Few directors in the history of Hollywood can claim a body of work full of such iconic characters, spectacular images, and unforgettable soundtracks. With Hail! Caesar just days away from release, what will be a better time to reflect on their long and illustrious career.
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 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. So, do they do their best work in comedy, or drama? Really, the only fair answer to that question is, “Yes.”
10. Intolerable Cruelty
The Coen Brothers first, and (to date) only, entry in the rom-com genre is an oddity in their canvas, 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 avergae, forgettable romantic comedy, instead benefited from the Coens’ unique satirical take.
9. Burn After Reading
Coens don’t make a bad movie, they don’t know how. 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 character is one of the strangest, most hilariously bizarre characters 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 base of this very black, 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, the movie boasts an amazingly stellar cast, very well handled by Coens.
8. A Serious Man
Working with few recognizable stars, the Coens have made a funny but odd 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 American town. Larry’s life begins to fall apart when his wife says she wants a divorce, and the great unraveling that follows make A Serious Man a heartlfelt, dark-comedy of which the brothers must be proud of, to say the least.
7. Barton Fink
A renowned New York playwright is enticed to California to write for the movies and discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood. A wonderful cast of remarkable, idiosyncratic characters could be enough of a reason to watch this typically off-beat Coen Bros film. John Turturro‘s titular anti-hero is a well-pitched tough-talker who is not ready to compromise. Beside him are deliciously imaginative support roles: John Goodman‘s charming everyman, John Mahoney‘s literary lush and Tony Shalhoub’s Hollywood middle-man-motormouth. Impressive.
6. The Man Who Was Not There
A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong. Billy Bob Thornton adds to the noir atmosphere with his superb emotionless portrayal of the character. Essays could be written just on the way he smokes his cigarette! Thornton plays barber-turned-blackmailer 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; the movie is in Black&White.
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In the deep south during the 1930s, three escaped convicts search for hidden treasure while a relentless lawman pursues them. If anyone needs a suggestion for a good gift for movie lovers this movie is it. 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. The Eye-Patch and the expressions, the selling point? Why Not!
4. No Country For Old Men
Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong and more than two million dollars in cash near the Rio Grande. What is it about the Coen Brothers’ inconsolable No Country for Old Men that still chills the blood, even under the South Texas sun?
At it’s most simplistic, this movie is about cat and mouse. There’s very little “good” in No Country for Old Men beyond the mesmerizing acting and viciously dark screenplay. Instead, the unholy trinity of temptation, cynicism and pure, dark, evil take center stage in this modern western.
3. Raising Arizona
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 throughoutRaising 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.
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.
1. The Big Lebaowski
“The Dude” Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it. A true comedy classic with so many memorable lines and characters, but it’s the movie’s atmosphere which is so truly joyous, a wonderful celebration of basically doing nothing. Achieving one’s goals is important, yes, but it’s okay to set them low, is what I perceived this movie to be saying. As long as one is basically a good guy, then that’s enough. Well, that’s what it seemed like, and it was expressed so beautifully in the stunning cast of grotesques, lovely music, and the trippiest, funniest, most absurd dream sequences you’ve ever seen.
Special Mention – Miller’s Crossing
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.