With the release of their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, this week, the Coen Brothers have returned to the silver screen with yet another exciting, and predictably solid project. Thinking back on their past 16 films though, it’s hard to find a group of filmmakers in Hollywood with a more unique filmography under their belts. Not a single one of their titles are the same, taking new risks and tackling different genres/settings with each of their films have helped to make Joel and Ethan Coen two of America’s greatest cinematic voices ever since the 1980s, and they haven’t slowed down since.
So in honor of the release of Caesar!, we thought we would take this opportunity to sit down and remember and rank each of the duo’s films, from one of the most quotable comedies of all time, all the way to a film about a struggling musician in Greenwich Village.
So without any further ado, here is how we would rank the Coen Brothers filmography up until this point…
This is one of those Coen Brothers movies that doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie and that’s why it’s last on the list. That’s because, well, it’s really not exactly a Coen Brothers movie. The story was first written by John Romano who is mostly known for his television projects (Hill Street Blues), and n 1994, the Coens were brought in to re-write and direct, leading to a very disjointed, not very funny, rom-com that never hit the mark.
This is a hard one to put near the end or “2nd worse,” if you will. The one redeeming quality here is Tom Hanks’ inspired performance as Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III and as for the rest, the performances and story fall a bit flat, making it mostly unforgettable. In fact, I had to look up the plot again because of its ‘unforgettable-ness.’ You would think the Coen Brothers would have hit a home run when you consider the premise Ladykillers has going for it - ‘a charlatan professor assembling a gang of experts for the heist of the century’ but it’s the rest of performances and film that sink this one. Tom Hanks’ Dorr the III is doing one performance while the other actors are doing something else entirely and it’s because of Hanks that we keep this from the bottom spot.
Another movie that doesn’t quite stay with you after the credits roll. And it’s not really anyone’s fault in my opinion. The movie is shot beautifully (Roger Deakins) and the performances are inspired and amazingly spot on. A noir movie which is the first for the Coens - set in suburban California in 1949 and the film is obviously influenced by the movies of that time. It’s definitely an interesting experiment for them, but it just seems to be missing some of the more Coen-esque touches. Though, as mentioned, the performances are great and it is shot beautifully, the movie seems a slave to its concept and doesn’t quite have the pacing and humor we’ve come to love from them over time.
“A rich but jealous man hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man. But, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.” So reads the simple synopsis that would launch the career of Joel and Ethan Coen - their first movie that is highly regarded by the die hard fans. I suppose this is mainly due, in part, to it being where it all started. And not just for the Coens themselves as it’s the first movie to star Joel Coen’s soon-to-be wife, Frances McDormand. Plus it’s the first to be scored by long-time composer and collaborator Carter Burwell. I admire it because it’s their first feature, but it’s brutal violence is somewhat tempered by humor that will come to define the Coens style over the years.
The Coens’ taking on the mob genre sounds like too appealing of an idea to pass up and with Miller’s Crossing, it’s kind of exactly the crime film you’d expect from them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, as much as it just seems like the two filmmakers lose a little bit of their enticing charm and quirk by trying to conform to the usual mob genre stereotypes and norms. It’s still an impeccably well-made film, as all of theirs are, but it’s just lacking the life and energy that we’ve come to appreciate from these two. Although, the next choice on this list is also a pretty strong reminder of what happens when the Coens’ embrace their quirky tone just a little bit too much.
This might just be the silliest movie from the Coen Brothers, and that’s saying something. The thing is that its silliness is what both elevates and hurts Burn After Reading overall. Its screwball story about a bunch of gym workers stumbling upon classified FBI documents is refreshing enough that it helps push through some of the incredibly unlikable characters and sometimes strange shifts in tone, but doesn’t quite mute those issues enough. However, it’s worth a watch for Brad Pitt’s dancing and a certain scene involving a gun and a closet. I’ll avoid spoilers, but those of you who have seen Burn After Reading know exactly what I’m talking about here.
“Set in 1941, an intellectual New York playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) accepts an offer to write movie scripts in L.A. He finds himself with writer’s block when required to do a B-movie script. His neighbor tries to help, but he continues to struggle as a bizarre sequence of events distracts him.” This synopsis doesn’t even touch the many layers of insanity found in Barton Fink. It’s one of their films that is a MUST SEE, in my opinion. In order to understand why John Turturro pops up so often in their movies later, one must witness Barton Fink. It’s a fever dream of hilarity and style that manages to always be mentioned when discussing their best of lists.
10. True Grit
One of my all time favorite ‘remakes’ that ever was. What Joel and Ethan Coen did with this movie is nothing short of amazing. First off, you HAVE to discuss the casting (and discovery) of Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross. Then, you must discuss Jeff Bridges performance as Rooster Cogburn. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a western as much as this - and even consider it an example of how you can make a remake work. Go watch the rattlesnakes scene again though if you don’t believe me. That’s why this movie is great.
Perhaps one of their most dynamic and fast-paced films to date, Hail, Caesar! is a fun, light-hearted romp through the studio lots and stars’ lives of Hollywood in the 1950s, that not only provides quite a large amount of surface enjoyment, but also addresses communism at the time, as well as faith, politics, and the controversy hiding behind the scenes of the most iconic movie studios. The film might not be one of their best, but for movie lovers, it will be unforgettable, and its perhaps one of their most ambitious outings to date.
One of the duo’s most underrated films by a long shot. Featuring a captivating lead performance from Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man follows the Coen Brothers as they dissect and delve into some of the greatest questions about life and its meaning. What it means to be a good man, what it means to indulge, and what any of it ends up meaning in the end, all through the lens of a kind of melancholy humor that not a lot of other filmmakers would try and create. With A Serious Man though, the Coens show off all of the things that they are the best at, and is worth a revisit or two for those of you that haven’t sat down to watch it in awhile.
And then there’s The Hudsucker Proxy. It is THIS movie that is the most Coen Brothers of all Coen Brothers’ movies. Witty, charming, sweet, weird – and bonus, co-written by their pal Sam Raimi. After the success of Barton Fink, the Coens were given a greenlight by Joel Silver – yup, Uber Producer of Lethal Weapon and Predator. This should tell you everything. And it really does when you think about it. Silver helped them raise money for this and then gave them free reign to make the movie they wanted to make. Sadly, the film tanked (the Coens’ biggest flop to date) but, over the years, has garnered a “cult following” status. Happens a lot with these guys.
On the surface, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fairly simple film about a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village, trying to make a name for himself. However, out of all of the Coen Brothers’ other films, this is perhaps one of their most tonally palpable. Considering how deep in tone each of their films are (they basically ride or die on it), that might make Llewyn Davis one of the most atmospheric films of all time. You can feel the emotion and world of the film flooding in around you throughout its somewhat short run time, as Oscar Isaac gives one of the best performances of the decade so far. It’s my personal favorite of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, and if you let it, Inside Llewyn Davis will seep inside of you and never leave again.
Precise and terrifying from beginning to end, No Country For Old Men is perhaps the definition of visual storytelling. Featuring some of the Coen Brothers’ most gorgeous cinematography and one of the greatest villains in cinema history with Javier Bardem’s chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh, this is perhaps one of their most technically brilliant movies, and one of the best crime thrillers of the 21st century so far. Josh Brolin moves the film along handily, and after a streak of somewhat disappointing outings, No Country brought the Coens back into the high-reaches of cinema in a big way. It’s not hard to see why it did so well in the awards season that year either.
Oh, Raising Arizona, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. Okay, too many to list here. For me, and for many people out there – THIS is the one and only number one. And for good reason. The film is quirky and damn hilarious with a giant heart that is worn right on its sleeve. “An ex-con and an ex-cop meet, marry and long for a child of their own. When it is discovered that ‘H.I.’ (Nicholas Cage) is unable to have children they decide to snatch a baby.” By that synopsis alone, you know you’re in for something special and it is something special. Damn special. This is still my favorite Nicholas Cage performance and same goes for Holly Hunter. “Give me back my baby you wart-hog from hell!”
An exuberant exercise in both style and storytelling O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the Coens’ most entertaining films to watch. The way they blend together themes and storytelling points from classic literature into the early 20th century about a group of outlaws on the run is perhaps one of the most ingenious moves in their entire career. It’s goofy, scary, hilarious, and adventurous from beginning to end, featuring performances from three of the duo’s frequent collaborators as well with George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. From the catchy music to the quirky character ticks, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is simply unforgettable.
It really doesn’t get much better than this. Much like how Martin Scorsese incorporated his New York upbringing into Mean Streets, the Coens’ use the frozen tundra of a Minnesotan winter to not only provide a unique setting for the film’s story, but also allows it to be a character in the story as well. The goofy accents and uptight characters are just a unique addition to an already incredible movie, showing the filmmaking duo’s attention to detail in glorious ways, while giving us an awards-worthy performance from Frances McDormand. Most people remember the woodchipper scene from this film the most vividly, but personally, I don’t think there’s many better scenes in film than that road shootout in the pitch black of night. This is the Coens’ at their most technical and thematic best.
The creme de la creme of movies from the Coen Brothers, and easily their most referenced film of all time. You don’t get into a conversation about the films from the Coen Brothers without mentioning, lovingly, The Big Lebowski. It is probably quoted numerous times to Jeff Bridges when walking down the street, and funny enough, this is probably the performance that will live with him for the rest of his life. For good reason too. Part caper, part comedy, part…. who knows what, this is the movie that defined mine and many others’ college experience. It is a movie I’ve seen hundreds of times and I often quote it to myself when wandering around aimlessly in the supermarket. Just not in my bathrobe. I often cite this as the most perfect comedy, and I study the script as a bible on how you should write a screenplay. The characters, dialogue and insanity of its story make The Big Lebowski our clear number one pick.
This list was created by Alex Welch & Mark Reilly.
Hail, Caesar! is in theatres everywhere now.
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