Ranking the Films of The Coen Bros.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published Jan 23, 2014, but with the upcoming release of Hail Ceaser, we felt it was worth sharing again.
Joel and Ethan Coen have built a reputation as two of the most visionary and idiosyncratic filmmakers working today. Dabbling in Film Noir to screwball comedy, from off-beat indies to big-budget studio pieces, their films are adored by critics and audiences alike. The two-man writer-director-producer-editor team, have long been regarded by cinephiles as masters of the craft. Choosing our favourite Coen Bros. film isn’t an easy task, but we asked our staff to rank their films from favourite to least favourite. The results were interesting, with Fargo running away with first place, and two of their 16 films not producing enough votes to justify making the cut (The Lady Killers, Intolerable Cruelty). Here are the results. Let us know which is your favourite Coen Bros. film?
13. Burn After Reading, 2008
Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to follow-up their award winning mammoth No Country for Old Men just a year later with the spry, highly quotable, and screwball Burn After Reading. Taking place during the Bush era (though it’s never outwardly stated), this comedy charts the follies of national security through a handful of odd and deranged characters: two dim-witted gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), a State Department Marshal (George Clooney), and a bumbling, drunken ex-CIA analyst (John Malkovich). Representing one of the Coens’ best shaggy dog stories, Burn After Reading takes the film’s ostensible spy-espionage setup and obliterates it with overtly ridiculous gags and shocking violence. The characters are increasingly dumb and shallow, but somehow loveable despite their low moral positioning. It’s been regarded as a minor film in the directors’ filmography since its release in 2008, but Burn After Reading has easily endured as one of their most rewatchable and rewarding films. The film’s momentum builds and builds, until an abrupt final scene sends you out on a high of tongue-in-cheek bafflement. Things here really are as they seem: sad, moronic, and pointless. The Coens wouldn’t have it any other way.
– Ty Landis
12. The Hudsucker Proxy, 1994
The Hudsucker Proxy begins with a romantic display of a New York City that never excited. Snow falls heavily as the camera moves in among skyscrapers that stand as symbols of progress and triumph. On a ledge, ready to jump, is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). Like it’s winter scenery, the film is cold and overtly glamorized, a trend not uncommon to Coen films. Like the cityscape around him, like everything else in the visually illuminating and funny screwball comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film is a pop-culture myth straight out of old films, cartoony with its fast-talking dialogue from over-the-top characters. Although the story is set in 1958, the look and feel evokes 1920s and 30s Art Deco nostalgia. One may marvel at the intricate set design and bleak cinematography, but on the other hand, many may pass the film off as being too isolated, not allowing the audience to get to know or even care about the plight of the characters. The Coen’s are accused of being cold, and so they should be. They don’t mean to create warm and loving people. What they love is genres, and they reserve their warmth for the styles of old film. Their Blood Simple is revived film noir, Miller’s Crossing a romanticized gangster tale, Barton Fink 1940’s naturalism, and so The Hudsucker harkens nodes of the 1930’s Machine Age reminiscent of the silent film era. One look at the lavish ornamentation and bold geometric shapes of the city architecture, Metropolis comes to mind. And the view of large overworking gears from inside the clock tower, conjures up thoughts of Chaplin’s Modern Times. To be obliged by the Coens, it is necessary to delight in their films’ stylized, surface charms.The Hudsucker Proxy is chock full of them, with no expectation to the rule.
11. The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001
Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is a strange, but beautifully made tribute to the film noir genre. Here they’ve cast Billy Bob Thornton as a self-effacing small-town barber who hatches a blackmail scheme in hopes that it will make him rich. Everyone cheats on him including his wife, his business partner, his underage teen lover and his hotshot lawyer, and now he’s ready to take revenge. His plan seems bulletproof but as is the case in most of these films, it all goes horribly wrong. The result is an unconventional, unpredictable thriller touched by typically absurd moments of humour, and featuring a couple of bizarre Coen-style flashbacks, and oddball subplots including alien abduction in a narrative inspired by the seedy crime novels of James M. Cain. The films of the Coen Brothers always look great; and this is no exception. The Man Who Wasn’t There features breathtaking black and white cinematography by Roger Deakins, who keeps things straightforward and traditional. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2001, and Joel Coen won the Best Director Award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, sharing it with David Lynch for his film Mulholland Drive. Opposite Thornton is Frances McDormand turning in some of her best work, and Scarlett Johansson as a Lolita-like damsel in distress.
10. Miller’s Crossing, 1990
If the eighties was the time when the Coens emerged as a hugely promising and truly exciting filmmaking team, curators of both artful suspense and cult-rousing black humor and a surreal sense of reality, the nineties was when they flourished as a creative force that defined a generation, starting right off the bat and setting the tone with the masterful, bubbly and truly confounding Miller’s Crossing.
Setting their saga in history for the first time, their 1990 trailblazer combined the twists and irony of Blood Simple with the crazed morbidity of Raising Arizona and added something entirely new to their catalogue of tropes and tastes. As much as there is pastiche of classic era prohibition crime stories, toying with pre-conceived notions of honorable gangsters sitting in furnished livery with whiskies and thoughts of friendship and loyalty on their mind and turning them upside down with almost slapstick abandon, there is also an affection for such cinema and a true justification for its setting beyond the beautiful cinematography, period detail and Carter Burwell’s immaculate score.
Looking like a rich tapestry more in line with Once Upon a Time in America than Oh, Brother, it weaves a delightfully complex web of lies, deceits and gambits as Gabriel Byrne’s shifty and canny mob fixer attempts to corral flashpoints and burning resentments within various warring crime syndicates by way of truly apathetic sleights of hand. A classic Coen anti-hero, Byrne’s Tom Reagan is acting on behalf of Tom Finney’s father-like boss while also bedding his moll and touting his rivals, a perfect example of the cheerfully amoral temperament and mood of the piece.
The Coens’ usual fondness for cultivating human stupidity as a means of rich dark laughs is replaced here, unfashionably, by a similarly crooked smile at our habits of self-preservation. On paper unpleasant, on screen it not only acts as the touch paper for the winding and lightning fast narrative but indeed a source of great larks in of itself, suggesting that the creative duo behind the method in madness are truly baffling in their multi-talents.
A cutting edge screenplay and wonderful ensemble cast stuffed with character actors and Coen mainstays means that even when thinking you’re watching masters at work, you don’t really have to think that hard at all. Artistic and thoughtful, it’s also one of their most entertaining flicks to date.
– Scott Patterson
9. Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013
The Coens’ latest endeavor places their sensibilities outside their usual spectrum of quasi-surreal black comedy and noirish thrillers in favor of a Greenwich Village circular ramble, a portrait of the artist as a young loser, Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) odyssey weaves throughout a folk scene of which he is bitterly a part, focused on artistic integrity rather than success — an ambition that would seem laudatory and engrossing if he weren’t such a narcissistic nuisance. Its closest creative ancestor resides in the storytelling of O Brother, Where Art Thou? due to its shared tie-ins with the tale of Ulysses, yet Llewyn’s palette is so muted, its myth more personal than epic, allowing a tabby to bear the brunt of a real adventure. For how soft it plays, it is also more mature, allowing Llewyn to occupy an odd moral space between hero and anti-hero as he feuds with choleric ex-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), nearly sells out with upbeat musical comrade Jim (a bearded Justin Timberlake), becomes a target of vitriol from heroin-addled jazz player Roland (John Goodman), and ultimately searches for who he might be outside his late musical partner: a jab at the Coens’ own working relationship. Shot in a bloomed gray, its depiction of a nostalgic New York serves its thesis of the proclivity to hold on to what once was. By the time the film ends and this music scene becomes justified in the familiar crooning of its mainstream successor, Llewyn is broken yet resilient, as if A Serious Man’s hidden dybbuk has found its way further into the brothers’ work, acting as a moral machine for our engagement and curiosity.
– Zach Lewis
8. Raising Arizona , 1987
On the season premiere of Community Abed takes a class trying to decipher if Nicolas Cage is insane or a genius. Abed never gets his answer but in Raising Arizona Cage is somewhere in the middle and it’s amazing, this is mostly due to the incredible script and direction of the filmmakers. One of the Coen Brothers finest gifts is their ability to mix the most bizarre menacing comedy with a sweet undertone. Raising Arizona is one of their most visually appealing films, the movie is perfectly constructed and paced from beginning to end. It also might be one of the funniest films ever made.
Only in a Coen brothers film could the story of H.I. (Cage) his wife Ed (Holly Hunter) and their kidnapped, although much loved, son fall somewhere between darkly funny and strangely loving. Raising Arizona manages to do the impossible, it’s perhaps one of their most accessible films yet it manages to hang onto all the quirks that make their films work so remarkably well. In an exceptional career, with so many accomplishments, Raising Arizona stands out as one of the finest examples of just how magnificent the Coen’s are.
– Tressa Eckerman
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000
In amidst the sepia-coloured backdrop lies the Coen’s satirical take on Homer’s Odyssey, effectively bringing it for a modern audience. After the moderate success of The Naked Man and the now-affirmed cult classic The Big Lebowski, it took the brothers around two years to get their adaptation into production, while bringing in digital colour correction for the first time to ‘tint’ their film like an Instagram filter. The end result is a fantastical yet delightful tale laced with roots from the Deep South.
Whilst crossing paths with a variety of eccentric strangers, the trio of hapless heroes (Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro and George Clooney, in his first collaboration with the Coens) stumble their way through desolate Depression-era Mississippi to recover a hidden treasure, while evading the local authorities and making a hit record along the way.
Not only do the Coen Brothers incorporate the themes of political reform, racism and religious values into the story, they also bring in their whimsical charm and offbeat humour to their version, with the film’s old-time folk music soundtrack accompanying the brothers’ whimsical direction like a lifelong companion.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of their more straightforwardly comprehensible of features, but the Coen Brothers bring in enough of their trademark quirkiness to entertain the masses.
– Kate Wong
6. True Grit, 2010
True Grit conforms to the Western genre’s conventions and codes, and as a result, it feels less personal when placed in the context of the rest of the Coen’s filmography. But it’s easy to see why the brothers would want to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. Its hard-edged dialogue, slightly hokey characters, black humour and twisted tale of revenge, play right to the filmmakers’ strengths. True Grit is not just a Western – but a dark coming of age tale, girded by strong performances from newcomer Haille Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges, playing Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn, and the touching relationship forged between their characters makes it a pairing for the ages. But the real reason to see True Grit, is for the work of the Coens’ regular collaborators, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. This is a vibrant, dirty, earthy movie that feels worn around the edges, and a bit washed-out, yet it ranks among the most beautiful films photographed by legendary cinematographer. Meanwhile Carter Burwell’s nicely austere score soars above the film and resonates in your head long after you’ve left the theatre. It might be the Coens’ most straightforward film, but it’s also one of the best Westerns in recent years.
– Ricky D
5. A Serious Man, 2009
Probably the oddest biblical parable ever put on film and certainly one of the strangest comedies the Coen brothers have ever made, A Serious Man is a slow brooding film that requires a great deal of attention from the audience for the film to make any sense. Opening with an unrelated supernatural story in an early 20th century Yiddish community, the film is about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish university professor dealing with a plethora of family issues in 1967 Minnesota. His kids are generally rebellious (into drugs and rock music); his wife is leaving him for another man; his brother is dealing with severe mental health issues; he is hoping to get tenure at his University and is approached by one of his students who attempts to bribe him to raise his grade. The film is only funny in a very dark twisted sense and it helps to know that it is heavily reliant on religious sources for humour. However, if you can get into it there are plenty of laughs to be had and the story is one of the most subtly meaningful character studies ever put on screen.
– Mynt Marsellus
– Neal Dhand–
4. (Tie) Blood Simple, 1984
The first film from those rare directors who straddle mainstream and arthouse cinema, Blood Simple put Joel and Ethan Coen on the map in 1984.A twisting noir quite aware of Wilder and Hitchcock, Blood Simple introduced a new type of atmosphere into American independent cinema. Dark humor and leering, almost cartoonish characters populated a bleak landscape, replacing the coquettishness of a Double Indemnity from decades earlier or the smoldering sexuality of 1980s neo-noirs Body Heat or Tequila Sunrise.
The Coen brothers have never shied from violence, though their representations grew more grotesque post-Blood Simple: a body in a wood-chipper, Tommy gunfire amidst a burning building, a captive bolt pistol. Still, Blood Simple features early images that will become emblematic of their style, particularly a beautifully orchestrated, operatic scene, where a gloved hand reaches slowly to its victim, only to be stabbed through with a knife.
– Neal Dhand
3. The Big Lebowski, 1998
Like a Raymond Chandler novel shaking off the effects of a bad trip, The Big Lebowski is an absurdist noir that gropes for answers it may or may not lose interest in before finding. The insanely quotable comedy follows The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who embarks on a quest to get his rug (“it really tied the room together”) replaced after two thugs mistakenly urinate on it while looking for a different Jeffrey Lebowski, and finds himself drawn into an increasingly convoluted plot (“this case has a lotta ins, lotta outs”) between various members of the L.A. elite. With his caustic friend Walter (John Goodman in top form) at his side, The Dude navigates a complex web of plots and counterplots, betrayals and mistakes, looking for meaning in a system that long ago lost sight of it and may never have had any at all.
The plot, like in many a great noir, is mostly beside the point, dense trappings that allow the Coens to populate this world with a wide variety of eccentrics and to pepper the film with intricate fantasy sequences and loopy digressions that serve no purpose greater than showing how little actually serves a purpose in our day-to-day lives. For all of the film’s shaggy dog ambling and the breezy platitudes of its care-free protagonist, The Big Lebowski boasts moments of shocking emotional acuity that give all that’s come before a delayed weight. Mostly, though, this is, as Sam Elliott’s narrator tells us, “a purty good story, don’t you think?”
– Jordan Ferguson
2. No Country For Old Men, 2007
The films of the Coen brothers are laced with moral questions and searching examinations of what it means to be alive. Perhaps none is as bleak, nor as brilliant, as No Country For Old Men, a searching examination of the darkness that haunts humanity and that seems to be overtaking our better natures inexorably. As Sherriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) prepares to retire from a job he no longer feels able to perform in a world grown too violent and amoral for his old fashioned sensibility, a trail of bodies begins to pile up in the wake of Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he absconds with $2 million in drug money from the scene of a slaughter. Hot on his tail is the bleakly moral and brutally efficient hired gun Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in an Oscar-winning role).
The film (which also won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay) is a nearly flawless combination of pulse-pounding action sequences and quiet meditations on fate, futility, old age, greed, evil, and the blackness at the core of humanity. As a thriller, the film races along like a rocket, turning in some of the most intensely suspenseful scenes in cinematic history. But beneath its surface lie some deep, lingering questions about human nature, the unrelenting existence of evil, and the attractiveness of nihilism in a world where all roads lead to death. No Country For Old Men is a flat-out masterpiece that asks the sort of questions that keep you up at night and provides answers that are the stuff of nightmares. “If the rule that you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Chigurh asks shortly before dispatching a victim, and the Coen brothers seems as fascinated by that question as their cold-hearted hit man. They struggle, like Sherriff Bell, to find their way out of “all that dark, and all that cold” and to a place of hope for the future.
– Jordan Ferguson
1. Fargo, 1996
In the 1990s, violent films with dashes of comedy were very much in vogue. While Quentin Tarantino is widely seen as the preeminent purveyor of this formal juxtaposition, it’s arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo that most skillfully balances the shifting between, and integration of, equal parts bloodshed and laugh-out-loud hilarity. The film – “based on a true story” (not really) – is immediately and frequently amusing, while it also maintains tension to the very end. The picture opens with a blindingly white, snow-enveloped tundra that is North Dakota; a vehicle slowly comes into view like a character emerging in the Arabian Desert. First, there’s the awkwardly devious, yet largely good-natured, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), clearly and constantly in over his head when dealing with goons Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) or when trying to sell the benefits of TruCoat protection. And then, more than 30 minutes in, there’s pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, quite rightly winning an Oscar), waddling along, solving crimes, stealing the show. But on the brutal other hand, there’s comedic kidnapping, geysers of blood, and bodies in wood chippers. Still, in the brothers’ body of work, full of unusually quirky characters, these folks are among the most authentic … or at least most authentically quirky. Maybe it’s because of the terrific performances across the board, maybe it’s the Coens’ personal identification with the region and its regional eccentricities (they were born in Minneapolis — how else could they nail the “yas,” “you betchas,” and prowlers needing jumps?). Either way, there are moments of genuine down-to-earth heart here that don’t always surface in the rest of their films. It might be a murder story, but at least it’s a “homespun” murder story. With the exception of the professional and proficient Marge (she knows what DLR means on license plates; her partner, Lou, not so much), the otherwise incompetent characters can be quite dastardly. Why then do we enjoy watching them so much, and why is it often so funny when they do these dastardly things? Fargo is also endlessly quotable (IMDb’s “Quotes” page shows why dialogue alone warranted the Academy Award for original screenplay). Ultimately, Fargo is profoundly and pleasantly engaging in its depiction of simple people caught up in not-so-simple schemes. It’s all this, and here they are, and it’s a beautiful day.
– Jeremy Carr