guilty criminal. Like No Country, Fargo presents the best and the worst of us. Blinding white snow has never loomed so heavy with promise…or ruin.
Well, that “wraps ‘er all up,” to quote a certain Coens character. As you may imagine, I’m already counting down the days until the Coen’s next feature, Hail Caesar!, due out in early 2016. The greatest filmmaking brothers in history seem poised to continue their streak of weird and wonderful cinematic ventures. It’s a beautiful day indeed.