Movie for movie, title for title, there are probably no other directors who are as shockingly consistent as the Coen brothers. Year after year, these brothers come out with new movies that are almost always embraced with arms wide open from the nation’s critics and cinephiles. Whether it’s a drama, a comedy, or a thriller, the Coens are known for putting a unique spin on the genres they tackle.
This week, they return from a short hiatus with Hail, Caesar!, a star-studded romp set during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Despite premiering two months too late for Oscar consideration, the new film looks like it’ll live up to the high standards the Coens have set for themselves over the course of 3 decades making movies.
Here are all of The Coen Brothers’ Movies, Ranked.
16. The Ladykillers
Considered the Coens’ biggest (and only?) dud, The Ladykillers is an example of a remake gone very wrong. Tom Hanks makes his debut in a Coen film as Professor G.H Dorr—a charming gentleman who is planning to rob a casino. With the help of his crew, they rent a room in an old lady’s (Irma P. Hall) apartment so that they can burrow underneath her house to get the gold. But when she inadvertently finds out about the robbery, their plans switch to murdering her.
Tom Hanks’ southern, Edgar Allan Poe get-up was fun, but most of the characters were either cliche or forgettable. The “muscle” of the group was a football player who was hit one too many times in the head, and their “inside man” was Marlon Wayans, seemingly reprising his role from the Scary Movie franchise. It didn’t have any of that Coen charm or individuality and instead felt like a typical comedy. One of the few good scenes was when Garth (J.K Simmons) has his IBS triggered while the heist is happening. He then goes into a huge spiel about how IBS needs more awareness in the world and even goes as far as talking about “Irritable Bowel Singles” meetups. Simmons’ delivery was by far the best part of the film and even took away from Hanks’ spotlight.
15. Intolerable Cruelty
Everyone calls the Coens auteurs, but they never really know what they are auteurs of. They seem to have a similar formula throughout their filmography, but every now and again, they like to try something new. Intolerable Cruelty is one of those experiments. George Clooney plays a successful divorce lawyer; Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a gold-digging charmer. At first, that doesn’t sound like a Coen movie. Even while watching it, it’s still unbelievable.
Clooney plays Mike Massey, a divorce lawyer so successful that he has a prenup law named after him. Zeta-Jones plays Marilyn, a chronic divorcee who loves to marry men and get as much alimony as she can. Inspired by 1930s screwball comedies, Intolerable Cruelty has some fine moments, such as the courtroom scenes, but overall suffers from a weak script. Nothing is very memorable, except for maybe Cedric the Entertainer constantly saying “ass-nailer.”
14. Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading is fun because it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It’s an anti-spy thriller comedy with a bunch of big name actors that did nothing more than jump around and have as much fun as possible. The Coens wrote every single character with their actor in mind (with the exception of Tilda Swinton), so it makes sense that they feel so right.
J.K Simmons and Brad Pitt are on fire in some of their best performances. And even though she wasn’t thought of at first, Swinton did a fantastic job as usual. With the film No Country For Old Men coming out the year before, it was going to be hard to top it so soon. However, Burn After Reading doesn’t hold up that well. Its needlessly complex plot throws a lot of viewers into the loop and sometimes requires a mental road map just to keep up.
13. The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Man Who Wasn’t There is an indicator that the Coens should film in black and white more often. Billy Bob Thornton was made for the genre and the lack of color elevates the shadows on his hollow face. We don’t know anything about the lead man, Ed Crane (Thornton). He’s monotone and emotionless, only letting the audience in through his voiceovers. He wants to blackmail his wife’s lover (James Gandolfini) for money to start his own dry cleaning business.
Both Gandolfini and Frances McDormand (who plays the wife) give Thornton great support, but even they can’t save the plot. Because the Coens tried to make the film look authentic as possible, the script lacked in terms of pace and narrative. It was painfully slow and the ending is confusing the first time around. The only reason to watch it is to watch Thornton act like he’s in a Bogart film.
12. The Hudsucker Proxy
The Hudsucker Proxy is the closest that the Coens will ever come to a family film. Its PG rating makes it one of the more innocent projects they’ve ever made. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a naive business school graduate who gets promoted to president to (unknowingly) be a part of a stock market scam. Unfortunately for the greedy businessmen, his creation of the hula hoop makes him beloved by the press and people.
Unlike the Coens’ other movies, The Hudsucker Proxy is much simpler in tone and story. The Coens tried very hard to set the scene, but it just wasn’t interesting. With the cinematography and set design, the film is very much style over substance. The 1930s caricatures set in the 1950s made for a confusing and uncomfortable setup. Even though the film has its big defenders, there’s nothing that stands out about Hudsucker except pure annoyance.
11. A Serious Man
It’s quite difficult to pin down what exactly A Serious Man is trying to be. Is it a Jewish comedy or a film about existentialism? Joel Coen once said, “It’s a funny thing; people sometimes accuse us of condescending to our characters somehow — that to me is kind of inexplicable.” A Serious Man exists to make you think and put yourself in the shoes of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Similar to their previous film, A Man Who Wasn’t There, Larry is invisible. His wife is leaving him, his kids only want him for their own needs, and his student is trying to bribe him for a better grade. He then goes on to consult with two local rabbis about his life and while they offer fables and stories, they are not much help.
As usual, even with the weak story, the characters are what make the film, especially Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Instead of wooing Larry’s wife, he spends more time comforting him that his marriage is ruined. The irony in his character makes the tone lighter and creates a fun contrast to Larry’s depressing demeanor.
In their past films, the Coens were able to build a colorful atmosphere no matter the time period or genre. The suburban Jewish atmosphere feels real and autobiographical due to the Coens growing up in a similar atmosphere in Minnesota.
10. True Grit
John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal as Rooster Cogburn in 1969. Because that role was so iconic, it’s hard to think about someone trying to take over his legacy, but Jeff Bridges decided to give it a try. Bridges takes on the alcoholic cowboy and does a fine job under the Coens’ direction. He wasn’t as good as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, but he was able to pull off the old grumpy drunk pretty well.
The Coens were more faithful to the novel than to the 1969 Western, and that’s not necessarily a bad a thing. However, the directors mixed together comedy and drama a little too much. The comedic moments seemed to overpower the serious scenes, such as Bridges’ many drunken moments. It made it harder to take the film seriously, but the scenery and lighting are good distractions from that. It’s very conventional and the least “Coens-y” of their films, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. It just felt very “Hollywood-like”—a trait that they usually satirize in their films.
9. Miller’s Crossing
The Coens started their career with a grizzly film noir and they decided to twist around the genre a bit with Miller’s Crossing. Combining film noir with black comedy, the film is much lighter than Blood Simple. It centers on Tom (Gabriel Byrne), a double-crossing agent who’s stuck in the middle of a gang war. His stubborn Irish boss, Leo (Albert Finney), goes head-to-head with the hot-headed Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) because Johnny wants to kill his Jewish bookie, Bernie (John Turturro). Tom then uses clever tactics to turn them both against each other.
Byrne is at his best in this anti-hero role, with constant quips that get better as the film progresses. You never know what side he’s on, making his character fascinating to watch. Even though Roger Deakins wasn’t working on this film, there were still many beautiful shots, including the famous shootout scene in the woods. The lighting painted a grim picture while you watch a man on his knees beg for his life. However, despite it being pretty, the constant use of slang and the large amount of names sometimes made it hard to keep up at some points.
8. Raising Arizona
If you’re tired of sifting through horrible Nicolas Cage films, go back to a time where he was actually decent. Raising Arizona was the Coens’ second film, a screwball comedy that was a complete 180 degree turn from their gritty debut (Blood Simple). H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina (Holly Hunter) are a couple that desperately want a child when they find out that Edwina is infertile.
When they steal a furniture tycoon’s child, the audience is taken on a wacky ride watching H.I. and Edwina try to keep “their” child safe from the bounty hunters and police. Hunter and Cage make a perfect couple; it’s not hard not cheer for them even though they’re technically the bad guys. This is especially true during the convenience store robbery scene. The talented camera work and the delirious soundtrack (consisting of nothing but yodeling) turn it into the most bizarre shootout—something that only the Coen Brothers can come up with.
7. O Brother Where Art Thou
Take a bit of ancient Greek mythology, mix it with southern music and the KKK, and then you have a little film called O Brother Where Art Thou. Not many directors can make The Odyssey into such a modern adventure with the Greek mythology intact. From a cyclops to sirens, three escaped prisoners face different obstacles to find some missing money. Their strikingly different personalities put them into many difficult situations. The story was good, but the technical achievements are what make the movie stand out. There was so much detail put into the making of this film. Despite it being filmed in the clear summer, it was digitally colored with sepia tones to look like it was in the middle of the Dust Bowl.
But the biggest highlight is the soundtrack. Each song is carefully placed to showcase the tone and perspective of the film. For example, “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” compliments the siren scene by adding haunting yet soothing ring to the luring of the men. The mixture of gospel, bluegrass and folk make up for the narrative’s flaws. Regardless, the film made 45 million dollars at the box office—the most that the Coens had ever made, at least until Burn After Reading.
6. Barton Fink
Due to a case of writer’s block, Joel and Ethan wrote Barton Fink in the middle of writing Miller’s Crossing. It’s about Barton Fink (John Turturro), a playwright who is unable to come up with a proper film script. He befriends his next door neighbor, the lovable Charlie (John Goodman), who helps him survive in Hollywood. It has many different themes throughout, varying from fascism to “the common man.”
The themes overall give a harsh commentary on the life of Hollywood writers. Roger Deakins’ amazing cinematography then emphasizes those themes by bringing a haunting and looming feeling to the atmosphere. Despite the two apparently having “writer’s block” while writing the script, the film still has that Coen charm. Charlie’s “package” might be one of film’s most interesting MacGuffins, due to the many interpretations of its representation.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Before he was a cocky pilot in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Oscar Isaac wasn’t a household name. He was in a few indie films, but it was the Coen Brothers that got him his big break. Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou, Inside Llewyn Davis prides itself on its brilliant soundtrack. Oscar Isaac takes classic 60s folk songs and makes them his own.
The film revolves around Llewyn Davis (Isaac) and his struggle to become a famous folk musician in 1960s Greenwich Village. What makes this film stand out is not only the music but the narrative. It seems like a simple story, but there isn’t actually an ending to it. It just goes in a circle and starts at the beginning again. Unfortunately, the lack of action and typical “Coen gags” doesn’t make the film particularly popular.
4. Blood Simple
The Coens’ first showed their experimentation in neo-noir with their debut, Blood Simple. It not only was a huge success among critics, but it also jumpstarted Frances McDormand’s career. Made for only 1.5 million dollars, the blood-soaked film started their trend of utilizing motifs and symbolism.
The story is familiar: A jealous husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). The narrative moves forward all based on misunderstandings between the characters. This person doesn’t know that this person killed someone, but that person assumes that they know. The constant runarounds and phenomenal acting gave the Coens their “trickster” reputation in the film industry.
3. The Big Lebowski
Despite it being a huge flop when it was released, The Big Lebowski is considered something of a cultural, stoner icon (there’s even a convention for it). But the question is, “Why is it such a big deal?” On the surface, it looks like a run of the mill heist movie. Heck, it’s not even the best Coen film out there. But its mixture of absurdism and surrealism makes it an entertaining watch every time.
“The Dude” is one of the most quotable characters in cinema and is considered one of Jeff Bridges’ most memorable roles. The Dude is a very mellow pacifist who wants nothing more than to bowl with his crew. Unfortunately for him, he comes across German nihilists, pornographers, and severed pinky toes when he gets tangled in a hostage rescue mission. John Goodman and Bridges bounce off of each other with their stellar dialogue and mannerisms. If they don’t make spark your interest, then at least watch for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s awkward laughs. Some people may say that there’s nothing special about this movie, but that’s just, like, their opinion, man.
2. No Country For Old Men
Many people consider Cormac McCarthy novels unfilmable, but the Coens proved them wrong by making this bleak adaptation of McCarthy’s equally bleak novel of the same name. It’s a very faithful adaptation, with every action sequence being word-for-word and in the same order as the novel. Every frame is a piece of art, and the lack of a soundtrack provides constant tension in this battle of greed. This is proven in the first five minutes of the film with shots of pure desert coupled with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) choking a police officer with his handcuffs.
There isn’t a dull performance in sight, but the highlight has to be Bardem as Anton Chigurh. Considered to be the of the most memorable villains, Bardem takes sociopath to a whole new level. He kills without mercy and even goes as far as blowing up a car in front of a pharmacy. The movie is built up as a triumvirate of Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Bardem but let’s be honest: this was Bardem’s film by far.
When your film inspires a television show and a real life treasure hunt, you know that you made a real winner. Fargo will always be remembered and thought of as a classic. The dialogue is so precise that William H. Macy’s stutters are actually scripted. That’s how much the Coens cared about getting this movie right. The Coens have dealt with husbands trying to get rid of their wives in some of their previous films, but none of them match up to Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). The (not so true) story starts out with Jerry in a bar with two criminals. Jerry tries to fake a kidnapping of his wife so that her rich father will pay a ransom for her safety. When Officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is on his tail, his whole plan turns south, resulting in the deaths of innocent people. The story revolves around humanity and how far people go for their loved ones. The parallels between Jerry and his wife and Marge and her husband show how differently love is perceived.
As she always does, McDormand made this role iconic, making her one of film’s strongest female characters. Even when Marge was pregnant, she was able to take down the huge Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). It won McDormand her first and only Oscar—a much deserved award.
What do you think of this list? Did we make the right choices? Let us know in the comments!
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