Joel and Ethan Coen are filmmakers that play by their own rules, and they seem to delight in this defiance. The plots are never straight forward — they are either slightly confusing and downright impossible. The satisfying ending you were hoping for may or may not come. Who are the Coen Brothers? And what makes them such a singular voice in Hollywood? This is a list of the best Coen Brothers movies ranked — which ended up being quite a difficult task.
Watch: The Coen Brothers' Obsession with Desks
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COENS FOR HIRE
18. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Any list of Coen Brothers films ranked will probably have this title near the bottom. There's nothing inherently bad about Intolerable Cruelty; it's just not that interesting. It is the lightest and least complicated of their pictures. The tone is consistent, and the performances are serviceable.
But for a romantic comedy, it's not very funny, and it's far from romantic.
Perhaps the involvement in a bonafide "studio picture" kept the Coens from flexing their usual muscles too much. The script was tossed around Hollywood for a while with different directors and stars attached.
Your best bet with this film is to play it at 2x speed on mute and soak up the colors, lights, and shadows.
COENS & COMMUNISTS
17. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
For lovers of classic Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! hits all the right notes. The inner workings of the studio system and the eccentricities of the stars all play well.
The kidnap plot, the league of Communists, the musical numbers and the snappy dry dialogue are pure Coen Brothers. But the finished product is unconnected dots, and it falls flat.
The look of the film is spot-on. They've captured the costumes/sets of vintage Hollywood aesthetics. Deakins' cinematography pushes the bright technicolor sets and costumes with confidence. Naturally, the darker, noir scenes remind us once again of Deakin's mastery of shadow.
The musical number with Channing Tatum is a standout moment, both for its execution and subverted humor.
It is an homage and a send-up. It's one thing to "tip your hat" to the greats like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire — it's another thing altogether to pull off a scene just like them.
PLANS GONE AWRY
16. The Ladykillers (2004)
The plot involves another hare-brained "criminal enterprise" undertaken by a collection of numbskulls. It has moments of cartoonish foolery and absurdist flourishes. The dialogue is writerly mixed with profanity.
Is this not the exact recipe for a classic Coen romp?
Tom Hanks steps into his oddball role as Professor G.H. Dorr and takes full advantage of the comic latitude he is given. Irma P. Hall plays Marva Munson as if she was born to do so.
From a filmmaking standpoint, the best scene is The General's botched murder attempt. As he sneaks up to Ms. Munson's room, the chiaroscuro cinematography becomes comically dramatic.
The best shot is The General rounding the stairs, silhouetted by the window as his exhaled smoke flows around him. He steps into the light at the top of the stairs and walks past a low angle camera.
The seriousness of The General and this scene suggests his skills as an assassin. Of course, this is all undone when the cuckoo clock chimes, he swallows his lit cigarette and stumbles down the stairs to his death.
The God of the Coen Universe can't abide.
SHORT FORM COENS
15. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
When it was announced that the Coen Brothers new movie would be an anthology of Western tales, no one was surprised.
Having Coen Brothers movies on Netflix makes total sense because they demand to be re-watched. Netflix knows this and brought them in for this first co-production.
Any anthology film hedges its bets by including many stories in one. Audiences will inevitably choose the story they like best and wish they had seen less of the others.
The variety of stories in Buster Scruggs is like a microcosm of the best Coen Brothers movies. There is Looney Tunes zaniness, and Old Testament justice meted out to hapless criminals. There are twists of fate and consequence mixed with violence out of the blue.
What's exciting about this mix of films is that they each have a different look and feel. As if each segment were handled by different directors, like other anthology films.
The first, eponymous chapter has the Coens firing on all cylinders. In many ways, this is the distillation of their work in 15 minutes.
The standout story in the collection is "All Gold Canyon." Tom Waits is the PERFECT gruff prospector, pursuing his dream of golden riches. The landscapes are gorgeous — an elemental setting for an elemental story.
And, for once, the Coens lean on an optimistic ending in this chapter. A happy ending in a Coen Brothers movie is as rare as the gold the Prospector dreams of.
14. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
What immediately stands out about this film is the look. The saturated yellows and greens of trees and fields are strikingly beautiful. It is an exaggerated color scheme that establishes the setting. It suggests a time and place, both familiar and slightly fantastic. But how do we blend the real with the fantastic?
For one example, our trio of protagonists discovers a trio of bathing singers in a river. The Sirens sing a seductive harmony while making the three escaped convicts drink liquor from a jug.
As the scene progresses, the sound, camera, and blocking slip into a more subjective experience. We are seduced just like they are.
In the final shot before they pass out, we see all three men one last time. The camera moves laterally across them before fading to black.
But the camera doesn't really move at all. The subjects themselves appear to be moving without walking. They slide into new positions while the camera moves slightly to motivate this strange repositioning.
This technique achieves what so many visual effects aim for. It provides a subjective and unnatural logic to the shot without calling attention to itself. Like Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar, the audience can experience what that moment must be like.
A smooth and peaceful transition into unconsciousness.
WESTERNS COEN BROTHERS STYLE
13. True Grit (2010)
The best Coen Brothers movies always provide great accents for their characters. Clearly, they get a lot of joy out of writing eccentric and flowery dialogue. It makes sense, then, that so many of their movies are set in locations that engender strong accents. The Old West fits this bill perfectly, and it's a wonder why the Coens don't work in Westerns more.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross holds her own against heavies like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. There is heart in this story, which is something the Coens don't do, and Mattie embodies that heart.
The Coens, again working with Roger Deakins, give us another gorgeously shot picture. And it all starts with the first shot of the film: a dead body, lying in a pool of soft, yellow light, as snow falls around him.
This is followed by a shot of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) fleeing on his horse against a blue night sky, the rider and falling snowflakes silhouetted. The Coen-esque qualities take a back seat this time and what's left is an honest-to-goodness Western. A sandbox fully designed to accommodate the Coens' love of violence, justice, and accents.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy character study, shot in hazy, beautiful grays. Oscar Isaac's breakout lead performance is a perfect mix of angst and soul. And, of course, the music is phenomenal.
The tone is icy, even for the Coen Brothers, and Llewyn's prospects are bleak at best. The songs are downtrodden as well but sung and performed beautifully.
Bookending the film with the same scene is the cherry on top. Life is miserable for artists like Llewyn, and it never stops. If you don't dig the plot, characters, or music (unlikely), the cinematography alone is worth the price of admission.
This film marks the Coen Brothers' first feature with French DP Bruno Delbonnel. Delbonnel first worked with the Coens on their short film contribution to the omnibus Paris je'taime a few years earlier.
The glow and color desaturation inside the Gaslight Cafe makes us nostalgic, even if we were never there. The gray, snowy exteriors are a perfect complement to Llewyn's apathetic disposition. Scenes like Llewyn's conversation with Jean (Carey Mulligan) are inches away from black & white.
COEN BROS. & THE CIA
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
The Coen Brothers handle violence in a very particular way. It is often shocking, both because it's often unexpected and gruesome. The tonal shift in these moments is substantial and dramatic.
There's no better example than in Burn After Reading. The film is another Coen comedy about inept and amateur criminals. Brad Pitt plays an airhead gym trainer who gets in over his head after he finds a disc with confidential information on it.
He is an incredibly goofy character, prone to dancing and an overall cheery disposition. Naturally, in the Coen Universe, a character like this is doomed from the outset.
When he breaks into Harry's (George Clooney) house, he hides in the closet when the owner comes home. Harry takes a shower and sings while Chad (Pitt) watches through the closet door. Spoiler alert!
Nothing about these characters or this situation prepares us for what comes next. Harry finally opens the closet door to find a grinning Chad, hoping to explain his way out of this.
Instead, Harry shoots him point blank into his forehead. Chad's blood and brains paint the back of the closet and Harry is just as shocked as the audience at this turn of events.
The scene plays with no signs of danger. If Chad is caught, we can imagine a confused Harry asking frantic questions while Chad fumbles with excuses. This is what makes this scene so shocking.
The only hint we get that things might go a different way is a quick POV shot as Chad notices an empty gun holster in the closet. But we have just enough time to register this before the doors are opened and the gun discharges — five seconds to be exact.
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
No doubt about it, The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen's most visually perfect movie. Why it took them, especially with their secret weapon, DP Roger Deakins, almost 20 years to make a B&W film, we'll never know. And why haven't they done another one since then??
Of course, a 1950s American, suburban paradise should always be shot in B&W. That's what the world must have actually looked like back then because the aesthetic is so ingrained in the setting.
Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as the soft-spoken cuckold barber, Ed Crane. We get our standard Coen voiceover, but Thornton's face says it all. We also have the typical stellar supporting cast we've come to expect from Joel and Ethan. James Gandolfini proves that he should have been in way more films for the Coens. The same goes for Tony Shalhoub, the loquacious lawyer from Sacramento.
Joel and Ethan Coen movies have an uncanny ability to mix the strange with the beautiful. A great example of this is a late-night conversation between Ed and Ann (Katherine Borowitz).
She is mourning her late husband with a thin veil with tiny black spots. She is backlit by a streetlamp, giving her an eerie glow. The reverse has Ed lit with dappled light as the wind pushes through the trees.
Beautiful and strange. The Coens have perfected the curveball and here is just one example. The conversation begins with Ed's condolences but quickly turns to Ann's real concern: aliens.
She recalls a sighting she and her husband once had, claiming that everything since then, including his death, can be traced back to that moment. Naturally, near the end, Ed sees a flying saucer, and it all makes sense. What we previously wrote off as the ramblings of a grieving wife is part of the film's theme.
GANGSTERS COEN BROTHERS STYLE
9. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The best Coen Brothers movies capture a blend of shocking violence and a dash of the surreal. In Miller’s Crossing, there is one scene that stands out in particular.
Casper suddenly clubs Dane in the face, and a gush of blood pours through Dane's hand. Casper delivers another blow to the back of Dane's head, and that's when "Drop" starts yelling in sharp, rhythmic bursts.
When Casper demands that he shut up, the camera pulls away from "Drop" in cartoonish fast motion. The next shot carries that same fast motion into a close-up on Casper.
We've seen this fast-motion used a lot more in their more slapstick work like Raising Arizona. Its presence in this gangster drama stands out and gives it that Coen touch.
8. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coen's largest and most designed film. Another period piece that is familiar and exaggerated at the same time.
The sets in this film are massive. The Coens understand how to maximize these spaces for comedic and thematic effect. The film must have been the Coens largest budget, before and after. It's a shame that they haven't attempted large scale projects like Hudsucker since then because they certainly get the most bang for their buck.
The Coens have an affinity for the past, especially old Hollywood and Hudsucker is definitely a throwback. It's also a film that has the sharpest political edge.
Jennifer Jason Leigh shines as a fast-talking reporter, and Tim Robbins is perfectly cast as a nitwit “idea man.” Their romance is laughable, but there is so much to like about this film, we can ignore it.
The montage showing the birth of the hula-hoop is a dizzying combination of music, momentum, and a series of visual gags. The use of reading Tolstoy novels to show the passing of time is a bit of magic. It all culminates of one of the most innocent bad-ass shots of all time: a boy rocking a hula-hoop is glorious slow motion.
COEN BROTHERS DO HOLLYWOOD
7. Barton Fink (1991)
What a strange and beautiful film and one of the best Coen Brothers movies. Another suffering artist who ends up in the literal Hell of Hollywood. John Turturro stars as Barton Fink, an idealistic playwright who makes the inevitable trek to the West Coast to work in "pictures."
He checks into the Hotel Earle, a dreadful labyrinth second only to the Overlook in The Shining. It is within these peeling walls and oppressive heat that Fink must concoct his next masterpiece...a wrestling picture.
Is this a commentary on the delusion of self-important writers? Or a stab at the Hollywood machine that takes in people and spits out empty shells? The design of the Hotel Earle is fantastic, but the sound design is what makes this place genuinely effective.
As Barton sits down to work on his assignment, an unsettling and muffled crying/laughter comes through the wall.
When he opens the door to look down the hallway, the door makes an odd whistling sound, as if there is some air pressure differential. The hallway itself has an echo that suggests air passing through.
Barton calls down to the front desk to complain. And after we hear the phone ringing next door, the camera follows the sound of footsteps through the wall. Charlie (John Goodman) becomes a mysterious and dangerous character in the film. And this tense sound design introduces him properly.
COEN BROTHERS COMEDY
6. Raising Arizona (1987)
This film is the "Big Bang" of the Coen's comic and visual sensibilities. All that raw material condensed into a single movie that explodes on screen. The resulting explosion sends that same material into the cosmos, forming the rest of their filmography.
Joel and Ethan Coen movies always work best in extremes and when irony is on full display. Leonard Smalls (Lee J. Cobb) as the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse is scarier than anything in Mad Max, and funnier, too.
Nic Cage and Holly Hunter bring much personality to their roles but with enough depth and humanity to avoid white trash cliches. And John Goodman nails it in his first of many Coen Brothers iconic roles. His versatility is rather remarkable, and it's no wonder that they cast Goodman in everything.
The "Huggies Chase" sequence has got to be one of the most thoughtful and layered comedic chases ever. It has the right amount of Looney Tunes energy, soundtracked with yodeling and banjos. It's pure joy.
COEN BROTHERS ORIGINS
5. Blood Simple (1984)
The Coens have a fantastic ability to build characters. What makes their characters so memorable is how specific and detailed they are. And this doesn't just come through their dialogue.
No, the Coens also build character through props and costume. Take this early shot from Blood Simple when we are introduced to a jilted husband and the PI he has hired to follow his wife.
We begin with a high angle frame looking down at a desk, a pair of cowboy boots propped up on it. The PI (M. Emmet Walsh) drops a large envelope with photos sticking out of the top.
We've seen enough movies to know that photos in an envelope can only mean one thing: a cheating spouse. Then a cowboy hat drops on the desk, and a large man wearing a yellow suit sits down.
The camera dollies forward and tilts down as the husband (Dan Hedaya) removes his boots from the desk to open the envelope.
We now see a glass of milk and a box of Alka Seltzer. More clues that confirm the husband's currently stressful disposition. The final touch is his pinky ring: a gold horseshoe lined with diamonds.
So, we understand the situation before a word of dialogue is spoken, and even before we see these characters. Granted, we are tipped off about the infidelity in the previous scene. But you can also see how it wasn't necessary. We would've figured that out for ourselves in this one shot.
The Coen's ability to build strong characters is critical to their success. If you're looking to work on this in your own work, we have a masterclass on developing characters.
COEN BROTHERS STRIKE
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Audiences didn't quite get The Big Lebowski when it debuted in 1998. With the ardent fervor around it more than 20 years later, it's hard to imagine otherwise. The movie earned minimal returns at the box office and wasn't even murmured in that year's awards chatter.
No, their follow-up to their hit smash Fargo is a unique animal, a hybrid of influences and sub-genres. There's nothing quite like it, but there is a lot to appreciate within it.
Pound for pound, Lebowski might be the most quotable movie ever. There's a good reason for this. Coen Brothers dialogue has always been specific and quirky but not before or since have they reached this level of precision and wit. We could all learn from The Big Lebowski on how to write better dialogue.
Joel and Ethan Coen movies are stuffed with charismatic and memorable characters. They tend to cast for the physical attributes in addition to acting ability. The Coens always cast the most interesting looking people, even day players with one line make an impression.Just look at The Big Lebowski and how each character's "look" is perfectly mirrored in their personalities. From the leads down to supporting players in a single scene, the attention to detail is impressive. We’ve collected images of the main characters in the film so you can see for yourself just how specific and detailed all Coen Brothers characters can be. We've used StudioBinder's storyboard software to create a mood board of sorts to show you what we mean.
The Big Lebowski has become the Coen Brothers most famous movie. The culture around the film makes it a bonafide phenomenon, but what accounts for this? It's probably their funniest movie, but the plot is only discernible after 10+ viewings.
Whether the magic recipe is, it works. And thank goodness for that.
UNDERRATED COEN BROTHERS MOVIES
3. A Serious Man (2009)
Where did A Serious Man come from? It made almost no splash amongst critics and audiences upon release. It seemed to be a discarded work; a crumpled up paper tossed haphazardly at the trashcan.
And, yet, the film has been rediscovered in the past few years. People have given it a second and third look, and its status as an under-appreciated masterpiece began to form.
It's a morality tale where "actions have consequences" but perhaps not without justice. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has maintained a just and honorable life. He's done the right thing at every turn.
So, why then, does that life began to crumble in front of his eyes?
Cosmic forces come into play in so many of the best Coen Brothers movies. This higher power can be omniscient, vengeful, and/or random, but it always influences the plot. In A Serious Man, the universe is shown to favor no one in particular. Your good deeds amount to nothing in the face of infinite possibilities.
This is a dark message wrapped in comedy and populated with colorful characters. This delicious blend of comedy and tragedy is a high-water mark for the Coens.
COEN BROTHERS FILMS
2. Fargo (1996)
What Fargo includes that many other Coen films don't is hope. Honest-to-goodness, and without an ounce of cynicism, hope. The Coen Brothers worldview is often much less satisfying or optimistic as this. Marge Gunderson becomes this beacon as she counters the evil of the world with purity and goodness.
"I just don't understand it," she says. How or why would evil need to exist in this world?
Writing has always been the Coen's biggest strength. Through language alone, they can capture character, theme, setting, and tone. A great example is an early scene with our hero Marge (Frances McDormand).
She's just arrived at the murder scene where a cup of coffee awaits. Marge investigates the scene, speaking with a plain honesty that endears us to her from the start.
Marge can discuss the mundane (coffee, weather) and the grisly triple homicide without blinking. She's not naive, unlike her colleague, Lou. She can deduce the situation with the calm surety of every other movie detective we've seen.
She is your mother...if your mother was Sherlock Holmes.
COEN BROTHERS FILMS
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Coming after two of their "least great" movies, the Coens drop this undeniable masterpiece.
Tonally, it lacks that Coen-esque absurdist humor. That dry wit that pervades even their most serious movies is barely noticeable here. Even Fargo, plot similarities aside, has that Coen-esque wit running right through it. Is it ironic that their best film is also the least recognizable "Coen Brothers movie"?
No. Irony is their bread and butter.
Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem give career-high performances. Tommy Lee Jones provides a pitch-perfect exhausted morality at the core. Roger Deakins' cinematography captures desolation at its most beautiful.
We've seen suspense in the Joel and Ethan Coen movies before but nothing as good as this. A highlight comes near the halfway point as Llewelyn (Brolin) attempts to retrieve his stashed money at the motel.
The sequence lasts just under 8 minutes, and it is 99% silent (interrupted around 6 minutes in with very brief dialogue). It is a white-knuckle experience crafted to perfection.
There is no musical score because that would get in the way. Sound becomes absolutely vital in this scene. The audience understands that quietude is of the utmost importance. We watch Chigurh moving through his actions in complete silence.
Llewelyn, unaware, is downright reckless as he constructs his hooked pole and opens the vent. Every stretch of the duct tape cuts through the air like a knife. The metallic, hollow banging of the vent grill is enough to drive you crazy.
On Chigurh's end, we hear the steady beep of the tracker like our racing hearts. The slow hiss of his air cannon charging is our blood pressure rising. This is a moment, in a film full of moments, that would make Hitchcock blush.
Wes Anderson's films, ranked
Like the Coens, Wes Anderson has carved out a stylistic path for himself. He is a genre of one and these are his best movies. From his humble beginnings with Bottle Rocket and Rushmore to his star-studded ensembles like The Grand Budapest Hotel, there really is no one like him. Let's travel through Anderson's Brit-pop and corduroy universe.