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Coen brothers movies

The best and worst Coen brothers movies

To mark the release of Hail, Caesar!, we rank all 16 features by America’s leading filmmaking siblings

By Joshua Rothkopf, Cath Clarke, Dave Calhoun and Tom Huddleston
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They’ve been making movies for over 30 years—ever since they blew critics away with 1984’s Blood Simple while still in their twenties. They’ve won Oscars (for Fargo and No Country for Old Men) and they’ve landed prizes at Cannes (including for Barton Fink and Inside Llewyn Davis). But still there’s something eternally playful and youthful about the Coen brothers. Here, we look back at two careers (one, really) steeped in movie history and streaked with an unmistakable dark humor. And if you enjoy this, why not look back at our celebrations of two other American auteurs, Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen? So, be like the Dude, and abide with our choices of the best Coen brothers movies so far…

RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time

All 16 Coen brothers movies ranked

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Movies Drama

Keep an eye out for the films that follow up the Coens’ big successes; those projects are often their most daring. After Fargo, few expected the brothers to double down on a fully baked L.A. detective story featuring a tubby stoner hero (the immortal Jeff Bridges), a howling Vietnam vet (John Goodman) and a kinship with that shaggiest of ’70s classics, The Long Goodbye. It’s their most intensely beloved film.—JR

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2. Fargo (1996)

Movies Thriller

For proof that the Coen’s masterpiece of black comedy has stood the test of time just look at the fact that nearly twenty years since its release we’ve had two seasons of a new TV series based on this wry story of small-town crime. And while the remake is good, no one beats Frances McDormand as the Minnesota police chief investigating a triple murder. And the Oscar for Most Inventive Use of a Woodchipper goes to…—CC

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3. A Serious Man (2009)

Movies Comedy

Always dogged by the criticism of excessive caricaturing, the Coens took a leap into the unknown with this Book of Job–like reminiscence, inspired, in part, by their own ’60s Jewish boyhoods. It vibrates with humor, sadness and a scary mystique (“Accept the mystery” is a key line of dialogue).—JR

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4. Blood Simple (1984)

Movies Thriller

The Coens’ feature debut is notably lacking in wacky asides and goofy megastar cameos: this is a terse, relentless Southern Gothic thriller steeped in neo-noir nastiness. M. Emmett Walsh’s sleazy private dick is the first great Coen character, and the brutal grave scene displays the influence of early collaborator Sam Raimi.—TH

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5. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Movies Drama

Down-on-his-luck folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the film’s ungracious, self-regarding anti-hero, was too much for some. But this is the Coens at their most dark, somber and moving: this 1960s-set downbeat odyssey is uncompromising and wise in its reflections on talent, success, disappointment and living life as an artist. The sense of time and place is exquisite; the soundtrack is a complete joy; and the movie offers a special gift to cat lovers.—DC

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6. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Movies

Darker than your average Coens movie, the brothers adapted No Country for Old Men from novelist Cormac McCarthy’s western thriller. Josh Brolin stars as a Vietnam vet who finds a case containing $2 million (and the bodies of several Mexicans) at the scene of a drug deal gone sour. It was a career-high for the Coens, with brilliant performances from Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem as a psychopathic hitman with a pageboy bob. It scooped four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.—CC

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7. Barton Fink (1991)

Movies Comedy

That hoary old maxim “write what you know” is brilliantly picked apart in the Coens’ first golden-age Hollywood adventure. John Turturro is wonderfully twitchy as the titular playwright slumming it on scripts for wrestling pictures. But it’s John Goodman who blows the film apart as his grotesque neighbor Muntz.—TH

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8. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Movies Thriller

The Runyonesque dialogue alone is enough to qualify this Irish-gangster pic as a cult fave. But here, too, is one of the Coens’ most emotionally sophisticated stories, deceptively powerful, about loyalty between surrogate fathers and sons. The script was reportedly so difficult for them to crack, they wrote Barton Fink as a diversion.—JR

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9. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Movies Comedy

This was the first of two Coens road movies built around a love of American music of a certain period; the second was Inside Llewyn Davis. Here, the brothers tell the 1930s-set story of an escaped prisoner (George Clooney) and his companions (John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) running into various mishaps in the Deep South, with ample breaks for bluegrass, blues and gospel. The brothers loosely based their tale on Homer’s Odyssey.—DC

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TRUE GRIT
Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian

10. True Grit (2010)

Movies

After The Ladykillers, the very idea of the Coens remaking another classic had many pundits shaking their heads. But True Grit is more of a return to Charles Portis’ source novel than a reboot of the John Wayne oater. Jeff Bridges is on fine form as irascible US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld steals the show as the vengeful orphan who hires him.—TH

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11. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Movies

Working for the first time with a serious budget—and Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver—the Coens managed to produce their first outright flop, a $25-million screwball comedy about the invention of the hula hoop. The sets are incredible, the dialogue crackles and Tim Robbins was never more lovable—but who ever thought this was going to be a hit?—TH

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12. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Movies

Quiet, compelling and hard-to-read: that description applies as much to the movie itself as to its lead character, a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) in postwar California who’s drawn into a murder plot that tips its hat to 1930s crime writer James M. Cain. It’s less a thriller and more a subdued, thoughtful character study. Best of all, it’s presented in glorious, noir-inspired black and white.—DC

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13. Raising Arizona (1987)

Movies Comedy

The fact that Raising Arizona ranks near the bottom of this list says less about its quality and more about the Coens’ 30-year track record for churning out more hits than misses. After making their reputation as America’s most exciting young auteurs with their debut Blood Simple (1984), along came this baby-snatching caper. Nicolas Cage stars as the armed robber who falls in love with his prison officer (Holly Hunter) and steals a quintuplet when nature fails to take its course in the baby-making department.—CC

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14. Burn After Reading (2008)

Movies

It’s one of the less essential Coen brothers movies, but there’s still fun to be gained from this cynical farce about a small group of very stupid people caught up in a blackmail and espionage yarn involving a retired CIA operative (John Malkovich), his mislaid memoirs, his wife (Tilda Swinton), her lover (George Clooney) and two dumb but ambitious gym employees (Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt). Coming after the straight-faced No Country for Old Men, it disappointed some fans, but there’s ample wit and energy here.—DC

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15. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Movies

Call it an old-fashioned romantic comedy if you must. But can you name another one that dives so deeply into the world of bickering divorce attorneys, iron-clad "pre-nups," Texas billionaires, phony barons and TV soap stars? Swirling at the center in a flirtation that resembles sharks circling are George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones.—JR

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16. The Ladykillers (2004)

Movies Comedy

There had to be a worst Coen brothers movie—and even diehard fans must admit that something went wrong with this remake of the 1955 British black comedy. Tom Hanks had some big shoes to fill taking on Alec Guinness's role as a phoney professor who rents a room from a little old lady while plotting a devilish scheme. Not exactly his finest hour—or the Coens’.—CC

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