Ranking the best Coen Brothers movies is a nearly impossible task.
Walk around to the closest ten people around you and ask for their opinion, and chances are you may get six or seven different answers. It speaks to their astonishing range talent and genre-bending mastery – they’ve done everything from pitch-black neo-noir and pure westerns to 40s-style screwball comedy and outright musical romps, all with their trademark brilliant dialogue, stunning camerawork, and gemstone casts. The Coens are right there with Scorsese, Anderson (PT and Wes, actually) and Fincher in the upper echelon of American filmmakers.
Trying to rank their best films is like trying to rank your children, but…in the lead-up to the release of their newest film – the Hollywood-set comedy Hail, Caesar! – we’ve gone ahead and done it anyways. Go ahead and dispute. We won’t argue with you.
1. Fargo (1996)
Again, you could ask twenty people their favorite Coen brothers movie and you may get ten different responses. However, there’s a pretty good bet that this one would get the most votes. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes them brilliant – funny as hell and dark as night all at once, brilliantly written and adeptly shot, and dripping with vivid characters (Frances McDormand won an Oscar; William H. Macy should have). A perfect slice of demented, unforgettable Americana.
2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
This is the movie the Coens won Best Director and Best Picture for, and deservedly so. Their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s stark masterpiece of a novel is a gripping, bloody, and darkly comedic epic that ranks among the best movies of the new millennium. Go ahead and try to watch that last scene without getting chills.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The movie you missed watching in theaters, but saw a thousand times on DVD since. Their most quotable – and their funniest – film, and that’s saying a lot. Incredibly enough (for the impact it has had on culture since) this movie was a box-office bomb.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
This is the Coen brothers’ most fun film, a joyous retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Depression South, boasting – arguably – the finest soundtrack in movie history.
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Their overlooked gem. Released in 1990 to middling box office and scant commercial attention, this wistful noir gangster tale has shot up the rankings of the brothers’ films since its release. There are scenes here – a shootout set to a plaintive “Danny Boy,” a tense showdown in a forest – that are some of the best ever filmed.
6. Raising Arizona (1987)
Reportedly, Nicolas Cage and the Coens didn’t really get along when they made this delightful – and surprisingly emotional – crime romp back in 1987. It’s too bad, because Cage’s timing and inherent humor meshed very well with the Coens’ sensibilities. Maybe they’ll work together again someday; lord knows Nick could use a career boost.
7. Blood Simple (1984)
The first film from the Coens doesn’t just hint at the brilliance they’d display throughout the rest of their careers – it flat-out showcases it. A captivating modern noir, the movie is stuffed with great performances (particularly from Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya) and shot beautifully by Barry Sonnenfeld. A home run, right out of the gate.
8. A Serious Man (2009)
One of the darkest films in the Coens’ oeuvre, as they filter the book of Job through a meek, 1960s Minnesota professor (the great Michael Stuhlbarg); calamity after calamity strikes the poor guy like so many body blows. The Coens’ humor is still there, but it’s bleaker and blacker than ever.
9. Barton Fink (1991)
The rare American picture to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Barton Fink is a claustrophobically hilarious film following the blocked screenwriter Fink (a brilliant John Turturro) in 1940s Hollywood. A film about writer’s block that was written when the Coens suffered a bout of writer’s block (on Miller’s Crossing). Movies don’t get more meta – or much more captivating – than this one.
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Another overlooked gem from their IMDB page, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a low-key, 1940s-style period piece with another great central performance. This one has Billy Bob Thornton, brilliant as usual, as a cuckolded, mild-mannered barber whose life slowly dissipates into a spate of violence. Add in a great supporting cast: Scarlett Johansson, James Gandolfini and, as always, Frances McDormand.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coens’ look at the burgeoning Dylan-and-Baez New York City folk scene, told through the battered experiences of Davis (Oscar Isaac), is more memorable for its music than for its sparse story. There’s some beautiful vocal work in here from Isaac, co-star Carey Mulligan and (shocker) Justin Timberlake, as a tremendously-sweatered fellow singer.
12. True Grit (2010)
Pure entertainment from the Coens in this update to the famed John Wayne starrer. Wayne won an Oscar for his original performance as blustery marshal “Rooster” Cogburn; Jeff Bridges, disheveled and hilarious, got a nomination for his update. It’s a beautifully-shot, pure genre exercise from the Coens, with a fine performance from budding star Hailee Steinfeld as young Mattie Ross.
13. Burn After Reading (2008)
The murky world of politics in Washington, D.C. is the backdrop for this criss-crossing comedy of idiots, spies and adulterers. It’s only intermittently funny, but when it is, it’s hilarious, and the performances – a profane John Malkovich and a beyond-dumb Brad Pitt, namely – are top-notch.
14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
A 1940s-style screwball comedy that follows a fresh-off-the bus worker/inventor (Tim Robbins) matched up against a scheming company executive (Paul Newman). As always, it looks beautiful, but the movie is a little too quirky – it’s fun enough, but ultimately hollow.
15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Even their normal, sterling cast (Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Thornton) can’t really elevate this rather basic L.A. divorce-comedy. Still, there’s some breezy fun to be had here.
16. The Ladykillers (2004)
A match between the Coens and Tom Hanks should be magic. However, the triumphant pairing is wasted on a limp update of a very funny 1955 British crime caper black comedy, with Hanks stepping into a role once played by Alec Guinness. Listen to the wonderful soundtrack; skip the movie.
Do you have a favorite Coen Brothers movie? Looking forward to Hail, Caesar!? Start a conversation in the comments below.