30 Years of Coens: Closing Thoughts and Rankings

Where we stand, 16 movies later

David McNew/Reuters

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I re-watched all 16 of their feature films and jotted down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of the project, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Some Closing Thoughts

So, to quote J. K. Simmons in his magisterially wicked coda to Burn After Reading, “What did we learn, Palmer?”

• Well, for my part, I learned a few things. Foremost, I learned that the Coens have made an awful lot of movies. I knew that before I started, of course. But 16 films in 16 days feels like a whole lot more on the way out than it did on the way in. It’s going to be a while before I can engage with any book, movie, or TV show without reflexively trying to place it within the Coens’ oeuvre. If I ever repeat this experiment, it will probably be with a less prolific artist. Terrence Malick, maybe?

• More significantly, I learned—or rather re-learned—that the Coens have made an awful lot of really good movies. Out of all 16 features, I enjoyed re-watching all but two: The Ladykillers, which I have always considered their worst effort by orders of magnitude; and, somewhat to my surprise, The Hudsucker Proxy, which I’d always placed in their bottom tier, but which I had looked forward to giving another try. Unlike their other interesting misfires—Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There, etc.—I wound up liking Hudsucker considerably less this time around than I had before. Maybe next time....

• With that, let me offer my final ranking of the Coens’ films to date. And by “final,” I mean final right now, at the moment I'm writing this: I reserve the right to revisit any one of them at any time—including as a consequence of the first crosswise comment I receive. I'd done my best to rate the movies as I went through them (though careful readers noticed I had to bump A Serious Man up a slot or two), but in doing so I realized that an awful lot of my rankings felt highly fungible. So rather than make a simple numerical list, I thought it would be more honest to rank them in tiers.

Numbers 1 to 3: Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men. With all due respect for the Coens’ comedies (and much respect is due), I find these three films in a category of their own, and I could rank them in pretty much any sequence depending on the criteria by which they were judged: Miller’s Crossing is—and I suspect will always be—my favorite; Fargo is their most delicately balanced; and No Country comes the closest to outright perfection in execution. I look forward to watching all three many more times in years to come.
Number 4: Raising Arizona. Rationally, I suspect that this movie belongs in the next tier down. But Raising Arizona was the go-to comedy of my college years and that gives it a sentimental boost the others can’t quite touch. Had any of them been released in 1987, they’d probably hold this spot instead.
Numbers 5 to 8: Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis. For most filmmakers, this would constitute a pretty terrific top four. In the case of the Coens, these are great movies that, for me, aren’t their greatest. I was torn over whether to put Llewyn Davis in this tier or the one below, but in the pleasant afterglow of this latest viewing I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Numbers 9 through 14: Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, A Serious Man, True Grit. The good-but-not-quite-great category. Some of the movies here (e.g., Barton Fink) I find admirable but not particularly enjoyable; with others (e.g., Intolerable Cruelty), it’s the reverse. I had a good time re-watching all of these pictures, but I’m unlikely to revisit them again anytime soon.
Number 15: The Hudsucker Proxy. On a purely aesthetic level, this probably belongs in the tier above. But for whatever reason, I found the movie genuinely grating this time around. Consider it the anti-Raising Arizona of the list, docked points for my own idiosyncratic response.
Number 16: The Ladykillers. For me, the easiest rating by far. I would almost make the case that the overall drop from 1 to 15 is less steep than that from 15 to 16. Almost. This is the only Coens film that I will actively avoid watching again.

• For those keeping track of my ranking of Carter Burwell’s greatest scores for the Coens, the final tally is 1. Miller’s Crossing; 2. Fargo; 3. Raising Arizona; 4. True Grit; 5. Blood Simple; and 6. Burn After Reading. Regarding their soundtrack collaborations with T Bone Burnett, I’d bump Inside Llewyn Davis up one notch from where I’d placed it earlier, for a final tally of 1. O, Brother, Where Art Thou?; 2. Inside Llewyn Davis; 3. The Big Lebowski; and 4. The Ladykillers.

• One of the pleasures of watching all the Coens’ pictures straight through is that you get a keen sense of their many visual affectations and in-jokes as they come and go. For instance, their early films (Blood Simple through Barton Fink) made notable use of fans, ceiling and otherwise. This trope overlapped a bit with their interest in Things That Roll, which stretched from Miller’s Crossing through The Man Who Wasn’t There before petering out.

• The most consistent recurring motifs included dreams and dream sequences, which appear in more than half their movies. (Another dream sequence was written for Fargo but never shot.) And I counted 12 out of 16 of their movies that featured important scenes set in bathrooms. My favorite, unsurprisingly, is this one. (Sorry I couldn’t find a more complete clip.) Hair pomade only shows up in two movies—though three brands are cited—but George Clooney characters are never without some vanity-related tic (hair, teeth, exercise).

• But perhaps the most comically self-aware trope was that of characters vomiting: I counted seven instances in the Coens’ first five movies (i.e., through Hudsucker Proxy). In their next two films, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, they seemed to toy with expectations, implying that a character was about to throw up: Marge says “I’m gonna barf,” but doesn’t; the Dude gags and goes to the bathroom but he doesn’t seem to either. And then, they’re done. Unless I missed it, there’s only one other instance of vomiting (Llewelyn in No Country for Old Men) in the rest of their corpus.

• Which seems like as good a note as any on which to conclude. This has been a lot of fun, and I want to offer my genuine thanks to the many readers who’ve responded in comments or on Twitter. Your replies have been thoughtful, interesting, and, not least of all, civil—a high hurdle when topics as heartfelt as the relative merits of Coens’ films are concerned. I’ve learned a lot, and wish I had the time to pore back through and cite some of the excellent nuggets that have been mined. There is one, though—offered on Twitter by Gabe Witcher, whose band, The Punch Brothers, recorded some music for Inside Llewyn Davis—that’s great enough that I want to note it. In my entry on The Big Lebowski, I noted the eerie, eerie coincidence that the Dude writes a check for 69 cents that’s dated September 11, 1991—that is, exactly 10 years before 9/11— and then immediately looks up at a television screen on which George H. W. Bush is declaring that Saddam Hussein’s aggressions “will not stand.” Given that the movie was made in 1998, this was obviously an unintentional reference. But what I missed is that there is a cunning joke embedded in the date of that check. Later in the movie, when the Dude’s landlord, Marty, stops by, he reminds the Dude that “tomorrow’s already the 10th.” Yes, that 69-cent check to pay for half-and-half was postdated. It’s delightful little discoveries like this one that made the entire exercise such a distinct pleasure.