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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?

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by TOH!
November 19, 2013 1:38 PM
32 Comments
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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'

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'

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"

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

32 Comments

  • Thehangingleaf | August 22, 2014 4:41 AMReply

    I've only seen eight of their films so far, and out of those eight, I'd put them in this order:
    8. Blood Simple
    7. O Brother, Where art Thou
    6. No Country for Old Men
    5. Miller's Crossing
    4. Burn After Reading
    3. Barton Fink
    2. Fargo
    1. The Big Lebowski

  • Marco JGK | March 17, 2014 12:48 PMReply

    1.The Big Lebowski
    2.Fargo
    3.No Country for Old Men
    4.Miller's Crossing
    5.A Serious Man

  • Frank R. | January 8, 2014 9:40 AMReply

    1. The Big Lebowski
    2. A Serious Man
    3. Barton Fink
    4. Inside Llewyn Davis
    5. No Country for Old Men

  • Adult Supervision | December 25, 2013 8:35 PMReply

    Llewyn Davis? What a bore and disappointment.

  • Anne Thompson | December 23, 2013 4:10 PMReply

    They wrote Gambit, true, but didn't direct.

  • Paul Lisy | December 23, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    Worst - "Gambit", quite the miss from these American masters, and not even listed? I have seen all their films (save "Llewyn", to which I am looking forward) and hold the Coens in the highest regard. Hard to say what their "best" film is, but "Oh, Brother", "Fargo", "No Country", "The Big Lebowski" would all be up there.

  • Al | December 23, 2013 2:16 AMReply

    1. No Country for Old Men
    2. Fargo
    3. True Grit
    4. The Big Lebowski
    5. Raising Arizona

    I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet, but I'm sure I'll love it.

  • Armak | November 23, 2013 3:11 AMReply

    Fascinating to see A SERIOUS MAN replace FARGO as the modern pseudo-intellectual's "Aren't I edgy?" pick. It's like the Coens replace their most overrated movie every ten years, except I can't blame them for their over-analytical audience.

  • Jake | November 19, 2013 4:57 PMReply

    I'm one of the four people on earth who thinks No Country is one of their weakest movies. Not Intolerable Cruelty and Hudsucker Proxy territory, but pretty low. Fargo, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, O Brother, A Serious man, and The Big Lebowski I think are their best.

  • Jake | November 19, 2013 4:59 PM

    oh and Indiewire, there's an error. It marks the Big Lebowski as coming out in 2008.

  • phil | November 19, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    You're a moron. Lebowski is number one. Bar none.

  • Big Bomb | November 19, 2013 2:22 PMReply

    You can't put Raising Arizona at the top, because it's too funny. Forget all the humanity, sadness, etc. -- it's just too funny. We all know if something's that funny, it's not allowed to go at the top of any "serious" critics list. You pick the serious film that shows you are serious about film. Unfortunately, the serious film has serious flaws that time will reveal just like the emperor actually not wearing any clothes

  • Rick | November 19, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    1. O Brother Where Art Thou
    2. The Big Lebowski
    3. No Country for Old Men
    4. Fargo
    5. Blood Simple
    6. Miller's Crossing
    7. True Grit
    8. Barton Fink
    9. The Man Who Wasn't There
    10. Burn After Reading
    11. Raising Arizona
    12. The Hudsucker Proxy
    13. The Ladykillers
    14. A Serious Man
    15. Intolerable Cruelty

  • Rick | November 19, 2013 2:06 PM

    I wish I could edit this because I would drop True Grit between Arizona and Hudsucker. Not even sure what I was thinking.

  • Film Fan | October 8, 2013 9:53 AMReply

    1) No Country for Old Men
    2) Fargo
    3) Burn After Reading
    4) True Grit
    5) Raising Arizona
    6) Blood Simple.
    7) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    8) Barton Fink
    9) A Serious Man
    10) The Big Lebowski

  • Jeff Wilder | September 30, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    The Big Lebowski should be higher and O Brother should be a little lower. Otherwise on point.

  • Aaron | September 30, 2013 10:03 AMReply

    1. FARGO---the rewatch value, the boldness, the comedy! America. And William H. Macy.
    2. NO COUNTRY---tis true. I've been living off of 2007's bounty for years.
    3. THE BIG LEBOWSKI---come on, it's a cult classic. Classic soundtrack, lines, and characters.
    4. A SERIOUS MAN---Larry, I'll never forget you.
    5. BARTON FINK---"Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!"
    6. THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE---or THIS TITLE WORKS FOR ALMOST EVERY COEN MOVIE.
    7. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS---haven't seen it yet, but I'll bet it's something else.
    8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?---the soundtrack that made bluegrass cool.
    9. BURN AFTER READING---or THE WOMAN WHO WASN'T THERE
    10. RAISING ARIZONA---"Turn to the right!"
    11. BLOOD SIMPLE---or the practice shoot for No Country For Old Men.

    12, 13, Haven't properly seen (Miller's, Hudsucker)

    14. TRUE GRIT---or how the Coens made a movie that wasn't nearly as careful and complex as their other work.

    15. THE LADYKILLERS---at least it....uh...at least I didn't die while watching it?
    16. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY---intolerable movie.

  • Br | September 29, 2013 7:47 PMReply

    Bradley Valentine, you remind me of one of the drunken homeless people you meet in a city. Mumbling on about something that only makes sense to yourself.

  • Bradley Valentine | September 29, 2013 4:53 AMReply

    Why would Coens in true grit have a guy shot off his horse and have him land on a rock as a “f you!” to the audience in reminding them it is a movie? that reminds me of my buddy in high school who LOVED David Letterman and thought they’d be friends in a perfect world and who would project interpretations of jokes and body tics and say “this is what Dave is thinking.” And it usually sounded like something my buddy would say more than any other person in the world.

    I remember reading Coens talking how much they loved the book true grit, which they read to their children, and seemed to faithfully adapt. So.....I’m thinking the head to rock fall is in the book and probably not an insult to their audience. this guy who wrote that in this article....kinda weird, man. there are more logical interpretations before leaping to that one.

  • KMS | September 28, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    Some really dumb comments being posted by even dumber people.

    As for their list, the one glaring issue is O Brother being so high on the list. Lebowski should certainly be higher, but Ladykillers is definitely the worst. And yes, I've seen them all.

    People who dislike NCFOM have no place reading this article or commenting on it. I don't know that it would be my #1 pick, but I'm cool with it.

  • DChute | September 28, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    Don't worry, we'll do the top ten Micheal Bay movies next year.

  • pol | September 28, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    Seriously?

    Best: Raising Arizona
    Worst: True Grit

    Unknown: Llewlyn, Intolerable, Serious Man

    I don't know how you could put that dismal nightmare No Country at the top, and Big Lebowski so close to the bottom. Change what you're smoking over there.

    http://wp.me/pwAWe-VO

  • TheoDore | September 28, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    1. No Country For Old Men
    2. Fargo
    3. A Serious Man
    4. Barton Fink
    5. Miller's Crossing
    6. Raising Arizona
    7. Blood Simple.
    8. True Grit
    9. The Man Who Wasn't There
    10. The Big Lebowski
    11. O Brother Where Art Thou?
    12. Burn After Reading
    (large gap)
    13. Intolerable Cruelty
    14. The Hudsucker Proxy
    15. The Ladykillers

  • jake | September 28, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    big lebowski # 1 all the way you dumbasses

  • Josh | September 28, 2013 10:06 AMReply

    For me:
    1) No Country for Old Men (def one of my top ten of all time)
    2) The Big Lebowski
    3) Fargo
    4) True Grit (really underrated imho)
    5) O' Brother where art thou?
    Haven't seen so much of their earlier stuff yet, really can't wait until Llewellyn Davies comes out.

  • Miles Ridding | September 28, 2013 3:57 AMReply

    1. Blood Simple (Very Good)
    2. No Country For Old Men (Very Good)
    3. Fargo (Very Good)
    4. Barton Fink (Good)
    5. Miller's Crossing (Good)
    6. The Hudsucker Proxy (Good)
    7. The Ladykillers (Good)
    8. Raising Aizona (Fair)
    9. Burn After Reading (Fair)
    10 True Grit (Poor)
    11 Intolerable Cruelty (Dud)

    I have never wanted to see The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn't There or O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I am very keen to see Inside Llewyn Davis when released.

  • Chris | September 27, 2013 10:07 PMReply

    1. The Big Lebowski
    2. Fargo
    3. The Man Who Wasn't There
    4. No Country For Old Men
    5. O Brother
    6. Barton Fink
    7. Millers' Crossing
    8. Blood Simple
    9. True Grit
    10- Hudsucker

  • Jonnybon | September 27, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    Seen all but Inside Llewyn Davis. Here's my top 9:

    1) No Country for Old Men
    2) Fargo
    3) Burn After Reading
    4) True Grit
    5) Raising Arizona
    6) Blood Simple.
    7) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    8) A Serious Man
    9) The Big Lebowski

  • Thehangingleaf | August 22, 2014 4:38 AM

    "Burn After Reading" is by far their most underrated film ever! No one seems to like it, but I think it's one of their best. Glad to see I'm not the only one.

  • PeterDM | September 27, 2013 8:06 PMReply

    I wouldn't have placed Barton Fink so high on the list. I found it dull and inscrutible.

    Burn After Reading, I thought, was misunderstood by most people. What they did was take every caper/spy movie cliché and reverse it. Protagonists who have no clue as to what they're doing, a document that's worth nothing, a protagonist unexpectedly killed way before the end of the movie, etc. That was the brilliance of it.

  • Albert | September 27, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    Haven't seen all of their films, but of those I have: (from best to worst):
    1) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    2) Fargo
    3) Blood Simple
    4) The Man Who Wasn't There
    5) Burn After Reading
    6) No Country for Old Men (which I thought was highly, highly overpraised)

  • Nathan Duke | September 27, 2013 4:01 PMReply

    Haven't seen "Inside Llewyn Davis" yet, but:
    15. The Ladykillers 14. Intolerable Cruelty 13. The Hudsucker Proxy 12. Burn After Reading 11. Raising Arizona 10. The Big Lebowski 9. Miller's Crossing 8. The Man Who Wasn't There 7. O Brother Where Art Thou? 6. True Grit 5. Barton Fink 4. Blood Simple 3. A Serious Man 2. Fargo 1. No Country for Old Men

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