Here are two names that need no introduction: Joel and Ethan Coen. The spectrum of adulation that has enfolded their work is practically unmatched by any American director in the past forty years. Across that time, they have forged a reputation as genuine trendsetters in the industry, not least for their unapologetic flouting of genre convention. In order to analyze and take a deep dive into their collection of veritable classics, one must forego any hope of pigeonholing them under one label, because the Coens’ virtuoso dexterity always seems to toy with our familiarity with any given genre and turn it into something that feels thoroughly new and refreshing.
Ranking the works of one of the greatest partnerships in cinematic history feels like a fraught exercise on its own. After all, how is one supposed to choose between ‘Raising Arizona’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’? Sure, there are many recurring motifs and overarching themes running through their entire body of work, but for the most part, every entry is sui generis. And yet, nothing is meant to last forever, and the Minnesotan-based brothers seem to be going their separate ways after more than three decades of collaboration. Joel flew solo for the first time in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, while Ethan is set to follow suit with a long-gestating road movie of his own. While there’s still a chance we haven’t seen their last hurrah together, now’s as good a time as any to take a look back and celebrate their legendary career.
19. The Ladykillers (2004)
Art is subjective. That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find many diehard fans who have this anywhere near their favorite Coen films. A remake of the eponymous ’50s British classic, ‘The Ladykillers’ follows a gang of mischievous goons who masquerade as a music band in order to fool their naïve, elderly landlord and use her root cellar to drill their way into a nearby casino’s vault.
Now, at first glance, that might seem just the kind of outlandish premise the Coen brothers feast on — you have inept crooks with thick Southern accents, gullible bystanders and double-crosses galore that would make ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ blush. All the ingredients are there. But precisely where ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’, ‘Fargo’, ‘The Big Lebowski’ and so many other Coen staples triumph — that is, in counterbalancing the high-stakes drama with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor — ‘The Ladykillers’ emphatically falls apart. It’s not without reason that the film holds the dubious honor of being their worst directorial effort to date, an unmitigated disaster in an otherwise impeccable filmography.
18. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Let me preface this somewhat controversial ranking by saying that the quality gap separating this film with the previous entry is wider than the one separating it from the following six or seven combined. That’s how downright bad ‘The Ladykillers’ is. Sure, ‘Buster Scruggs’ still feels a bit like a perfunctory effort going by Coen standards, but it’s far from being a total write-off. If there’s a pair of filmmakers with enough skill and dexterity to pull off a six-part anthology film that doesn’t feel uneven, it’s them. And on many fronts, ‘Buster Scruggs’ delivers in spades with a mellow blend of classic Coen tropes and themes we’ve grown to love.
The film presents itself as a deceptively fluffy frontier epic before showing its true colors as a somber meditation on mortality. From a singing gunslinger to a phantasmagorical stagecoach, it has a little something for everyone: if you fancy the cheerfulness on the lines of ‘Hail Caesar!’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou!’, ‘Buster Scruggs’ and ‘Near Algodones’ will scratch that itch. But lest you lower your guard, the Coens quickly veer toward the bitter nihilism of ‘No Country for Old Men’ in all three of its closing chapters. And yet, for a film filled with some of their best moments in the past decade, the parts are greater than the sum.
17. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
In this political farce, the Coens put their own spin on the Red Scare by offering us a glimpse of 1950’s Hollywood through the eyes of Josh Brolin, who’s constantly putting out fires as a head honcho at Capitol Studios. From Biblical epics, classic Westerns and Gene Kelly-esque musical numbers, the film brings all the showbiz pizzazz one would expect in a period piece of this nature, but if it manages to resurrect the heydays of the studio system, it does so with palpable disdain.
The central plot concerns a group of disgruntled Communist screenwriters who upon being blackmailed by the studio have kidnapped the star lead of their brand-new biblical epic (George Clooney) to really stick it up to those capitalist pigs. This makes for a hilarious gag where Clooney’s character is lectured in the tenets of Das Kapital while he’s held for ransom in their beach mansion. The irony writes itself, though one could argue the film bites off more than it can chew, and when it comes to taking a jab at Hollywood, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ doesn’t reach the heights of, say, ‘Barton Fink’. It’s a fine watch, but such is the burden of success — anything less than great is bound to sink under the radar.
16. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Our next film is something of an odd duck in the Coen’s back-catalog, one that was infamously panned and instantly dismissed as a disposable entry but which is now more than ripe for reevaluation. If ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ are the directors’ anti-noir and anti-western respectively, then ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is their ultimate anti-romance. In classic Coen fashion, the film presents every generic trapping we’ve grown to expect in saccharine rom coms of the same ilk only to flip them all over their head. It’s only fitting that our two lovebirds are a womanizing divorce attorney (George Clooney) and a high-society gold-digger (Catherine Zeta Jones), both of whom try to one-up each other in a restless rollercoaster of love, deceit and betrayal.
Granted, there are plenty of Coen films with meatier subtext than this, but one can’t shake the feeling that the directors are having a quiet chuckle beneath it all. ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is like a long con intended for those expecting a pulpy tear-jerker (though the joke might have gone all over their heads). But if there’s anything we’ve learned about the Coens in the past half-century, is that they seldom play it straight.
15. The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)
Joel’s latest Shakespearean adaptation might be the biggest outlier in this list, based not only in its visual and tonal shift compared to his past work but, most importantly, because it marked his first solo outing without the aid of his brother Ethan.
Surprising though it may be, ‘Macbeth’ is certainly a welcomed detour. Faced with the lofty challenge of living up to its towering material — let alone the cinematic legacy attached to it — Joel managed to deliver a timeless and revamped rendition that thoroughly stands on its own. Bolstered by elegant production sets, monochrome cinematography and two standout performances by seasoned veterans Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, his ‘Macbeth’ somehow feels refreshing for a familiar story we’ve all been spoonfed ad nauseam.
Admittedly, there might not be much of a connective tissue between this Scottish medieval drama and the Coen’s irreverent style, however, its scathing portrait of greed, misplaced ambition and moral decay nicely echoes the thematic fabric of past films. By virtue of its nature, ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ is primed to be judged and remembered largely for its technical prowess. As to where it exactly lands in the pantheon of Shakespeare’s on-screen adaptations, only time will tell. But if it ultimately proves to be Joel’s last rodeo, it’s a lofty encore worthy of his stature.
14. True Grit (2010)
Much of our grievances with ‘Macbeth’ extend to ‘True Grit’ too as two works for hire that toned down the Coens’ eccentricities for the sake of faithfulness. That’s not a knock on either — there’s a reason why this gritty Western earned them a string of Oscar nominations and ranks as their biggest box office hit by a large margin.
The story sees a resourceful teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld in a real scene-stealer debut role) join forces with a grizzled U.S. Marshall (Jeff Bridges) as they hunt down the elusive criminal who claimed her father’s life. The Minnesotan-based duo invoke a vision of the Wild West that’s full of mud and muck, a lawless and unforgiving society ruled by survival of the fittest.
In a vacuum, ‘True Grit’ should be lauded as an insightful revisionist Western that probes the folly of vengeance and the essence of mythmaking in American history. But on account of bearing the Coens name, it’s inevitably pitted against the rest of their oeuvre. And antithetical to their brand of filmmaking, for the most part, ’True Grit’ seems to play by the rules. There’s no shortage of gore, twists and thrills, yes, but never to the point of upending its own formula, treading closer to conventional schmaltz than any other of their joints. But make no mistake — even a film that keeps the Coens on a short leash makes for better entertainment than 99% of Hollywood’s mass-produced schlock.
13. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen brothers have often been accused of misanthropy for how they seem to scorn their characters. After all, what are their films if not a series of hapless losers living in perpetual ignorance and misery? The same accusation could be leveled against ‘A Serious Man’, a fan favorite that gifted us with the quintessential Coenesque average Joe. Cribbing from their own childhood and the Book of Job, the story is set in a midwestern suburban Jewish community where physics professor Larry Gopnik watches his entire life crashing down in front of his eyes.
Is our suffering meaningless or a case of divine wrath? Does it matter either way? These are some of the lofty questions that the Coen forces us to ponder through the parade of misfortunes and cruel twists of fate that befall Larry. Though unabashedly a comedy, ‘A Serious Man’ might very well be the most terrifying movie churned out by the Minnesota-based duo, one that stares into the abyss and isn’t afraid of what it might find staring right back.
12. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Coens conjured up all the wackiness and zany humor of Frank Capra’s films in this lighthearted homage to screwball comedies of old that tells the rags-to-riches story of a dim-witted clerk (Tim Robbins) who tumbles his way to success and is appointed as chairman of a ’50s manufacturing company as part of an elaborate stock scam.
Upon its release, audiences mistook the film’s cheerful spirit for frivolousness, greeting it with a lukewarm reception and making it the biggest box office bomb in the Coens’ young career. Fortunately, many viewers have come around to it ever since, perhaps realizing that ‘Hudsucker’ is more of a sly satire than it is an earnest re-creation. Your mileage may vary, but there’s plenty to love here, from standout performances across the board (especially Jennifer Jason-Leigh as a silver-tongued reporter) to cutting commentary on corporate America by way of some of the most hilarious gags the Minnesotan-based duo have ever churned out.
11. Blood Simple (1984)
The one that started it all. Though history has repeatedly taught us that even the best directors need some time to find their footing, the Coens made their presence felt right out of the gate with a slick debut that breathed new life into the film noir and laid out the groundwork for the rest of their career. In hindsight, ’Blood Simple’ sketches so many elements that later became signatures: adulterous lovers, a pileup of reckless misconceptions, a big stash of money and schemers undone by their carelessness.
The film centers around a sleazy bar owner who hires a private eye to murder his wife and back-stabbing employee. Trapped in a net of petty betrayal, greed and paranoia, every character behaves as rationally and selfishly as they can, only to dig themselves deeper into trouble. Much like many of their subsequent crime thrillers, miscommunication is deadly — allowing the Coens to illustrate just how bitterly ironic fate can be. As a great indicator of their many strengths and long-running artistic obsessions, ‘Blood Simple’ is an essential watch for any diehard Coen fan worth his salt.