Joel and Ethan Coen's seventeenth movie, Hail, Caesar! In fact, it might be one of their worst. But here's the thing: Even the Coen Brothers's worst movies are still pretty not-terrible. Only two Coen Brothers movies are flat-out bad.
Hail, Caesar! But the other twelve? All really good! At least four of them are undisputed classics, maybe six. Hell, maybe eight? Personally, I say seven. Lists are silly and arbitrary, especially the self-proclaimed "definitive" ones ahem. But they're also super fun. So before you decide whether to care about this one, you should at least know my super thin credentials: I've been watching movies for more than thirty years, I've been covering them for nearly twenty, and I've never missed even one by the Coen Brothers.
They started making movies right when I started watching them—and the very first Coen Brothers movie I ever saw is still the best movie I've ever seen. Let's get to my list, and remember: This is indisputable and completely meaningless.
Send me your outrage here. All of the Coens' trademarks—silly accents, botched capers, diamond-precise set design, a general eau de quirk in the air—pushed to exhausting, irritating, unrewarding excess. It's a remake of the Ealing Studios classic starring Sir Alec Guinness, and I'm pretty sure even the Coens would suggest you watch that one instead.
Incidentally, this is also Tom Hanks's worst movie—in his only Coen Bros role, no less—and he once played a detective who cracks a murder case with the help of a crime-solving dog. One of those rare films, like Prisoners , and Half Baked , whose title unintentionally describes what it feels like to watch it.
This screwball divorce comedy starring George Clooney—the Coen Bros' unlikely kryptonite; a four-time comedy collaborator, and three of them don't work—is trying so hard to be funny and failing so completely that it has, to my knowledge, only one intelligent, on-the-record defender. But that guy also thinks Girl 6 is underrated, so who are you gonna believe, him or me?
The truth is, I get nervous now when the Coen Brothers make comedies. The last four movies on my list are all failed comedies. They're also the last four comedies that the Coens have made. This is a painful admission for someone who considers Raising Arizona to be their masterpiece. Raising Arizona might even be partly to blame—it's the alchemy they keep trying, and failing, to replicate.
And Burn After Reading , about two fitness instructors who think they've stumbled onto a trove of CIA secrets, is the most forgettable of the bunch. Seriously, I only saw this movie eight years ago, and I can't remember anything about it except spoiler alert, I guess the doofy smile on Brad Pitt's face right before he gets shot in the forehead. The glitzy, genial, star-studded, screwball-y bastard son of Barton Fink. Both are set at the fictional war-era Capitol Studios, both pit vulgar Hollywood titans against the hollow nobility of the creative class.
The Coens have always been neutral in this clash, God bless 'em. They love taking the piss out of both. Actually, Hail, Caesar! Most people find it too precious and mannered. Most Coen fans enjoy it for the same reason. Hardly anyone defends it with much passion. I like it mostly because it's got cool trivia: The Coens co-wrote it with their buddy and old roommate, Sam Raimi. Every Coen Brothers snob's go-to "underrated Coen Brothers movie. That being said: this L. Remember: only two bad Coen Brothers movies! And it has some classic moments—the slow, spider-webbing cracks in the glass as Billy Bob Thornton strangles James Gandolfini to death, that dizzying car crash, the UFO whose significance echoed all the way into season two of FX's Fargo , Roger Deakins' crisp, starchy black-and-white.
It's also kinda boring. The least idiosyncratically Coen Brothers-y movie of their career, and also their biggest hit. Indispensible chiefly for marble-mouthed Jeff Bridges—and for this College Humor video. If you don't like the music in this movie—and lots of people don't, because lots of people don't like folk music—then Inside Llewyn Davis is two looong hours watching an insufferable asshole fail at life. But if you do like the music—if, say, you watched this scene , and then this one , and then this one , and felt your low-grade Oscar Isaac man crush brewing into gales of confusing lust—then Inside Llewyn Davis is an arrow through the heart: a sad and achingly beautiful movie about missed chances and starving artists lost to history because they never caught a break.
If I'm being honest, I'd really like to flip this one—a brilliant soundtrack with one of the Coens' strained, semi-funny "yokel comedies" attached to it—with Inside Llewyn Davis. I only didn't because I know the masses are against me. You're all wrong, goddammit. Every movie above this one is a consensus Coen Bros classic.
Every movie beneath this one is…not. These are the Coen Bros fans you think of when you close your eyes and think of Coen Bros fans, and they are really annoying.
I'm with the snobs on this one sorry. It's like The Shining set in Hollywood only funny! So here's a true story. It's , and everyone is freaking about No Country for Old Men , which has just started to screen for journalists and everyone is walking out shaking. At a press luncheon for the film, I get seated next to Ethan Coen—a hero of mine, and this will be the first and only time I've ever spoken to him. He's awkward and lovely, just as I imagine. I ask him about Lebowski , and what a phenomenon it's become, and that there's even a festival dedicated to it, and what does Ethan Coen think of all this?
He gives me a worried look, and he says, "Honestly, I think it's really weird. History is a bitch. By the late s, the Coens were firmly established as the most promising young American auteurs since the s, thanks to a pair of two strikingly disparate classics—a chilling neo-noir, followed by a Technicolor carnival comedy.
So for their third movie, they go big: a gangster movie, the hallowed genre of James Cagney and Francis Coppola. And it's great. Lush, operatic, perfectly cast and acted—it's the movie that made Gabriel Byrne's career. It opened in October … but three weeks earlier, GoodFellas came out. Yep, history is a bitch. My god. I mean, just watch this scene. Lots of filmmakers have created menacing screen villains, have written some scary-ass dialogue, have made careers getting hairs to stand up on the backs of people's necks. But here's how you know you're in a Coen Brothers movie: the moment when Anton Chigurh, mid-menace, gently chokes on a peanut.
I always loved that. Even for ruthless merchants of death, food sometimes goes down the wrong pipe. Remember what a terrible, terrible, terrible idea the FX show seemed like at first? We all thought so. How could anyone duplicate something so precise? Why would you even try? Now people argue about whether it's better than the movie. This is a stupid argument, by the way.
Of course the movie is better. How dare you. Yes, the Coen Brothers' two best movies are their first two movies. That's not a dig. I'm not saying it's been downhill ever since, although I guess it kind of has been. Ditto for Quentin Tarantino. Let's focus instead on what a preposterously high bar they set. Blood Simple is a noir about a bartender who has an affair with his boss's wife—ninety-nine minutes of sustained, whispered tension.
Simple, just like the title says. And then when the violence comes, it comes loud. For reasons I do not understand—ask a sound editor, I guess? Like cannons. I suppose it's crazy to rank this movie above Fargo ; lots of movie junkies think of Fargo as Blood Simple with the degree-of-difficulty dial turned all the way up. But I love Blood Simple for its purity, and its unnerving confidence.
I still can't believe this was their first movie, and I really can't believe they made Raising Arizona next. That's like if Tarantino had followed up Reservoir Dogs with Ghostbusters. I was eleven when this movie came out, twelve when I first saw it on HBO, and I knew it was my favorite movie by the end of the opening credits—they don't arrive until unusually deep into the film, about fifteen minutes in, long after you've forgotten there haven't been credits yet—but at the time I didn't have the perspective to understand what a strange, remarkable, sui generis thing it was.
It's a weird thing to sense at age 12 that you're witnessing something totally new, to feel sure that nothing like it has ever existed before. And god, it is so much fun to watch.