Once everything’s back to normal, Joel Coen intends to resume filming his first movie without the help of his brother, Ethan. They’ve been working together ever since Joel bought his first Super 8 camera with his pay from mowing lawns, so it’ll be fascinating to see a Coen solo effort, in this case a new take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Whilst most die-hard fans will no doubt pray that the two will reunite in the future, this change of habit marks a good moment to take a look back at every film the brothers have made so far, and brutally rank them of course. Ranking the Coen Brothers’ films is no easy feat, and my ordering is likely to offend almost every other Coens fan out there — that’ll probably include myself when I re-read this piece a few years down the line.
18. Raising Arizona (1987)
“I love him so much!”
It’s insulting enough that I’ve only seen this movie three times. Performances are excellent and subtler than they first appear, especially the relationship between Nicholas Cage and his partner-in-kidnapping Holly Hunter, but Raising Arizona’s heartwarming end isn’t substance enough. The slapstick comedy is less witty than later efforts, and the Coen’s mixture of sincerity and screwball is not yet cohesive enough to make the hairs on one’s neck stand up.
17. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
“Would that it were so simple”
Another kidnap movie, George Clooney plays as he’s often asked to: the loveable, charming, well-spoken idiot. His comically underwhelming plot features Coens veterans and newbies alike, including a much-awaited cameo from Jonah Hill. Kidnapped Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) finds comfort amongst his communist captors, who’re promptly thwarted by a charming Western hero named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). Hail, Caesar! is rife with subtext and bookish humour, but lacks the gut-busting punch of their better movies.
16. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
The Coens neither homage nor pastiche genres; they execute them with informed good faith. The Man Who Wasn’t There is their most blatant film-noir to date – filmed in black & white with exceptional attention to shadow and light, Billy Bob Thornton stars as a barber with little to say. He hears of an investment opportunity (dry cleaning!) through the noir-perfect Jon Polito, and proceeds to exact a scam upon his wife’s boss. One could dismiss this film as a little on-the-nose in its adaptation of the genre, but the depth of character and strongly thematic plot suggest that the Coens have more than just glanced through Carol Reed’s repertoire.
15. True Grit (2010)
“It would be all right”
It is said that when adapting novels, one brother reads the book and the other simply scripts it out verbatim. Their choice of shorter books means that they rarely need to chop and change, but True Grit’s novellic structure makes for a slightly odd watch, albeit an utterly compelling one if you’re in the mood for a Western. Hailee Steinfeld is incredible as the uppity 14-year-old avenging her father’s death, with Jeff Bridges aiding her as the grumpy drunk bounty hunter, and despite being an adaptation, True Grit is rife with awkward Coens wit.
14. No Country for Old Men (2007)
“Where does he work?”
Some are surprised when they discover that the Coens made this one. The signs are there if you look closely: glorious cinematography by Roger Deakins, a respect for pacing and slow humour, and a most American tale, adapted fairly truthfully from a Cormac McCarthy book. This western thriller, however, has little overtly comical about it, except perhaps in the awful hairstyle of Javier Bardem, who plays the murderous antagonist. It’s an incredible effort with an emphasis on tension, but No Country isn’t the movie I’d most like to relax to.
13. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
“Have you sat before her before?”
This courtroom rom-com starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones sounds on paper like a sell-out, but I find it a huge labour of love. It’s the only film not originally scripted by the Coens, but the brothers dive into the cheesiness without apology. There’s no lack of their usual twists and turns in the plot, of their absurd characters and great camera shots, but if you’re after something with Fargo’s depth and Barton Fink’s complexity, turn away. In short, this is not a film for snobs!
12. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
“We’re in a tight spot!”
A suspension of disbelief is also needed for O Brother, Where Art Thou. Another Clooney flick, this comedy-western epic shot in near-sepia claims to be a vague retelling of Homer’s odyssey, and indeed it features a questing hero, sirens, and John Goodman as the record-managing, KKK-rallying “cyclops”. Everyone’s a musician (including actual musician Tommy Johnson) and the movie is filled with country, gospel, and blues echoing its 1930s setting. Critic Roger Ebert felt it to be a collection of “lovely short films–but the movie never really shapes itself into a whole”. My own opinion of it wavers: I’m proud for it to be the first Coens I ever saw, but wouldn’t have it be my last.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
“It’s Mike’s part”
Inside Llewyn Davis is a cerebral, mature affair. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) traverses the green-grey 1960s folk scene with a set of gorgeous songs which everyone in the movie seems unimpressed by. Maybe it’s because Llewyn is often ungrateful, impolite, and self-conceited.
With its bookish comedy buried under a layer of often convincing realism, a cast including Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake seek to berate, look down upon, or support Llewyn on his slow-moving, aimless quest to make the bigtime without his late partner. He hides his tragedies well, and as the film comes full-circle we’re left wondering whether it’s Llewyn himself who is Inside Llewyn Davis: trapped forever in his own cycle of failure, with only a great soundtrack and the odd heartwarming moment to keep him going.
The Top Ten
10. The Ladykillers (2004)
“Easiest thing in the world”
If you’re a lover of the original movie, then I ought to start out by saying that it’s true: Tom Hanks is no Alec Guinness, and no attempt is even made at replacing Peter Sellers. That said, The Ladykillers makes no claim to be a direct remake; it takes the set-up – hospitable old woman unwittingly invites criminals to use her house as a headquarters – and playfully translates it to Mississippi, sating us with shots of the gorgeous delta with its riverboat casino.
This film is all about the characters, with J.K. Simmons’ completely irritating Mr. Pancake competing not only to be the most hilarious Coens character, but also simultaneously the most pathetic, loveable, and hateable. There’s plenty of slapstick, but the real comedy comes from the interactions between the criminals; the somehow believable misunderstandings and awkward conversations that happen whilst everything goes to pot. The Ladykillers also features my favourite of all Coen Brothers soundtracks, with sounds of the deep south drifting over dark scenes of the movie in the form of Sam Cooke’s angelic gospels.
9. Burn After Reading (2008)
“It was just lying there”
If you don’t find Brad Pitt’s character in Burn After Reading absolutely hysterical, I urge you to repeat-watch the movie until you do. Best described as a thriller-comedy set in an overcast Washington DC, the movie takes full advantage of Frances McDormand’s goofy innocence with its ruthless edge, Clooney’s puppy-eyed idiocy, Malchovich’s bitter world-weariness, and Tilda Swinton’s cold uptightness.
But nothing comes close to Brad Pitt! He plays Chad, and one goes from disliking him, to finding him funny, to loving him, all within a few minutes. He remains in his own world whilst being completely out of his depth. He drinks protein shakes and bops to gym music whilst on a stakeout. He puts on unconvincing husky tones to intimidate, before breaking character to laugh when a furious Malchovich mistakes his bicycle for a Schwinn model. He makes the futile farce of Burn After Reading seem more than worth it.
8. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
“You know, for kids!”
The Hudsucker Proxy lays the gags on thick, and it’s been argued that little space is left for substance. Starring Tim Robbins at his most innocent and accident-prone, The Hudsucker Proxy is a 1940s-style screwball comedy about money, big business, aspiration, morals, and love. It is undoubtedly on-the-ball with its caricatures of post-war cinema, and herein lies the substance.
Great cinematography, classic story structure, and a supporting cast including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Frasier’s John Mahoney gel what could have been a throwaway attempt at mimicking old comedy into a cohesive, well-told, and hilarious love story that’s a mile-a-minute with laughs, but has one simple, human tale at the centre of it. To top it all off, we get to see the fictionalized inventions of both the hula-hoop and the bendy straw!
7. Barton Fink (1991)
“I could tell you some stories…”
Where to start? John Torturro plays the skittish New Yorker Barton Fink in his only starring role for the Coens to date. Written when the Brothers were supposed to be writing Miller’s Crossing, it tells of an artsy playwright sent to Hollywood to pen a wrestling movie, despite his complete ignorance in the subject.
When he checks into the run-down hotel with only a cheery bell-boy (Steve Buscemi) and an overly-friendly wrestling-obsessed insurance salesman (John Goodman), the tone drops, and we’re left lost and disappointed by the Star-Studded City.
A subdued and surreal character study exploring intellectualism and snobbery is barely separable from the bizarre thriller that follows- everything seems thematic, every strange twist and unexpected happening a nail to Barton’s artistic coffin. It reminds me of Kronenberg’s Naked Lunch, not only in that both star Judy Davis as the wife of an addicted and struggling writer, but in their exploring the dark tunnels of the writer’s mind with nothing more than a cold detective’s stare.
6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
“It didn’t hit nothin’ important!”
Not in fact intended to be a TV series as rumour held it, the Brothers’ first Netflix production pleasantly surprised me. Packed with cameos from regulars and newbies alike and kicked off with three catchy and funny cowboy songs, Buster Scruggs is an anthology of Western tales presented as if it’s an old illustrated children’s book, making me pine for a childhood I never had! What I find brave about this particular film is it’s tonal shifts – it’s not unusual for action, love, existentialism, and cringy conversation to crop up in the same Coens flick, but Buster Scruggs really lets you know when one tale is over and another has begun.
Stories 1 & 2 are your classic saloon-brawling, bank-robbing, pistol-duelling riots, but tale number 3 drops into a slow, repetitive study of a traveller (Liam Neeson) carting a limbless actor (Harry Melling) from one badly-paid poetry recital to the next. 4 is Tom Waits’ fresh and nature-filled search for gold pockets, and 5 is one of the best balances struck between sincere love and goofy Americana since Fargo. Tale number 6 is death, and that’s all I’ll say.
5. Blood Simple (1984)
“If I need you again, I’ll know which rock to turn over”
Being their first feature effort, Blood Simple lacks the polished technicality that we expect from the Coens, but is nonetheless a unique and memorable thriller. It’s high up the list, however, largely due to M. Emmet Walsh’s yellow-clad cowboy hitman, his Texan drawl so drawly that we can barely understand a word he says.
He’s hired by a jealous husband to bump off the wife and her lover, and as we watch this dirty cackling man attempt the job, it starts to feel as if he’s not been hired for his expertise, but purely because he’s the only local who’d stoop so low. Turns out the husband’s judgement was ill-placed, and things get very, very ugly.
4. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
“Look in your heart!”
Whilst I’m raving about obscure character actors, I should toast the late great Jon Polito. His familiar pencil-moustache and short fat physique made him perfect for this prohibition-era noir, following the complex politics between Irish and Italian gangsters.
As we’re taken on a thrilling ride through bent bookkeeping, illegal clubs, and hinted-at homosexual relationships, I can never wait for Polito’s next scene. He plays the paranoid Johnny Caspar, a sometimes cruel, sometimes reflective, sometimes incredibly trusting mafioso trapped in a world where there’s little trust to be found. He mourns ethics when he can’t even get a payout from a fixed fight (oh, the humanity!), and later contemplates “an interesting ethical question” during a whirlwind of murder and backstabbing.
Thank God Polito insisted on playing the role against the Coens wishes, only convincing them after a cold-read of the script, although Miller’s Crossing’s near-perfect cinematography and storytelling also push it far up the list.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Am I wrong?”
Third from the top has become the subject of countless quotations and memes since its release, and there’s good reason. Every character in The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) whacky journey is packed with hysterical lines, and there are just as many unspoken gags in the form of facial expressions, slapstick comedy, and visual callbacks. John Goodman plays his most loveable Coens role as the complete jerk friend Walter Sobchak, and Steve Buscemi is their pathetic third-wheel, the calm to their storm.
Many who don’t get on with The Big Lebowski have trouble easing into its playful atmosphere, as the film admittedly claims to be more than it is. To find anything funny about this movie, one has to believe every word of it. Lines like “Near the in-and-out burger”, “The bulk of the series”, and “Don’t worry, Donny- these men are cowards” aren’t funny on their own- when the crazy yet almost-believable characters of The Big Lebowski utter them, every syllable becomes laced with unexplainable comic magic. The rocking soundtrack makes The Big Lebowksi a film that you can chill out and drink a White Russian to!
2. Fargo (1996)
“Kinda funny lookin'”
The story goes that longtime friend and collaborator Sam Raimi approached the Coens to ask them how to shoot in snowy landscapes, so impressed was he by Roger Deakins’ cinematography for Fargo. Whatever film that was for, it’s lost to the annals of history like many Sam Raimi efforts, whilst Fargo stands as a monument of witty and sincere American cinema, even having its own spin-off series, which has no input from the Coens and which, despite the nice idea, is unfortunately overly-derivative in all the wrong ways, missing out the substance of what makes Fargo so great.
It’s not just the quirky accents, or the beautiful landscapes, or the twisting plot. It’s the real, cozy, innocent charm that lies beneath; a movie about Minnesota made by two Minnesotans who aren’t out to lampoon or mock, but to welcome you in. No character lacks depth, and no theme is pressed; we see the strife of these people through their actions, their facial expressions, their journeys, and the lessons they learn. Fargo is a cinematic triumph with little chance of replication.
1. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coens kicked off writing A Serious Man with one idea: a kid trying to do his Bah Mitzvah whilst stoned. It’s hard to compare this movie to anything else – there aren’t a whole lot of abrahamic character studies set in 1960s suburbia – but I’ll safely call it perfect. It’s got religion, it’s got relationships, it’s got college politics, neighbour paranoia, sex, weed, loneliness, and of course it suggests some kind of hasidic mathematical code to the universe. All that said, there’s little unconvincing about this movie.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a dorkish, loveable pushover to whom bad things continue happening with increasingly biblical proportions. Throughout the movie, he consults three rabbis, and soon discovers the lack of meaning within meaning itself, and the meaning to be found where there is none, and the film leaves you as befuddled and exhausted as Larry. Oh, and Jefferson Airplane make up most of the soundtrack. A Serious Man is a seriously good film, and I can’t recommend it enough.