The Coen Brothers…From Worst to Best

Written by Mike Muncer

This week sees the release of the 17th Coen Brothers movie, Hail Caesar, which, it’s fair to say, has had a mixed reaction. While it’s had positive responses from critics (82% on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have rejected the movie and it’s bombed in the U.S.

I for one LOVED Hail Caesar and have watched it twice now, but I often find the movies of Joel & Ethan Coen to be divisive. They’re unusual and often difficult to classify into a genre. They range from being deadly, dark and gripping as any film-noir or thriller to being as wacky and ridiculous as any Farrelly Brothers movie, but when at their best, they miraculously achieve both in equal measure.

In my opinion, even the worst Coen movies are still extremely watchable, but for what it’s worth, here’s where I’d place each movie in a ranking of their career to date:

17. The Ladykillers (2004)
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Somewhere in the late 90s / early 00s the Coens lost their magic touch, perhaps caught in a strange transition between the indie and mainstream, after gaining commercial success with movies like Fargo and the Big Lebowski. This movie was the low point. Joel & Ethan’s remake of the 1955 Ealing comedy was a misfire, and even Tom Hanks couldn’t save it. It’s not terrible per se, it’s just nowhere near as funny as it should be, and in no way lives up to the original. As with many remakes, there seems little reason for this film to exist.

16. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
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Intolerable Cruelty lives up to it’s title – it’s a cruel, frustrating watch – there are some true moments of greatness in here, the character quirks and performances are fantastic, but they get lost in a convoluted, messy story that loses itself in the middle and isn’t very engaging. However, Coen regular George Clooney shines in the movie and proves once again he’s extremely capable of great comedy performances.

15. A Serious Man (2009)
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At some point I’m going to have to go back and revisit this one, as I get the feeling that I may have missed something upon first viewing…but I just didn’t get it. A Serious Man is a painful, excruciating watch, and this may be the point…this ‘Book of Job’-esque tale is the story of Larry Gupnik, who watches his life unravel and fall apart throughout the movie, but for me, there was very little fun to be had and I just wanted it to end. As ever, there are some outstanding performances and intriguing characters, but the balance of serious drama and quirky comedy didn’t quite work for me on this occasion.

14. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
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This is an underrated Coen gem and one of their most beautiful looking movies to date. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Ed Crane, a laconic, chain smoking barber whose plan to blackmail his wife’s boss goes terrible wrong. It’s classic Coen Brothers stuff and although it’s not as stand-out as some of their other crime dramas, it’s a must-see for any Coen fans.

13. The Hudsucker Proxy (1993)
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An extremely underrated Coen Brothers movie. It’s not perfect and it might be the wackiest most out-and-out comedic movie of their career, but it’s truly laugh-out-loud funny and has a certain nostalgic old-Hollywood magic that will not be matched until this year’s Hail Caesar. Tim Robins is on top form here but it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the movie as quick witted, fast talking Amy Archer.

12. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
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The movie that put the Coen Brothers on the map and is still often hailed by critics as their masterpiece. This is Joel and Ethan’s take on the gangster / noir movies of the 1940s. The story slowly and expertly unravels but it might be a little too slow for some audiences and I don’t find it has the re-watch value of some of their other films. However, as a piece of filmmaking craft, there’s no denying that it’s flawless.

11. Burn After Reading (2008)
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After the huge critical and commercial success of their dark fable No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan returned a year later with this…a movie which is in every way its opposite. It’s no masterpiece and extremely silly, but it’s relentlessly funny and enjoyable. Burn After Reading has a brilliant ensemble cast (Brad Pitt / George Clooney / Frances McDormand / John Malkovich) and a great fun little crime narrative that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. It’s by no means a Coen classic, but one of their most fun movies to date.

10. Raising Arizona (1987)
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Combining influences of 1940s screwball comedies with 1980s Sam Raimi horror, this manic and deranged black comedy remains one of the Coens’ most beloved. Nic Cage and Holly Hunter shine as H.I. and Ed McDunnough, two of Joel and Ethan’s most beloved characters, who decide to help themselves to one of another family’s quintuplets. It’s an insane story that insanely told, but it has that genius balance of comedy and thriller that only the Coen brothers can perfectly pull off.

9. True Grit (2010)
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By far the most enjoyable Western I’ve ever seen and one of the directing duo’s most accessible movies, it’s a simple story of a girl travelling across the old West (accompanied by a cop and a bounty hunter) to kill the man who murdered her father. With a career making performance by a young Hailee Steinfeld, a scenery-chewing performances from the gruff and grunting Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon like we’ve never seen him before, the movie plays out like a beautifully cinematic three-hander play.

8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
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The first Coen brothers movie I saw at the cinema, aged 13, for me this has always had a special place in my heart. It’s Homer’s story of The Odyssey, transported to the 1930s deep south and it’s perfectly enjoyable as a wacky and laugh-out-loud funny (with some wonderful musical numbers and one of the best soundtracks of all time) but there’s also a lot more substance and depth below the surface for anyone looking.

7. Blood Simple (1984)
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Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut feature is exactly what it says on the tin: a simple story of murder. The film plays less on the laughs and more on the dark, brooding tension which builds throughout…a tension that wouldn’t be matched until the pair’s 2007 masterpiece, No Country for old Men. It still holds up today, with some of the most thrilling and horrific moments in the directors career, as well as outstanding performances (particularly from Coen regular, Frances McDormand). Another huge underrated gem in the duo’s career.

6. The Big Lebowski (1997)
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Perhaps the biggest cult classic across the whole of the Coens’ career, this beloved and instantly quotable story of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski accidentally getting mistaken for a gangster millionaire (also called Lebowski) is full of surreal humour and fascinating characters. It feels as though Joel and Ethan really let loose with this one, throwing in lavish dream sequences and Berkley-esque music numbers, upping the “quirk” factor to 11. It’s also full of fantastic performances, notably from John Goodman and the brilliant Julianne Moore.

5. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
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Creeping into my top 5 Coen movies is their latest outing, an insanely enjoyable love letter (and send-up) of the Hollywood studio system. It’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout but there’s also a lot more going on than meets the eye, subverting and challenging ideas of art, capitlism and the American dream. In some ways Hail Caesar is a series of sketches and set pieces, with each A-List cast member making little more than an extremely memorable cameo, but it’s Josh Brolin who holds the film together, playing it completely straight as the struggling Eddie Manix, head of Capitol Pictures who’s putting out fires left right and centre whilst in the middle of his own existential crisis…

4. Barton Fink (1991)
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The Coens’ fourth feature film is, in my opinion, their first true masterpiece. John Turtorro stars as Barton Fink, the New York playwright who is enticed to California to write movies, but soon discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood. This movie just gets better with every watch, packed full of humour but also some true moments of surreal horror and dread which would give David Lynch a run for his money. The tone is constantly shifting just enough to sustain a feeling of unease, whilst simultaneously remaining endlessly entertaining and watchable.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
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In some ways a brilliant companion piece to Barton Fink, this tale of a struggling song writer navigating his way through the 60s Greenwich Village folk scene is as surreal, profound and existential as anything the Coens’ have done, whilst managing to stay extremely accessible, entertaining and moving. With a fantastic soundtrack and a breakthrough lead performance by the now superstar Oscar Isaac, this intriguing film is one I’m happy to watch over and over again…

2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
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After No Country For Old Men, Joel & Ethan Coen were no longer small-time, indie filmmakers, they were Best Picture winners. I’ll never forget seeing this movie for the first time, thinking I was about to see a typical Coen Brothers movies – a western with perhaps some thrills and comedy thrown in – but finding myself gripping the edge of my seat for the best part of two hours, watching one of the most tense and frightening horror movies I’d ever seen. This beautifully simple cat-and-mouse tale of one man running away with  a suitcase of money as he’s pursued by a homicidal maniac is an absolute perfect movie and only gets better upon every viewing.

1 Fargo (1995)
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How could it possibly be anything else? Fargo is the best Coen Brothers movie to date and one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. On the surface, this is an extremely dark story –  a man hires a couple of sociopathic criminals to abduct his wife – but the choice to set the movie in the snowy landscapes of North Dakota full of colourful characters (who all speak with *that* accent) gives the story a lot of heart and charm, making it more of a comedy of manners than a thriller. Every member of the cast is on top of their game here, with William H Macy and Steve Buscemi giving career best performances…and I haven’t even mentioned Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning portrayal as Marge Gundersen yet…the greatest movie character of all time.

Twenty years on and there’s still so much love for Fargo, so much so that it’s even spawned a spin-off TV series. Are Joel and Ethan Coen ever going to make a better move than this? Possibly not, but after Hail Caesar, I for one still can’t wait to see what they do next…

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