Coen Brothers Movies: Films Ranked Worst to Best

Coen Brothers Movies: Films Ranked Worst to Best
Coen Brothers Films Ranked

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have crafted some of the most original, idiosyncratic, and influential films of the past few decades. Since their debut film Blood Simple in 1984, the duo have delighted critics and audiences alike with their signature blend of black comedy, engaging stories and characters, and virtuoso filmmaking.

In ranking all 18 of the Coen brothers' films to date from worst to best, there were no easy choices. Even their weaker efforts boast the brothers’ knack for visual style and absorbing worlds and characters. But when forced to make the tough calls, here is one humble critic’s attempt at separating the wheat from the chaff in the Coens' stellar filmography.

18. The Ladykillers (2004)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans

A rare misstep for the brothers, this remake of the classic 1955 British comedy feels oddly flat. Tom Hanks leads the cast as a verbose con man posing as a classical musician to rent a room from a religious elderly woman. He assembles a crew to tunnel under a nearby casino, but the old woman discovers their scheme and must be "dealt" with. Despite a game cast, the jokes mostly misfire, and the colourful characters fail to charm. The Coens’ script lacks its usual snap, resulting in a disappointingly bland crime caper.

"You brought yo bitch to the Waffle Hut?”

17. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush

The Coen brothers’ attempt at a romantic comedy unfortunately lives up to its ironic title. George Clooney plays a ruthless divorce attorney matched against a crafty gold digger, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Though the film nails the glossy surfaces of the genre, it’s missing the necessary grounding in genuine emotion and credibility. Sparks never truly fly between the engaging leads, and underneath the snappy screwball dialogue is a hollowness that dims the comedy. Not a total misfire, Intolerable Cruelty still ranks among the filmmakers’ slightest works.

16. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman

The Coen brothers evoke the spirit of classic screwball comedies like His Girl Friday in this story of big business intrigue. When the president of a manufacturing company commits suicide, the board installs a naïve new employee (Tim Robbins) as his replacement to depress stock prices. A reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suspects the puppet scheme and investigates. Though stylishly made, the rapid-fire dialogue and eccentric characters come across as more derivatively cartoonish than playfully madcap. Still, The Hudsucker Proxy entertains, even if it lacks much staying power.

15. Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich

This loving tribute to the golden age Hollywood studio system looks great but feels lightweight. The film follows a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) working tirelessly to keep his stars in line and movies on schedule. When the lead of an upcoming biblical epic (George Clooney) is kidnapped, chaos threatens to consume the production. The period details dazzle, but the central mystery fizzles, leaving a series of loosely connected vignettes. Still, Hail, Caesar! ultimately charms more than it frustrates.

“Would that it were so simple.”

14. Burn After Reading (2008)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton

This espionage comedy misfires more often than it hits, but it makes for an enjoyable lark nonetheless. When a disc containing a CIA analysts' memoirs winds up lost at a gym, the doltish employees who find it attempt to sell it back for a reward. Meanwhile, the analyst’s unhinged ex-boss launches his own hapless investigation. Most of the characters are too cartoonish to connect with, and the plot disintegrates into random violence. But with a stellar cast clearly having fun, it's hard not to be amused.

“Report back to me when... I don't know, when it makes sense.”
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13. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini

The Coen brothers pay affectionate homage to film noir with this moody tale set in 1940s California. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Ed Crane, a taciturn barber who suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of infidelity. After a chance encounter with a fast-talking entrepreneur presents an investment opportunity, Ed’s efforts to get the money lead to robbery and murder. Thornton makes for a magnetic noir anti-hero, and the stunning black-and-white cinematography steeps the film in melancholy. A clever riff on genre touchstones like Double Indemnity.

“I don't talk much. I just cut the hair.”

12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco

This Netflix-produced Western anthology provides a satisfying, if uneven, mix of tones and tales. Ranging from goofy (the title segment starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing outlaw) to grim (a waggon train tale starring Liam Neeson), the vignettes showcase the Coens’ masterful command of the genre. Each chapter ultimately stands on its own, anchored by strong casting and an evocative feel for frontier life. Flaws emerge in the patchwork format, but the Coen touch still shines through brightly.

“Can’t catch a break. First, they shoot your horse, then they rob your stuff, then they shoot you.”

11. Raising Arizona (1987)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman

The Coen brothers’ sophomore breakthrough established their flair for mixing wry humour and colourful characters. When an ex-con (Nicolas Cage) and his cop wife (Holly Hunter) find they can't conceive a child, they decide to steal one of the rare newborn quintuplets born to a local furniture magnate. The film takes the tropes of screwball comedies and action films and pushes them to absurd, hysterical extremes. Raising Arizona doesn’t always work, but it showed the brothers’ talents were no fluke.

“Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”

10. A Serious Man (2009)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed

This understated dramedy tackles the cosmic existential questions haunting an ordinary middle-aged professor in 1960s Minnesota. With his professional standing and family stability crumbling around him, the hapless Larry Gopnik searches for life’s meaning through religion, academia, or anything offering hope. With no ready answers forthcoming, our hero’s plight makes for a thoughtful meditation on uncertainty. The Coens strike the perfect balance between the profound and mundane.

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”

9. Miller's Crossing (1990)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro

The Coen brothers’ third film noir knots a labyrinthine plot around Irish mob politics in an unnamed eastern city during Prohibition. The film brilliantly captures the look and tone of seminal works like The Glass Key while charting its own complex narrative path. Vengeance, ethics, and friendship collide as a top lieutenant (Gabriel Byrne) plays both sides in a brewing gang war. Smart dialogue and intricate style place Miller’s Crossing among the finest latter-day noirs.

“Do you always know when someone's lying, or just when they're lying to you?”

8. True Grit (2010)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon

The Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 Western surprised audiences with its reverential faithfulness. Headstrong young farm girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires washed-up Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, channelling John Wayne’s iconic performance) to track down her father’s killer. Bridges form a cantankerous bond with his determined employer as the trail leads to danger and propulsive action. Without a trace of postmodern irony, True Grit earnestly taps into the classical values of loyalty, justice, and American frontier mythology.

“If them men wanted a decent burial they should have got themselves killed in summer.”
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7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

Loosely based on Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, this musical comedy transports the Greek classic to 1930s Mississippi. After breaking free from a prison chain gang, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) journeys home accompanied by two dimwitted friends (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson). Their riotous misadventures encounter everything from racist politicians to sirens to bank robber George “Babyface” Nelson along the way. The melodies and lyrics of classic Americana give ballast to the whimsical tale. Irreverent yet oddly earnest, O Brother established the brothers as more versatile than fans might have guessed.

“The South is gonna change. Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis.”

6. Barton Fink (1991)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis

“Wallpaper peeling” serves as an apt metaphor in Barton Fink, the nightmarish tale of a New York playwright facing writer’s block in WWII-era Hollywood. Tasked with penning a wrestling screenplay, Fink’s pretentious art gives way to paralysing self-doubt. His fast-talking neighbour (a scene-stealing John Goodman) provides a violent distraction from the job at hand. More brooding mood piece than narrative, Barton Fink descends into a veritable inferno, scathing the empty promises of the American Dream mythos. A memorably hellish rendering of the creative process.

“I'll show you the life of the mind!”
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5. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake

This melancholic portrait of a struggling folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village stings with the poignant truths of artistic struggle. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) drifts from one minor gig and couch to the next, his ambitions exceeding his talent. Through a circular narrative over the course of one deflating week, he comes to realise that integrity and dreams can’t pay the price of survival. The film ruminates beautifully on failure and dignity. Anchored by Isaac’s soulful performance, Inside Llewyn Davis lingers with introspective grace.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song.”

4. Blood Simple (1984)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya

The debut that announced the Coen brothers as formidable new talents, Blood Simple, established themes and styles they would hone for decades. In a seedy Texas town, a jealous husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his unfaithful wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Double-crosses, misunderstandings, and fatal miscalculations unfurl a pure noir tragedy. Made on a shoestring budget, the film punches above its weight with taut direction and deliciously lurid complications. Blood Simple draws Gothic venom from common places and people.

3. Fargo (1996)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi

The Coen brothers mix dry comedy and savage violence in this modern crime classic. When a failing Minnesota salesman (William H. Macy) hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, his plan goes wildly awry thanks to the persistence of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). As the bodies pile higher over this lunacy, Marge pieces together the shocking events with folksy charm. Studded with astounding performances and moments of jarring brutality, Fargo earns every ounce of acclaim heaped upon it.

“And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.”

2. No Country for Old Men (2007)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked masterpiece receives an equally chilling silver-screen treatment in the capable hands of the Coens. When Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals $2 million from the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, he draws the wrath of unstoppable killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). As this cat-and-mouse game leaves a trail of bodies across 1980 Texas, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to make sense of the senseless violence ripping his country apart. No fancy trickery is necessary – the disquieting examination of mortality speaks loudest in the brothers’ escalating tension.

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

1. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

In what has justifiably grown into one of the prominent cult classics of modern times, the Coen brothers deliver their funniest, loosest, and most endlessly quotable film. That they pull off this casual lightness while tackling the heaviest of themes – war, class inequality, male identity, nihilism – marks The Big Lebowski as their crowning masterpiece. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski just wants some compensation for his ruined rug, but he and his ragtag band of bowling buddies instead find themselves tangled with sex-crazed artists, feminist terrorists, pornographers, and a crippled millionaire. Beneath the strings of uproarious profanity, flowing White Russians, and bouncing bowling balls emerges a celebration of forgiveness and community.

“Yeah? Well... The Dude abides.”

The Coen brothers have given film enthusiasts a body of work that is as unique as it is essential. While mostly avoiding mainstream formulas and expectations, their films probe the philosophies, themes, and genres that clearly fascinate the talented siblings. Some movies work better than others, but at their best, the Coens capture specific times, places, and people with precision and insight. Their filmography stands tall as one of the most cherished and studied of the last 30 years. Here’s hoping the next 30 bring many more gems from these visionaries.