The Coen Brothers are movies; few directors in the history of the medium can claim a body of work full of such iconic characters, spectacular images, and unforgettable soundtracks. With excitement building around their latest project, the Hollywood-based comedy Hail, Caesar! (Feb. 5th), now is a perfect time to reflect on the duo’s long career as virtuosos of the highest order.
And that’s what makes ranking their films so outrageously difficult. Even the ones that don’t work as well overall are still technically well-made, and contain any number of their own small pleasures. And as for their best work? Well, that can be downright arbitrary, critically speaking. Raising Arizona’s opening sequence—one of the greatest (and most hilarious) in cinematic history (and arguably the greatest example ever of time compression in film) is 11 minutes of perfection in motion. Anton Chigurh’s gambit with a hapless gas station attendant, resulting in the highest-stakes coin flip imaginable, is easily one of the most intense and unsettling scenes ever committed to film. So, do they do their best work in comedy, or drama? Really, the only fair answer to that question is, “Yes.” Bearing that in mind, here are Paste’s picks, from least-to-most favorite.
The Coen Brothers first, and (to date) only, entry in the rom-com genre is an oddity in their oeuvre, for certain. Their involvement in the project began modestly; they were hired by the studio for a script rewrite. But after numerous delays, actors and directors backing out, they were tapped to just go ahead and helm the damn thing already. So what could have been a thoroughly generic, forgettable romantic comedy, instead benefitted from the Coens’ unique screwball and satirical stamps. George Clooney returns to collaborate with the brothers, post-O Brother—again seemingly having a fantastic time playing a know-it-all with a very specific requirement in vanity maintenance. —Scott Wold
The Ladykillersis considered one of the lesser movies from the Coens, but those who dismiss it fail to recognize the beauty and the eeriness amid the clutter. Yes, there are a few dumb jokes about IBS, and not all of the characters in the ensemble cast quite make sense, but the black comedy disguises something poetic in the manner of that most gothic of poets, Edgar Allen Poe. This is a story of a failed casino heist, but deep down it’s also a morality play (and an interesting prelude to A Serious Man). Tom Hanks is excellent as Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr—a flawed mastermind, and one who reforms too late. —Josh Jackson
This Coen Brothers favorite has an unsurprisingly incredible cast, but can we take a moment to give all of the awards and props to Frances McDormand? Her Linda Litzke is one of the strangest, most hilariously bizarre characters to ever appear in a film, and yet there’s something completely familiar about her. She’s pursuing her own version of the American Dream, and the mess she leaves in her wake makes up the crux of this very black, very funny comedy. That she does so while all the other members of this ensemble do the same, and manage to entangle their own personal dramas with hers, makes this movie an entertaining way to spend an evening. Along with McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins (who plays the tragically adorable Ted) all give fantastic turns—unrecognizable, in many ways, from their typical fare which makes the story all the more enthralling. —Shannon Houston
The Hudsucker Proxy did, somewhat unfortunately, fall flat on its face right out the box office gate, despite being what’s probably their broadest comedy. Though uncharacteristically predictable at every beat for a Coen Brothers’ film, it also boasts some of their most sumptuous visuals and sequences. From the dramatic suicide of the non-proxy Hudsucker himself, to the Red Balloon-like escaped Hula Hoop, its dreamlike production design (which seems to exist outside of any real historical decade) elevates an otherwise highly cynical swipe at corporate culture in America—from rube-gotten-too-big-for-his-britches Tim Robbins to plucky, nonsense-intolerant reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh, to devious company board director Paul Newman. —S.W.
Working with few recognizable stars, the Coens have made a funny but odd and inquisitive film about guilt. It’s also their most Jewish film to date, a film about physics professor Larry Gopnik and the Jewish subculture of a medium-sized late-’60s American town. Larry’s life begins to fall apart when his wife says she wants a divorce, and in the great unraveling that follows, the Coens have made Kafka’s implications explicit. The K word is often slapped onto any old symbolic nightmare, but Kafka’s own work was actually very funny, even though he could slip into gray areas without much warning. The Coens can, too. A Serious Man is one of the most fascinating, maybe even heartfelt, renderings of a Kafkaesque sensibility that I’ve seen. —Robert Davis
While hung up with the intricate plotting of Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers took a break to write a script about a blocked screenwriter (Jon Turturro). Reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch at their most darkly satiric, Barton Fink depicts a self-important New York playwright who struggles to write a Hollywood wrestling picture while residing in a rotting hotel. A jaundiced metaphor for the compromised creative process of show business, Barton Fink delivers the deadpan comedy and quirky performances of the Coen’s trademark, including Oscar nominee Michael Lerner as a bombastic studio chief, John Mahoney as a boozing, Faulkner-esque novelist, and John Goodman as a cheerful salesman with a dark secret. Audiences can obsess over the meaning of lines like Goodman’s “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” but any answers the film holds are unlikely to be reassuring. —Curt Holman
Even for the Brothers Coen—clearly no strangers to the hard-bitten noir, mind you—The Man Who Wasn’t There represents a significant detour in style. It’s not only directly the thematic offspring of such cinematic fare from the 1940s—most especially, Double Indemnity—its intense black-and-white presentation stands in memorable contrast (pun possibly intended) to the vivid palettes they typically paint in. Billy Bob Thornton plays barber-turned-blackmailer Ed Crane with brilliantly subtle shades; Coen perennial Frances McDormand is, of course, perfection as Thornton’s motivationally opaque, unfaithful wife. Like all the best noir, nothing here is as it initially seems. Behind every rich black in frame lies its even darker shadow. —S.W.
If you truly loved your kidnapped trophy wife, would you really ask a guy like Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski to deliver ransom money to her captors? Sure, he’s got plenty of time on his hands—enough to while away the days chasing down a stolen rug, at least—but he can hardly get himself dressed in the morning, chugs White Russians like it’s his job (incidentally, he doesn’t have a real one) and hangs around with a bunch of emotionally unstable bowling enthusiasts. Any mission you set him off on seems bound to fail. And yet that’s the great joy, and the great triumph, of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski and its consummate slacker-hero. The Dude is a knight in rumpled PJ pants, a bathrobe his chainmail, a Ford Torino his white horse. Through strikes and gutters, ups and downs, he takes life in ambling, unshaven stride—and all without dashing good looks and unparalleled strengths. Isn’t that something to which we should all aspire? —J.J.
In remaking one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, the Coens have also taken on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ’69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly embraces and reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar. There’s a simplicity about the performances in True Grit that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated urban settings of nineteenth century Arkansas and the Indian Territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps audiences asking, “What’s next?” —Tim Basham
Inside Llewyn Davis is not the first time that the Coen brothers have portrayed a period of distinctly American music, but beyond that the film holds little in common with the elephant in the room, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. While music plays a crucial role—in fact entire scenes are devoted to the performance of songs—for the Coens the point seems to be less about the music per se and more about documenting a particular moment in American history and specifically American themes. Whether it’s small-town murder, drug violence along the southern border, CIA paranoia, and now early ’60s folk music, the Coens have been masters of casting, plot and atmosphere. Inside Llewyn Davis continues their winning streak. —Jonah Flicker
Blood Simple introduced the world to the cinema of Joel and Ethan Coen, and the world has been a better place ever since. The brothers, of course, went on to bigger budgets, Oscar victories and a variety of genres, but their writing and directing were already in top form when they made this stylish noir thriller. John Getz, Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya are all excellent in the story of an increasingly bloody romantic entanglement, and M. Emmet Walsh steals the show as a sleazy private detective. But the real stars are the Coens, as they build on a nightmare scenario with taut suspense and a cheeky sense of humor. —Jeremy Mathews
T-Bone Burnett’s soundtrack got all the attention, but this twist on Homer’s Odyssey—set in Depression Era Mississippi—had all the effortless storytelling, imaginative characters and quotable lines we’ve come to love from the Coen Brothers’ best comedies, with George Clooney joining a celebrated list of Coen comic leads. Holly Hunter and John Goodman basically reprise their hilarious Raising Arizona roles, only with more kids. And an eye-patch. —J.J.
What is it about the Coen Brothers’ inconsolable No Country for Old Men that still chills the blood, even under the South Texas sun? No doubt its inscrutability plays a role: Is it a Western, a noir or a morality play? And the Academy Award-winning performance by Javier Bardem disturbs because he himself remains a mystery: Is Anton Chigurh a merciless hitman or the Angel of Death? The story of a drug deal gone wrong soon reveals its true theme: the futility of being good and just in the face of abject evil. But the Coens also meditate on the faltering of the physical body. “Age’ll flatten a man,” Tommy Lee Jones’ Sherrif Bell esteems, and for this Texan, the evocation of my childhood landscape—right down to the tiniest detail—means that the specter of Chigurh will haunt not only the end of my life but stomp through its earliest remembrances as well. —Andy Beta
In exploring the unsavory implications of “Minnesota nice,” the Coen Brothers created one of the most beloved, acclaimed and quotable films of all time. Fargo explores the tension that accompanies polite social norms and the quiet desperations they often mask, and many scenes are awkward enough to make your skin crawl. The emotional restraint displayed by Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and Mike (Steve Park) is a thin and disingenuous veil over yearnings for money or companionship. The foil to this, obviously, is Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, who just really is that nice and hardworking and downright normal. Because of her and her husband’s gentleness, the movie makes you appreciate the art behind postage stamps as much as it makes you cringe at the sound of a wood chipper. —Allie Conti
It may come across unfathomable to many declaring the Coens’ third feature, the aggressively stylized crime story, Miller’s Crossing, the duo’s finest dramatic creation. After all, its rapid-fire Prohibition-era patois can confound as often as it expounds. But Ethan and Joel’s Irish mafia joint is a master class in heightened realism; every exaggerated component balances exquisitely within its intricate plot. And between Barry Sonnenfeld’s stunning long shots and Carter Burwell’s incomparable score, it may also be their crowning technical accomplishment. Gabriel Byrne delivers the performance of his career as the gambling-addicted, cunning right-hand man, Tom Reagen, to Albert Finney’s old-school, tough son-of-a-bitch mob boss, Leo O’Bannen. And, of course, one simply can’t discuss Miller’s Crossing without praise for Coens’ regular John Turturro as the cowardly little shit, Bernie Bernbaum; a performance that swings uncannily from smarmy condescension to pathetic sniveling within a few moments. Hold on to your hat, Tom. —S.W.
Understated dramatic performances are all well and good, but it takes pinpoint control on behalf of both directors and cast to deliver the sustained overstated performances found throughout Raising Arizona. From its opening courtship sequence to the struggles of H.I. (Nicholas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) to form a family by borrowing an “extra” from another, to the final battle with the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, the Coen brothers’ film remains an immensely beguiling and quotable farcical fable. —Michael Burgin