There's nothing Joel and Ethan Coen can't do. They've hammered out ruthless revenge tales, high-flying comedies, and musical adventures. They have eyes for the picturesque, an ear for earworms, a nose for oddities, and a Midas touch for casting. They're idiosyncratic in every frame of every movie. In honor of the release of their Netflix western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the brothers' 18th film as directors, we've assessed the work of their colorful careers, a spectrum ranging from good to masterpiece. Unlike Donny, the Coens always seem to be in their element.
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18. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Do the Coen brothers have a bad movie in their filmography? No -- which means this fine but flawed screwball comedy, about an arrogant divorce attorney (George Clooney) falling for his client's scheming wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), lands at the bottom of our list. Despite bits of divinely moronic dialogue, a deep supporting cast, and some clever third-act twists, the movie never comes together, due to a basic lack of chemistry between the leads. Clooney's idiotic lawyer is too smug to make the central romance palpable, making the film feel like a cynical rom-com exercise. But, like watching a great basketball player take warm-up shots, it can be transcendent just watching these guys practice.
17. The Ladykillers (2004)
The Coens' transplanting a 1955 British heist movie to a Southern-fried Mississippi town makes perfect sense. Their face-off between Tom Hanks' twanged criminal mastermind Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, who deals in $10 words and sinister bullshit, and Irma Hall's Marva Munson, a God-fearing, elderly do-gooder, is a broadly comical culture clash. Gospel music drifts through the air, blood is easily shed in flashes of the brothers' wry juxtaposition. It's the anti-Ocean's Eleven, until the antics takeover. Though the Coens never skimp on the artistry, this kooky caper paints it all on the surface.
16. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
For a while there, it seemed like a Coen brothers TV series by way of Netflix was not the way. Instead, we got The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film made up of morbid fables about the Old West. As with any anthology -- even one made by the Coens -- the results can be hit or miss. There are no true duds in Buster Scruggs, but some segments pack more of a punch than others, making the experience somewhat disjointed. Naturally, the casts they've assembled are top notch: Tim Blake Nelson is the titular singing gunslinger, Tom Waits is an ornery gold hunter, Liam Neeson is a craggly traveling entertainer, Zoe Kazan is a naive traveler. Still, what's most appealing is the cynical eye they've turned on the blue sky idealism of a quintessentially American genre to talk about how death is coming for us all.
15. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The movie that reignited the bluegrass movement is also a wily, fantastical comedy in its own right. Riffing on Homer's Odyssey, O Brother uncovers the soul of the South in its musical nooks and crannies. Three criminals with the best names ever -- Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) -- come face-to-face with Bible-thumpers, political campaigns, and seductive criminals, who all glow with melodious identity. A screwball sensibility keeps the movie on its toes, but it's really music producer T Bone Burnett (who assembled and recorded the iconic tracks) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who used forward-thinking digital effects to give the movie its classic, golden-brown hue) who own O Brother. The Coens are master filmmakers because, in the end, they're master collaborators.
14. True Grit (2010)
The Coens were destined to make a Western. Having flirted with the genre in No Country for Old Men and Raising Arizona, it made sense for the brothers to saddle up for this adaptation of Charles Portis' True Grit, previously made into a 1969 vehicle for John Wayne, who won his only Oscar award in the role. By swapping out Wayne for a gruff, un-Dude-ish Jeff Bridges, the Coens signaled that this would be their own type of cowboy movie: darkly funny and loaded with profound melancholy. With a sneaky, standout comic performance from Matt Damon and a star-making turn from Hailee Steinfeld, the movie has more than enough great acting, intense gun battles, and gorgeous vistas to keep you under its old-fashioned spell.
13. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
It's hard to get that excited about a trip to the barber. And yet, in The Man Who Wasn't There, Billy Bob Thornton makes the journey worth the trouble with his multi-layered portrayal of a cigarette-smoking, taciturn hair-cutter. Filmed in lush black and white, Man is the most self-consciously old-fashioned Coen brothers noir -- and perhaps the weirdest. With its dream-like tone, liberal use of Double Indemnity plot elements, and a finale involving a UFO, the film can be too slow and odd for some. But like the best Coen films, it has a sense of cosmic mystery that reveals itself with multiple viewings. Keep stopping by this one.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Sure, if you don't enjoy watching orange tomcats in peril (particularly when employed as cryptic furry metaphors) and you'd rather take a nail to the dome than listen to early Bob Dylan, then Inside Llewyn Davis won't be the film for you. But the Coens' meandering, melancholic musical expertly explores artistic failure and creative longing. Oscar Isaac gives a luminous performance as the title folk singer, a rootless misanthrope (inspired by Dave Van Ronk) on a hallucinatory journey through the snowy streets of New York City and beyond. Between ditties, Llewyn alienates strangers, gains acquaintances, and faces rejection at every turn. Bonus: Poe Dameron can sing like a motherfucker, and the plaintive folk ballads that punctuate the film (written by T Bone Burnett) elevate an already-mesmerizing film into something sublime.
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
The Coens followed up their No Country for Old Men Best Picture win at the Oscars by turning sharply back to comedy. Burn After Reading is absurd and acerbic, a political hoopla revolving around a prized MacGuffin -- a CD containing government secrets! -- that isn't a MacGuffin at all. A gaggle of "serious" actors, most notably Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Coen stalwarts Frances McDormand and George Clooney, shoot for the stratosphere as they weave through the mad, mad, mad, mad world of Washington, DC. And because this is a Coen brothers movie, blood spills freely as everyone from personal trainers to CIA spies sink deeper and deeper into confusion. An ode to empowered idiocy, complete with a dildo chair.
10. Blood Simple (1984)
It was all there from the beginning: the droll dialogue, the noir references, the surprising plot twists, the swift violence, and Frances McDormand. It's rare that that a debut feature feels this confident, but it's a miracle when one articulates a worldview for a whole career. This sleazy potboiler concerns a bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a detective to kill his wife (McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). From there, things spin wildly out of control, hands get nailed to window sills, and no one gets away clean. It's the type of movie that for any other filmmaker would be a stylish crowning achievement; for the Coens, it was only the first step.
9. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Masquerading as a wacky whodunnit, the duo's most recent picture -- and yes, you can freely call this Golden Age throwback a picture -- is a companion to Barton Fink, 25 years after that show-business nightmare. But here, the Coen brothers find themselves high on Hollywood hijinks, playing ringleaders to a circus of movie stars, studio fixers, and conspiratorial screenwriter Communists. Hail, Caesar! is exceedingly droll and joy-rides so easily through dream logic that even a Gene Kelly-style tap-dance number leaves room for awkward pauses and sight gags. As square-jawed Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) searches for the kidnapped A-lister Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he passes through his own lifetime, bumping into rabbis and starlets and Swedish directors who love to ski. It's a deeply personal jaunt for the Coens, one where they question the point of their craft and wonder Is taking an easy job a sin? It's also straight-up bonkers; we didn't even mention the singing cowboy! -- MP
8. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coens detoured from their usual genre-riffing with A Serious Man, an intensely personal story about a Jewish physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) beset by a series of personal and existential crises in a 1960s Midwestern suburb. As he consults a series of rabbis to try and find meaning in the trials he's facing -- his wife is leaving him, he's being blackmailed by a student, yadda yadda yadda -- the Coens hammer home their familiar refrain about the futility of life. Beginning with a flashback to a cryptic shtetl fable, and full of period touches that will give every Jew of a certain generation traumatic recollections of their dingy Hebrew school classrooms, A Serious Man is a pitch-perfect depiction of post-war Jewish suburban life. It's also an ambitious, funny exploration of fate, religion, ritual, and chaos that goys can admire, too.
7. Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink is a horror movie. It's set in a creepy hotel, John Goodman plays a serial killer, and it ends in the fiery damnation of Hell on Earth; the title character, an anxiety-stricken playwright dipping his toes into Hollywood screenwriting for the first time and tailored especially for John Turturro, is the victim. The Coens still giggle their way through the proceedings, and in the process give us a ride through Art Deco surrealism, a screed against creative bankruptcy, and a tribute to the men and women who hunch over their work, toiling over every detail, only to watch the man squash them. Maybe it's schadenfreude, maybe it's a slap across the face -- however you take Barton Fink, it's still absolutely mesmerizing.
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Since its release, The Big Lebowski has taken on a life of its own, transcending mixed reviews and a weak box-office take to become an oft-quoted cult classic, an ur-text for stoner-slackers everywhere. While the plot -- inspired by the complex noirs of Raymond Chandler -- is deliberately impenetrable, the Coens don't let narrative logic bog down the fun. The movie barrels through a haze of smoke, and features some of the brothers' most memorable symbols, lines, and characters. The rug ("it really tied the room together"). The White Russians. The cardigan. "Nobody fucks with the Jesus." The gutterballs. "Shut the fuck up, Donny!" And, of course, Jeff Bridges' ever-abiding Dude, "or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing." -- AS
5. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Skepticism, fear, and borderline misanthropy challenge most Coen brothers characters. Many of them don't survive. But The Hudsucker Proxy stands apart, shining with a glimmer of hope. Combining gothic sets, Capra-esque drama, and Tim Robbins' head-in-the-sky performance -- a bundle of pure joy -- the movie is a theatrical fairytale for the American dream. Co-written with pal Sam Raimi, Hudsucker feels like a challenge: just how much imagination and ridiculousness can the Coen brothers stuff into one coherent movie? The fluff even pads Norville Barnes (Robbins) after capitalism throws him out a window because, in the movies, love -- and hula-hooping -- can save a life. -- MP
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Like a blast from Anton Chigurh's cattle gun, No Country for Old Men came out of nowhere. In 2007, following a four-picture run of lesser works that ended with semi-clunkers Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it seemed like the Coens had lost a step, sinking into an era of gentle self-parody. This movie, a neo-Western starring Josh Brolin, changed all that. Adapting Cormac McCarthy's brutal, uncompromising thriller, the filmmakers crafted their most purely suspenseful and terrifying film to date. The coin flip, the car crash, and Javier Bardem's haircut have all become pop-cultural fixtures at this point -- strip-mined for memes and parodies. But the sense of dread the film evokes, amplified by Roger Deakins' shadowy photography, is impossible to shake. It's real. It's scary. And it's coming for you. -- DJ
3. Miller's Crossing (1990)
The images linger: the forest, the leaves, the hat, the tommy gun, the robe, the pencil-thin mustache, the hands raised in defense. Brimming with evocative shots, Miller's Crossing is a sumptuously filmed gangster picture, the brothers' final collaboration with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld before he left to make The Addams Family. Even more essential than the images are the movie's words. Gabriel Byrne's Tom Reagan uses language as a weapon, a wedge, and a healing balm, playing different factions of the mob against each other as the unnamed city of the film descends into chaos. Miller's Crossing is an argument for the Coen brothers as brilliant, unparalleled writers, able to weave plots and complex themes together while peppering the script with Dashiell Hammett-style banter and characters who can't be trusted. It's like Tom says: "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well." -- DJ
2. Raising Arizona (1987)
"That night I had a dream..." In its closing moments, Raising Arizona takes on a deeply philosophical bent: what if we have alternate selves who live different lives? It's possible to think of the Coen brothers' career in the same way. Coming off Blood Simple, it would've been easy for the pair to dig deeper into the dark, rain-soaked world of noir thrillers, but instead they made a madcap comedy, complete with a Looney Tunes chase sequence, ornate hick dialogue, and a character called "the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse." And it all worked. The movie endures thanks to a love story between Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, which might be the most life-affirming relationship in the Coens' whole filmography. Watching Hi and Ed struggling to raise a child they kidnapped from a local big shot slowly makes you a part of their bizarre, fucked-up family. It's a dream you'll never want to wake up from. -- DJ
1. Fargo (1996)
Fargo is elemental. There's good, there's evil, and then there's the Earth, dusted white, dying to be splattered with blood. Like all great Coen brothers movies, the "snow-oir" kicks off with an idiotic decision: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires two hitmen, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife. With stand-up police chief Marge Gunderson (Best Actress Oscar-winner Frances McDormand) on the case, all the players squirm through the mess, wondering how the hell they got there. FX's recent TV adaptation could make you forget the simple beauty of Fargo, which unspools its fictitious details with the tact of real reporting (it's not based on a true story, despite a title card's claim) and peers deeper into the universal psyche than almost anything in the Coens' filmography and beyond, just by sitting still. Backed by Carter Burwell's stringed score and flavored with Midwestern-nice speak, it's the obvious choice for a reason: Fargo is elemental, timeless, perfect. -- MP
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