Even the worst Coen brothers movie is better than most films you'd watch on a given day. Although last on this list, 'Intolerable Cruelty' is a very entertaining and very funny movie that reflects its maker's pitch black world view in almost every scene, while, somehow, being a little sweeter and more mainstream than their average output. Still, for all of the amusingly dark screwball comedy antics, this is a trifle at the end of the day. As far of romantic comedies starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones go, it's aces. As far as Coen brothers movies go, it's just okay.
At the time of its release, critics declared that 'The Ladykillers' was one of the Coens' worst films and nearly a decade later ... um, they're right. However, we use the word "worst" lightly here because this is a film filled with inspired and hilarious moments, even if it can't stand alongside the best of the brothers' output. Particularly inspired is the casting of Tom Hanks in a rare villainous role, giving America's favorite movie star the chance to twirl his moustache and act with the subtlety of a Looney Tunes character. In fact, the entire film is pitched like a R-rated cartoon, but the gruesome consequences of its characters actions make it feel like a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner short where the coyote stays dead. It's a truly bizarre and uneven movie, but it's too darn weird to completely write off.
With 'The Hudsucker Proxy,' the Coen brothers tread into a genre they haven't dared touch again: the family film. The film's critical tarring and feathering (and the poor box office) have kept them in the R-rated realm ever since and that's a real shame since this is actually a really good and really cute movie. Yeah, we said it. This is a cute Coen brothers movie. Although it has its darker moments, this is one of their more optimistic and cheerful films and Tim Robbins' Norville Barnes is one of their most endearing protagonists. Like their blacker comedies, 'The Hudsucker Proxy' is firmly rooted in the old fashioned world of screwball comedy, but unlike the rest of the Coen filmography, it's all heart, unafraid of magical realism and outright fantasy when it's called for. Like the classics that being riffed on here, everything actually shakes out okay for everyone in this movie, making it one of most surprising films in the Coen oeuvre.
'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'
There's something audacious about loosely adapting 'The Odyssey' so it's set in the Great Depression-era South and filling the movie with period-appropriate music that's incredibly vital to the storyline at hand. Somehow, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' works, even if it's a looser and less consistent film than many others in the Coen canon. Credit cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose sepia-tinged camerawork is masterful. And, credit stars Geroge Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson, who walk a fine line between overly broad and sympathetic. Most of all, credit the perfect soundtrack, which rightfully won every award under the sun and gives what could have been a slight narrative the power of a freight train. 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is an effortless and entertaining watch, a little more joyous than the average Coen film but no less cynical.
'The Man Who Wasn't There'
It's utterly insane to think that a film as good as 'The Man Who Wasn't There' could be considered a "lesser" film. Don't let the gorgeous black and white cinematography and period setting fool you -- this is a brutal, black-hearted movie, an old fashioned film noir that's unafraid to get its hands dirty. Billy Bob Thornton gives the best performance of his career as a barber who finds his life quickly spiraling out of control after he steps on the wrong side of the law. Like the best noirs, his fall from grace is shocking but inevitable, the kind of horrifying and hilarious clusterf--- that the Coens do best.
Few films are as lean, mean and downright vicious as 'Blood Simple,' which may be one of the greatest debut films of all time. Although entirely lacking the darkly silly humor that would define many of their other films, this nasty neo-noir is full of the Coen's other defining traits: a fondness for local color, a keen sense of location and a complete and utter lack of sympathy for the men and women who get in over their heads (as well as those just in the wrong place at the wrong time).
This is a fast, brutal movie made by hungry filmmakers with something to prove and the seeds of their later masterpieces are clearly seen here ... mainly because this is also a masterpiece. Cinematic nihilism and the randomness of violence have rarely been depicted with such an unblinking eye.
'Burn After Reading' is a featherweight lark, yet it's also got one of the sharpest edges you've ever seen. Sure, it may be a silly comedy about very, very stupid people making very, very poor decisions, but it's also about these saps suffering the worst possible consequences for their actions, often bringing down innocent bystanders with them. What may frustrate some audiences will delight others: there is no real plot to speak of in 'Burn After Reading.' This is a movie about a bunch of idiots who misinterpret everything they see and create a complicated, twisted plot where one actually doesn't exist.
This is the Coen brothers playing a practical joke on their audience, promising something traditional before pulling it away at the last possible moment in a burst of violence. Consider it the comedic accomplice to the similarly non-narrative 'No Country For Old Men' and 'A Serious Man.' Like those films, this is the story of an uncaring, brutal and random world, but this time, the Coens want you to laugh at it.
There has never been a crime movie that has felt like 'Miller's Crossing.' Jumping between fantastical and heartbreakingly real on a scene-by-scene basis, this is the Coens doing what they do best: luring you into thinking you're watching one kind of movie before shoving you into another.
If you examine the basic plot description, 'Miller's Crossing' sounds like just another gangster movie (with a little 'Yojimbo' thrown in for good measure) but the execution is just sublime. Although Gabriel Byrne gives the best performance of his career in the lead role, though it's John Tuturro who has forever become associated with the film, with his most infamous quote inspiring the title of this list. Sure, 'Miller's Crossing' is from the era that produced 'Goodfellas' and 'Pulp Fiction,' but it's still one of the absolute best crime films of that decade.
The Coens have never been shy about their love of film noir, but they've never been more playful with the genre than they are with 'The Big Lebowski.' A colossal bomb at the time of its release, the story of The Dude and his odd collection and enemies and allies has become a cult favorite over the years and for good reason: it's hilarious, quotable and jam-packed with characters that all-but-demand that you dress up as them for Halloween. The utterly bizarre cast and their even more bizarre interactions deliberately mask that the film follows the noir template to a tee, making this the rare neo-noir to actually exist, 100%, in its own time without calling back to the past in any way. What would happen if a collection of freaks and weirdos stumbled into the kind of plot that would have interested Humphrey Bogart in the '40s? Well, this. And it's glorious.
It stinks to be unappreciated. It stinks to be poor. It stinks to be homeless in the middle of the winter, your supply of favors and friends' couches rapidly dwindling. It especially stinks when the only person you have to blame for most of your troubles is yourself. In terms of narrative, 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is one of the simpler Coen brothers films, a character study following the title folk musician as he struggles to survive for one week in 1961 New York City. But this shaggy story, with its long list of loose ends and intentionally vague conflicts, only serves a movie that's as harrowing, funny and emotionally crippling as any film released in recent memory. There's a lot too chew on in 'Inside Llewyn Davis' and there's not enough room to dive in here (especially since most audiences haven't had the chance to see it). In simple terms, this is another Coen brothers masterpiece and we can't help but get the impression that it'll crawl up this list with repeat viewings.
It's almost impossible to believe that 'Raising Arizona' is the Coen brothers' follow-up to 'Blood Simple.' Not because there's a substantial dip or rise in quality of filmmaking, but because you'd be hard-pressed to find two films that are more different. As silly as 'Blood Simple' is terrifying, 'Raising Arizona' is the most successful of the Coens' pure comedies, a live action movie inhabited by walking cartoons who actually have a heart. Unlike 'Burn After Reading' or 'The Ladykillers,' 'Raising Arizona' doesn't ask us to completely write off the humanity of its unreal characters, resulting in a tricky balancing act where our aggressively silly leads can act like the Three Stooges and make us tear up (often within the same scene). The balance between weirdness and pathos feels and impossible, but hey, 'Raising Arizona' exists and it's just as good as the first time you watched it.
In some ways, 'Barton Fink' is one of the Coens' more opaque films. What is it actually about? Open to interpretation. How much is real? Open to interpretation. What exactly is going on in the Hotel Earle? Open to interpretation. However, the genius of the film is how it grounds all of the big questions and potential symbolism in a story that will touch a nerve with many viewers. If you've ever struggled to create, 'Barton Fink' will feel all-too-real. Some of the film's targets (like the Hollywood system) are broad, but others cut like a scalpel and any creative person who watches the film will its sting. The loneliness of the creative process, the maddening stress of a deadline, the struggle to make the system work for you and, most importantly, how easy it is to forget who or what you're creating for in the first place all get examined. Thankfully, 'Barton Fink' is as funny and weird and quotable as it is punishing.
There are some people who would write off 'True Grit' because it's a remake and those people are fools. The Coens' take on the classic western novel is leagues better than the John Wayne original, finding the depth and raw nerve that got excised from the first adaptation.
Although a more straightforward film than most of their output, 'True Grit' bears the marks of their greatest work: a love (and mutilation) of the english language, its celebration of the eccentric and its flat declaration that life can be unfair and cruel and that there's nothing that we can do about it. By packaging their normal tropes in the western template, we get a rare treat: a Coen brothers movie that also functions as a wild, completely entertaining adventure.
Although it doesn't top the list, 'Fargo' is probably the most well-rounded of the Coens' movies. No film better sums up what they're all about -- this movie is somehow a lurid crime drama, a neo-noir about total morons and a celebration of the odd and unusual heroes who never get a chance at the spotlight.
In police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), they have crafted one of the great cinematic heroes and in Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), they have crafted the most endearingly pathetic lowlife in cinematic history. 'Fargo' isn't afraid to go downright nightmarish with its violence, but it's also wickedly funny, often taking the violence to such nightmarish heights (woodchipper!) that you can't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Unlike so many other Coen films, the laughter rarely comes at the expense of the characters. There's a rare affection for everyone here (particularly Marge) that adds a quiet layer of pathos on top of every gruesome/hilarious hilarious event. The Coens love making movies about oddballs, but this is the rare case where they seem to truly love these oddballs.
'No Country For Old Men' is a more difficult and cerebral film than its box office and Oscar success would suggest. Adapted very closely from Cormac McCarthy's book, this noir/western/allegory/waking nightmare is brutal and unrelenting in content and execution, unafraid of depicting the heinous actions of horrible men and equally unafraid of shattering cinematic structure.
If you feel a tremendous unease during every moment of 'No Country For Old Men,' you can thank (or blame) the film's disregard for the Hollywood template. Sure, much of this was accomplished by sticking to the source material, but that in of itself is a brave decision. This is a thriller that goes out of its way to avoid action; a tale of good vs. evil where the bad guys always seem to triumph through biblical force. This is a movie that deliberately decides to have major events take place offscreen to deny you a thrill, to make you feel the loss and pain of its characters in the most direct way possible. In short, 'No Country For Old Men' isn't just a great Coen brothers movie, it's the only one of their films that makes you feel like one of their characters.
Picking the best Coen brothers movie is a near-impossible task. Everyone has their favorites. But there's just something special about 'A Serious Man.' Perhaps it's the way it lingers in your mind for days after viewing. Maybe it's how it tells a story of a man searching for answers to his problems and finding nothing, all in the context of a movie that deliberately withholds easy answers. Heck, it could just as easily be Michael Stuhlbarg's perfect performance or the gorgeous cinematography or the unique setting or the constant state of total, crippling dread that the film mines from seeming innocuous and normal events.
'A Serious Man' is about sheer religious terror, a story of watching your life fall apart and not knowing if God is behind it or it it's happening because there is no God at all. And like the best biblical stories, the message isn't always so clear. Is 'A Serious Man' about how worthless religion and faith are since they can't help you with your life in any way? Or is it about how rejecting religion and faith will ruin your very existence? As the Rabbi says at the end of a seemingly (?) useless story: Who cares? Few films ask so many questions and even fewer films give you the breathing room to make up your own mind.