I was thinking about Joel and Ethan Coen of late, and how the best part of their movies is that every one of them is worth watching, and how this is because the Coens love movies. Every frame of their every film is filled with their love of the art of cinema. Even when I don’t like one of their movies, I still like the part where I’m watching it. I saw their first movie, Blood Simple, when it came out in ’84, and have seen every one* since as soon as it’s opened. They hooked me young.
Their characters are often confused, selfish bastards, which turns off some viewers, but the Coens aren’t out to mock their characters, or to heap abuse on them, as some critics have a tendency to whine. They feel for their characters, and if you’re paying attention, you will too. However dumb or misguided, their characters are sympathetic. They’re human. We’re all of us arrogant and blind in our own ways. The Coens, with their bleak yet kind of joyful sense of humor, just like to see where dumb, selfish arrogance lands folks. Usually it’s someplace weird and funny and horrible.
Now of course whenever one discusses a Coens movie, one must begin by pointing out what we’ll here call The Obvious: that it’s directed by masters, it’s shot beautifully, it’s edited tightly, it’s full of biting, snappy dialogue, the actors are top-notch and give great performances, and the music is splendid. The only question is, is it tied together with strong characters and a good story? Let’s discuss.
On to the rankings!
16. The Ladykillers* (2004)
The asterisk is there because I haven’t actually seen The Ladykillers, making it the worst Coen Brothers movie by a longshot. I can’t remember a single scene! Plus it’s a remake, their first (the second would be True Grit), and is it really going to be anything close to as great as the Alec Guinness original? I hear Tom Hanks has a wacky accent, and basically everyone hated the movie, and so yeah, all told, it scares me. But in fairness, I’ve put it on my Netflix queue (that’s right, I still have DVDs mailed to me, I’m old school like that), so one of these days I’ll watch it. I promise.
[Update: I have watched it. If I could put it lower on this list, I would.]
15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Oftentimes, the Coens’ comedies feel a bit tossed off, as though the heavy brainwork they put into their more serious films requires a certain amount of loopiness to maintain their sanity. I barely remember this one. It’s not terrible. Is it? I remember laughing now and again. But not so much that I was ever inspired to watch it again.
14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The fifth Coens movie. Their first four are blindingly great, but at the time, critics and audiences didn’t take the Coens very seriously. They were seen as too arty in an era of big budget studio schlock. For The Hudsucker Proxy they teamed up with big time producer Joel Silver. This got them plenty of press. People were paying attention. But the movie? It’s a bust. It’s an attempt at a fast-paced, wacky, ‘30s style comedy, and basically none of it works, despite a great cast giving it their all. I watched this one recently just to see if it had been unfairly maligned at the time. Nope. Still a bust. A bust for a Coens movie, let’s be clear. Of course there’s funny bits, and there’s The Obvious, but that doesn’t save it.
13. A Serious Man (2009)
I wanted to like this one. Seems like critics thought it terribly important. But beyond The Obvious, it didn’t leave much of an impression. There’s a kind of grim humor that’s nice. But then again, isn’t there always? It seems to be a movie made to capture the feeling of a particular time and place and culture, which feeling is indeed captured, at the price of an interesting story or characters to care about.
12. Burn After Reading (2008)
More than any of their other comedies, this one feels like they wrote, shot, and edited it in like five minutes. Five minutes of gleeful, demonic joy. There’s not much to say movie-wise about Burn After Reading. All that matters are the absurd characters screwing up royally and bloodily. The cast is, as usual, great, but particular mention must be made of JK Simmons, who steals the movie. I mean there’s the Malkovich factor to consider as well, but all told, Simmons is the reason this movie is worth watching.
11. True Grit (2010)
Their second remake, this one meant to more closely evoke the book it’s based on. Jeff Bridges is fantastic. The dialogue is a beautiful mix of old timey locutions and Coens idiosyncracies. There’s a lot to love in here, but something about the whole exercise feels off, like there’s a mismatch of tones. Not to say it’s bad. It’s the Coens! It’s just that, like many of the movies in the middle of this list, for all its evident moviemaking care, it doesn’t quite cohere.
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
George Clooney in a nutty depression era farce? Didn’t buy it. Clooney is great at what he’s great at, and this is not what he’s great at. Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro and John Goodman, on the other hand, are wonderful. Most of all this movie is about the music, which is dynamite. The story has a fancy pedigree, being inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, with the movie’s name coming from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, but so what? The movie is the movie, and it’s kind of so-so. Looks fucking amazing, though. It’s shot by Roger Deakins, who beginning with Barton Fink shot a ton of movies for the Coens. He’s a master.
9. Fargo (1996)
So The Hudsucker Proxy was a dud, but next came Fargo. It was time for the Coens to be anointed. Their timing was perfect. “Indie film” had become a thing over the preceding four years, and weird and violent movies were all the rage. I saw this one on opening night in L.A. with the most obnoxious, pretentious crowd I can ever remember. Fucking L.A. The goal was to prove to everyone else in the theater that you TOTALLY GOT the Coens by laughing at literally every line of dialogue. And I’m here using “literally” literally. Every line.
But anyhow, that’s not the Coens’ fault. What is their fault is a movie I never quite got. I just wasn’t very interested in the slim story. I love William H. Macy’s performance, and Frances McDormand does a great job, and, need it be said, The Obvious, but compared to their first four movies, this strikes me as a big step down.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
A forgotten gem. Well, mostly a gem. The first three quarters of The Man Who Wasn’t There is a master class in noir. And then the final quarter, the arrest and trial, is a major let down. It’s like the movie builds and builds and winds itself tighter and tighter, and then lets out this long, boring sigh as a climax. Once again, performance are across the board wonderful, with Billy Bob Thornton underplaying in the extreme his affectless noir schlub. Plus you get James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand, Jon Polito, and a very young Scarlet Johansson among others. The black and white cinematography, by Deakins, is gorgeous.
7. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Well. Has any Coens movie had a bigger, more lasting effect on the culture at large than this one? Not even close. Few films by anyone capture some kind of bizarro zeitgeist the way this one did. It’s like Star Wars for the indie crowd. When it first came out, I was pretty cool on it, aside from the performances. But I’ve since grown to love the little bugger. As with the comedies to follow, plot is thin. What there is of it is pretty much forgotten by everyone by the final third.
Wait. Let’s start with the positive. Jeff Bridges as The Dude. What else is there to say? He couldn’t be better. No one could. But then there’s John Goodman. And Steve Buscemi. And Philip Seymour Hoffman. And then John Turturro is onscreen for what, a minute total? and just about steals the movie. Watching these actors banter is really all that matters.
On the other hand, Sam Elliot’s cowboy narrator kind of drives me nuts. And this may be my least favorite Julianne Moore performance ever. And the ending is all a muddle. The nihilists? And Donny dies? For what, for the “ashes blowing in faces” gag? Nope, I can’t hang with how it wraps up. But until then, this movie is fucking hilarious.
6. No Country For Old Men (2007)
I was underwhelmed the first time I watched this, but upon a second viewing, my whelming was considerably increased. The weakest part of the movie, and the strangest story decision, comes directly from the Cormac McCarthy novel it’s based on, which is having the lead character die between scenes a ways before the end. I read the book first, and figured they’d be crazy not to change it. But I forgot that they are crazy, and so it stayed, though other elements of the book were rearranged and altered to bring the movie to a more satisfying close.
Javier Bardem is exceptionally creepy as the other-worldly killer, Anton Chigurh. His scenes stalking and almost killing Josh Brolin in various motels are as tense and scary as anything the Coens have ever done. (Speaking of which, where’s my Coens horror movie?) The Obvious is on full display throughout No Country. It’s a pleasure just to look at.
5. Blood Simple (1984)
I loved it when it came out, I’ve watched it often, and I love it still. The Coens’ first movie, understated and ominous, an evil little neo-noir that hinges on the inability of people to communicate. If only anyone would just up and tell anyone else what they know, what they think, what they feel, everything would work out fine. But they don’t. It was evident from the beginning that the Coens loved the way movies look. Blood Simple is story-boarded with great care. Every shot has purpose. Every edit moves the story forward. Frances McDormand makes her debut with the Coens (and soon married Joel), and M. Emmett Walsh gives one of his most memorable performances as the hired killer with a dubious work ethic.
4. Raising Arizona (1987)
Their second movie, their first and best comedy, Nic Cage’s greatest performance, a movie for the ages, dadgummit! At the time, it was seen as an oddity, one that—gasp!—wrung laughs from endangering a child! How could they?! I remember reading negative reviews at the time and thinking, damn, people are dumb as rocks, aren’t they?
It’s pretty amazing that the Coens had this much skill and the ability to use it with so much control this early in their career. But they did. The characters, the dialogue, the story, everything about it is expressed in a unique voice(s). Comedy is hard, and harder still is off-kilter comedy, where tone is key. If you don’t maintain the tone, or don’t quite understand what tone you’re going for, you’re sunk. The Coens aren’t sunk. Raising Arizona is funny, dreamy, romantic, strange, sad, and hopeful.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
I’ve watched this three times now, and it keeps getting better. It’s deceptively simple. So much so that it was ignored by Oscar voters and seemed to disappear quickly. I think people expected something else. Or wanted more to happen. Or just plain hated Llewyn. The simple story traverses a circle, a circle maintained by Llewyn, one he can’t or won’t exit. It’s a story of what it means to be an artist, what it means to pursue what you have to pursue, even if you know it’s going to get you nowhere.
The circular story isn’t hard to make literal sense of. The movie ends where it begins, with a wee bit of overlap, with Llewyn’s performance followed by his getting punched out in the alley. And so it begins again, with Llewyn going around and around and around.
It’s a hard movie to pin down. It’s full of space. And that’s where its power hides. There’s a cat, too. The cat ties the movie together, but I’d be hard pressed to explain why. Early on Llewyn makes a phone call to let the Gorfeins know he’s got their cat. “Llewyn is the cat,” repeats the woman on the other end. So I don’t know. Is he? Is Llewyn the cat?
I love this movie. I will watch it many more times. If you’ve only seen it once and have doubts as to its greatness, you are required to view it again.
2. Barton Fink (1991)
Their previous story about an artist. Unlike Llewyn, a genuine talent who can’t get out of his own way, Barton is a puffed-up hack, writing plays about the working class—a group of people he knows nothing about—for upscale New Yorkers with still less knowledge of anyone too poor to buy theater tickets. He takes a gig writing screenplays in Hollywood for easy money, but finds himself hopelessly blocked.
Barton Fink plays as a surreal visual metaphor. He stays in a hotel, a stand-in for his own head, ignores actual working man John Goodman, and fails to write anything until he sleeps with Hollywood. But what he writes is garbage. He winds up on the beach from his fantasies, his head in his hands, no longer sure if it’s even his.
Some days this is my favorite Coens movie. It features The Obvious in full flower. The look, the music, the performances, the creepy unsettling vibe, all of it comes together in Barton Fink. There’s really nothing else like it.
1. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Other days, this is my favorite Coens movie. An intricately plotted, hard-boiled drama that takes place in an unnamed city in something like the ‘40s just a bit off-center from the real world. It’s loosely based on books by Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest and The Glass Key, and the movie version of The Glass Key (’42), from which the basic characters and set-up of the plot are taken (along with some catchy dialogue). But the Coens take that set-up and spin a far more complex story of double-crossings and deceit, with Gabriel Byrne playing a guy you’re never sure of until the end.
Like all of the best Coens movies, Miller’s Crossing gets better the more you watch it. The acting and the dialogue are as good as it gets. It’s amazing how fluid the story is given how complicated the twists and turns are. It’s no wonder the Coens had a hard time writing it (they took time off to write Barton Fink to clear their minds). When it’s over, you’ll be humming the music (by frequent Coens collaborator Carter Burwell).