A little something different for this post… After watching The Tragedy of Macbeth, I decided to watch the Coen Brothers’ entire filmography in chronological order a few months back. I had seen many of them but had missed a decent amount too. And it gave me a chance to watch some classics I hadn’t seen in years. So without further ado, here is my very, very subjective ranking of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen.
19) The Ladykillers
The only Coen Brothers’ movie that I thought was just plain bad. Nothing quite worked for me from the dated, stereotypical portrayal of a churchgoing, Black southern lady, the over-the-top performances, especially Marlon Wayans, or the humor, which was often childish and scatological. I’m all for a good fart joke, but using IBS over and over as a joke wasn’t funny. What did work? Tom Hanks’ weird hybrid of Colonel Sanders as a thief was mostly a fun time.
18) Hudsucker Proxy
Another film that just didn’t work for me. Tim Robbins’ overly cartoonish performance just wasn’t the right tone for the movie, I thought. Besides the invention of the Hula Hoop, the Capraesque plot wasn’t particularly interesting, especially its too-on-the-nose critique of corporate capitalism. But Hudsucker had enough going for it to make it at least watchable, including a fabulous set design of Art Deco New York, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Katherine Hepburn impression of a dame with a heart of gold.
17) Barton Fink
I had never seen Barton Fink, but it had a sterling reputation, including winning 3 awards at the Cannes Film Festival. I by no means disliked this movie. It had much going for it, including John Turturro’s performance as the titular character, and John Goodman as Charlie was charming as ever. But it lost me in the second half of the movie. I’ve read that the murder and fiery hellscape in the hotel could be read as a critique of liberalism being ineffectual against the rising of fascism, which I can get behind. But the metaphor was just a bit opaque for me.
16) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
This was my first time seeing this too, and it was a lot of fun. The first thing I noticed was how it was shot. Roger Deakin’s cinematography sucks all the color out of frame, giving the film a sepia-toned, nostalgic feel, which really worked for a film set during the Great Depression. The film is generally shot beautifully with its lush landscapes of Mississippi. And George Clooney’s hair-obsessed, Clark Gable-Esque performance made me laugh more than a few times. And the music, oh the music. It’s a soundtrack I’ve revisited several times since I watched this.
15) Intolerable Cruelty
When the Coens are discussed in film criticism, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty are often considered the worst missteps of their career. I agree with The Ladykillers but thought Intolerable Cruelty was better than its reputation. The Coens can misfire when making straight comedies– I think they work best when the interplay of comedy and tragedy all in one film– but this movie had charm to it, starting with its two leads, Catherine Zeta-Jone and George Clooney, who have such electric chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that both are some of the most good-looking people alive. The plot is maybe a little too zany and cynical, but it mostly works if you’re looking for a light comedy. And it includes maybe one of the funniest scenes ever filmed by the Coens, the inhaler gag.
14) Burn After Reading
The Coens are often described as cruel to their characters, and a bit misanthropic. Personally, I don’t think those observations are fair, as their films, unlike many Hollywood films, give fair and due diligence to the darkness of human intentions. But Burn After Reading is probably a film where those criticisms are justified. I still liked the movie. It was very funny, especially Brad Pitt’s performance as a moronic trainer. But I can’t quite tell what the Coens are after in this film except that people are vain, moronic, unempathetic, and self-interested, but that can be funny seen from a certain light.
13) The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Man Who Wasn’t There was the biggest disappointment of the Coens’ films. I hadn’t seen it before and was absolutely mesmerized by it for the first hour or so. The gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the convoluted noir plot (which are some of my favorite movies), and the subtle acting of Billy Bob Thornton all worked for me. But after the plot machinations of the second half, the film lost me, especially with the car crash and unearned, out-of-nowhere ending. But it’s still worth seeing.
12) Blood Simple
An excellent noir genre exercise, the Coens’ first film showed that they were already fully formed as artists and purveyors of humanity, depravity, and evil. M. Emmet Walsh’s performance as an amoral hitman in particular sticks out. The ending too was something to marvel at, especially the image of the dead man, trying to reach the sink pipe to take one last sip of water. The biggest flaw for me is that the movie felt as if it was trying a bit too hard, which I suppose is understandable for filmmakers trying to make a stamp on the world. As they age, the Coens would learn to be just a bit more subtle, which elevates their films.
11) Hail, Caesar!
Judging by the rotten tomatoes and IMDB ratings, people did not particularly like Hail, Caesar!. I suppose I am in the minority, but I’m a sucker for old Hollywood plots. And man was this movie funny. George Clooney’s indoctrination into communism and Alden Ehrenreich’s line readings were particularly hilarious. And Channing Tatum proves he is the new Gene Kelly with a showstopping dance performance with a few homoerotic undertones to it.
10) Miller’s Crossing
And now we get to the cream of the crop. I had real trouble ranking the top ten because I love them all in different ways. This was my first time watching Miller’s Crossing, and I feel a bit bad putting it this low because it was wonderful. But the Coen brothers have made some great films, and 10 seems reasonable to me. Most everything works for me in this film from the convoluted, backstabbing plot that recalls Yojimbo, the beautiful set design of 1930s America, to the fascinating performances of Jon Polito, John Turturro, and Albert Finney. If I had a complaint, I’d say Gabriel Byrne’s performance was a little inert for me, considering he was the main character.
9) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I just finished this film last night and had to really sit with the bleakness of this film. And man it is bleak. The film feels like the Coens concept album to cruelty and death. I liked all the short stories to varying degrees, but the one that really stood out to me was Meal Ticket. The story tells a tale of an armless and legless actor, and his caretaker who travels the US making money from the actor’s performance. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’d say it was hard to watch and left me feeling devastated.
8) Raising Arizona
I loved this film. For a movie about kidnapping and bank robbery, it has such a sweet soul to it. And it was very funny too. Nicolas Cage’s performance is a precursor to the over-the-top performances of his later career, but this one works much better because he is so kindly and sweet-natured despite his criminal past. John Goodman and William Forsythe’s scene, where they are drenched in mud after escaping from prison, was a showstopper. I still haven’t stopped laughing at it.
7) True Grit
I saw True Grit in the theater when it came out and thought it was fine. It was well-made and well-acted but didn’t make any real impression on me at the time. On my rewatch, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It is unique to the Coens’ film in that it is a straightforward tale with a little bit of corniness and sentimentality thrown into it. The key to this film’s success is Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Madee. Steinfeld refuses the urge to be cute in this performance and conveys the character’s hard-nosed, youthful determination that belies her youth. I thought she should have won the Oscar but so it goes…
I hate that I put Fargo this low because it is about a perfect film. No shot or line is wasted. It propels forward with languid, dreary ease. Its cinematography is something: stark landscapes of snowy Minnesota. Oh and the performances! Frances McDormand rightly gets a lot of praise, but the performance that really stuck out to me was William H. Macy. He conveys the weasley, self-serving nature of the character with understated aplomb. The strain in his eyes in every scene speaks to the torture in this man’s soul.
5) The Tragedy of Macbeth
The first solo project made by the Coens– Ethan it was reported needed a break from making films– Joel Coen’s Macbeth is a spectacularly beautiful rendition of Shakespeare. I’m a sucker for the bard, after all, I was a literature major in undergrad, so I generally like Shakespeare movies better than most. And besides Kurosawa’s Ran or Branagh’s Hamlet, I felt this was one of the most successful renditions of Shakespeare ever put on film. The chiaroscuro black and white cinematography was a real standout, casting a pale of doom through the tragedy. And Denzel Washington’s performance as an aging, tortured king was great. Washington really gets to the crooked, paradoxical nature of seeking power at the cost of everything else. Lastly, the portrayal of the witches was incredibly creepy and well done.
4) No Country For Old Men
For me, No Country is one of the few films that surpasses its source material, building, and heightening the themes of powerlessness in the face of evil. The changes the Coens make to Cormac McCarthy’s novel are small but elevate it. Small details such as changing Carla Jean’s decision to not call the coin toss at the end when her death is at stake, give the character more power as opposed to her passivity in the book. And the cinematography gives life to McCarthy’s sparse prose that no amount of my imagination could live up to. And let’s not forget Javier Bardem’s perfect performance as Anton Chigurh as the face of evil.
3) A Serious Man
I’ve been wanting to see this forever and am so glad I finally did. It elucidates the Coens’ favorite themes with such humor and pathos. The Coens love to explore man’s fundamental helplessness in the face of the chaos in the world, and A Serious Man may be the purest distillation of that. It is the Book of Job retold in modern times, as our main character suffers humiliation after humiliation and tries to seek comfort in the almighty with little success. Michael Stulhbarg is excellent in the role. And the final shot is one of the most haunting in any film as God in the guise of a tornado bears down on the school, putting the main character’s son in danger.
2) The Big Lebowski
On another day, Lebowski would have been the number one film on my list. It’s one of my favorite movies ever made. It’s perfect. It might be the funniest movie ever made too. And it has my favorite type of plot: a noir film. It would be easy to dismiss this as just a “stoner movie.” But it has a lot more going for it than meets the eye. It is about the loss of 60s idealism in the Dude and Walter after Vietnam and the subsequent emptiness of the 90s they live through, embodied in the actual Big Lebowski, a millionaire paraplegic who spouts capitalist philosophies about hard work and achieving. That the Big Lebowski turns out to be a fraud too– he didn’t earn the money he inherited it– tells me that the Coens were unmasking all ideologies in a way as false and useful only because it helps us make sense of a senseless world.
1) Inside Llewyn Davis
Probably one of my 20-30 films ever made, Inside Llewyn Davis is the rare film that makes me laugh, cry and wonder about the point of it all. Everything in this film works for me from the color-drained palette to the sets of wintertime in Greenwich Village to Oscar Issac’s haunting performance of a man who can’t seem to get out of his own to the beautiful folk music. I know many folk music fans thought the movie was too drab and depressing and that it didn’t do the famed folk singer Dave Van Ronk justice. But it’s a Coen brothers film. You come in expecting a bit of bleakness.
Why am I so awed by this movie? I think it expands on a theme I think about a lot: why make art? Is it for commercial success, to pay the bills? Commercial success is something Llewyn Davis eschews throughout the movie, even sneering at it with arrogance. He’s in it for the love of it, despite how much it makes him suffer. And despite it all, there is honor in that. Davis might be my favorite Coen hero. Vain and kind of an asshole, I still love him through and through because he wants badly just to create and make a bit of living doing it, but the cruel world won’t let him. I think he’s a cipher for the Coens themselves, artists who just want to make cool, beautiful things, success be damned.