The Coen Brothers seem to often be labelled as directors suitable for those just getting into cinema, a directing duo suited to fit those who are new to the form and interested in expanding, alongside the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg and James Cameron. This seems a little unfair, considering the extremely wide range of styles and genres that the duo work within and how well they manage to work within the vast majority of them, whether it be the brutal and nihilistic action of No Country for Old Men or the quietly depressing ballad that is Inside Llewyn Davis. Having now finished all of their work to date, it seems suitable to have a look back on their films and, of course, put them into a pointlessly ranked list based upon a personal preference that would likely change somewhat every single time this list was put together… so, without further ado, let’s rank the eighteen films of the Coen Brothers, going all the way from Blood Simple in 1984 to the most recent Ballad of Buster Scruggs in 2018! (We’ll be starting with the worst – certainly don’t want people to assume that the following film is my favourite… yikes – and it’s also worth noting that not all of these films are strictly directed by the two brothers together, but they’ve always worked together to a certain extent on them, so I kept them all together).
#18 – Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Ignoring the critical reception to this one, it’s easy to see why this one might attract a large audience – it’s a Clooney and Zeta Jones romance comedy with a twist from the Coen Brothers… so how does it come to fall apart? It seems that between directing The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men (a six year gap) the Coens had something of a creative slump, directing their two worst films back to back, both comedies with huge stars in the leading roles that are seriously difficult to sit through. I personally think that the negativity of these films comes from just how forgettable they are – it seems that the aim was mediocrity. Both films try to poke fun at their genre tropes somewhat but also never take a risk by daring to go outside of them. Intolerable Cruelty in particular feels like a far, far worse version of Steven Soderbergh’s very good Out Of Sight (1998), one that is made hollow and predictable by what can only be put down to a clear lack of effort and creativity on part of the stars and the crew. Incredibly forgettable and mostly boring.
#17 – The Ladykillers (2004)
As I just said, this film along with Intolerable Cruelty seemed to release in the midst of a minor creative slump for the directing duo. The Ladykillers isn’t quite as boring as Intolerable Cruelty, largely thanks to the premise alone (which, of course, comes from the original English film of the same name… so it’s not thanks to the Coens that this one runs at least a little smoother than the film that came before it), but it lacks any kind of distinct flair and limps along as if it were wounded. Hanks does his best, but it’s not enough this time.
#16 – Burn After Reading (2008)
The last film on this list that I just really dislike is Burn After Reading. Credit where it’s due, though, this one really goes all out and it’s certainly not hurt by a lack of effort. In fact, if I could place the problem anywhere, it’s that too much went into this, and it becomes overwhelming and even slightly annoying as it continues to throw so many different stories and lines of dialogue and zany performances at the wall, very little of which sticks (Brad Pitt is surprisingly really funny and fits in beautifully, but that’s all I can give it credit for, really). The ending is a great moment and certainly one of the more shocking moments in any Coen Brothers film, but by then it’s too late to make the film stand out as anything more than mildly infuriating.
#15 – Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Hail, Caesar! holds a slightly more special place in my heart seeing as it remains the only film by the Coens that I’ve seen in the theatre, and so I remember it quite distinctly. It’s something of a sketch comedy for the most part, a connected group of stories revolving around 50s Hollywood producers, actors, etc. The main storyline focuses on George Clooney, who is kidnapped from a set mid-production, with the other stars being impacted by this. Of course, being similar in structure to a sketch comedy, the pacing and the consistency of the plot are both a little haywire, and it’s a shame as some parts of this are admittedly really funny, but there are just as many parts that are stone dry to counterbalance those moments of brilliance.
#14 – O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film that, similarly to Burn After Reading, throws everything it has at the audience pretty quickly, and hopes that it all works. The fact most notable about this film is that cinematographer Roger Deakins pioneered colour grading to make all of his shots covered with a yellow-green tint to further enforce the atmosphere of the Southern landscapes. Whilst the film is a little too rambling and all over the place for my tastes, the camaraderie between the leading trio of George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson is really wonderful, as is a lot of the supporting cast. I can definitely see why quite a lot of people say that this is one of the best films by the Coens, but it never hits the mark for me unfortunately.
#13 – Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Miller’s Crossing was the third film from the duo and the second one that was heavily inspired by film noir. Set in the late 1920s, the film follows the typical noir set up of a woman coming between two men, resulting in violence and misunderstandings, etc. This one is very nicely shot and has some magnificent moments. Gabriel Byrne also does his best to carry it along, but in my eyes this one never quite takes off as the other Coen Bros noir films do. It’s a little meagre in comparison to the others, it never feels out for blood. It’s still a good watch, but I’d certainly advise just watching one of the better noirs from these two, as they have some of the best that have ever been put to film under their belt, and this one simply pales in comparison.
#12 – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Being the duo’s first film directed for Netflix, I imagined that this one would give them a little more room for movement, and it would appear that I was half right seeing as anthology films are notoriously quite hard to sell to an audience, and Westerns now struggle with the same problem. What I was surprised by was also the odd use of stars, such as James Franco being used for around fifteen minutes, giving a great performance but, of course, a slightly unsatisfactory one in that none of these characters feel fully realised with the exception of Zoe Kazan’s Alice Longabaugh and Tom Waits’ unnamed gold hunter (even then it’s a stretch to say fully realised – his only dialogue is mumbling to himself, but hey, it fits Waits as well as you’d expect).
The attempts to be subversive sometimes help the film a great deal and make it fun to try to keep up with, but more often than not this only stretches so far for the stories and, worst of all, often the subversion comes in an anticlimactic way as opposed to really striking and surprising the audience, so it’s almost disappointing when you are actually surprised by a little twist that you weren’t quite prepared for. The Coens are definitely doing their best with the majority of the material here, but some of it could certainly use a harsher editor to cut it down as it needs to be to run smoothly, and a couple of the stories (particularly the final one) could use a little injection of life. It’s a shame that the first two stories are the most entertaining and that it’s all downhill from there, but such is the trouble with most anthology films, unfortunately buckling under their own weight more often than not. I appreciate the attempt because the very premise at the core of this is great fun, but it doesn’t all fully work when translated to screen.
#11 – The Big Lebowski (1998)
I know, I know – it should be higher. But the truth is that every single time I give The Big Lebowski another chance to impress me, it leaves me a little colder. Steve Buscemi is charming as always – he’s one of my favourite actors without a doubt, and he’s great here too – and Jeff Bridges is always pleasant to see, but much like the other Coen films I struggle with, this one is insistent on throwing so much at the audience at the same time and seems to fold over itself. That and it simply doesn’t suit my sense of humour, which is admittedly more juvenile than I’d like (but what can you do?). It’s held together by the great performances and the intriguing characters, but it only just limps over the finish line in my case. Not bad, but not good either.
#10 – True Grit (2010)
True Grit always surprises me. I haven’t yet seen the original film, so maybe that aids this one somewhat as I tend to prefer whichever version I see first and end up disliking whichever I see last a little more (I admit, it’s an odd trend), but there is something about the chemistry between the characters that makes this something of a comfort. Of course, it’s not really supposed to be a comforting film, set in a brutal version of the West with harsh landscapes and equally unforgiving violence waiting around the corners, but there is something to the connection forged between the characters and the way that they bounce off of each other throughout that makes this stand out. Hailee Steinfeld is as good as everybody said at the time, with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon also being brilliant in their roles, too. This one is a little overlong, and it may pale in comparison to its original (I wouldn’t know!), but it’s still surprisingly slick, especially considering how dead in the water the modern western is. A pleasant surprise, for sure.
#9 – Fargo (1996)
Again, maybe this one is a little low. I used to like this one quite a bit more, but as time has gone on, I’ve come to realise that I only really admired it for Steve Buscemi (I swear, he carries some charm of likeability that always tricks me into liking the film he’s in more than I should!) and the beautiful Deakins cinematography. The story is also pretty impressive as it manages to weave so much together, but it struggles a little with the typical Coens affliction of them getting a little too carried away and a little too involved with their characters, to such a point that it backfires a little as they carry scenes on for too long. The dark comedy is also nicely handled, even if it’s never quite gut-busting at any point, and Frances McDormand gives one of her better performances. Overall, it’s a very solid film, but one that I wish were that little bit stronger – a film that gives enough but doesn’t quite hit the home run you’d hope it would given the capabilities of the cast and crew.
#8 – The Man Who Wasn’t There (2003)
With the Coens once again delving into film noir, more than ever before in this case as they finally subscribe to going all out on the black and white, The Man Who Wasn’t There is an expectedly fun time. Giving Billy Bob Thornton the leading role as a dissatisfied barber turned opportunist eventually turned… something else, this film brings together a stellar cast and, unsurprisingly, Roger Deakins’ cinematography and puts them to great use in telling the story of what a lack of satisfaction in life can really do to a person and what it can mean for those around them. Similar in theme to A Serious Man (a film coming up a little later on), this one is a great summary of some of the Coens’ key styles and themes that crop up consistently in their work, and by itself, it’s a great film that honestly deserves a little more recognition than it gets from most.
#7 – Raising Arizona (1987)
Being a *huge* fan of Nicolas Cage, this one of course appeals to me quite a lot. The second film that the Brothers directed, following up the excellent Blood Simple with a bigger budget comedy to instantly prove their versatility as directors, this one came as a surprise to most everybody and proved that the Coens were here to stay. Cage is a perfect fit for their style of comedy in this film, which is about a young family who are so desperate to have a child that they decide to kidnap one. All things considered, it goes okay… until it doesn’t. Some chase sequences (one of the best ever!) and a lot of laughs later, all is back to usual. It’s not a particularly unique or risky film in any terms other than the fact that its humour is certainly a little off kilter at times, but it is mostly just a really solid comedy that shows the power of the Coens’ craft.
#6 – Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink is one of the best comedies by The Coen Brothers, which is surprising seeing as most of the time their surrealism doesn’t really work with me (though, not as surprising as I found the comedy closer to the top to be!). It follows the titular Barton Fink, a playwright given the golden ticket of being able to go to Hollywood and write screenplays… but, of course, it’s not so much as Golden ticket as one smothered in drainage. With John Goodman giving one of his best supporting performances (and, as we all know, he certainly has plenty of those!), Barton Fink is a great film that shows writing as it really is, when you’re tortured by an empty page and frustrated by just about anything else, scouring for inspiration anywhere you can think of, and John Turturro captures that kind of angst so perfectly and somehow even manages to balance it out with the bizarre storyline that keeps on going and going out of control. It doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of the very best work from the pair, but it is pretty damn close.
#5 – A Serious Man (2009)
One needs only to watch the sadistic trailer of A Serious Man to know what they’re getting into when pressing play for this film. A Serious Man is an oddball torturous situational comedy about a man struggling with his faith, his personal life and his career all at once, a man finding himself stuck within a life that he is unable to stop from continuing to spiral out of control, a life that continuously becomes more monstrous before his eyes as he watches on, powerless to help himself. It’s a wickedly funny film, one that never really laughs at the characters but more at the situations that they have the misfortune to find themselves inn and thanks to the genius of the script, it all feels completely warranted (even the more surrealist components work). Its ramblings on philosophy, religion and fate tie in perfectly, and Michael Stuhlbarg absolutely tears up the screen in one of the most breathtaking performances of the last fifteen years.
#4 – The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy is really the one comedy from the Coen Brothers that I absolutely love. I hate to use the work, but Kafkaesque certainly applies here as the film goes completely over the top to portray this capitalist hellhole wherein everybody is lying, cheating and stealing from another and nobody really ends up fully happy – not counting that very addicting, temporary happiness that comes to Paul Newman’s character with a sudden influx of money, of course. This may be a little controversial to say, but Tim Robbins gives the second best performance of his entire career in this film (the finest being his turn as supporting actor in Mystic River!) as a total fish out of water who, out of pure chance, finds himself doing just the right thing at the right time and becoming a star for his brilliant invention, one that I won’t spoil. It’s a consistently laugh out loud hilarious film, one that hops from utter surrealism to surprisingly heartfelt romance to fish out of water comedy and all the way back around again, filtering the best parts of Terry Gilliam in his prime, Sam Raimi (who, unsurprisingly, had a credit for helping on the script) and the Coen Brothers all together at the same time. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also just amazing as a journalist who, just like every other character save for Buzz the bellboy and Tim Robbins, is willing to lie, cheat and steal to get ahead. If you’re ever in need of a rip-roaring, freewheeling, no holds barren comedy, this is the one to go for.
#3 – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis was, for a long time, my personal favourite film by the Coen Brothers. It’s a film that works so well because of its leading character, Llewyn Davis, and the performance loaned to said character, from Oscar Isaac who gives what is most definitely his best performance to date. The film follows the misfortunes of Llewyn Davis, an exhausted folk musician with a career going nowhere, a personal life in tatters and dwindling prospects for the future, as he desperately clambers to try to pull himself and his life back together but only ever finds himself in more trouble along the way, whether it comes in the hands of fate laughing at him from afar or from his own doing. This film is brutal, to be succinct. From its opening scene, the audience is pushed into a place of understanding of his character, as he plays a song with all of his heart to a middling reaction from his audience, asks for forgiveness from the owner of the venue for an (at the time) unknown issue, only to go outside and be beaten up, left on the street and bruised. Inside Llewyn Davis is a story of scorn, particularly the scorn of an artist who can’t get anywhere in the world in spite of knowing that they have the talent to at least do better than they are. It’s a film focused on mistakes of the past, as we find that Llewyn is effectively stuck within his, the repercussions of so many different mistakes haunting the present, whether that is made clear by the dialogue or something as small as a roadsigns leading off to a small town with the lights on.
Once again, the colour grading works wonders, as it provides the film with exactly the right look for these feelings – an ugly, washed out grey that bears over everything on screen. The faces are pale and cold, the clothes look worn out and ready to fall apart, the bars are full of smoke and blank faces. The focus on depression here is as raw as they come, really, and even though it is never explicitly mentioned to the audience, that depression can just be felt in every frame. As I said, it’s a harsh film, one focused on the self destructive artist from a low point and following them through until the bitter end. And it is that lack of closure at the end that is so wickedly torturing, so evil, as we know we’ll never really know if it gets better. All we can guess is that it won’t, that Llewyn will remain in his miserable cycle until something brutally forces him out of it, most likely into something even more unforgiving. Consider my near insatiable thirst for films about self destructive artists a little quenched for once!
#2 – No Country For Old Men (2007)
It is very rare that the Coen Brothers will be outright mean to their audience with their themes and characters, but No Country For Old Men is one of the few that really strikes with vitriol from very early on into its runtime. Based upon Cormac McCarthy’s (excellent) book of the same name, this film is about Llewelyn Moss, a man who stumbles across a large bundle of money at the scene of a brutal shootout and runs away with it, with one of the most memorable characters ever put to screen, Javier Bardem’s utterly brilliant Anton Chigurh, hot on his tail for the money, and for the principle. With the Coens featuring very little humour, having no score made for the film and focusing intently on the violence and corruption in the modern South, No Country is their leanest, meanest and grittiest film by quite a jump. It’s a cold, calculating masterwork that just does not let up at any point, with the strands of the story whirling around only to slam together at the end and leave shockwaves busting through anything nearby. Taking an already great book and cutting it down to something as focused and as heavy as this film is only goes to prove the Coens writing talent (not that it needed to be proven), with this one thankfully serving as something of a comeback film after the two had produced only their two most reviled films within the previous six years. No Country is one of the few films that swept at the Oscars that surely deserved to do so, it is absolutely brilliant, and in terms of book to film adaptations, this is one of the finest examples of how to make one work.
#1 – Blood Simple (1984)
Admittedly, choosing between the top three to find the best film by these two was surprisingly difficult – they could really be tied. Llewyn Davis is the most emotional and the most resonant on a personal level, No Country is probably the most finely tuned of any of their work, but there’s something that always stands out about this one. So, I decided to go with the old reliable, Blood Simple. This film was the debut feature from Joel Coen, with Ethan credited as writer, editor and producer and many of the crew members having said that he was essentially a second director on the set, and it is wonderfully sleazy. A neo-noir focused around a series of bad choices and misunderstandings made because of a relationship gone awry is always great, but when the setting changes to Texas and you have Barry Sonnenfeld’s excellent cinematography helping to push things along, the film becomes something else entirely. Much like No Country, it is impossibly lean and cut down to such a point that every frame feels essential to the flow of the film as a whole, something that is never easy to do, and yet they managed to get such an effect with their very first film, somehow. If ever there was a way to announce the entry of a new voice in American cinema, this was the way to do it, and I think that the rest of the history shows that it clearly worked wonders. John Getz gives one of the best performances in any Coen Brothers film, only to have half of his scenes stolen away by the somehow even better M. Emmet Walsh, who perfectly encapsulates the rustic brutality of the film as a whole. It’s an astounding film, and remains one of the most underrated of the films by this great directing duo. It did also receive a 4k upscale recently in the UK, and has been available on Criterion for a little while now.