n/a The Ladykillers. Hanks and the Coens? What could go wrong? Apparently everything. In retrospect, Hanks straight-arrow persona (which has gained even more steam in recent years) seems at odds with the Coens’ worldview. Although Hitchcock did great things with Jimmy Stewart. Bottom line: I’ve never seen it, and based on the image above, I really don’t want to.
18) The Man Who Wasn’t There A dour film that seemed to exist only as a technical exercise. The Coens wanted to ape Double Indemnity, but missed both the sex and the soul. The worst thing you can say about it is that it’s kind of dull.
17) Burn After Reading A farce, but the problem is that Washington already feels like a farce–especially these days. Deserves credit for pushing Pitt to ridiculous places. Weirdly reminiscence of the forgotten Hanks film, The Man With One Red Shoe. The cast, however, is killer: Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich, McDormand, Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons.
16) Blood Simple. This film still draws a lot of praise. It marked a tremendous debut, one that showed the Coens firmly in command of their genre-bending vision. But the brothers soon moved beyond it, and it now seems overly simple and mannered in retrospect.
15) Raising Arizona Tremendously quotable. Nic Cage playing a Looney Tunes character. But everyone in the film (except for Holly Hunter) is a caricature. And the dialogue is the Coens at their most arch. They’re trying to be Faulkner here. Although I will love Sam McMurray’s Glen until I die. (“on account something went a wrong with my semen.!”)
14) A Serious Man The Coens at their most inscrutable. But that might be because I’m not someone who grew up Jewish in St. Paul in the 1970s. (I did grow up Catholic in the Midwest in the 70s and 80s, so I get puncturing piety.) The recreation of the time is pitch perfect. It’s a complex film about sincerity and hypocrisy running along the same tracks. It didn’t land with me the first time, as I found it remote. But demands a rewatch.
11) Hail Caesar Josh Brolin excels as a studio fixer with too much on his plate, but this movie benefits from its surprisingly tender treatment of classic Hollywood. Even as the Coens are poking fun at B-list Westerns, Roman epics, and musicals, their movies-within-movies are shot with affection, suggesting that Coens admire the studio-system craftsmanship that went into the work.
10) Intolerable Cruelty This movie lands uniformly at the bottom of the ranking of the brothers’ films, but I have a soft spot for it, as I love the source material, the Screwball Comedy, and admire the attempt to pit two beautiful humans, Clooney and Zeta-Jones, against each other in pure, elegant, affluent, dizzy 30s fashion. Like those films, the dialogue moves at hyperspeed. It’s their His Girl Friday/The Lady Eve. I want to watch it again right now.
9) The Hudsucker Proxy This Coens tribute to Preston Sturges and early 40s films makes me just as forgiving. It has Jennifer Jason Leigh doing Hepburn and Paul Newman staying relevant in his later years. No surprise that the Coens’ broadest comedies on the list are bunched together, as many of them share the same rhythms and exaggerated tone.
8) Barton Fink This is a tough one. The Coens first real attempt at subversive art film, with Turturro’s bravura performance keeping it all together. But it’s a frustrating movie that seems to be mocking its protagonist—a consistent Coen issue. It’s closest cousin in the oeuvre is A Serious Man, but at least this seems to have more of an inner life. Also, I can’t look at my apartment building hallway without think of this film. Here we can say we are entering the pantheon.
7) Inside Llewyn Davis A treatise on how artists sabotage themselves by their own innate feeling of destiny combined with their refusal to compromise. And a statement on how everyone compromises, including Dylan (the secret hero of the story) and the Coens, who, not coincidentally, were coming off a mainstream success with True Grit. This is a great film.
6) Miller’s Crossing Just watched it a couple of months ago and it holds up better than ever, with its lustrous scenery and tough-guy patter. Gabriel Byrne turns in an incredibly charismatic performance as man who keeps secrets–even from himself. It might be the best-looking film from a production design standpoint the Coens have ever made. Endlessly watchable.
5) True Grit A personal favorite and a deeply touching film about a girl who grows up too fast, filled with gorgeous western imagery and a work that toggles between reality and folklore. Still underrated.
4) O Brother Where Art Thou? One of three Coen films, along with Fargo and Lebowski, that can be said to have shifted the cultural dynamic. Its full-throated embrace of Appalachian folk generated a phenomenon.
3) The Big Lebowski The cultural heir to Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but even more loose-limbed and discursive. It doesn’t take a hammer to Chandler as much as it updates it. The film gains power every year, largely because of Jeff Bridges’ what-he-fuck performance, not the story. Like Fargo, it ends up being a story about community prevailing over evil. No Country, on the other hand, shows evil to be uncontainable.
2) No Country for Old Men The Coens best movie of the 21st century and perhaps the best so far of the century. A film that saw them surrender nearly all of their tropes to offer a signature statement on the nature of evil. Meditative and terrifying, it’s the brother’s most mature work and one that may best stand the test of time. It will always be compared to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but it’s superior largely because it avoided the showy histrionics.
1) Fargo What else could it be? There have never been better performances in Coen brothers film than the ones turned in by Frances McDormand and William Macy. They broke out of the brothers’ hermetic world to become breathing beings with backstories, acting out their lives in a place with stunning geographic specificity. No wonder this is their most iconic work. And no wonder it lives on in a TV series.