The Coen Brothers are one-of-a-kind filmmakers: this duo has created alternately some of the best comedy and drama films in the past 30 years without compromising their inimitable vision.
These siblings are two of America’s premiere directors, and it seems the American spirit is represented in their work: always reinventing genres while also mixing seemingly incongruous ones together to form a melting pot of ideas, styles, and stories, the Coen Brothers’ films can best be described as eccentric.
Idiosyncratic and postmodern, surreal and ironic, their films pay homage to film genres–in particular film noir and the screwball comedy–while also reinventing staid conventions, often creating surreal, highly stylized work in the process.
One particular trademark is their frequent–dominant, even–period pieces. All but four of their films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading) take place at some point in America’s past, an approach that allows for them to play with established tropes and audience preconceptions of these historic periods only to ultimately subvert them.
But perhaps their greatest talent is in blending genres, resulting in dark humor in their dramas and pathos in their comedies, often giving their films a surreal quality that very few directors could recreate even once, much less multiple times, to great success.
Working in different capacities across their films, often as co-screenwriters with Joel taking the directing title and Ethan billed as producer (though working closely throughout the production), they are a singular team the likes of which may never be repeated again.
And although many of their films are incredible–some even outright masterpieces–they have made a few disappointing movies in their career. Keep in mind that lists of this nature are always subjective enterprises, and that more often than not they succeed at creating dynamic films.
17. The Ladykillers
The Coen Brothers are heavily influenced by classic comedies, and their original work often pays homage to this inspiration. Up until the early 2000s, the brothers only worked on films based on their own material, but in 2004 they released their first remake: The Ladykillers.
Based on the 1955 British eponymous film, Tom Hanks stars as pretentious con man Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D, who rents a room in God-fearing elderly Marva Munson’s home for its proximity to the underground vault for a riverboat casino.
Using the cover that his music ensemble needs to use the basement for rehearsal, Higginson and his crew tunnel into the vault and pull off a sizeable heist. However, when Mrs. Munson comes across their operation, they each attempt to kill her off before she ruins their plans. But through what seems to be divine protection, each fail at their attempt, coming to their own demise instead.
Already a soft premise for the Coen Brothers to work with and lacking their trademark upending of convention, it’s easily the most lackluster film they ever produced. Its tone and humor falls flat, the motley cast of characters aren’t nearly as funny either together or on their own as they must have thought, and sadly, Tom Hanks gives possibly the worst on-screen performance in his career.
A modest hit upon its release, today critical consensus for this films has dropped significantly, and even for Coen Bros. completists it’s an effort to slog through.
16. Burn After Reading
“Zany” is an adjective that gets affixed to describe a lot of the Coen Brothers’ comedies. And while sometimes it’s a good descriptor (The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona are particularly “zany” films of theirs), in the case of Burn After Reading it’s almost a dire warning to potential viewers.
The film is a criss-cross “zany” screwball comedy that follows the misadventures and bungles of a drunk CIA agent looking to spill secrets out of revenge, two personal trainers who come across his memoirs on a CD in a locker and concoct an extortion scheme and–when that doesn’t work–to sell the memoir that contains highly classified material to the Russians, and a womanizing deputy US Marshal who gets mixed up in this caper.
While it sounds like standard “zany” Coen Brothers plotting, their comedic attempts misfire at every turn, and the rather cruel depictions of these lost souls doesn’t help make it any funnier. While the Coen Brothers thought they were making a satirical movie about fools who work in and live around the US bureaucracy in Washington, DC, the point of the satire isn’t clear and Burn After Reading comes across as a jumbled, plotless mess; a more appropriate title would be Burn After Seeing.
15. Intolerable Cruelty
When they swing for the fences, the Coen Brothers will at the very least make an interesting film: whether dark drama (such as No Country For Old Men) or an off-the-wall comedy (like The Big Lebowski), it seems the Coens succeed best when they follow through completely with their best instincts. Unfortunately, it seems they were aiming to make a mainstream, middle-of-the-road romantic comedy with 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty.
Starring the reliable George Clooney and charming Catherine Zeta-Jones, Intolerable Cruelty details the improbable romance that stirs between fierce divorce attorney Miles (Clooney) and a notorious serial-marrying golddigger Marilyn (Zeta-Jones).
While both should be more savvy when beginning a romance with their sworn enemy, they throw caution to the winds and soon find themselves married. But a long con Marilyn’s running against Miles turns against her when she realizes she’s the wealthier of the two, which may end up costing her in a divorce, will true love prevail? Sure, why not?
Alternately cynical and surprisingly lightweight, it’s the kind of Coen Brothers comedy that wouldn’t seem out of place in the 1930s but at the turn of the 21st century doesn’t quite fit the modern vernacular. As an adult comedy, it doesn’t carry much water, and the paper-thin romance between Miles and Marilyn never really gels.
The Coens are best when they follow their wilder instincts, but instead they lobbed a softball over the plate–and while the film fared well at the box office (Clooney and Zeta-Jones being big draws at the time), it’s a base hit instead of a home run.
14. Hail, Caesar!
Something the Coens know a lot about both personally and professionally is the business of making movies, and when they turn their satirical ability towards the subject, as they did to memorable success with Barton Fink, great comedy and pathos is unearthed. So when they wrote and directed 2016’s Hail, Caesar!–a satire of the film business and studio politics in the 1950s–one would think they’d create another comedic masterpiece.
And while the film is good in parts, it’s also scattershot: one minute we’re dealing with the pregnancy of an unmarried actress while the next we’re watching a young cowboy star uncomfortably step into the role of a playboy in a high society drama, and through this we’re (mostly) following the studio head that has to deal with all of this chaos–who’s also trying to figure out where to the star of his Bible epic has disappeared.
Turns out he was kidnapped by some communists who are trying to ransom the studio so their leader can return to Russia, but enough about that: let’s see how a couple of stars who were put together for PR purposes are doing on their date!
By reading this description, you can tell that the movie’s more than a little unfocused. It also looks like the Coens had a lot of fun making the movie, playing around with a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a movie studio in the 1950s. But it’s also a somewhat grating watch, particularly since half the characters are idiots or just plain unlikeable.
13. True Grit
The Coen Brothers rarely make films that aren’t their own original work, but in 2010 they released their Steven Spielberg-produced remake of the classic western True Grit.
Starring Jeff Bridges in as the grizzled Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, it was the feature debut of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a determined young woman who hires Cogburn to bring her father’s killers to justice.
The Coens found a surprise hit with True Grit: between its PG-13 rating, relatively straightforward storyline, and being a mainstream Western, True Grit made $250 million worldwide on a $38 million budget. Both Bridges and Steinfeld were widely praised for their portrayals as the hard-headed Mattie and the drunken but principled Cogburn, and the film is a well-made (if not dark) Western.
But it doesn’t really feel like a Coen Brothers film; toning down their eccentric style, they made a thoroughly mainstream film and with it found great success. But it also feels like a movie a number of directors could have made. For a genre picture, it’s stellar; but as a Coen Brothers movie, it’s underwhelming.