As Chris Orr just noted, the filmography of the Coen Brothers is now so deep, there’s a fun bit of gamesmanship among critics to rank it every time a new Coen movie comes out, as Ann Hornaday does for The Washington Post today. Some other great (or maddening, depending on your perspective) lists were published this week on GQ.com and Thrillist, and both Decider and Rolling Stone put out fun “best character” lists for the distinct Coen oeuvre. Chris did an epic rewatch of all the Coens’ movies for their 30th anniversary in 2014, and ever since seeing the wide variety of reactions to Hail Caesar!, I’ve been pondering their filmography myself.
To wit, I went ahead and ranked the films too.
I used the great site Letterboxd, a social movie-watching database that is ideal for film buffs who want to keep their yearly lists and viewing diaries straight in their heads. Barton Fink, a grimly funny, epically surreal masterpiece about the frustrating power of the creative process and the daunting specter of the Hollywood machine, has long been my favorite, though that is certainly not an opinion shared by the majority. But while there’s almost no Coen Brothers movie I don’t enjoy, I think it’s pretty easy to divide their work into some broad qualitative categories.
There’s the out-and-out classics, films I felt thunderstruck upon watching that have only borne more fruit with perpetual re-viewing. Three from their earlier days: Barton Fink, Fargo, and Raising Arizona, all dark comedies that range from the madcap to the aggressively strange, and three of their most recent efforts: the Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis, much bleaker films that retain their unique storytelling spirit. Then, there’s the terrific genre efforts: arch comedies The Hudsucker Proxy and Hail Caesar, chilling neo-noir Blood Simple, and the straight-ahead Western True Grit.
Like Chris, I’m perhaps not as big a fan of The Big Lebowski as some, though I can’t deny I’ve seen it more times than I can count. Its shaggy-dog spirit and genre-bending spoofery puts it in the same category as oddities like The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Intolerable Cruelty, films that mash together humor, violence, and storytelling styles in unpredictable, not always successful ways. Collecting dust at the bottom are the rare films I think of as tonal misfires—Miller’s Crossing, Burn After Reading, and The Ladykillers, all of which felt too nasty and devoid of the Coens’ usual humanity.
I can think of a half-dozen good friends just off the top of my head who would want to drag me into the woods, Miller’s Crossing-style, for these choices, but isn’t that the joy of these kinds of rankings? Nobody’s getting hurt, everyone’s got their favorites, but we can still yell at each other until we’re blue in the face. What could be more apt?