For my first full review I have chosen to attempt to rank all fifteen masterpieces of the multi-Oscar winning Coen Brothers. In the last 27 years, this duo has left their permanent mark upon cinematic history with their unique style of story-telling, unforgettable humor, and constantly unexpected twists.
For those of you unfamiliar with their work, my first bit of advise would be to watch any of the films below, because even though there is a number 15, it is by no means a bad movie. Their movies can be described as complex plots developed around simple character extremes, whether that character be an actual person or the time period or the geographical location. However, the real masterpiece of their films is their ability to redefine the quintessential plot and develop their own Coen-style stories. Now keep in mind that my ranking system is my own opinion and is really only partially affected by my personal taste and affinity for specific movies. So, here goes:
15. The Man Who Wasn’t There – 2001
Notable Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shaloub, and Frances McDormand
Thornton plays a barber who is essentially the most simple man imaginable who murders the man he discovers to be sleeping with his wife. The rest of the plot unfolds as he deals with the aftermath. It is shot in classic film noir with a plot deserving of the style. However, overall the tone of the film is simply dry and fails to keep up completely with the Coen standard. Also unlike all their other films, there is not really any memorable acting performance or jaw-dropping twist. It was simply mediocre.
14. Barton Fink – 1991
Notable Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Tony Shaloub, Steve Buscemi
This movie is about a playwright, played by John Turturro, who moves to Hollywood after being commissioned to write a script about wrestling and in the process forms a friendship with his next door neighbor. This movie is this low on the list essentially for the same reason as The Man Who Wasn’t There: it is dry. Other than John Goodman, the majority of the movie is devoid of humor. The redeeming part of this movie was the acting prowess of Goodman in the climactic scene, as the complexity of his character continually unfolds until the climax.
13. Intolerable Cruelty – 2003
Notable Cast – George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Richard Jenkins, Cedric the Entertainer
Even when creating a romantic comedy such as this movie, they refuse to keep it simple, which is the beauty of this plot. The plot revolves around hot-shot divorce attorney, played by Clooney, his involvement with a gold-digging divorcee, Jones, and their toils with pre-nuptial agreements. Clooney shows his talented ability to play a comedic role perfectly in this movie, specifically in the scene of the first divorce negotiation between Jones and her first husband. If nothing else watch this movie for Clooney’s absurd wit best demonstrated in this scene, not to mention the hilarious opening featuring Geoffrey Rush.
12. The Ladykillers – 2004
Notable Cast – Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, JK Simmons
This is possibly the most bizarre movie in this entire list. It is also the first to eloquently combine an outstanding acting performance, complex plot, and humorous deaths. This plot centers around a group of the most odd group of people ever to combine in order to rob a casino. They rent out the basement of this sweet old widow who inadvertently picks them off one-by-one. The real treasure of this movie however, is Tom Hanks’ distinctive performance. Dressed like Colonel Sanders and continuing the Coen tradition of the loquacious Sotuhern man, every word that comes from his mouth gives cause to laugh, especially mixed with the other outrageous characters in the ensemble.
11. A Serious Man – 2009
Notable Cast – Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind
On the spectrum of the Coen brothers’ tendency to escape the normal guidelines of plot, this movie would be the extreme in favor of Coen eccentricity. This movie tells the story of a man trying to find excitement in his life after his wife leaves him, mixed with a subplot of his son’s path to adulthood in his Jewish faith and his good-for-nothing brother’s shady dealings. This Jewish opus of theirs is fortunate enough to have been made recently enough to have their finessed sense of humor intact as the plot is far from devoid of humor. However, I will say that this rating holds some bias as I recognize its quality as a movie but did not find personal connection to it.
10. Miller’s Crossing – 1990
Notable Cast – Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro
This Coen classic is essentially their answer to mafia classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Gabriel Byrne plays an advisor to a crime boss who attempts to mediate the war between mobs and gets caught up in between. While Byrne’s performance is outstanding and most likely had influence on his casting in The Usual Suspect, the real outstanding performance is by John Turturro, especially due to one scene between him and Byrne in which he cries the immortal words, “Look into your heart!” While this movie may be ranked as the tenth best, it has possibly one of the best and most chilling endings that is worth watching the film for.
9. Burn After Reading – 2008
Notable Cast – John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
The cast list of this film alone should warrant a viewing, however one viewing is not enough. If I had not chosen to view this film again, it probably would not have been this high on the list. It contains the most confusing, absurd, and pointless plot, which again took multiple viewings to fully appreciate. Essentially, two idiots, Pitt and McDormand, find a CD containing files which they do not comprehend belonging to retired CIA analyst, Malkovich. Believing these simple encoded memoirs of Malkovich to be secret government files, they attempt to blackmail him, all the while twisted up in a plot of love affairs and divorce. And just when the viewer realizes that they have no clue as to what is happening, the plot takes a pause to show that this is perfectly okay because neither does the CIA. All-in-all, due to Brad Pitt’s outlandish character and one of the most shocking and humorous deaths in recent movie history, Burn After Reading may be considered one of the funniest of their films.
8. Raising Arizona – 1987
Notable Cast – Nick Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman
Say what you want about Leaving Las Vegas and Face Off, this is Nick Cage’s best role ever. He plays a loquacious Appalachian criminal who marries a police woman, and after repeated tries at conceiving, failing, and denied adoption, decides to steal a baby from the proud new owners of quintuplets. The plot then thickens when his old friends escape from prison and need his help, and the father of the child hires a bounty hunter to track them down, culminating in a truly original ending that leaves the viewer stunned.
7. The Hudsucker Proxy – 1994
Notable Cast – Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Campbell
The Hudsucker Proxy is, in my opinion, the most underrated Coen Brothers film. It stars Tim Robbins as the scapegoat hired to be the president of a company by Newman after the president jumps from the top of the building in the opening scene. This is done in attempt to lower the stock so Newman and the other board members can grab the controlling stake of the company, but their plans are foiled when Robbins invents a child’s toy that revives the company. This is a pleasantly simple film that is admittedly corny but still complex and humorous in the Coen style.
6. True Grit – 2010
Notable Cast – Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Haley Steinfeld, Josh Brolin
Thsi film is truly unique in the landscape of their films as it is a remake of an already prominent Oscar winning film. It stays fairly true to the original, with the exception of the ending, and is filled with fantastic performances. Jeff Bridges was the only person who could have possibly filled the shoes left by the Duke in his Oscar winning role and Bridges’ Oscar nominated performance is shadowed by Matt Damon’s complex character and Steinfeld’s outstanding, Oscar nominated, break-out role. She plays a sharp-tongued country girl out for revenge for her father’s death. This movie was an Oscar nomination magnet as it seemed. but ultimately fell short of its potential. It was a fantastic movie which I imagine I will watch many times once it is released on DVD, but in all actuality the movie could have been so much more than it was.
5. No Country For Old Men – 2007
Notable Cast – Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson
As the only Oscar winning Best Picture of the lot, this film had a spot reserved in the top five. Lewellyn Moss, played by Brolin, comes across a drug deal gone bad and discovers a briefcase full of money and makes off with it. He soon discovers that taking this money has put his and his family’s lives in danger of both a Mexican hit squad and a hitman to go down in cinematic history books, played by Bardem, which won him the Oscar for Supporting Actor. The plot that ensues is possibly the most bloody and suspenseful on the list and was truly deserving of the awards. However, the truly underrated role in this film was that of Tommy Lee Jones, as the officer investigating the mess that unfolds in a Texan version of his role in The Fugitive and US Marshals.
4. Blood Simple – 1984
Notable Cast – John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
The original still remains one of the best. Blood Simple was the premiere of both the Coen Brothers as writer/directors and Frances McDormand, wife of Joel Coen, as an actress. This plot revolves around the affair of Getz and McDormand, and her husband’s hiring of a hitman to kill the two. This film truly set the bar extremely high for twisted plots and especially suspense that had not been matched by them until 23 years later with No Country. This movie also set a precedent for their movies in which one scene in particular resonates and is burned in the memory of any viewer. The scene I am speaking of involves the burial of a body in the middle of a cornfield to the illumination of headlights. Also, this movie has possibly the best ending of any of their films and a contender for one of the most suspenseful endings ever.
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou? – 2000
Notable Cast – George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, Holly Hunter, John Goodman
This film is my personal favorite on this list and one of my favorite movie of all time. O Brother is an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey set during the Depression in rural Mississippi in which three prisoners escape from a chain gang and make their way across the state in an attempt to stop Clooney’s wife from remarrying. This is the rating where my personal bias has the biggest influence. This is perhaps the most well written of all the scripts and goes the extra mile beyond their normal writing and directing and forays into the soundtrack, which is one of my personal favorite soundtracks of any film. This film also gives a double dose of sharp-tongued hillbillies in both Clooney and Goodman’s characters, which is modeled especially in a scene between the two in which Goodman rips off the bunch and leaves them for dead. The only possible criticism I see is that the ending is a little weak, but it does not really matter because the whole movie is so fantastic. And with the exception of the next movie on the list, O Brother Where Art Thou? has the most quotable one-liners such as “dumber than a bag of hammers”and “them sirens loved him up and turned him into a horny toad.”
2. The Big Lebowski – 1998
Notable Cast – Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro
Again, this may be personal bias, but this movie should go down as one of the funniest movies ever made. The carefree personality of the Dude, played by Bridges, the stubborn Narcissistic ego of Walter, played by Goodman, and the pathetic servitude of Donnie, played by Buscemi, mesh together in some of the most perfectly dialogued scenes of comedy in history centered on an absurd North-by-Northwest, mistaken identity plot in which the Dude just tries to get his rug back. This classic cult comedy could have only been conceived by the Coen Brothers. And as mentioned before, this movie contains some of the most memorable quotes and outrageous characters that are so fantastically portrayed.
1. Fargo – 1997
Notable Cast – Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy
Beyond being their unequaled masterpiece that should have won Best Picture, it is in nearly every top 100 list. It is truly an American masterpiece and the pinnacle of their creativity. The plot focuses on the deep heartland of North Dakota and Minnesota in which a used car salesman, played by Macy, finds himself in debt and hatches a plan to have his wife kidnapped so his father could pay the ransom and clear his debts, while the heroine, Marge Gunderson played by McDormand, is on the trail of the two hired kidnappers. The plot thickens when the two are pulled over with Macy’s wife in the back seat and leaves a bloody trail upon the blinding white ground all the way to one truly shocking and memorable ending. This film is literally perfect in every way and leaves the viewer speaking in a North Dakota accent days after watching. One other thing this movie accomplishes that was truly the first of its kind was the success of the director in escalating hiswife, McDormand into an Oscar winning role, a role that goes down in movie history as one of the greatest heroines of all time.
Again, I strongly suggest taking the time to watch each and every one of these movies, the top 5 of which are all must-see.