Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films since 1984, which may not seem like a long time. But their track record has been, with a few minor missteps, incredible. They’ve received over 20 Academy Award nominations for their films, and have won 4 themselves. Their films blend a mix of crime, comedy, and drama flawlessly. They are one of the greatest filmmakers of their time, and possibly of all time. I have now seen every single one of their feature films. A new feature on the site will involve ranking an entire body of work for a particular artist, and I’ve decided to kick it off with my Spotless Ranking for the Coen Brothers.
14. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Without a doubt in my mind, this was the Coen’s one big misstep. Boring, unimaginative plot with some pretty phoning-it-in performances by Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney (who is still charming even when phoning it in). I discovered that the script itself was actually something they wrote years before it was released and they never really intended to direct it. It’s missing a lot of the usual intelligence I associate with their films, and seems, to me at least, trying to appeal to the masses.
13. The Ladykillers (2004)
Yet another somewhat unfortunate low point for the Coens, this crime comedy remake is full of caricatures and without any semblance of real people behind the characters. The exception is Tom Hanks, who takes his still very caricaturist southern gentleman and makes him enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, the rest of the criminals and the old woman become less funny to watch and just annoying as the plot plods along.
12. Raising Arizona (1987)
Only their second film, but still carries many trademark aspects of their work which they continue to use to this day. Nicolas Cage isn’t terrible but he’s not necessarily any good either, with his mustache doing more acting than he does. Holly Hunter and John Goodman are welcome additions to the cast, but overall it’s a forgettable film that I have never felt the need to watch again.
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
This film was destined to have a hard time right out the gate: it was the follow-up to their critically lauded and commercial success No Country For Old Men. It was unfairly compared to that movie and ultimately disliked by many. I thought it was a great addition to their body of work, with fantastic performances by Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, and George Clooney. The reveal of the ‘chair’ that Clooney’s character is building was one of the most ridiculous, and hilarious, scenes I’ve witnessed.
10. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
You know, for kids. Tim Robbins gives a very enjoyable performance as the man who invents the hula-hoop in this beautifully shot period piece. The cinematography and general design of the film is quite marvelous, and while the story itself is interesting and entertaining to watch, overall it felt very much like a ‘too much style over substance’ kind of film. It’s definitely worth a watch, but not a good way to introduce yourself to the Coens.
9. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
After the disappointing Raising Arizona, the Coens returned to what they were good at: crime capers with style oozing out of every pore (that sentence sounds more gross than I intended). It features some fantastic performances by Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro and Albert Finney. The two main scenes featuring Byrne and Turturro that bookend the film are fantastic and portrays the Coens knack for turning certain film tropes upside down. The other great scene involves Albert Finney and a little song called ‘Danny Boy.’
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Possibly one of the lesser known Coen Brothers films, this black-and-white noir film is a haunting portrait of a man bored with his life so he takes action to spice it up. In doing so, it may lead to his downfall, but he does not regret trying to make his life more exciting. This is a common theme with the Coen Brothers and works incredibly well in this particular film, helped by Billy Bob Thornton’s great work as the titular man. Frequent Coens collaborator Roger Deakins handles the cinematography in a very simple but incredibly beautiful way.
7. Blood Simple (1984)
The feature film debut of the Coen brothers had little tastes of what they would later become known for: mistaken identity, dramatic irony, and dangerously tense moments are all here. The villain character is perhaps a precursor to the force of nature that is Anton Chigurh who would not be seen until over 20 years later. The final scene, where the villain (M. Emmet Walsh) and Frances McDormand face off is one of the most tense moments I’ve seen in film, rivaling their future work.
6. A Serious Man (2009)
I’ve talked about this film at length in my review of it, but it warrants a second mention here: this is the Coens labor of love. The fall of Larry and the omnipresent idea of chaos theory and fate are intertwined beautifully and captivated me to the very end. The ending itself is ambiguous, frustrating and almost mean, but I love it all the same.
5. Barton Fink (1991)
What starts out as a neurotic character study soon turns into something else – something perhaps supernatural. The fact that the ending seemed so out of nowhere but yet still made perfect sense is a testament to the attention to detail the Coen Brothers have. Multiple viewings will clue you in to the true nature of Goodman’s character, of course, but it’s that first viewing that had me on the edge of my seat and so confused yet captivated that I absolutely loved it. Rumor has it they want to make a sequel to the film titled Old Fink when Turturro is old enough to reprise his role as Barton. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’m sure I’d love it.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Quite possibly one of the greatest comedies ever made. The banter between The Dude, Walter and Donnie are priceless and yet, they all feel like real people. There’s no Ron Burgundy caricatures here, and that’s what makes it funny. The Dude is someone I could very well run into at the supermarket, drinking the milk right in the aisle. Fact is, the film is actually an elaborate crime story told through the eyes of the world’s ultimate slacker. But by focusing on the comedy it becomes incredibly entertaining to watch and you don’t really care if the crime is solved, because, well, the Dude abides. And I take comfort in that.
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Why does this film work so well? It’s essentially an adaptation of The Odyssey set in the south with plenty of bluegrass songs thrown in there for good measure. And yet, even if you weren’t aware of the source material, it’s incredibly engaging to watch, and the trio of convicts led by Clooney are so dimwitted and endearing that you just can’t help but love the shit out of this movie. Even for someone like myself, who has never claimed to like bluegrass/country music. But when the movie was done, I found myself trying to find the soundtrack as soon as I could.
2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Undoubtedly the Coens masterpiece. This is the film all their work will constantly stand up against. It won Best Picture of the year, and multiple other awards. It has three strong leads (Brolin, Jones, and of course, Bardem) who play some high-stakes cat and mouse throughout all told without a single score of music. Watching the film you don’t even realize there’s no music until the end, when the first piece of music cues up during the credits. It is one of the most beautifully terrifying films I’ve ever seen, and the tension I felt during this movie is still unmatched.
1. Fargo (1994)
While I’d call No Country their masterpiece, I’d call Fargo their greatest film. Why? It’s almost the perfect lovechild between the comedy of The Big Lebowski and the tension of No Country. The characters in this film are still in real danger, and you want the ones you like to make it out alive, but it’s also fucking hilarious. That accent – ‘Minnesota Nice’ – is oft repeated but done so well that it’s perfectly believable. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this film is something I see a lot in the Coen Brother’s movies: the idea of leading a ‘boring’ life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Marge Gunderson wants the excitement of her police work, but is also in over her head (as an enforcer, not a detective – she’s fucking awesome at detective work). When she goes home to Norm, she unabashedly loves him – even though is a nature painter for stamps. It sounds boring, sure, but it’s also safe, and after seeing what became of all the other characters for a little bit of money, she realizes this is what she wants.
“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”