The Coen brothers are a pair of directors that can make anything work. They can make a Raymond Chandler mystery pushed through the lens of a stoner comedy work. They can make a neurotic playwright moving west and finding himself in some kind of nightmarish hellscape with an overall humorous tone work. If you ask them about their technique, they get all humble and shrug off any claims of genius, but dammit, they are geniuses! These guys have given us movies across a vast landscape of tones and styles, and yet they still somehow manage to put their distinctive, idiosyncratic mark on everything they do. Here are all of their movies, ranked from worst to best.
17. Intolerable Cruelty
What the hell happened here? Why did the Coen brothers make a formulaic Hollywood romantic comedy that some big studio hired them to direct? They have such a unique and original and unusual and twisted voice! Why waste it on a project that has no room for such idiosyncratic vision? As a middle of the road romcom, this isn’t that bad. But as a Coen brothers movie, it is really bad. What happened was, one of their passion projects fell through and this was all they could get made. Who’s out there trying to shut up the Coen brothers? They’re killing cinema!
16. The Ladykillers
A Coen brothers black comedy movie is usually a guaranteed beauty. And a movie starring Tom Hanks is usually guaranteed to be at least engaging, thanks to his performance. But this remake of the Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers crime caper, which changes the British setting to an American Southern one, is pretty weak. Not only does it fail to live up to the original, it’s also not that cinematic or visually interesting or exciting in its plotting or, well, funny, frankly. The stakes get escalated right at the end and a lot of plot threads are paid off in a hilarious way, but for a long time, it’s quite a boring slog.
15. The Hudsucker Proxy
This comedy set in the business world was sadly a box office failure, grossing just over $2 million on a budget of $25 million, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good movie. It’s not a great movie, but it is a good one. It’s worth a watch. Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman make for a strong central trio of actors and all of them get a lot of laughs. With script contributions by regular Coen brothers collaborator Sam Raimi, the comedy is both dark and funny, as in all of Raimi’s own movies. The production design and cinematography are also much better than the average comedy movie.
14. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
This satirical comedy adapts the writings of Homer to a 1930s Great Depression setting. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson star as three convicts who escape from their prison chain gang and go on the lam – the three actors have easy chemistry together and wring a lot of laughs out of their allegorical characters. The Coens’ script is as smartly plotted and intricately developed as ever. The comedy isn’t as fine or, well, as funny as some of the Coens’ other works, but it is an interesting take on Homer’s works and the Soggy Bottom Boys give us a lot of memorable tunes.
13. The Man Who Wasn’t There
This tongue in cheek take on the classic film noirs of Orson Welles and Billy Wilder is not a perfect movie, and its black and white aesthetic does not appeal to all modern moviegoers, but Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast in the lead role as a 1940s barber (the whole movie was inspired by a poster that the Coens saw from 1940s showing a variety of haircuts) and the plot is a pitch perfect homage to the kind of noirs that were being made in the era in which it’s set. One plus side is that, as with many Coen brothers movies, it’s about a diabolical plan that goes hilariously wrong.
12. Hail, Caesar!
Whenever the Coen brothers tackle the film industry that they’ve been working in for so many years, they take a sharp, satirical aim at it. This movie, set in the ‘50s, has the strongest focus on Hollywood of any movie the Coens have ever made. It stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a real life Hollywood fixer who deals with all the crimes in Tinseltown and does the dirty work for the studios. The focus of the movie is the disappearance of an actor from the set of a Biblical epic that’s in production. The movie isn’t perfect, but it is a lot of fun!
11. True Grit
This movie remakes one of John Wayne’s darkest and most interesting westerns. All of a sudden, Wayne wasn’t playing the patriotic, idealist American cowboy – he was a boozing, trigger happy antihero called Rooster Cogburn. The Coens made the ultimate revisionist western with Jeff Bridges in the role of Cogburn and followed the original source material novel more closely with a focus on the fourteen year old girl who works with him to find her father’s killer, played by a young Hailee Steinfeld. The movie is softly one of the most visually striking and narratively interesting western movies of the 21st century.
10. Burn After Reading
The Coen brothers have always been great at finding the humor in the most horrific things. This movie is all about murder and infidelity and espionage and intrigue – and it’s hysterical! The Coens dived right into writing, directing, editing, and producing this movie right after their Oscar winning neo western had won the hearts of critics and many felt that this was a step down, but they needed a break from dark, dramatic storytelling and instead went for dark, comedic storytelling. It might have a few narrative flaws here and there, but it’s hilarious! The hilarity makes up for any faults. Brad Pitt is hysterical in his role as an airhead personal trainer, while George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, and J.K. Simmons are great in their supporting roles.
9. Barton Fink
No one can explain what this movie is about. It starts off as the story of a New York playwright who moves out to Los Angeles to write the screenplay for a wrestling movie, but it quickly devolves into a murder mystery and then simply a nightmarish hellscape. No one can even explain what this movie is. Is it a buddy comedy or a crime movie or a horror movie or is it some kind of surreal blend of all three? Whatever it is, it’s a movie that is unlike any other and it is an electrifying viewing experience. Its meta style and use of visual symbolism and ambiguous meaning have all inspired the works of Charlie Kaufman.
8. Miller’s Crossing
When the Coen brothers decided to tackle a gangster epic, it could’ve either been a total failure or one of their finest masterpieces. It’s a dark story of crime and corruption in Prohibition era America. The story was so complex and multifaceted and complicated that the Coens had to take a break from writing the script to write Barton Fink before returning to finish it. All of this toiling and slaving over the writing of the movie clearly worked out in the end, since it’s one of the greatest crime movies ever made. There are so many iconic scenes, like John Turturro’s “Look in your heart!” monologue. All of the Coens’ strongest influences are on display, from Orson Welles to Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s a simply glorious work of cinema, filled with symbolism and beauty.
7. No Country For Old Men
This adaptation of the acclaimed neo western Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title was the big Oscar winner for the Coen brothers, sweeping the awards in the year of its release. But the truth is, it’s not their finest film, nor is it their most Coens-y film. It’s just that they got lucky with the awards season that year. Still, it is a fantastic movie that conveys every shocking moment of the novel with the bleak cinematic brutality that they deserve. The cast of actors – particularly Javier Bardem as the villain – are all spectacular in their roles and the screenplay is a worthy adaptation of a brilliant novel.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis
This ‘60s set tragicomedy set on the folk music scene is the one that made Oscar Isaac a star. It depicts a week in the life of a struggling artist, in the vein of Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and as with all Coen brothers screenplays, it takes surprising twists and turns and can’t be predicted at all. Isaac is terrific in the title role, a character who is both a comic and tragic figure, while the likes of Carey Mulligan and John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham provide strong support. The movie maintains a unique, skewed, exciting tone throughout, which so few movies manage to do.
5. Blood Simple
The Coen brothers’ first feature film is one of the most brilliant directorial debuts of all time. Debut movies are supposed to act as a calling card for filmmakers to show their potential and promise. One of the finest calling cards in film history is this movie, which displays the Coens’ sick sense of humor and clever storytelling craft and dark creative vision more perfectly than most of the movies that would follow. Its use of juxtaposition – like one suspenseful home invasion scene turning comical when the guy gets kicked in the nuts – makes for a truly unique crime thriller. Plus, M. Emmet Walsh gives a fantastic performance.
4. A Serious Man
This is a beautifully dark and existential movie about a Jewish man in the 1960s whose life slowly begins to crumble as he is tested by God, much like Job before him. The movie is a modern day Jewish folk tale, as written by the Coen brothers. Roger Deakins got his sharp eye back behind the Coens’ cameras for his tenth collaboration with them and shot the movie beautifully. The ending of the movie was the perfect way to conclude this story, with (SPOILER ALERT!) Larry’s doctor freaking out about his chest X-ray, a massive tornado heading for the building, and the emergency shelter failing to open. So powerful, so moving, and so, so funny.
3. Raising Arizona
Anybody who says that Nicolas Cage is not a good actor should see this movie, in which he plays a convict whose criminal past means that he and his wife can’t adopt a baby. So, when they see a furniture tycoon on the news who has just had quintuplets, saying it’s more kids than they can handle, they decide to break into their house and kidnap one of the kids. It’s a movie that makes slapstick comedy work by anchoring it in real human problems. This is not only a hilariously dark comedy – it is also an emotionally poignant movie about two people who want nothing more than to raise their own family and are told they can’t. We can all relate to their hardship.
This title is now most widely associated with the FX anthology series of the same name that adopted the style and tone of the movie, but as great as the show is, it will never be able to top the cinematic masterpiece that it’s based on. The Coens wrote a crime film that is shocking, intriguing, darkly hysterical, cleverly plotted, and takes all kinds of unexpected twists and turns. Frances McDormand more than earns her Oscar as the sweet, softly spoken pregnant cop on the trail of two killers. All the other actors – William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, Steve Buscemi etc. – are also terrific in their roles. The script plays around with gender roles, like having the cop investigating the murders be a woman and her spouse who cooks at home and enters painting competitions to make the days go by be a man. Carter Burwell’s score is ominous and Roger Deakin’s cinematography (blood on snow!) is simply breathtaking. It’s just a fantastic movie.
1. The Big Lebowski
The premise of a Raymond Chandler type mystery story being told as a stoner comedy doesn’t sound like it could possibly work – but trust the Coen brothers to not only make it work, but actually have it become their most beloved and defining film. It’s a cult classic with a following that is still raging two decades later. The lead performances of Jeff Bridges as the Dude and John Goodman as Walter Sobchak are among the finest comedic acting of all time. The writing is hysterically funny and the plotting is deviously clever. It’s a visually stunning movie whose twists and turns you can’t possibly second guess and it can be enjoyed over and over again without ever getting old. Every movie should be like this movie.