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The Coen Brothers Movies Ranked from Best to Worst
While we wait for True Grit, we rank Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and eleven more.
By Andrew Osborne
True Grit, the upcoming remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, will be the fifteenth feature-length film written and directed by the Coen Brothers, and we're guessing it'll be a good'un. But, in the words of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, will it be the best... Coen film... ever? And what exactly qualifies as "best" from arguably the two most consistently entertaining, inventive, and thought-provoking American filmmakers of the modern era? To find out, we whipped up a batch of White Russians and ranked the Coens' output to date in a highly subjective attempt to get to the heart of that Barton Fink feeling.
14. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
After a remarkable streak of Coen successes, this dull tale of an emotionless drone (Billy Bob Thornton) was the first and worst of the brothers' fin de siècle slump, ushering in a frightening period when it seemed the Coens had finally exhausted their bag of tricks. Neither funny nor particularly dramatic (despite the numerous murders that drive the plot), The Man Who Wasn't There even managed to make an oral-sex scene involving Scarlett Johansson seem dull and unnecessary — a remarkably dubious accomplishment.
13. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
In the perverse ways of Hollywood, the second worst film of the brothers' career was also their first to surpass $100 million at the box office, thanks to the star power of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the duelling spouses in this run-of-the-mill divorce comedy. The directors were collaborating with a pair of screenwriters who would later pen the movie in which Tommy Lee Jones protects a houseful of cheerleaders. The Coens' distinctive aesthetic was barely evident in this hunk of multiplex fodder. Still, what counts as a misfire in the Coen filmography would qualify as a career highpoint had it been directed by, say, Garry Marshall.
12. The Ladykillers (2004)
And then, three years into the brothers' "slump," this reimagining of the classic 1950s heist film suggested that maybe the Coens were finally getting their mojo back. Uneven and sluggish, The Ladykillers nevertheless gave the contractually bland Tom Hanks free reign to let his freak flag fly, resulting in the most interesting (and underrated) performance of the actor's career as would-be criminal mastermind Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
After breaking their slump with the grand slam of 2007's No Country For Old Men (see below), the brothers popped out another Ladykillers-esque, Coen Lite crime comedy, but this time with a full varsity cast including the Cloon, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. They play a gaggle of greedy, gun-toting morons, in a high-energy romp about nothing in particular that somehow managed to gross $161 million — becoming, remarkably, the Coens' biggest box-office hit to date. (Bonus points to Richard Jenkins, for actually breaking our hearts in the midst of all the madness as the only decent fella in Washington, D.C.)
10. Miller's Crossing (1990)
Considered classic Coen by some, this Prohibition-era noir always left me cold, despite instances of bravura filmmaking (like the soaring set piece where Albert Finney's aging lion of a mob boss outshoots a clutch of would-be assassins to the strains of "Danny Boy"). Maybe I'm immune to the humorless Black Irish charm of Gabriel Byrne (as Finney's conflicted lieutenant), or maybe it's just that the film plays like a very good episode of Boardwalk Empire, yet lacks the iconoclastic fire of the brothers' best work.
9. Blood Simple (1984)
And speaking of low-wattage noir, Blood Simple edges out Miller's Crossing in the list simply because it was the world's first taste of the Coens' inventive film-brat technique (exemplified by the wiseass visual gag where a slow tracking shot down the counter of a roadhouse saloon unexpectedly hops over a slumped drunk in the way). Working with a fraction of Miller's Crossing's budget, the brothers created twice as many indelible moments and characters in this claustrophobic tale of a deadly Texas love triangle, including redneck detective M. Emmet Walsh's cackling speech about the film's title concept, and Dan Hedaya's ghoulish last stand in a dark, shallow grave.
8. A Serious Man (2009)
Seemingly the most personal and autobiographical of the brothers' films, this examination of Jewish faith and family in 1960s Minnesota gives us a lot to like, if not to love. The cast (including Michael Stuhlbarg's frustrated, questioning patriarch and Amy Landecker as his sultry, smoky neighbor, Mrs. Samsky) is stellar, and the set pieces are by turns charming (a stoned Bar Mitzvah boy's meeting with a Dumbledore-esque rabbi) and fascinating (like the opening Old World ghost story and the ominous, ambiguous ending). And yet, for all its strengths, I suspect my somewhat muted enthusiasm for A Serious Man may echo one of Stuhlbarg exasperated lines: "Why even tell me the story?" But it's hard to argue with the storyteller's shrugged reply (an encapsulation, perhaps, of the Coens' own philosophy): "You can't know everything."