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Ranking the Coen Brothers’ Movies




If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my two months dissecting the entire Coen Brothers filmography, it’s that even when you know to expect the unexpected, you can never quite prepare yourself for what these two minds will throw at you. From the daring unfussiness of Blood Simple, to the epic absurdity of The Big Lebowski, to the zany bleakness of A Serious Man, their films are out there, and they rarely do anything twice.

Two trademarks persist over the course of 15 films. One is the impeccable way the brothers capture the time and place in which their film exists. Just look at Fargo. From the grating accents to the simple-mindedness of even the most cunning individuals, that film IS North Dakota. But that’s not the only example. Each of their films is of a very specific moment and from a very specific place. These places and times present themselves in many different ways—from the characters, as I mentioned above, to the sets, costumes, and scores of all 15 films. But in each and every case, including the less successful efforts, these touches envelop us in a world unlike our own. They help us connect to the story because we feel like we can understand the different worlds.

The other noticeable trademark in the Coens’ work is a major theme—consequence. Almost all of their films deal with it in one way or another. Many of them begin with characters doing things they shouldn’t, and the progress as these characters deal with the consequences of their actions. Sometimes, those consequences are bad. Sometimes, their consequences ironically end up being rewards.

When I covered David Fincher’s filmography back in October, I actually found ranking his films relatively easy. Not the case here, as I dislike very few of these pictures and find many of them so different that comparing them is quite hard. Alas, I’m doing it anyway. Here’s the list, presented in reverse order:

15.) Barton Fink

The only film on the list that just didn’t work for me. I didn’t quite understand what the point of it all was, and as good as John Turturro is, I don’t have much of a desire to ever revisit this one again.

14.) Miller’s Crossing

This one takes itself so seriously that it’s just not much fun. It’s a solid entry in the prohibition/gangster subgenre, but it doesn’t really stand out among such a terrific group of films.

13.) Raising Arizona

Their first attempt at pure ridiculousness. I think the only thing holding this film back is the John Goodman/William Forsythe stuff. They’re a little too wacky for my taste. Still, a fun ride from start to finish.

12.) The Ladykillers

Tom Hanks and the Coens might not sound like a good fit on paper, but he surprisingly turns out quite a good—and funny—leading performance here. Yet, the star is Irma P. Hall, who is just a laugh riot as a strong Southern lady who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, whether they’re notorious thieves or not.

11.) O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The soundtrack, as I think most of America would agree, is terrific. The film, I think, gets a bit of a bad rap. Is it perfect? No. Is it smart and surprising? I think so. Is it entertaining? Hell yes.

10.) Blood Simple

Their first film is a lot less polished than the rest. It’s also tighter than most and one of their more serious efforts (though it is still packed with wit and bursts of dark irony). It’s not their best film—their talent, I think, was still a little raw—but it was a perfect gauge of their potential.

9.) The Hudsucker Proxy

I wish the entire film had maintained the energy of the first 30 minutes because it might be one of the Coens’ best. Things tend to lag as the film goes on (though the conclusion is inspired), but I can’t rank it any lower than this based on the strength of those brilliant introductory scenes.

8.) True Grit

Their latest film might be their most conventional. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are brilliant and have deservedly earned Oscar nominations.

7.) Intolerable Cruelty

I can just imagine Joel and Ethan Coen sitting down to talk about doing a love story. It would have to been something twisted like this. The dialogue in this film is perhaps the Coens’ best. It’s so fast and so smart that you might actually miss some of the jokes the first time through.

6.) Burn After Reading

Stupid people doing insanely stupid things. It’s incomprehensible how dumb this film’s characters are, but their misadventures make for two really fun hours of film.

5.) The Man Who Wasn’t There

Of all the films on this list, I think this one has the most potential to move up. It’s just a nifty little noir that somehow manages confounds your expectations at every turn.

4.) A Serious Man

Another Coen effort that’s just so bizarre, but it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go as its main character (played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg) spirals out of control.

3.) The Big Lebowski

The Coens strangest effort by a mile. It’s a cult classic that earns its status by being one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years.

2.) No Country for Old Men

Perhaps their most successful film in terms of critical acclaim, awards success, and box office, No Country for Old Men also happens to be one of the Coens’ more obtuse films, though there’s no arguing the brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones’ and Javier Bardem’s performances.

1.) Fargo

What else is there to say. It’s my favorite Coen film. I named it as my favorite film of the 1990s. And it’s in my all-time top 10. A nearly perfect film from top to bottom.

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