Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, Hail, Caesar!, finally opened this week, propelled by many of the hallmarks of their filmography: Comically dim characters engaging in a variety of conspiracies and double-crosses against the background of a meticulously re-created and reimagined world (in this case, Hollywood in the 1950s). Funny thing about the Coens: They are two of the most original filmmakers American cinema has given us, and yet they consistently stress the same motifs and themes throughout their works. Every Coen Brothers movie is distinctive in its own right — you’d never mistake one for another — and yet they constantly traffic in the same story elements, characters, and situations. So much so that, way back in 2008, we actually published this handy chart/guide to creating your own Coen Brothers movie.
In other words, there’s a through-line that connects Nicolas Cage’s ex-con in Raising Arizona and William H. Macy’s car dealer in Fargo and Josh Brolin’s Vietnam vet in No Country for Old Men, just as there’s one that connects John Turturro’s crusading playwright in Barton Fink and Michael Stuhlbarg’s upright science prof in A Serious Man and Oscar Isaac’s bitter folkie in Inside Llewyn Davis. Over the years, even as they’ve collected awards and admirers, the Coens have also been taken to task for the remove at which they hold their characters. But such a criticism ignores the sheer love they clearly also have for these figures. Yes, it’d be easy to see the Coens’ portrayals of these idealists and dim dreamers as mockery. But then, why do these characters resonate so?
Because of these similarities and differences, judging individual movies in the context of the Coens’ whole body of work can be tricky. Does one really have to choose between Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men, two movies with very similar elements that are nevertheless tonally so different? And Blood Simple is so momentous; it put them on the map and introduced many of their favorite themes. Should it matter that many of their later films worked those themes in a more engaging fashion? It’s also hard, frankly, because so many of these movies are so good; there’s probably only one film on this list that I never, ever want to watch again; and there are probably seven or eight titles that I have at one point or another described as masterpieces. A weak Coen Brothers film is still probably better and may well endure longer than half the movies that will be winning Oscars in a couple of weeks. Nevertheless, here they are: The Coen Brothers’ films, ranked. (And, you know, feel free to rearrange in our reader re-ranking below.)
17. The Ladykillers (2004)
You would think that a Tom Hanks–starring Coen Brothers remake of an Ealing Studios black comedy, about a group of hoodlums trying to kill off the nice old lady from whom they’re renting rooms, would be an easy home run. But what made the Ealing classic work was its odd mix of a genteel comedy of manners with dark, tongue-in-cheek suspense. The Coens can do suspense, but here, their angular, stylized approach to character and humor results in a film that’s not only unconvincing, but also unpleasant. It’s … well, interesting to see the usually affable Hanks play so against type, but it doesn’t really work. A shrill, unfunny mess, this is their only true failure.
16. Burn After Reading (2008)
Here’s another elaborate, coal-black comedy – and this one’s actually (sometimes) funny. Here, scheming wife Tilda Swinton, personal trainer Brad Pitt, womanizing lawman George Clooney, and others tussle over the memoirs of low-level CIA guy John Malkovich. It’s a silly, often surprising farce, filled with typically Coen-esque duplicities and conspiracies. And it does have Brad Pitt playing a dumb-shit gym rat, so that’s something. (Joel and Ethan Coen are cinema’s great chroniclers of American stupidity.) But it’s also an example of how, sometimes, snowballing comic hysterics can deplete a film’s energy. A little of this stuff goes a long way, and this one, unlike many of the filmmakers’ other comedies, loses steam as the catastrophes mount.
15. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson escape from a chain gang and make their way across the South in this relentlessly episodic, gleefully corny epic that’s like a bluegrass-fueled variation on The Odyssey, with occasional nods to Moby-Dick. It was a big hit, and it even helped bring about a brief bluegrass revival. Indeed, T Bone Burnett & Co.’s music is the film’s highlight, and possibly its unifying factor. Individual setpieces shine — especially a Ku Klux Klan rally that turns into a musical number — and Clooney’s turn as a vain ex-con trying to win back his wife announced to the world that, yes, he could be funny in a movie. It has its pleasures, but this is possibly the messiest film in the directors’ body of work.
14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The twin spirits of both Frank Capra and Preston Sturges loom over this visually ornate homage to screwball comedies, in which dim-bulb mail-room clerk Tim Robbins (hi, Coen-esque man-child!) is given control of a big-time manufacturing corporation by scheming exec Paul Newman. Alas, it was something of a bust when it first came out. Many were unable to connect with the characters despite the film’s winning humor and fine cast. True, the story feels a bit overdetermined. But it’s ravishing, and includes one of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s finest performances, doing a dead-on impression of a sassy, fast-talking reporter straight out of Hollywood’s golden age. (By the way, ever notice how much smarter the women are than the men in the Coens’ films?)
13. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Here are the good things about Miller’s Crossing: It’s gorgeous; Carter Burwell’s score is among his best; John Turturro’s performance as a pleading, pathetic, backstabbing bookie is an all-timer; as is Albert Finney’s turn as a Prohibition-era Irish mob boss. But there’s something strangely missing, too: Maybe it’s that Gabriel Byrne’s hero, a two-timing enforcer with a weird idea of loyalty, is at times too passive and poker-faced to keep us engaged. Or maybe it’s just that the Coens can’t quite keep their intricate plot moving along in a compelling way. To be fair, many Coen fans would rank this among their best, so your mileage may (and will) vary. But this one remains an emotionally inert — albeit beautiful — puzzle.
12. Barton Fink (1991)
The Coens’ fourth feature shocked the world when it effectively swept Cannes, winning the Palme d’Or, Best Director, and Best Actor … back when a film could do such a thing at Cannes. It garnered a more divisive response when it finally opened in the U.S. The tale of an idealistic New York playwright (Turturro) who goes to Hollywood to write studio movies and winds up befriending a corpulent, sweaty insurance salesman (John Goodman) and a venerated alcoholic author (John Mahoney, doing his best Faulkner impression) is an odd mix of broad comedy, cutting satire, and psychological thriller. Some of these competing tones work better than others: As Barton’s dead-end hotel becomes a kind of metaphor for his mind, and his relationship with Goodman’s average-guy working stiff feeds his attempts at screenwriting, the film becomes an offbeat portrait of the creative act. But a lot of the ribbing of Hollywood falls flat, and the out-of-left-field finale — while notable for its sheer, hellish WTF-ery — is so odd that it reduces the rest of the film’s power.
11. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
While it has its serious moments, the Coens’ latest at first seems to fall squarely in the “entertainment” camp — it’s more lighthearted romp than ironic drama. At the heyday of the studio system, a group of embittered communist screenwriters kidnap movie star George Clooney and hold him for ransom, while tireless production chief and enforcer Josh Brolin has to find a way out of this mess (and several others). That premise helps to hold together what is effectively a series of re-creations of classic-movie genres, from Westerns to biblical epics to musicals. This studio does them all, so we get to see indulgent glimpses of each. But there’s also a sly allegory going on here, with the studio (“Capital Pictures,” har har) as a kind of capitalist machine. In other words, yes, it’s a love letter to moviemaking itself, but it might have been written with a poison pen. And if the episodic story sometimes drags, one suspects it’s partly by design. High points: Channing Tatum’s boisterous Navy song-and-dance number, and Ralph Fiennes’s impression of a genteel, George Cukor–like director who loses his temper with a young cowpoke turned movie star who’s been hilariously miscast in his elegant melodrama.
10. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
This fast-paced, caustic rom-com about a hotshot divorce lawyer (George Clooney) falling for a vengeful, wronged high-society wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) boasts some slick, speedy work from its beautiful stars, and it may well be the directors’ lightest film. Clooney manages to blend just the right amount of oily charm and romantic desperation, and Zeta-Jones is terrific as the woman who keeps us guessing as to her true intentions. The story occasionally spins out of control as the Coens try to enhance the formulaic plot with additional elements, but this is a funny, engaging, often-underrated film.
9. Blood Simple (1984)
The Coens’ first film, and still one of their most beloved, lays out so many of what would become their typical motifs: adulterous lovers, mistaken identity, ruthless small-time businessmen, deceptions and double-crosses galore. Sure, these are the common building blocks of film noir, but in the Coens’ hands — with their visual meticulousness, their bitter humor, their Olympian perspective on human frailty — these elements found new life. So, if nothing else, Blood Simple has the novelty factor going for it: It was the announcement of a vital, influential new voice in American cinema. But it also has its dull patches. The first-time directors struggle with pacing in parts, and a couple of their characters are probably too opaque. But this is one of the essential Coen films, even if they’ve surpassed it many times over in the years since its release.
8. True Grit (2010)
This adaptation of Charles Portis’s Western novel — previously filmed by Henry Hathaway and John Wayne in 1969, winning Wayne his sole Oscar — takes an old-fashioned premise and builds something wondrous and new out of it. A young girl (then-newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, amazing) hires gruff, soused lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, fantastic) to help hunt down the man who killed her father, and then insists on tagging along. The journey reveals to her (and us) the cruelty and wonder of the frontier; so, though it has its share of comic moments, this one finds the Coens in a highly lyrical mode. Their sense of irony is present, but muted: The film is an affectionate, snow-globe-like re-creation of the West, both a tribute to a forgotten genre and a comment on it. And it all works beautifully, featuring some of their most heartrending moments. There’s a reason why this is their biggest box-office hit to date.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
As the Greenwich Village folkie with maybe too much integrity, Oscar Isaac’s bitter, befuddled, haunted performance is at the heart of the Coens’ immersive look at the ‘60s folk scene. Here’s a movie that, like its central character, consciously contradicts itself at every turn. The episodic story is filled with wonderful musical performances, which land halfway between pastiche and earnest re-creation. Meanwhile, the mythical story arc turns out to be something of a red herring. Llewyn’s tale has all the hallmarks of a typically Coen-esque hero’s journey, but is ultimately revealed to be the story of an also-ran — as he’s subtly upstaged by some guy named Bob Dylan in the film’s final scene.
6. A Serious Man (2009)
A Jewish science professor in 1960s Minnesota (played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg) and his son contend with multiple miseries in this odd, beautiful comedy-drama that might be one of the Coens’ most perfectly modulated films. This is probably their most questioning work: Is the universe cruel, indifferent, or sadistic? And can an understanding of God actually make a difference? It’s also fascinating for its personal angle: The Coens grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s, the children of a science professor. And while the film isn’t autobiographical, it’s hard not to sense a faint glow in its otherwise depressing tale. It ends right as two new potential tragedies are about to unfold — suggesting that all the previous sad-sack events of the film will one day be colored by nostalgia. A thought both tender and poisonous: What we’ve just witnessed will be the good memories, because what’s about to happen might actually be worse.
4. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Billy Bob Thornton carries a great stone face of existential bewilderment throughout this mesmerizing drama about a barber whose lame attempt to blackmail his philandering wife’s (Frances McDormand) boss backfires spectacularly. It’s another of the Coens’ grimly self-aware films about a man repeatedly beaten down by what appears to be a universe with a very twisted sense of humor. It could all get very depressing very quickly, but the expressive filmmaking — the stirring music, the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the generous characterizations, and the gentle bursts of humor — renders it sublime.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
This neo-noir-meets-stoner-comedy about an ex-hippie (Jeff Bridges, in the role that will forever define him) who winds up getting pulled into a nocturnal world of scheming businessmen, sleazy porn impresarios, nihilist thugs, and assorted surreal goings-on has become one of the Coens’ most enduring films. It’s very funny, to be sure, but there’s something else going on here. For all its absurdist comedy, the film is defined by its melancholic, twilit atmosphere. Amid all the craziness, it’s a lament for the death of American idealism, at once one of the Coens’ wittiest and saddest films. It’s also a remarkably loose, alive work from two artists who have been known at times to go overboard with their precision.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The film that won the Coens their Best Picture Oscar seems, at first, very unlike them. An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man (Josh Brolin) who comes upon a bag full of drug money and is then pursued by a ruthless hit man (Javier Bardem), this is serious, terse, austere stuff. And yet, it’s also marked by a fascination with the twists and turns of fate and human folly — a theme that dates back to Blood Simple. Just look at Bardem’s unforgettable, murderous Anton Chigurh — he is pure cosmic dread personified. And the film is at times so deadpan, so stone-faced, that it’s hard not to feel as if the Coens are having a quiet chuckle beneath it all. Perhaps the most impressive thing about No Country is that it expands the directors’ palette while also telling a thoroughly gripping story and remaining true to their voice.
1. Raising Arizona (1987)
Still the Coens’ masterpiece — their funniest movie, and quite possibly their most poignant as well. Nicolas Cage is (yes) a dim, languid ex-con, Holly Hunter is his whip-smart police-officer wife. They can’t have children, so they decide to steal one of a batch of quintuplets newly born to a local furniture magnate. Car chases, escaped prisoners, supernatural bikers from hell, horny neighbors … Once it starts, this damned dynamo of a movie never stops. And even though it has some of the Coens’ broadest characterizations, it also has a tender heart. Amid all the stylization and the breakneck pacing and the rapid-fire dialogue, this is a heartbreaking story about two desperate people trying start a family and become part of something bigger, more noble. We can’t resist the delightful chaos of Raising Arizona, but once the ride is over, what resonates most is the characters’ deep yearning for love.