While we wait for True Grit, we rank Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and eleven more.
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."
7. No Country for Old Men (2007)
From this point on, the rankings get more difficult, because each of the remaining films are such ambitious, assured, and singular genre mash-ups that it's like comparing insanely flavorful apples with mind-bogglingly delicious oranges. But I'll give it a shot. No Country For Old Men is, quite simply, one of the most suspenseful films of the twenty-first century, with moments of breathtaking tension and, of course, Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning embodiment of death as the relentless assassin Anton Chigurh. To be honest, the mood of bleak hopelessness the film establishes so well is probably the reason it's not higher on my list, because, really, there's only so much contemplation of mortality I can take, no matter how exhilarating the delivery system may be.
6. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Yes, yes, I know — everyone hates this movie, and I just lost all credibility with you mean kids down in the comments section. And I'm well acquainted with the standard refrain: The Hudsucker Proxy is a desecration of the brilliant screwball comedies it cynically emulates, and Jennifer Jason Leigh's fast-talking homage to Rosalind Russell is an annoying, misbegotten disaster. Critics and audiences loathed the film, and most would rank it as the worst of the Coens' canon. Well, tough. I like it. It's packed with great moments, I laughed all the way through the first time I saw it, I'm still quoting it more than a decade later, Paul Newman is a hoot, the production design is gorgeous, and the "blue letter" and "birth of the hula hoop" sequences are brilliant. So there.
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
And while I'm pissing you off, I might as well admit I'm not really an orthodox devotee of Lebowski — frankly, I could do with about fifty-percent less screaming from John Goodman's excitable Walter Sobchak — but there's no arguing with the pop-culture canonization of Jeff Bridges' beloved stoner/bowler protagonist, or the fact that legions of cinephiles flat-out love this episodic, anarchic mish-mash of Raymond Chandler detective fiction, Busby Berkeley production numbers, stoner giggling, German nihilism, Tara Reid (!), and a rug that (kinda) ties the whole thing together.
4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Another love-it-or-hate-it proposition, this singin', dancin' Depression-era take on Homer's Odyssey annoyed some and delighted others while spawning an octo-platinum smash-hit soundtrack album (and sparking an American roots-music craze) thanks to catchy tracks from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and of course, The Soggy Bottom Boys (fronted by an endearingly charismatic George Clooney in full goof mode, as a pomade-crazed chain-gang refugee determined to get home to his wife and kids). I'm still amazed this feel-good musical hasn't made it to the Broadway stage — after all, if Mel Brooks turned "Springtime for Hitler" into a big production number, just imagine what some clever producer could do with O Brother's Klan rally showstopper "O Death!"
3. Raising Arizona (1987)
Blood Simple introduced the Coens, but Raising Arizona established them as the whip-smart anarchist perfectionists the cineverse would come to know and love. Note the rule-smashing, "try anything" set pieces: like the overstuffed pre-credit sequence — detailing the history of a baby-crazed peace officer (Holly Hunter) and her recidivist soulmate (Nicolas Cage). And don't forget the Looney Tunes diaper-robbery caper after the couple steals one of a set of quintuplets from a family that's "got more than they can handle." If the film ultimately runs out of steam and isn't really about anything but the joy of filmmaking — well, it ain't for lack of trying.
2. Barton Fink (1991)
One of the best films ever made about Hollywood and the perils of creativity, Barton Fink is perhaps the tightest and most consistently enjoyable of all the Coens' films, with barely a wasted shot or moment in its puzzle-box depiction of "the life of the mind." John Turturro delivers an iconic performance as the ultimate tortured writer, and every line of dialogue, murky color scheme, and drop of wallpaper goo fits together in a perfect symmetry of gnawing, claustrophobic, black-comic desperation.
1. Fargo (1996)
But, really, how could the top spot not go to Fargo? Ironically, some derided Frances McDormand's Sheriff Marge Gunderson — one of the most relatable, memorable and likeable heroes in modern cinema, let alone the Coens' oeuvre — as a mean-spirited caricature, simply because she spoke in a funny accent. But aside from that, this tale of a small-town kidnapping gone tragically awry is the most humane and hopeful of all the brothers' films (even if they're too cool to admit it), depicting both the potential for human evil and also the simple acts of decency that constitute goodness. All of the Coens' strengths are on full display in this commercial and critical success, from the smart script and stellar cast to the film-school ingenuity of the direction and production design. And that's not to mention the mischievous indie streak running through the (relatively) mainstream production, like a bright red spray of blood on the gleaming patch of snow over by that wood chipper.