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:
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.