As directors, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are so inseparable, they are sometimes referred to as the “Two-Headed Director.”
In their early days, only Joel was listed as a director, but that was because of guild rules that didn’t allow multiple directors to take credit for one movie. But clearly, both of them were doing the work.
Since making their feature directorial debut in 1984 with “Blood Simple,” the Coen brothers have proven themselves to be among the greatest filmmakers Hollywood has seen. Their diverse films prove that few others can pivot so seamlessly between dark drama and screwball comedy. They take weird, niche ideas and find ways to bring them to a mainstream audience.
Their latest film “Hail, Caesar!” out this weekend boasts an all-star cast that includes George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill. There’s a reason that so many great actors always want to collaborate with them.
In honour of “Hail, Caesar!” we ranked all 17 of their films so far, moving up to the best:
'Intolerable Cruelty' only feels like half a Coen brothers movie. It makes sense: The concept was passed around to many different writers before they polished and directed it. The half-baked caper feels like an imitation of a better Coen brothers film. But the Simon & Garfunkel-filled soundtrack is something to stick around for.
By far the best part of 'The Ladykillers' is Tom Hanks' brilliantly hammy performance as a criminal mastermind masked as a Southern gentleman. It's a hilarious deconstruction of the ages-old trope. The biggest problem with 'The Ladykillers' is that it doesn't get to the most interesting and entertaining part of its story until the film's final stretch. Yet some of the performances (let's not forget J.K. Simmons) almost make you want to slap an 'underrated' label on it.
This gangster film set during the Great Depression is a fine period piece, for sure. But this is the rare Coen brothers film in which the intricacies might actually get in the way of your enjoyment.
'Burn After Reading' had the difficult task of following the behemoth that was 'No Country for Old Men.' Looking at it years later, this is a solid, if imperfect, entry into the Coen brothers filmography. Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand are perfect playing against type as two incompetent gym rats who think they can con a CIA agent (John Malkovich). You know the Coen brothers, so you know this won't go according to plan. Stick around for an absolutely shocking twist later in the movie.
'The Hudsucker Proxy,' the not-at-all-true story of the man who invented the hula hoop (Tim Robbins), was a box-office flop when it was first released. It deserves to be reconsidered. Set in the late 1950s, it feels like a film that shouldn't have come out in 1994, which is probably why it was shunned so much. This was the Coen brothers' best attempt at emulating their screwball influences. Not to mention, it gave them the chance to work with cinematic legend Paul Newman. Like many of their films, 'The Hudsucker Proxy' improves with repeat viewings.
'The Man Who Wasn't There' is the best kind of period piece, in that it has the exact look of the past, with insight from the present. It is one of the Coens' slowest and most existential films, but it was a preview for many great films to come. Between the beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the flawless voiceover by Billy Bob Thornton, and the sci-fi twist, 'The Man Who Wasn't There' feels like a particularly good episode of 'The Twilight Zone.'
The latest film by the Coen brothers, 'Hail, Caesar!' takes them to a place they have been before: a period piece about Hollywood. Yet, as always, they find a new way to tackle an old story. This twisted love letter to Blacklist-era Hollywood finds the brothers at their most absurd, and it totally works. I can't explain why I laughed so hard at Ralph Fiennes repeatedly saying 'mirthless laughter,' but I did.
Some directors struggle in their debuts. But the Coen brothers announced who they were with their fantastic feature directorial debut 'Blood Simple.' Like so many of their movies, it centres on a completely botched crime. They would go on to make better versions of this same story with 'Fargo' and 'No Country for Old Men.' But there is still a joy to watching 'Blood Simple,' seeing where it all began.
'True Grit' is a remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western of the same (it earned Wayne his only Oscar). It's one of the Coen brothers' few films that doesn't mash up genres. There is also very little moral ambiguity here. But there is something refreshing about that, and it's probably the reason that this was their most financially successful film, grossing $252.3 million worldwide. Even when Joel and Ethan Coen serve up a traditional Western, they are going to do it on their terms. 'True Grit' features a lot of wandering, talking, and Jeff Bridges mumbling.
The Coen brothers' love letter to Stanley Kubrick and 'The Shining' shows them at their most atmospheric, as they capture a 1940s screenwriter (John Turturo) who is starting to lose it while writing a simple wrestling picture. This was one of the earliest examples of just how complex and ambiguous the Coen brothers can be. A single painting of a woman on the beach in Fink's room means so many different things to so many different people. The fact that the filmmakers won't reveal what it actually means explains why people remain so fascinated by everything they do. This was the first, but certainly not last, time the Coen brothers would explore Old Hollywood ('Hail, Caesar!' is set in Tinseltown in the 1950s).
'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is 'The Odyssey' set in the South during the 1920s. That is by the brothers' own admission, though they have also said that they never actually read 'The Odyssey.' Either way, the movie is a great modern American folktale, repurposing the past and making it feel as alive as the present. And the soundtrack, filled with covers of timeless classics, is so rich that it's like a film of its own.
For nearly any other director, 'Inside Llewyn Davis' would be a crowning achievement. Because it's from the Coen brothers, it will have to settle for number six. It brilliantly flips the musical biopic formula on its head by telling the story of a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who struggles and struggles and struggles thanks to bad luck and bad decisions. It's one of their darkest films because its main message isn't that anyone can become the next Bob Dylan, but rather that there are Bob Dylans, and then there are people like Llewyn Davis. Isaac is absolutely outstanding as Davis, giving you enough to feel empathy for him even when he continues to do things you don't agree with.
In 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' the 1960s New York folk scene is brought to life so well that you'll feel like you're living in it. As with 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' you're going to want to buy the soundtrack after.
I never thought I would say Marvel, 'Star Wars,' and 'Fargo' in the same sentence, but something the three of them have in common is that they launched universes for both the big and small screen. This North Star State-centric crime black comedy brought Minnesota Nice to the mainstream and turned 'you betcha!' into a national catchphrase. But every bit of mocking here feels out of love, and even when 'Fargo' goes to some of the darkest places imaginable, it never loses its humanity. 'And for what? A little bit of money?' This line from Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is both frank and meaningful and applies to pretty much every character the Coen brothers have ever created.
About a couple who can't have children and decide to kidnap a baby, this film opens with a Beethoven tune played on banjos. That is the best metaphor for 'Raising Arizona': a perfect mixture of both silly and sophisticated. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage plays an uneducated man full of surprisingly philosophical musings. 'Raising Arizona' was only the brothers' second film and yet it remains one of their funniest. Imagine if Looney Tunes was a black comedy about kidnapping and you basically have 'Raising Arizona.' Plus, the film's opening minutes, and its closing monologue, are so good that they could both be their own separate films.
Many say 'No Country for Old Men' is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. 'No Country' earned them their first Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn't feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead-serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.
But what's most remarkable about 'No Country' is how much the writing of Cormac McCarthy fits in to the brothers' philosophy. Ed Tom (Tommy Lee Jones) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) might as well have come out of their own brains.
The world of 'A Serious Man' is incredibly specific (it's set in a Jewish community outside of Minneapolis in 1967), and that will turn people off. But if you connect with 'A Serious Man,' it's intense and impossible to explain. Every Coen brothers film gets better with repeat viewings, but 'A Serious Man' improves the most. On the first viewing, it's a slow but effective drama. On a second viewing, it's a subtly hilarious comedy (watch a Rabbi fall in love with a parking lot and try not to laugh).
'A Serious Man' is the most confident and personal film the Coen brothers have ever made. It starts with a scene that doesn't connect to the rest of the movie and ends without answering any questions. At one point, it diverges into a story about Hebrew letters found on a man's teeth. That's because the Coens can. The movie doesn't solve anything because it thinks you're asking all the wrong questions.
'The Big Lebowski' is bigger than just one movie.
The story of a laid-back stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges) who gets sucked into a seedy L.A. underworld after asking for a replacement for his soiled rug ('that was a valued rug') was a box-office flop when it first came out. It slowly gained cult status. Now it plays to sold-out crowds at midnight showings. It has launched clothing lines and even a religion called Dudeism.
And even with the overexposure, 'The Big Lebowski' never gets old. After countless viewings, I can't quite put my finger on it, because my perception of this movie changes every time I watch it. That's what happens when you have a story so intricate and well mapped-out. The mystery gets more intriguing, and makes more sense, the more you watch it. And yes, this is a film you will want to watch multiple times.
The Dude deserves to be in the pantheon of great cinematic characters, as does Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). For creating a timeless comedy and a character whose face decorates both a shirt I wear and a mug I drink coffee out of every morning, I say, Dude Abides.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.