The only Coen Brothers movie that can probably, legitimately be called "bad" should have been a slam dunk. A great cast (George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Geoffrey Rush) headline a screwball comedy (a Coen Brothers specialty) about love and divorce court. But very few jokes hit the mark and none of the romance feels genuine (especially when it's supposed to). Intolerable Cruelty plays more like a Coen Brothers rip-off than the real thing.
The Coen Brothers followed Intolerable Cruelty with another comic misfire, this one a remake of the classic dark comedy starring Sir Alec Guinness. Tom Hanks plays a smarmy gentlemen who rents a room from an old lady, obfuscates that he's using it to stage a heist, and then convinces his cronies to try to bump her off when she learns too much. The Ladykillers is well shot, and Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall (as the unkillable lady in question) are full of comic energy, but the actual set pieces The Coen Brothers devise are crude, and don't add up to much hilarity.
The Man Who Wasn't There may very well be The Coen Brothers' best looking movie, but it's also their most impenetrable. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a drab, cuckolded barber whose attempt to blackmail his wife's lover (James Gandolfini) inadvertently leads to murder and... aliens? It's a handsome film noir throwback, but the dense, randomized storyline and the limp last-minute justification for all this weirdness don't satisfy the way that the finest Coen Brothers movies do.
The Coen Brothers once again tried remaking a classic movie. This time it was Henry Hathaway's Oscar-winning John Wayne western True Grit, and this time, the Coen Brothers got it right. Hailee Steinfeld plays the young girl who hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to avenge her father's death, jumpstarting a perilous but powerful journey into moral quandary, and a truly unnerving version of "The Old West.” From this point on there are no “bad” Coen Brothers movies on this list; in fact, they’re mostly great. True Grit is only this low because the remake doesn’t quite outshine the original.
The Coen Brothers have made a cottage industry out of sprawling tales of everyday people cursed by their own desires, insecurities and the cruel hand of fate. Burn After Reading - about two gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who find a CD filled with "super-secret spy shit" and run afoul of the CIA in the process - is a smart, funny version of that story, but it lacks the empathy and wisdom that makes the better Coen Brothers movies resonate.
The plot of Hail, Caesar! is a little insubstantial: a Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin) tries to rescue a doltish movie star (George Clooney) who gets kidnapped just before a blockbuster wraps production. But what makes Hail, Caesar! so delightful is the sightseeing mentality the Coen Brothers have to old school Hollywood, weaving behind the scenes of ludicrous and wonderful fake films and introducing their audience to a colorful, lovable cast of characters. It's fluff, but it is enormously likable fluff.
Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac as a folk musician in 1961 whose attempts to maintain his dignity and define his own identity after his songwriting partner commits suicide are stymied again and again and again. Llewyn Davis is his own worst enemy, falling to prey to too much (and not enough) sympathy, talent or responsibility. The music is grand, the journey is meaningful, but the Coens have tackled similar material before, and made even more of an impact.
A catchy, hit soundtrack punctuates O Brother, Where Art Thou's broad, Depression Era interpretation of The Odyssey, in which George Clooney escapes prison with his chain gang cronies John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson to stop his wife from remarrying. In the process they fight a cyclops, become an accidental musical sensation, and entertain the hell out of us with perfect comic timing. A sweet, revisionist fantasy about a bitter time.
Mailroom clerk Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is promoted to the head of Hudsucker Industries on his very first day, as part of a scam to drive the stock prices down. Surprise! This supposed "schmo" is the genius who invents the Hula Hoop, and the stock prices soon skyrocket. The Hudsucker Proxy feels like a real, classic screwball comedy, with fast-paced jokes and unforgettably eccentric characters galore. Consistently inventive and inspired.
It might be the best story about writer’s block, and it was written while the Coen Brothers had writer's block. Barton Fink stars John Turturro as a brilliant playwright hired to write a stock Hollywood screenplay, but who gets constantly distracted by the weird supporting cast and the odd details of his hotel room. Barton Fink stunningly captures the anxiety of the stunted creative process, but the plot is so esoteric that it's sometimes hard to enjoy it.
A devious noir if ever there was one. Miller's Crossing is about a Prohibition Era gangster (Gabriel Byrne) forced to choose between loyalty and survival when his boss (Albert Finney) prioritizes his girlfriend's loser brother instead of a truce with a rival gang. As in the best noirs, our hero only seems like a callous son of a bitch; in reality, he makes some of the most sensitive and dramatic choices in the Coens' entire canon, making the film feel both significant and absorbing.
Like many Coen Brothers heroes, Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset on all sides by cruel circumstance, but in A Serious Man the writer/directors also beleaguer him with religious anxiety. This modern day Job tries to be a good man, a serious man, but is punished at every turn by an unknown force - maybe it's luck, maybe it's the Coens themselves - that seems dead set on destroying him. The Coens' apparent apathy towards their protagonist’s pathetic plight makes A Serious Man feel downright Biblical. It’s one of the best films about anxiety.
No matter how they justify it to themselves, some men are just going to do whatever the hell it is they're going to do. That grim determination leads Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) to take a bag of money from a crime scene, and it leads the embodiment of evil Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to do despicable things to get it back. Cormac McCarthy's lean, very mean story forced the Coen Brothers to strip No Country for Old Men almost all of their characteristic whimsy, leaving only a human tragedy in its place.
The Coen Brothers' first film is still one of their best: a darkly comic chain of deadly and duplicitous events, so twisted, so turned around, that only the audience will ever understand it. The characters themselves are wrapped up in a tale of adultery, murder and miscommunication. They make all the wrong assumptions and become the victims, literally and figuratively, of their own misapprehensions about one another. Blood Simple. is the most tangled of webs.
The Coen Brothers have spent a large part of their career evoking other storytellers, other genres, other eras. Raising Arizona is one of the few films that feels entirely their own, free to invent and explode. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter star as an ex-con and a cop who get married, can't have kids, go a little crazy and kidnap a quintuplet. Keeping the secret and evading a "warthog from hell" hired to retrieve the infant prove nearly impossible. Absolute hilarity from start to finish, thanks in part to a bravo supporting turn from John Goodman.
Did we just mention "a bravo supporting turn from John Goodman?" The actor was never finer than he is in The Big Lebowski, and neither is any other performer in this whimsical satire of hard-boiled detective movies. A laid-back stoner is accidentally drawn into a kidnapping plot, and lounges his way through an entire series of violent events, becoming an inspiration to us all by sitting out life's crappier moments. Endlessly quotable, totally unforgettable. The Big Lebowski is one of the best. Ever.
The very best. Fargo finds a crooked used car salesman (William H. Macy) arranging the kidnapping of his wife with two untrustworthy criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) in order to recoup his embezzled losses. Everything goes violently wrong. And it's a beautiful day. Frances McDormand plays the kindhearted, pregnant sheriff drawn into this ugly game, and the only person wise enough to have no idea why people do horrible things to each other. Marge Gunderson can’t understand it. That probably means there’s hope for us all.