Cliff’s Coen Brothers Ranking

The Coen brothers are celebrated for their quirky aesthetic, located at the border of the hilarious and the horrifying. What I personally love about them in their ability to capture a given sensibility, one you recognize even if you can’t put a name to it, one you may have thought no one else knew about (think of, say, Sam Elliot’s gentleman cowboy-narrator in The Big Lebowski).

Following is an attempt to identify levels of quality in the brothers’ work, and to rank films within each level — a pointless exercise, probably, and, like many pointless things, a lot of fun. So:

 

GREAT COEN

1. The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges as The Dude, maybe the brothers’ most inspired creation. Transcendent.

2. Fargo. A great concept, summed up by the image of a hugely pregnant officer of the law (Frances McDormand) holding a gun on a sociopath.

3. Raising Arizona. My vote for the funniest movie ever made.

4. Miller’s Crossing. It’s irresistible, all of it — from the guys in black fedoras and long dark coats to the made-up lingo (“What’s the rumpus?”) to the theme of one guy, in this case Gabriel Byrne, taking on everybody.

5. Barton Fink. John Turturro as a monstrously self-absorbed playwright holed up in a dank, eerie hotel, John Goodman as the seemingly average guy staying next door. Ohhhhh, watch out, Turturro.

 

NEAR-GREAT COEN

6. No Country for Old Men. A movie remarkable for subverting every expectation  formed during a lifetime of movie watching. With Javier Bardem as the stuff of nightmares.

7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? The first scene of George Clooney improvising country blues in a recording studio is worth the price of the rental.

8. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Mostly this black-and-white film looks terrific, and Billy Bob Thornton is great as the enigmatic, doomed man who longs for the land of “things they don’t have words for down here.”

9. True Grit. It loses energy after a while, but Jeff Bridges is great in the John Wayne role, and so is Hailee Steinfeld, playing one very determined teenaged girl.

 

SERVICEABLE COEN

10. Burn After Reading. The brothers’ funniest film, after Raising Arizona.

11. Blood Simple. Their first work, a taut film noir — in which, as someone once pointed out, every human fluid gets spilled.

12. Inside Llewyn Davis. The main character is a jerk, and the story goes exactly nowhere, and yet it works. A wonderful evocation of a fondly remembered time — early ’60s New York — one that wasn’t always great for the people living in it.

13. A Serious Man. A little too serious, but not bad.

14. The Ladykillers. Really, guys? Ironically, the brothers updated the 1955 film by bringing in two of the oldest black stereotypes in existence. On the other hand, Tom Hanks is brilliant as an extremely erudite criminal — my favorite thing I’ve seen him do — which is what saves this movie from being . . .

 

BARGAIN-BASEMENT COEN

15. Intolerable Cruelty. Substandard Coen, which still makes it better than a lot of other movies. And it has one great line, from Cedric the Entertainer: “You want tact, call a tactician.”

16. The Hudsucker Proxy. The only boring movie the Coens have made.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Cliff’s Coen Brothers Ranking

  1. Raising Arizona was one of my faves! I like the listing, Cliff. Will use it as a guide – many thanks.

  2. A fine list, although I have to disagree on a few counts!

    – I’d put Burn After Reading at the very bottom. It was totally forgettable, although I remember walking out of the theater bored and thinking that even Brad Pitt’s character couldn’t save it.

    – You don’t give The Hudsucker Proxy its due! Lots of great stylized, quotable lines and Paul Newman is awesome.

    – No Country should be in the top tier. The suspenseful scenes in that film (e.g., Brolin in the hotel room after he realizes the money has a transponder in it) are perfectly paced, the cinematography is incredible, and IMHO the gas station scene is one of the top 10 movie scenes ever. Right up there with Fargo as the Coen Bros’ best “dramas,” if you can call them that.

    – Agree with Lebowski being #1. Goodman and Bridges are nothing short of genius. A wholly unique film.

    – Didn’t you find “Man Who Wasn’t There” kind of boring? I really wanted to like it, film noir fan that I am. But it felt more like an exercise than something enjoyable to watch.

  3. Jordan — the debate I was hoping for! I’m willing to give Hudsucker another look, but I must defend The Man Who Wasn’t There and — especially — Burn After Reading. I thought “Burn” was just hilarious. Clooney and Pitt were brilliant, and I particularly admired Pitt for letting himself look like such a nitwit. And how can you not like this exchange:
    Clooney: I’ve got lactose reflux.
    John Malkovich (wearily): Are you lactose intolerant, or do you have acid reflux?
    I admit I went back and forth about putting No Country in the top tier.

  4. Can’t help but think of Fargo every year at Mulchfest. I love that film and am in agreement on No Country. No Country For Old Men was desperately disturbing. I can’t even look at Bardem on the red carpet anymore without getting chills. I kind of started hating the Coen Bros for making that film. I do love how different each film is from the next, however, with the only common thread being quirkiness.

  5. Perhaps I’ll give Burn another viewing.

    I know Intolerable Cruelty isn’t actually good, but my friend and I saw it during our “gap year” in Ireland, so it holds a special place in my heart. And there are a few of those quick-quip exchanges that I do like:

    Waiter: Something to start? Some wine, perhaps?
    George Clooney: Red?
    Catherine Zeta-Jones: French?
    GC: Bordeaux?
    CZJ: Chateau Margaux?
    GC:’57?
    CZJ:’59.
    GC:’54.
    CZJ: Mmm, Mr. Massey.

  6. Jordan — that’s great. Libby — I agree about No Country. It actually gave me nightmares, the first time that had happened since I was a kid. (It didn’t help that one of the previews was for Funny Games. Gah.)

  7. My favorites are:

    FARGO
    RAISING ARIZONA
    BARTON FINK
    INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
    MILLER’S CROSSING

    Want to see A SERIOUS MAN. Did not like Intolerable Cruelty and felt indifferent to No Country for Old Men. Did not see BURN. Thought O Brother Where Art Thou had great potential but did not work for me in the end. Too self-satisfied in tone I think.

  8. Rosemary — interesting that you don’t mention Lebowski. What are your thoughts there? A Serious Man did have one standout character for me: the guy who cuckolds the main character. He was hilarious.

  9. Hey, Cliff et al.,

    Apart from Fargo and Arizona, I’m just not really on the Coen Bros bandwagon. I saw Fargo in late october 1996 at a little theater in Indian lake during a week I spent alone in a rented cabin in the Adirondak woods. I was quite receptive to the movie’s creepy charms and it is a great yarn, well-acted and well-told.

    OTOH, I just don’t get Lebowsky. It reminded me of Smoke — lots of mugging, in both the acting and the writing. Well-turned phrases and cool anti-everything posturing, but it did not add up to anything I cared about. I’m hoping someone here will enlighten me (so to speak) about what I am missing. But there may be no hope for me.

    As for Llewin Davis — loved the cat, bored by the movie. There is a great movie to be made about that time and that scene, but it hasn’t been made yet. But it did prompt me to read Dave van Ronk’s book. It took about 20 pages to get used to his attitude, but he provides great background on the politics, culture and music of the pre-and post-dylan Village folk scene.

    Sorry to be such a curmudgeon.

  10. Hey Josh,
    There’s certainly nothing to apologize for, and probably nothing to explain. I could explain to my 15-year-old why I like brussels sprouts, but I doubt that would make her like them. That is to say, it’s all about your taste.

  11. Thanks, Cliff, for not judging me too harshly (and sorry to kill the thread).

    I’d forgotten about True Grit, which I liked a fair amount. I would rank it ahead of Oh Brother, which (apart from a great soundtrack) had a bit too much “aren’t we clever” about it for me to really get into it. The Coens do have a great eye for period detail — whether the jarringly halfway built frontier town in True Grit or the Morningside Heights apartment of Columbia profs circa 1962.

  12. Cliff, your blogpost is so apropos — I just saw Inside Llewyn Davis last night, and I’ve been thinking about the Coen Brothers ever since. Two things I’ve been thinking: first, overall, the Coen Brothers are better than Woody Allen. Their best films are better than his best films, and their lesser films are FAR better than his lesser films. Second, to me, Inside Llewyn Davis is right up there with their best films. Concededly, as you note, the plot is thin, yet I was transfixed from beginning to end, and certain scenes are so memorable (notably John Goodman’s rant) that they are seared in my brain. Although the film certainly took the folk scene seriously, there was just a hint of “A Mighty Wind”-esque irreverence (the woman with the autoharp, the fake Clancy Brothers, etc.), and for me this added the perfect touch. Plus, has there ever been a better cat movie?

  13. Hey there Jon,
    Thanks for writing. The problem with ranking Coen films — and I went ahead and did it in spite of this — is that almost all of them are good, and a comparatively low ranking does not equal a thumbs down; it just looks that way. I enjoyed Llewyn very much, and I’d see it again. I don’t know if I’m ready to say that Lebowski and Fargo are better than Manhattan and Annie Hall, but I do think that Woody at his worst reaches lower depths than the Coens. (Mighty Aphrodite . . . blech.) And I liked all the things you mentioned in Llewyn.

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