The Coen Brothers movies: The best (and worst) movies by the Coen Brothers

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Joel and Ethan Coen at "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on November 12, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Joel and Ethan Coen at "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on November 12, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vera Anderson/WireImage) /

Ah, the Coen Brothers. In my humble opinion, these cinema siblings rank up there with the best movie makers America has ever produced. Their films tell gripping and, at times, humorous tales of people in desperate situations in search of happiness, and that happiness comes in many forms.

Oftentimes it’s a large sum of money, for others it’s a baby to call their own. Ultimately, the characters find themselves willing to settle for the happiness of getting out of the twisted sequence of events set in motion by their selfish pursuit. Having watched all but two movies from the Coen Brothers, (sorry, Miller’s Crossing and Hub Sucker, I’ll get to you one day), I share my thoughts on the Coen Brothers movies.

The best and worst Coen Brothers movies

Best – No Country for Old Men

I know, such a typical choice, but hey, you wouldn’t fault me for claiming Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s best, so let’s not split hairs about originality.

One of the things that makes No Country for Old Men so unique among the Coen’s other work is just how starkly grim and dark it is compared to all their others. Even their other bloody thrillers such as Blood Simple and Fargo have their moments of levity, as well as an element of divine retribution that punishes the guilty in those stories. The difference here perhaps is that in No Country for Old Men, that divine retribution is not happenstance or the chaotic whim of the cosmos, but a cold-hearted manifestation of those things in a human form named Chigurh. Words, reasons, and pleads cannot sway his judgment, anymore than they could sway the judgment of a vengeful God. I would argue that, unlike in A Serious Man, where the protagonist is tormented by the whims of fate he cannot understand, personifying that chaos in a human character makes the concept of chaos all the more terrifying. We all know we cannot reason with the universe, but to not be able to do so with a person has haunting implications.

Writing and subtext aside, I think it goes without saying that Javier Bardem’s performance is what really puts that terror over the end. Every scene with him is undeniably gripping; his stone-face, unreadable eyes, and low, unfriendly voice are a perfect match for the random violence the character represents. The ending scene, and the title itself, also suggests a grim future. Can our society, our institutions, adapt to compete with the new rising forces of evil in the modern day? Can we truly protect ourselves from them, or are all our lives dependent on chance as fickle as the outcome of a coin toss?

Coen Brothers
Ethan Coen, Brian Grazer, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joel Coen, Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage) /

Worst – Intolerable Cruelty

If there’s one positive thing I can bring myself to say about Intolerable Cruelty, is that it has the most appropriate title yet given to a film. Indeed, it was cruel and intolerable, so much so, that I must confess, I shut it off in disgust sometime during the half point.

Intolerable Cruelty is a black sheep in the Coen Brother’s work, lacking the intrigue, the dark humor, and engaging story typical of their films. I would have to guess the reason for that is that neither Ethan or Joel are credited in writing the story. That questionable honor goes to Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. The Coens became attracted as writers-for-hire, and, being honest, it shows, because I didn’t sense any personal investment or passion here from them in this film.

George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones play the incredibly unlikeable protagonists of Miles and Marylin, a divorce lawyer and gold digger who take romantic interest in the other, and I could not care at all about their tale of love. Why should I? They are some of the most unlikable main characters I’ve ever seen. As such, I can’t be invested in the story, even if it was a good one, and it isn’t. The film’s journey isn’t fun or tense, the characters are overly cartoony, the way the world is presented is so overly bright. As a “Coen Brothers” film, everything about it is off.

Georgey baby, I love ya. You know I’ll watch Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou till my end days, but boy is this film a stinker. In fact, for me, it is hands down the worst of the Coen Brothers movies.

Best – Inside Llewyn Davis

As an artist with inspirations of success and a frequent visitor to Greenwich Village in New York, Inside Llewyn Davis hits a personal chord for me, as sweet and sad as the strum of a folksinger’s guitar.

Llewyn is your classic struggling artist, too headstrong and stubborn to think that his destiny and his ambitions are not intertwined. This film offers a more sympathetic view on the typical Coen protagonist. Whereas often time their characters are tempted on a quest for personal gain through underhanded means (to horrible consequences), Llewyn goal of success is more in the abstract, and the film follows him on his desperate search for a break in the cold and lonely streets of a winter New York (also to horrible consequences). As such, the plot is a bit loose, emphasizing the character’s directionlessness.

I particularly like the presentation of New York City in the film. It is gray, cold, and uncomforting, which is often the treatment given to those that both lack artistic success and are unwilling to conform to the drudgery of the workforce. This is what I mean when I say the goal in the movie is more in the abstract. Sure, there’s no huge suitcase of money, but the necessity of money is quite pronounced through the film. Without it, the modern world is, dare I say it … intolerably cruel. And yet, Llewyn Davis persists in his dream. A dream which, from my interpretation, is doomed to never come to fruition. You will notice watching the film that the Coen Brothers play around with the sequence of events at the start and finish. What you thought was linear time progression turns out to be more of a circle, which I’ve always taken to imply the character will forever be stuck in a loop of searching.

Musically, this is one of the best soundtracks in a Coen film to date. Nearly all of them will punch right to the heart, with the greatest tear-jerker of the bunch being Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Stark Sands rendition of “500 Miles”. For me it is the signature song of the film, a perfect encapsulation of Llewyn Davis’s journey, his loneliness, and his poverty; sung to him by his artistic rival and lost love, to add insult to injury.

If Anton Chigurh showed us that this is no country for old men, Llewyn Davis showed us in turn, this is hardly one for young ones either.

Worst – Hail, Caesar!

I’ve given you more than a fair chance, Hail, Caesar!. I’ve seen you twice now, each time with an open mind, and each time to disappointment and dissatisfaction. But why? On the surface, Hail, Caesar! certainly looks like your typical Coen picture. The cast is there. Certain scenes, such as the round table discussion between priests of different faiths or the brief conversation with the film reel editor, have that classic off-beat Coen humor. Plot wise, a lot of the beats are classic staples for their films (a kidnapping, a suitcase of cash, a nefarious plot, etc.)

So all the ingredients are there, but the script just could not put it all together in an engaging way. Technically, the main character is Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), and he is trying to figure out who kidnapped George Clooney or however it goes, but the film bogs itself down with a lot of side plots that, for the life of me, I do not see the point of. You have the pregnant starlet, the young cowboy actor, and so many more. It is just too much and the movie spreads it all too thin. Either the plot lines are resolved in a minimal two scenes, or they seemingly have no conclusion at all. (I genuinely don’t see the need for that cowboy actor character being in the film).

On top of that, I have to say I hate how star-filled this film is. Sure, okay, maybe thematically it makes sense to cast a whole lot of modern big stars to be in a film set in Hollywood’s golden age, but, personally, I missed the interesting unknowns that the Coen’s typically go for to fill their worlds. Seriously folks, isn’t it weird that Jonah Hill is on the poster for this movie and he is in all of one scene? That role would have been much better filled by an unknown.

Hail, Caesar! definitely has elements of a Coen film, plot wise, and in terms of look it matches perfectly. However, at the end of the day the most important aspect of any film is the story, and as far as the script goes, Hail, Caesar! gets a thumb down from me. Send in the lion.

Coen Brothers
HOLLYWOOD, CA – APRIL 28: Actor Jeff Bridges speaks onstage at the screening of ‘The Big Lebowski’ during day 3 of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 28, 2018 in Hollywood, California. 350620. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TCM) /

Best – The Big Lebowski

Full disclosure, this is the most biased choice on this list. Not only have I seen The Big Lebowski at least up to a double digit worth of times, but I am also, after all, a certified priest of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. So you might be thinking, “is this really the best Coen’s film, or is it just your favorite?”


The greatness of The Big Lebowski is owed in large part to the script, which I consider to be one of the most airtight ever written. You may not notice it upon first or even second viewing, but the dialogue of the film uses a massive amount of reincorporation. One example being how, at the start of the film, the Dude is buying a carton of milk and happens to catch some of Bush Senior’s remarks about the invasion of Kuwait. “This will not stand. This aggression against Kuwait will not stand.” Later, speaking in defense of his claim to a new rug, the Dude vehemently declares, “This will not stand, you know. This aggression will not stand, man!” This musical repetition of words is found throughout the film (“Her life is in your hands, Dude.”/”Her life was in our hands, man!”; “To use the parlance of our times/Young trophy wife, you know, in the parlance of our times…”) Not only does the reincorporation lend more humor to the film, it also displays the great deal of thought gone into the writing in general. It really ties the script together, does it not?

Similar to Inside Llewyn Davis, which focuses on the need and hunt for success, The Big Lebowski explores the very definition of the word. This is highlighted in the juxtaposition between the two male Lebowskis in the film. One embodies the modern, neo-liberal meaning; the Big Lebowski has great wealth (or so he displays), has accomplished much, and is adamant that hard work is the only road to success. The Dude stands in opposition to this. He is a man of few wants and few goals, and, if we equate success with happiness, has earned his place as a Lebowski Achiever. Indeed, it is only because the Dude strayed from his minimal lifestyle and was tempted to pursue material gain that he then becomes the target of a variety of parties and, ultimately, loses much more than a fine piece of tapestry. He is repeatedly assaulted, his car is gradually destroyed, his house is invaded and torn apart, and runs the risk of losing his Johnson. “I could be sitting here with just pee stains on my rug.”

However, the Dude abides. Similar to one of the tenants of Buddhism, the Dude is stripped from his material desires and by the end of the film at last escapes suffering. Sure, he gained absolutely nothing of what he was after, but like, hey, whatever man. Meanwhile, it is revealed that the Big Lebowski, despite his airs of wealth, is actually quite miserable. He pursues material gain thinking it will be the cure for his suffering, when it is actually the source of it. It raises the question, which one of them is actually the Big Lebowski?

Script analysis aside, The Big Lebowski is an amazing film on all fronts. The characters are vibrant and memorable, the music incorporation is spot on, and the jokes reveal themselves more and more with every viewing. For all this and more, I consider The Big Lebowski to be the best Coen film. Am I wrong?

In defense of The Ladykillers

Looking through all the Coen Brother films I’ve seen, I must confess I was struggling to come up with a third Worst film to talk about. I know that when discussing the brothers’ filmography, typically The Ladykillers is mentioned as one of the worst. Have these people ever even seen Intolerable Cruelty? In fact, not only do I think The Ladykillers is not one of their worst, I think it is a damn good film in general.

A large part of the criticism levied at The Ladykillers seems to be at Tom Hank’s performance as the anti-hero protagonist Professor G. H. Dorr. He’s too goofy, too much of a caricature of the classic southern gentleman, many say. And yes, yes indeed it is. That’s the point. That performance perfectly matches the exaggerated tone throughout the whole film. I think the real problem is that audiences aren’t used to seeing Tom Hanks in such a character. They are more used to him playing down-to-earth or realistic roles. Well, I think he did a bang up job. And you know what, I like the accent too!

Aside from that, I think The Ladykillers has an interesting story. It starts off as a heist plot featuring a cast of bizarre characters from very different walks of life, and so there are a lot of fun interactions and exchanges between them.  Once they succeed but are unfortunately found out by religious widow Marva Munson (played by Irma P. Hall), the problem then becomes who among the five of the criminals will kill her so as to escape punishment. The funny thing is, Marva would have be willing to not report them if they return the money and, as Dorr puts it, “engage in divine worship!?” For whatever reason that is a line too far, and murder is seen as the favorable alternative. Or is it? The five criminals are forced into great debate over who exactly will kill Marva, with none of them really having the stomach to do it. And, like in so many Coen films, divine retribution intervenes to punish the wicked.

If anyone tells you not to bother with The Ladykillers, don’t listen to them. They are fools. It is a fine comedy with some decent subtext to chew on, as well as some pretty bopping gospel music for a soundtrack.

Which of these movies from the Coen Brothers is your favorite? 

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