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TOH! Ranks the Films of the Coen Brothers from Best, 'No Country for Old Men,' to Worst: What's Your Pick?

Thompson on Hollywood By TOH! | Thompson on Hollywood November 19, 2013 at 1:38PM

The Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" hits theaters in limited release December 6. Below, TOH! ranks all 16 films by the Coens.
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"

The Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" hits theaters in limited release December 6. Below, TOH! ranks all 16 films by the Coens.

1. "No Country For Old Men" (2007) Godard said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, but the Coens, faithfully adapting Cormac McCarthy's bloodstained postmodern western, rewrite that formula with a guy (Josh Brolin) and a bag of cash. 2007 brought two extremely disciplined, formally austere epics from obsessive auteurs  (this, and PTA's "There Will Be Blood"). Hyperbole is hard-earned, but this lean and mean tale of biblical grandeur stands above other films of that year and, for that matter, most films of the decade. If nothing else, "No Country" is the proof-text of cinematic sound design. You'll never witness a performance as evil and shiver-inducing as Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning portrayal of a serial killer. Late at night, it's not Norman Bates' shadow looming over the foot of my bed -- it's Anton Chigurh and his cattle gun. It amazes me to this day that a film so radical, ambiguous and anticlimactic -- though, my god, what an ending -- won best picture. The film's final scene, where Tommy Lee Jones unspools an frightening and understated monologue about his dream, will haunt you forever. -Ryan Lattanzio

2. “Fargo” (1996) Like the snowy whiteout of its brilliant and arresting title sequence, "Fargo" deftly inverts the conventions of film noir and black comedy at every turn. Dim offices and shadowy streets become fluorescent buffets and wide expanses of flat land; the hard-nosed private eye is a warm, thoughtful, very pregnant cop named Marge Gunderson. As one of the recent cinema's great heroines, Frances McDormand invests every inflection ("Prowler needs a jump!") with humane intelligence, steadily following the threads of car salesman Jerry Lundergaard's (William H. Macy) unraveling kidnapping plot. Indeed, McDormand is so effortlessly compelling that you scarcely realize the film's turn into the belly of the beast until you hear the whir of a woodchipper in the distance -- a balancing act of the first order, and a masterpiece of Middle American disquiet. -Matt Brennan   

Cage and Hunter in 'Raising Arizona'
Cage and Hunter in 'Raising Arizona'

3. "Raising Arizona" (1987) Lest we forget, the Coen Brothers took some getting used to. In the early days an approach to filmmaking in which every punchline cut, zippy tracking shot and fisheye close up is carefully planned and written into the script struck a good many people as lacking in warmth and spontaneity. Now that we've grown accustomed to to the Coens' snare drum precision we're more likely to notice the impulsive shaggy humanity these tight structures just barely manage to contain. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter are warmly human almost to a fault, as a "critter"-less trailer park couple who view kidnapping a rich quint as a bizarre form of redistribution of wealth. ("We thought it was unfair that some people would have so many when others had so few.") Something great hops into view every couple of minutes: As a fugitive prison breaker, here's a younger, somewhat thinner John Goodman ("We don't always smell this way, Mrs. McDunnough"), and as a psycho bounty hunter, get a load force of nature Randall "Tex" Cobb, decked out like the road warrior, lobbing hand grenades at bunny rabbits. With the possible exception of the cultier "Big Lebowski," "Raising Arizona" may be the Coen's flat-out funniest movie. -David Chute

4. "O Brother Where Art Thou?" (2000) The Coens are at their most daring and accessible with this breezy slapstick comedy packed with corn-pone humor and catchy southern roots music that entertained a crossover audience, boosted by a sleeper Grammy-winning score. This rollicking southern fable follows a gang of escaped dull-witted prisoners led by pomaded charmer Everitt McGill (a winning George Clooney), who tries to get back his wife (Holly Hunter) by singing her into submission. (The Coens leaned a bit on both "The Odyssey" and "The Wizard of Oz.") Roger Deakins was the first cinematographer to use digital means to alter the film's color pallette. Along with "Burn After Reading" and "Raising Arizona" this ranks at the top of the Coen comedy oeuvre. -Anne Thompson

5. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) Don’t mess with Albert Finney, who plays Irish-American bigwig Leo O’Bannon, runner of an unnamed city in Prohibition-era America. His longtime friend and confidant Tom (Gabriel Byrne) has, er, intimate knowledge that Leo’s having the wool pulled over his eyes by his girlfriend (Marcia Gay Harden) and her weasel of a brother (John Turturro). And so the bullets fly from the Tommy guns, and a grey fedora elegantly trips its way along in the Coens’ third film. This neo-gangster picture is superbly put together, with gorgeous period detail in autumnal hues. Composer Carter Burwell delivers one of his best scores. -Beth Hanna

'Blood Simple'
Circle Films 'Blood Simple'

6. "Barton Fink" (1991) The plight of the sellout screenwriter is a familiar narcisisstic movie trope. But this Palme d'Or-winning twist on the Faust fable, written by the Coens while losing sleep over "Miller's Crossing," towers above them all. John Turturro plays the title hack, a disheveled playwright who forgoes his art (a la Faulkner or Fitzgerald) to write screenplays in Hollywood. Mysterious encounters with an insurance salesman next-door (a bawdy John Goodman) and a scorned mistress with a drinking problem (Aussie diva Judy Davis, stunning) set a menacing tone and like the peels of wallpaper in his tawdry motel, Barton's grip on reality loosens, and the film soon devolves into a paranoid psychological horror film. Think Polanski's "Repulsion," in LA, with less repressed sexuality. While Turturro's "Eraserhead" hairdo certainly secures the film's iconic status -- it's the film's final act of narrative disintegration, horrific loneliness and literal hellfire that make this unlike any Coen film to date. -Ryan Lattanzio

7. "Blood Simple" (1984) The Coens’ debut feature, deriving its titles from Dashiell Hammett’s potboiler “Red Harvest,” finds Dan Hedaya as the owner of a saloon who hires a private eye (M. Emmet Walsh, perfectly unsavory) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her suitor (John Getz). Things don’t exactly go according to plan. Corpses begin to accumulate -- while one still has some kick in it. Joel Coen was 30 when the film was released, and Ethan 27, and already their sharply clever visual style and pitch-black humor was vividly apparent. The use of the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song” in the final sequence may be one of the most inspired soundtrack choices in the history of cinema. -Beth Hanna

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan in "Inside Llewyn Davis"

8. "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001) "I don't talk. I just cut the hair," says droll and closemouthed barber Ed Crane in late-40s Santa Rosa, played here as a black hole of existential apathy by Billy Bob Thornton. A certain camp might write off this Sartre-by-way-of-Raymond-Chandler neonoir as mere pulpy genre excursion. But they couldn't be more wrong. Elegantly shot in black-and-white by Roger Deakins, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a fatalistic front row trip to movie heaven. An idiosyncratic ensemble played by Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson and Michael Badulcco rounds out this bleak, blackest of black comedies in which Thornton's jaded cuckold gets swallowed up by a typically Coenesque tapestry of thwarted blackmail, murder, mistaken identity, pyramid schemes and UFO conspiracy theories. There are enough soul-sucking curls of cigarette smoke here to give you contact lung cancer, and enough gloriously cinematic ennui to send you reeling, and humming the doleful notes of Beethoven's sonatas. -Ryan Lattanzio

9. “A Serious Man” (2009). Michael Stuhlbarg is hilarious and suitably pitiable as the serious man of the title, a flimsy-willed academic in 1960s suburbia facing both the disintegration of his marriage and his upcoming bid for tenure. Meanwhile, he approaches a series of rabbis as a means of existential soul-searching, and his pre-teen son has a drug-addled Bar Mitzvah. Fred Melamed turns in a memorable supporting performance as Sy Ableman, the silky-tongued, noxious suitor of Stuhlbarg's wife. A spot-on sendup of academic culture as well as a deceptively haunting look at one man's fear of death. The joltingly apocalyptic final shot makes this one to re-watch immediately. -Beth Hanna

10. "Inside Llewyn Davis" (2013) is as pure as the driven snow, much like the title character played by gifted actor/musician Oscar Isaac. Which is to say that the movie is about an artist who can't be anything but himself. Loosely inspired by New York-born Dave Von Ronk's life in the pre-Dylan Village of the early 60s, the Coens track Davis as he soulfully performs old and new folk songs. And yet he's not a likable fellow, partly because he's trying to make his way without his lost partner, depressed and angry that he's not making the living mustered by many of his peers (Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver). "Inside Llewyn Davis" is serious Coens, often funny, but much like the dark "Barton Fink," it's about the serious artist who can't compromise to make art and commerce meet half-way.  The climactic scene where Davis plays an arcane folk song for a club/promoter (F. Murray Abraham) says it all. The songs full of sadness and loss carry the movie's sweetness and emotion. But they are folk songs, and thus the movie is not as satisfying as the Coens' best musical collaboration with musical supervisor T Bone Burnett, "O Brother Where Art Thou?." -Anne Thompson

Bridges, Buscemi, Goodman in 'The Big Lebowski'
Bridges, Buscemi, Goodman in 'The Big Lebowski'

11. "The Big Lebowski" (1998) It doesn't take a diehard Coen-head to love "The Big Lebowski." Starring Jeff Bridges as the doobie-loving Dude whose rug really tied the room together, this is the cult icon of the Coens' filmography, and the patient zero of all stoner comedies to come. A messy rejiggering of film noir and screwball comedy, and a veritable buffet of great character actors, it's endlessly quotable ("Nobody fucks with the Jesus," "You want a toe? I can get you a toe," "Obviously you are not a golfer," etc.) and insane, unpretentious fun with no regard for the rules. Looking back, this film also goes to show how funny Julianne Moore can be, here seen as a feminist artiste with baby fever. "Lebowski" has a lot of layers, man, but it works effortlessly as pure entertainment, and as Bridges' most beloved and immortal role. In my book, he'll always be the Dude, or His Dudeness, Duder or El Duderino, if you're not into the whole brevity thing. -Ryan Lattanzio

12. "Burn After Reading" (2008) "Burn After Reading" is like "No Country For Old Men" remade as a nihilistic comedy of misunderstandings about stupid people doing stupid things. Call it "minor" Coens if you like, but this clever little caper, one of their funniest, is kind of genius in its unforgivingly bleak view of the characters and their world. There may be no greater shock in all the Coen oeuvre than Brad Pitt's imbecilic, gum-chewing Chad getting his head blown off in a walk-in closet by a trigger-happy George Clooney. Or John Malkovich as a cuckolded CIA agent axing Richard Jenkins to death in his driveway. It's as formally precise, suspenseful and unpredictable as any Coen effort, but "Burn After Reading" also boasts the filmmaking pair at their most anarchic and unconventional. And as J.K. Simmons' character asks "What did we learn from all this?" in the final scene -- the answer being that we learned jack squat -- the Coens are the first to admit how pointless their film really is. -Ryan Lattanzio

The Hudsucker Proxy

13. “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994). In the brothers’ homage to the ‘30s screwball comedy, Jennifer Jason Leigh out-patters Roz Russell in “His Girl Friday” and Tim Robbins is so cluelessly upbeat he makes Gary Cooper in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” seem like Ben Stein at a Democratic Convention. But its excess is its virtue: Rather than coming off as smarmy, the over-the-topishness of everything in the film – from Paul Newman’s snarling, Edward Arnold-inspired Mussburger to Bill Cobbs’ acerbic-yet- Capra-esque angel in the clocktower – seems a gesture of love for a genre that really couldn’t be remade, and an acknowledgement of same. -John Anderson

14. "True Grit" (2010). There’s a single moment in this remake of the old John Wayne shoot-‘em-up that defines why the Coen brothers have always been as irritating as they are brilliant: During a conventionally choreographed but highly exciting gun battle between Jeff Bridges’ crusty Rooster Cogburn and some overmatched desperados, one of the bad guys is shot off his horse. But instead of simply falling to the ground, he falls off and splits his head on a rock that has been so precisely placed it can only be -- a movie! Any viewer who’s been swept up in what the Coens have been doing – making the traditional western better -- immediately feels like an idiot, and has been on the receiving end of yet another f*** you from the brothers, who do many things well, taking themselves seriously not being among them. For all the revisionist-western airs assumed by “True Grit,” it’s as much an American fantasy as the first one, albeit with a kick-ass performance from Bridges and a beautifully written and delivered rendition of the plucky Mattie Ross, by the gifted Hailee Steinfeld. -John Anderson

15. “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003). "Intolerable Cruelty" is a screwball comedy that's all screw, littered with innuendoes about vacuum cleaners, sidelong glances at buff gardeners, and more cries of "nail that ass" than your average VMA performance. Featuring a glossy, smarmy George Clooney as divorce attorney Miles Massey and Catherine Zeta-Jones as his gold-digging adversary, the film's absurdist streak evinces the brave eccentricity that accompanied the "The Big Lebowski," but it's too cruel for its own good. The self-consciously "zany" theatrics fail to overcome the script's cold, joyless satire of modern love, and the few jokes that land -- my favorite involves "baby field greens" and an unsmiling waitress -- seem the remnants of another, better movie. Spending most of a movie imagining what might have been? Now that's intolerable. -Matt Brennan

16. “The Ladykillers” (2004). Painful remake of the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick comedy starring Alec Guinness and a dare-we-say masterpiece was misbegotten for a multitude of reasons, among them the fact that the Ealing comedies of post-war Britain were frothy, elegant, and understated, and the Coen Brothers are anything but. Tom Hanks, reprising the Guinness role -- as the cockeyed mastermind of nitwit band of robbers who decide they have to kill their landlady after she discovers their plans -- is far less funny than he thinks he is, prosthetic teeth or no; the jokes are telegraphed from a mile away, everyone tries too hard and the whole thing lands with a thud. Perhaps the worst of the brothers outings, it has its fans, and they are wrong. -John Anderson 

This article is related to: Features, Coens, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.