The Coen Brothers Filmography: Ranking Best To Worst

From Blood Simple to True Grit, spanning 27 years, we rank every movie they have made...

With True Grit receiving widespread acclaim earlier this year, Joel and Ethan Coen are more successful than they€™ve ever been. The duo are responsible for a varied history of films all wildly different from the last, with a unique ability to take any genre and create something which feels both uniquely their own, as well as a perfect film from the genre to which it fits the most. Millers Crossing for example, is perhaps one of the greatest gangster films ever made - but it€™s also completely unlike any other film in the bulging genre.The scene in which a dead man has his toupee stolen by a young boy and his dog will only be found in a gangster movie written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Here's a look at the entire filmography of the directorial duo, listed from best to the worst. Remember though, it's just, like, my opinion, man........

Barton Fink (1991) - BEST

rating:5.0

Barton Fink is an incredibly bizarre and oddly constructed film, but there€™s something about it that€™s weirdly hypnotic and unforgettably engaging. Set during the 1940's, Barton Fink mixes Hollywood satire, black comedy and nightmarish almost Lynchian horror - it's the Coen brothers at their very best. John Turturro and John Goodman deliver impeccable performances which could quite easily be the best of their careers, while the eerie cinematography from Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell's haunting score have rarely been bettered in subsequent collaborations with the Coens. The Hotel Earle, with its art-deco architecture, hellish corridors and claustrophobic rooms with sagging wallpaper is almost a character in itself. Like most of their work, Barton Fink simply gets better with repeat viewings - even if that€™s just to dig out the references to Hell and Satan hidden throughout the film. Here's hoping the rumors of the Coens waiting on John Turturro to age considerably in order to make a sequel titled 'Old Fink' will prove themselves to be true.

Millers Crossing (1992)

rating:5.0

Made immediately after Barton Fink, Millers Crossing goes to show why the early 90s were the period in which the brothers delivered their best work. It's also something of a companion piece to Barton Fink, referencing the climax of the film (Fink was written during a bout of writers block for Millers Crossing) with a newspaper headline reading "Seven Dead In Hotel Fire" and a hotel named The Barton Arms. Millers Crossing is for all intents and purposes, a gangster film, but it's also heavily injected with elements of film noir, being inspired by the the work of seminal crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett. Of all their intricate screenplays, this is the most complex and demanding - with snappy partially invented colloquial dialog ("take your flunky and dangle !") and a complex twisting plot which demands multiple viewings. Millers Crossing is a beautifully shot and lavishly constructed masterpiece, especially for those willing to become engrossed in its labyrinthine and rewarding story.

Blood Simple (1984)

rating:5.0

Released in 1984 following Joel Coen's stint as assistant editor on Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Blood Simple is as good a directorial debut as you could ever wish for. It quickly paved the way for the many traits that the brothers would become well-known for, particularly the melding of various genres. The intricate plot which involves kidnapping, murder and blackmail is darkly funny and incredibly suspenseful, with flashes of film noir and horror thrown in for good measure. Its got some of their best dialogue (€œHey Mister ! How'd you break your pussy finger? €) and features an unforgettably nasty sequence involving a hand, a sliding window and a large kitchen knife. Blood Simple remains as fresh, gripping and shocking as it was in 1984, after almost 30 years since its original release.

Fargo (1996)

rating:5.0

The first hugely major critical and commercial success for the Coens, Fargo became a multiple Oscar winner in 1996 and remains the single film considered by many to be the definitive Coen brothers movie - masterfully bringing together the dark humor, quirky characters and unpredictable plotting for which they are known for. It€™s also easy to see why it was the first Coen brothers film to strike a chord with widespread audiences. There's a real heart to the film, thanks to the pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson, portrayed in an Oscar winning performance by Frances Mcdormand. For me, along with Roger Deakins€™ icy cinematography and Carter Burwell's fairy tale like score, Fargo is driven by the great paring of Steve Bucemi and Peter Stormare, as two idiotic yet thoroughly nasty kidnappers. It now seems like a requisite to have to bring up the woodchippper scene at the end of the film, but it's a great example of how the Coens are able to sharply punctuate a scene with such horrific violence, and still make it darkly funny. Likewise, the final speech from Marge remains the most poignant and affecting sequence in any of their films.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

rating:5.0

A huge flop on its release and critically panned as a disappointingly light follow-up to Fargo, nothing stopped The Big Lebowski from quickly becoming one of the most successful and beloved films from the Coens - gaining a dedicated following of obsessive, White Russian drinking fans. My experience with the film was similar to that of many - being originally unimpressed with the film on my first viewing and a little disappointed. Going back to it for a second time a few years later, it was like watching an entirely different movie and I found it utterly hilarious. The Big Lebowski might be as structurally laid back as the Dude himself, but it's without a doubt their funniest movie, full of quotable lines and unforgettable scenes. John Turturro almost steals the show as paedophile bowler Jesus Quintana, but the entire cast here is perfect, all delivering memorable roles in a film full of weird and wonderful characters. The scene where John Goodman's unhinged Walter sits dejected in a small diner refusing to leave and just enjoying his coffee, always cracks me up more than any other moment and I'm not entirely sure why - that's the genius of The Big Lebowski.

A Serious Man (2009)

rating:5.0

A Serious Man is often accused of being overly personal or too particular to be enjoyed by most audiences, somewhat reflected in its poor box-office reception. Whilst it is undoubtedly a personal film - and somewhat loosely biographical to the Coens own upbringing - this precise tone doesn't take anything away from the film, but rather improves it, resulting in one of their best films of recent years. Tonally the film has more in common with their early work such as Barton Fink, with the humour being pitch black and wry. There€™s also the deep themes of religion and mortality which are expertly woven into a story which leaves room for multiple interpretations, or depending on who you ask, a pointless mess which ends abruptly without conclusion. Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Larry Gopnik -making his struggling professor both sympathetic and amusing. There's some classic Coen characters here too including the overly comforting Sy Abelman and Richard Kind as cyst draining Uncle Arthur. Of all their films, this might be their most criminally underrated - although it's certainly a required taste. Few films start with an unrelated short film that's spoken entirely in Yiddish. It tells you everything you need to know about A Serious Man.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

rating:4.0

After several critical successes, culminating in a sweep of awards for Barton Fink, the Coens were suddenly hot property for the large Hollywood studios. After being linked to several projects, the Coens eventually teamed with Warner Bros and heavyweight producer Joel Silver. What resulted was their most lavish production - a mix of screwball satire and classical Hollywood romance, which alienated both critics and audiences resulting in the film flopping miserably at the box office. It wouldn€™t be until True Grit that the brothers had such a large budget at their disposal again, yet The Hudsucker Proxy remains one of their most visually exciting and emotionally engaging films, as well as their most enjoyable mainstream production. The performances are spot on - particularly Jennifer Jason Leign as fast-talking Amy Archer - the script is sharp and the whole production looks sumptuous. It might have been a box office bomb, but The Hudsucker Proxy is anything but a failure.

The Man Who Wasn€™t There (2001)

rating:4.0

Whilst the brothers have included many nods to film noir in their movies, specifically Millers Crossing and Blood Simple, it was 2001€™s The Man Who Wasn€™t There when they finally created their very own addition to the classic genre - complete with stunning black and white cinematography. Obviously though, this is film noir as told by the Coens - meaning it€™s all done in their typically oddball fashion, being possibly the only film noir to feature alien abduction, barbers and the advent of dry cleaning. Billy Bob Thornton manages to perfectly portray the archetypal noir anti-hero who finds himself spiraling well out of his depth, surrounded by great performances from actors such as James Gandolfini and Michael Badalucco. Worth watching for its entrancing cinematography and pitch perfect performances alone, The Man Who Wasn€™t There deserves a place on the high on any Coen Brother€™s list.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

rating:4.0

For many, No Country For Old Men, an adaptation of the book by Cormac McCarthy, is up there with the very best of the Coen brothers' films. For others, it€™s an almost perfect film ruined by a portentous and abrupt ending which purposefully pulls the rug from underneath the audience and shatters their expectations. The ending isn€™t a problem whatsoever - sticking true and faithful to the novel on which it is based, and doing something many adaptations fail to have the guts to do. It's also full of the most tense and suspenseful sequences that they've ever filmed. Anton Chigurh, expertly portrayed with real menace by Javier Bardem, is one of the most chilling, disturbing and memorable screen villains of recent years. So why is No Country For Old Men not higher on this list ? Simply because the film is an astonishing example of how to adapt a novel faithfully to the screen, but in doing so loses some of that unique Coen brothers touch.

True Grit (2010)

rating:4.0

Nominated for 11 Oscars, yet sadly managing to snag none of them, True Grit was one of the years surprise box-office successes. Whilst it€™s nothing new to see the Coens achieve award nominations and critical applause, it was odd to see such a lavish and old fashioned Western at the multiplexes in 2011. For this reason alone, True Grit deserves to be celebrated for reigniting interest in a sadly dying genre without resorting to the gimmickry of Cowboys & Aliens. The film itself, whilst expertly made and thoroughly entertaining, isn€™t quite up there with the best films from the Coen brothers. It suffers from some issues in its third act, making it hard to particularly feel anything for the characters, or the attempted poignancy of the last scene. The young and incredibly talented Hailee Steinfeld deserves all the praise she received for her performance, whilst Jeff Bridges is a lot of fun for those who enjoy deciphering garbled dialog. Like its fellow Oscar nominee No Country For Old Men, True Grit is a quality western and an accomplished piece of majestic cinema€ But for me it€™s not quite a Coen Brothers classic.

Raising Arizona (1987)

rating:3.5

Following the well made, yet modest Blood Simple, the brothers considerably upped the ante with their second film. A wild, kinetic and utterly cartoonish comedy, Raising Arizona is without a doubt the silliest film the brothers have made, yet also one with a surprising amount of heart. It also boasts a hilariously manic performance by a relatively young Nicolas Cage, serving as a great reminder of what the actor is capable of when not committing to such tripe as the atrocious Drive Angry. Raising Arizona also has one of the most spectacular and exciting sequences is all of their films. An elaborate chase sequence where H.I (Cage) finds himself fleeing a pack of dogs, police and angry convenience store workers while clutching an armful of Huggies - through streets, gardens and houses. Overall though, I have a fondness and appreciation for Raising Arizona but little more. It€™s all a little too silly, a bit too loony and farcical. But with that comes a film which is uniquely madcap and oddly uplifting, making it one of the better screwball comedies produced by the Coens.

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)

rating: 3.5

A visually stunning depression era comedy, O Brother Where Art Thou marked the Coens first collaboration with George Clooney - resulting in a series of films lovingly referred by the group as The Idiot Trilogy. A loose reworking of Homers Oddessy, O Brother charts the journey of three escaped convicts - the charming Everett McGill (Clooney), dim idiot Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and the aggressive Pete (John Turturro). Proving himself once again as one of the best actors to work alongside the brothers, John Goodman steals the show as eye-patch wearing bible salesman Big Dan Teague. O Brother Where Art Thou isn't perfect, and struggles to keep up with its own eccentricity. Yet it's frequently funny ("I don't want FOP Damn it, I'm a Dapper Dan Man!") with some stunning sepia toned cinematography by Roger Deakins and an amazing award winning soundtrack of folk music. So good was the soundtrack that it spawned its very own film, Down From The Mountain, charting a concert tour of musicians featured on the soundtrack.

The Ladykillers (2004)

rating:3.5

Somewhat underrated, The Ladykillers suffers under comparison with the beloved Ealing original from 1955, and the illogical ill-fitting addition of Marlon Wayans as foul-mouthed Gawain. But the southern crime caper still has plenty of its own quirks and funny moments to stop it from being a a complete failure. Tom Hanks is a little hammy, but still amusing as the riddle spouting Professor Dorr, supported by an excellent cast which includes Irma P Hall as the hippedy-hop loathing Marva Munson and J.K Simmons as the IBS suffering - accidental dog killer Garth Pancake. Perhaps I€™m in the minority here, but I enjoy The Ladykillers, finding that it becomes funnier with each viewing. The dialogue is great (€œWe must have waffles forthwith!€) it features a great ensemble cast playing amusing oddball characters, and it's scored with a fantastic gospel soundtrack. But is it a comedy worthy to sit alongside The Big Lebowski or The Hudsucker Proxy ? Not quite.

Burn After Reading (2008)

rating: 3.0

Burn After Reading is for me personally, the only film directed by the brothers which actually fits the common criticism of their work being indulgent and lacking in plot. That said, even the Coens weaker films are still enjoyable - Burn After Reading is no exception. Where it suffers is in its casting of over familiar Hollywood stars, all playing larger than life characters with little subtlety. The plot which involves mistaken identity and government conspiracy, covers too similar ground to The Big Lebowski, without being either as funny or memorable. It also veers wildly from goofball comedy to espionage thriller all before a sharp turn towards a depressing and shockingly violent climax. While the brothers are experts at weaving between different genre€™s effortlessly, Burn After Reading feels just as confused as its own characters, but then again, I guess that€™s the whole point.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) - WORST

rating: 2.5

Few would argue that Intolerable Cruelty isn't the weakest film to be directed by The Coen Brothers. It's an occasionally amusing but throwaway screwball comedy in the vein of The Hudsucker Proxy, and their only film to be co-written by several other scriptwriters. Perhaps its for this reason that the film feels uneven and separate from their other work, being their most mainstream film by a substantial long-shot. There's no real spark between Clooney and Zeta-Jones, making the romance fall flat, while the humor is too goofy and quirky for its own good. But just like The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, Intolerable Creutly isn't awful - just disappointing. The campy appearances from Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton are good fun and there's some classically great Coen touches including one of their very best dialogue exchanges - Man - "Do you... Do you have a, uh, green salad ?" Waitress - "What the fuck color would it be?" ______________ What's your favourite Coen brothers movie ?Don't abide with a high or low placement on the list ? Can you get me a toe by 2 o'clock ?
We need more writers about Coen Brothers, Millers-Crossing, Burn-After-Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Fargo, Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn't There, Raising Arizona, The Ladykillers, O' Brother Where Art Thou and Best to Worst! Get started below...

Create Content and Get Paid


Contributor
Contributor

Cult horror enthusiast and obsessive videogame fanatic. Stephen considers Jaws to be the single greatest film of all-time and is still pining over the demise of Sega's Dreamcast. As well regularly writing articles for WhatCulture, Stephen also contributes reviews and features to Ginx TV.