O Brother: Ranking the films of Joel and Ethan Coen

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To celebrate both the 20th anniversary of Fargo and the current release of Hail, Caesar!, we’ve ranked every single one of the movies directed by the incredible filmmaking duo, Joel and Ethan Coen. Agree with our ranking? Would you choose something else for the top spot? Let us know in the comments below.


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17. The Ladykillers (2004)

Perhaps the Coen’s only outright ‘bad’ movie, there’s still plenty on show in The Ladykillers to entertain even the most casual fan of the directors: brilliant recurring visual jokes, a knack for turning period detail into authentic world-building, and the pleasure of Tom Hanks’ unrestrained performance as crime ringleader Professor G.H. Dorr are all elements that prove that even the Coens’ worst still has some worth. It’s just a shame about the poor story structure, which never settles on exactly what kind of movie it wants to be – a disparity that most of their other works seem to revel in.

 

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16. True Grit (2010)

True Grit starts with possibly the best first shot in the Coens’ career – but it’s all downhill from there. Or rather, they began with a brilliant 2 minutes, and then proceeded to deliver an okay-at-best 148 minutes. A rootin’-tootin’ Jeff Bridges does little to save what desperately wants to be a classic Western; while moments of perfectly-wrought tension abound, it’s the film’s failure in engineering empathy for its lead Mattie Ross (the Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld) that ultimately prevents this from being top-tier Coens.

 

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15. Hail, Caesar! (2016)

While it hasn’t yet enjoyed the benefit of ageing, Hail, Caesar! is trademark Coens – on paper, at least. While the directors’ strengths lie in tying seemingly disparate story strands, characters, and locations into a tonally and logically satisfying whole, Hail, Caesar! marks perhaps the first time where they’ve failed to do so. A movie about moviemaking from the Coen brothers sounds like every film lover’s dream: what it’s turned out to be, however, is a curious misnomer in their oeuvre, firing on all cylinders but only drawing blanks.

 

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14. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

When the Coens delivered a screwball comedy, they gave us Intolerable Cruelty: sugary and quippy on the outside, and dark and twisted (and still quippy) on the inside. Although George Clooney’s and Catherine Zeta Jones’ timeless chemistry basically keeps the film afloat, there’s enough caustic wit in the screenplay to pass this off as a Coens film, and not just another typical rom-com.

 

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13. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Bathed in Roger Deakins’ beautiful half-light and overflowing with fine allegory, O Brother, Where Art Thou? may be one of the brothers’ most beloved pictures, but there’s very little substance in terms of the most important aspect: character. The off-kilter tone is superb, but none of it is grounded in the Coens’ usual flair for building people we can emotionally get behind amid the zaniness: for instance, when we learn of Everett’s (George Clooney) love triangle when he reaches the town, none of it registers at all – a death knell for the movie. Still, we have John Goodman as a stand-in for the Cyclops – so we can’t be too despondent.

 

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12. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Passing off as a cult classic instead of what it really is – a borderline mediocre film – The Big Lebowski has burrowed its way into popular culture regardless. While Jeff Bridges’ Dude is a genuinely superb creation – one that only the Coens could pull off – the movie around him wanders far too much in too many different directions to hold together. Even if that’s the point – the Dude, after all, barely knows what day it is – there’s doesn’t feel like there’s any unifying, grand design to the movie, which if you’re anyone but the Dude, is incredibly frustrating.

 

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11. Burn After Reading (2008)

Lightweight but fully-formed and scathingly dark, Burn After Reading takes one of the Coens’ most outright maxims – never knowing what’ll happen next – and applies it to every scene. While most of their other films don’t fully fit into any respective genre, this movie is truly unclassifiable: it exists as a mouthpiece for their blacker-than-thou humour, and that works just fine for us. Plus, just take a look at that cast list: Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, JK Simmons, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich… need we say more?

 

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10. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Set in a black-and-white world with blurringly grey morals, The Man Who Wasn’t There takes one of its most unlikeable characters (Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane) and turns him into one the most relatable they’ve put on screen. Playing out like a noir and yet crackling with the Coen’s dryly comic sensibilities, this is one of their most under-appreciated works.

 

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9. Blood Simple (1984)

The Coens certainly started as they meant to go on: Blood Simple is one of the best debuts of all time, arriving perfectly moulded from a 28 and 25-year-old Joel and Ethan. A razor-sharp screenplay interspersed with unforgettable set pieces, plus an extraordinary central performance from Frances McDormand, would ensure that Blood Simple goes down in history, and its influence is so strong, it’s difficult to imagine the world without it. When Quentin Tarantino arrived on the scene almost a decade later with Reservoir Dogs, it tasted distinctly of Blood Simple.

 

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8. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

For whatever reasons The Hudsucker Proxy was critically maligned on release, it’s only grown in stature since; an acerbic exploration into how towering success affects even the most innocent, in this case fresh-faced Tim Robbins as Wall Street newcomer Norville Barnes, Proxy remains resonant and relevant today. Sick jokes gradually transform into towering metaphors, while magic realism creeps into the absurdist and brutalist period imagining of New York City. It’s also one of the Coens’ most quotable – y’know, for kids.

 

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7. A Serious Man (2009)

Probably the Coen brothers’ most divisive film – and it’s certainly their most impenetrable – A Serious Man wills itself into being as obscure as it possibly can. To break throug one layer of this curious movie is to only bump into another – but if you remain as open as possible, you’ll soon come to realise that chaos, and its prevailing hurricane of existential doubt, is the whole point of the movie, essentially one man’s grapple with religion, physics, love, and perhaps all of life itself.

 

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6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Only their third film, Miller’s Crossing is one of the most assured, unique, and downright satisfying gangster flicks ever made. Gabriel Byrne is incredible as Tom Reagan, but the greatest achievement in this film is showing the vulnerable, human effects of mafia violence (‘look into your heart’), an institution that’s a melting-pot of culture and heritage. Legend has it that the Coens dreamt of that opening shot of a black hat being blown through a forest, and worked backwards from there: in that respect, Miller’s Crossing is an example of dreams becoming truly realised.

 

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5. Fargo (1996)

Perhaps the most instantly recognisable of the brothers’ work, Fargo remains a crime classic to this day: its idiosyncratic setting, lilting accents and acutely ridiculous ‘based on a true story’ set-up all got people to really notice these entirely unique filmmakers. What allows it to endure, however, isn’t the red mist-stained violence on display, but the innocence and inherent goodness of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson – traits which are just enough to pierce the veil of evil covering the world.

 

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4. Barton Fink (1991)

‘I AM A CREATOR!’ cries Barton Fink (John Turturro) during a period of artistic triumph, in which the success all goes to his head. The playwright-turned-screenwriter soon discovers that the movie studios doesn’t necessarily share the same enthusiasm – but it’s in his hotel room, where the blood, sweat and tears Fink oozes onto his worn typewriter, where John Goodman’s psychopathic Charlie Meadows both scares and inspires him, make the biggest impression. The very walls of Fink’s room seem to be bleed; if a horror film ever had a scarier premise than the art of creation itself, we’re yet to hear it.

 

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3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Oscar Isaac didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his performance as the titular Llewyn Davis, which is downright shameful. Although the actor is more well-known now for his roles in The Force Awakens and Ex Machina, he still hasn’t given a more nuanced, empathetic portrayal of a forthrightly arrogant character than here, a singer trying to make it in the folk scene of 1960s New York. What ensues is a mobeous-strip plot that only slams home the sadness that Llewyn’s tragic character wears round his neck.

 

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2. Raising Arizona (1987)

Just what is Raising Arizona, exactly? Is it a convict-turned-good tale? Is it a kidnap movie? Whatever the labels you choose to give this oddball picture, it remains first and foremost a film about family, no matter how bizarre the circumstances may be. Timeless performances from Nicolas Cage, Helen Hunter, John Goodman and William Forsythe make sure that the zany cartoonishness of Raising Arizona has the kind of emotional foundation most directors can only dream of.

 

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1. No Country for Old Men (2007)

What makes No Country for Old Men the Coen brothers’ best? Is it Roger Deakins’ haunting imagery of the desert? Is it the blazingly perfect adaptation from Cormac MCarthy’s hallowed pages? Is it the picture’s crux in the form of Javier Bardem, an award-winning performance of a chilling psychopath who probably sees the world clearer than we do, basing his logic on the outcome of a coin toss? It’s all those things and more, plus the pervading sense of hopelessness in the face of struggle we all relate to: built on the foundations of a tightly-knit thriller, No Country for Old Men will probably remain the greatest achievement of Joel and Ethan Coen, a genre-destroying work that is at once a master of conventional storytelling, and a rewriter of all the rules when the film eventually reveals itself for what it truly is: endlessly thrilling, and endlessly unknowable.

 

Hail, Caesar! is in cinemas now.

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