The Coen Brothers' career has been one of consistency. Consistent themes, consistent troupe of actors, consistently brilliant.
There may have been a few critical misfires, but there's never been anything in their oeuvre that blatantly sticks out like a sore thumb. The same as well as goes for their work. It could be argued that the Coen Brothers are one of the most critically-subjective directors of the past thirty years.
There's as many people who love 'Raising Arizona' as there are who dislike it. The same goes for 'No Country For Old Men' or 'The Big Lebowski'.
Here's our own attempts at ranking their work. Got some thoughts of your own? Let us know in the comments!
18. 'INTOLERABLE CRUELTY' (2003)
The Coen Brothers' attempt at a zany romantic comedy about battling divorce lawyers didn't exactly land with audiences or critics alike. In fact, quite a number of people consider it to be their weakest film and we'd agree. Pinging from genre to genre has always been a hallmark of the Coens' work, and the speed with which they can slip between the two is admirable. However, here with 'Intolerable Cruelty', it seemed like they were too fastened and straight-jacketed to make anything of note. It's no surprise that Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme were originally attached to direct this. That's not to say that either of them are lesser than the Coens; it's more that they have more truck with this kind of comedy than they do. It's a fine film, just unremarkable.
17. 'MILLER'S CROSSING' (1990)
For a brief period in the '90s, Gabriel Byrne was everywhere. 'The Usual Suspects', 'Miller's Crossing', 'The Assassin' - all well-known '90s films that worked reasonably well. The issue, however, with 'Miller's Crossing' is that Gabriel Byrne was dumped into the middle of a gangster throwback film and it just doesn't really work. Coupled that with John Turturro playing to the rafters and Albert Finney, likewise, trying to act off the screen and it just becomes too much. Of course, that's probably the point of the film - to hark back to a time when subtlety was in short supply and over-acting was in high demand.
16. 'THE LADYKILLERS' (2004)
The Coens are at their best when they're working from wholly original work. There are exceptions, of course, but most of their work has been original and it's served them well. 'The Ladykillers', however, was based on an Ealing Studios-comedy of the same name starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers about an eccentric widow who unwittingly rents out her room to a group of hardened criminals. The leader of the group in the Coens' version is Tom Hanks, who plays a Southern gentleman-type that comes complete with a faded-white suit and an affected voice. For the most part, 'The Ladykillers' feels like the script has been glossed over from its original state and not given enough of a shimmer to clean off the dust. Instead, it becomes a well-trodden, clunky comedy caper that they're far better than.
15. 'THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE' (2001)
Those who have watched the second season of Fargo will note some similarities between 'The Man Who Wasn't There'. Of course, it's symbolic - it always is with the Coens. Nothing you see should be taken literally and, more often than not, there is a rich subtext beneath what you see. Billy Bob Thornton plays a down-on-his-luck barber in '50s America whose life begins to fall apart when he tries to invest in a dry-cleaning business. His wife, Frances McDormand, is having an affair with a crime boss, played by the inimitable James Galdofini. Like 'Blood Simple', 'The Man Who Wasn't There' has moments of stifling sexual tension and a sense that violence is always around the corner. Not perfect, sure, but much stronger than you'd expect.
14. 'BARTON FINK' (1991)
Whilst attempting to write 'Miller's Crossing', the Coens took a step back and decided to take a holiday. In doing so, they fired out 'Barton Fink' in under three weeks. The story of a bedraggled screenwriter who comes to Los Angeles and finds himself embroiled in a murder-mystery whilst trying to combat writer's block could be very much their own story. Having spent four months solidly on 'Miller's Crossing', the Coens became bogged down by it and needed to work on something else. Serving as a catalyst and writing for a specific actor - John Turturro - the film has all the wacky, out-there qualities of 'Raising Arizona' and 'The Big Lebowski'.
13. 'BLOOD SIMPLE' (1984)
Much like 'The Man Who Wasn't There', there's a blending of both genre and tone with 'Blood Simple'. This process, which would ripple through their entire work, is at its most unrefined here. A small-town woman is involved in a steamy affair that, naturally, ends up bloody. That same kind of twisted sensibility, riven with an odd attachment and sincerity, is on show her. Not only that, you have an early Frances McDormand whilst M. Emmet Walsh plays the oily investigator who's sent to track the lovers. Like all the best noirs, it's convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying, but an experience to watch nonetheless.
12. 'THE HUDSUCKER PROXY' (1994)
'The Hudsucker Proxy' was - at the time - the largest production the Coens had worked on. It was also something of a critical and commercial failure, with both audiences and critics of the time saying that the film was a pastiche of the likes of Frank Capra and '40s comedies with fast-talking and low-brow humour. 'The Hudsucker Proxy', however, looked incredible. You had some fantastic set design, gorgeous music by Carter Burwell, Tim Robbins and Paul Newman fully willing to make fools of themselves and the always-brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh ready to Girl Friday to the hilt. It's a weird one, sure, but it deserves a second chance.
11. 'HAIL, CAESAR!' (2016)
The Coen brothers' ode to classical Hollywood was another of their long-running projects, first talked about by the director team back in 2004. It follows the real-life fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he works behind the scenes of the Hollywood film industry in the 1950s to ensure its smooth running. While it doesn't make the top ten ranking of the brothers' oeuvre, having its fair share of flaws, there are a few notable features, including that it introduced the world to Alden Ehrenreich, who would subsequently be cast as Han Solo in the 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'. Its production design was also stunning, with a couple of standout scenes including a musical number starring Channing Tatum as a sailor; and an exquisite choreography with Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid.
10. 'THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS' (2018)
'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' saw the Coen brothers making a move towards Netflix, making them one of the first major directors, aside from Martin Scorsese, to collaborate with the streaming service. Relating six stories set in the Old West, 'The Ballad' was originally reported to be a TV series. New faces and old to the brothers' cast picks include James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, and Tim Blake Nelson. For us the stories following an old prospector, and a travelling impresario with a surreal act, are the standouts.
9. 'RAISING ARIZONA' (1987)
Like 'Hudsucker Proxy', 'Raising Arizona' is screwball comedy at its most pure. The odd couple of Nicolas Cage's dime-store robber and frantic police-wife Holly Hunter have a blackly funny plot in mind to kidnap a child and raise it as their own. In a lot of ways, the characters are perhaps the most sympathetic the Coens have ever written. Cage and Hunter simply want a child to call their own and, for the most part, have nothing but good intentions. Sure, they're planning on stealing a child - but only because they want to love it as much as they can. There's more than a few Sam Raimi close-ups and the crazed, frantic editing is almost too much to bare at times, but it works wonderfully together.
8. 'INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS' (2013)
A story about a down-on-his-luck folk singer in the '60s that, for the most part, is played completely straight seems like something you wouldn't expect the Coen Brothers to take on effectively. Yet, for all its difference from their other work, 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is a hauntingly honest account of trial and error, making the wrong decision and - for better or worse - living with it. There is something deeply emotional about 'Inside Llewyn Davis', not to mention having arguably one of their best soundtracks as well. Oscar Isaac gives one of his most human performances as the consistently bitter, tactiurn Davis whilst a preppy, upbeat Justin Timberlake is almost the negative image to him.
7. 'BURN AFTER READING' (2008)
George Clooney reportedly said that, after 'Burn After Reading', he wasn't going to make a fool of himself for the Coens' anymore. Despite this, he did 'Hail Caesar!' which, by all accounts, brought him back to his gurning ways. Taking a firm and considered swipe at Tom Clancy-esque thrillers, 'Burn After Reading' is shot like a spy thriller and populated by 'Carry On' characters. That, on paper, shouldn't work. Yet when you put a screaming John Malkovich, a sex-addicted George Clooney and Tilda Swinton as a pediatric dentist who hates children together, it works.
6. 'A SERIOUS MAN' (2009)
Perhaps the most personal film the Coen Brothers have ever made, 'A Serious Man' is part-biographical, part-treatise about the chaos of life itself, part-Biblical parable. A nebbish mathematics professor (a brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg) has life torn in shreds when his wife leaves him, his application become tenured is scuppered and it's quite possible that he's cursed. Stuhlbarg gives a genuine performance as Larry Gopnik, who's struggling uphill in the face of incredible adversity and receiving almost no help from anyone - be it rabbis, his wife, his children or his God.
5. 'TRUE GRIT' (2010)
A much more stricter adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, 'True Grit' has all of the Coen Brothers' earnestness mixed with a dark undercurrent and a villain who feels set upon by the world. Jeff Bridges' barely-understandable Rooster Cogburn works incredibly well against Hailee Steinfeld's precocious teenager, however the real star of the show is Josh Brolin as the dumb-witted Tom Chaney, broken and beaten by the world and intent of letting everyone know. Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography drinks in the Old West and the attention to detail with set design gives the film a crackle of authenticity.
4. 'O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?' (2000)
Music has always been a major component in the Coens' output, none more evident than 'O, Brother Where Art Thou'? and its use of bluegrass music. Only the Coens would attempt to retell Homer's 'Odyssey' in the Depression-era South, yet that instinctive choice of both subject and setting feels like it was preordained. The era was known for having huge names like Ulysses Everett McGill and Menelaus 'Pappy' O'Daniel and the idea of John Goodman playing a club-wielding, Bible-selling cyclops is too good to pass up.
3. 'NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN' (2007)
Accurately described by the Coens themselves as "the closest we'll ever get to an action movie", 'No Country For Old Men' is a brutal, tense thriller that grips you from the opening five minutes and barely lets go until the end. Javier Bardem gives, in our opinion, the performance of his career as Anton Chiggurh, a near-mute hitman who dispatches his targets with a cow-prod. Tommy Lee Jones, likewise, gives one of his best performances in years as the laconic-yet-troubled Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Again, Deakins' incredible eye for allowing a landscape to breathe is evident. The pervading dread in 'No Country For Old Men' is almost exhausting to watch, silently working its way out of the screen.
2. 'THE BIG LEBOWSKI' (1998)
Perhaps their most-well known film outside of 'Fargo' and 'No Country For Old Men', 'The Big Lebowski' is every bit the stoner comedy-cum-'Chinatown' parody the Coens intended it to be. Jeff Bridges' iconic performance as The Dude, John Goodman as the John Milius-inspired Walter Sobchak, all the way over to Philip Seymour Hoffman's bootlick to David Huddleston and Julianne Moore's dead-eyed artiste. The episodic nature of the film might feel like it's slumping, but it's only an homage to the detective novellas that it's aping. Oft-quoted, 'The Big Lebowski' has become a cult favourite for all the right reasons.
1. 'FARGO' (1996)
A recurring theme in all of the Coens' work has been the common man beset by troubles that he feels are not of his doing, but ultimately are. In Fargo, it's none more evident. William H. Macy's quibbling, heckled Jerry Lundegaard attempts a daft plan to raise money to buy a carpark by having his haughty father-in-law by the ransom of his kidnapped wife. On the case is Frances McDormand as the homespun Sherlock Holmes, tracking Steve Buscemi and Peter Stromare's kidnappers. Like many of their films, Fargo works within a specific genre, but borrows from many more to weave something entirely unique.
It can be read many ways - is it about accepting the warmth and familiarity of home or is it about the corrupting nature of money? Was it actually based on a true story? What happened to the buried money? And what was up with Stormare smoking all the time? All these questions are, of course, irrelevant. As a story, it is beautifully simple and as a film, it is wonderfully complete.