What Is the Best Coen Brothers Movie?

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
Aug. 10 2011 10:05 AM

Ranking the Coen Brothers' Movies

The Ladykillers always comes in last.

Click here to read David Haglund's essay on watching all of the Coen brothers' movies.

Still from Fargo. Click image to expand.
Frances McDormand in Fargo

Ranking the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is something of an online pastime. Christopher Orr of the Atlantic submitted his order last December, the same month Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post offered her more eccentric take (check out Nos. 11-14), and just after Andrew Osborne did the same for Nerve. Salon outsourced the question of "best Coens movie" to several writers and film folk a year before that, while AMC let visitors to their website decide the question. Rotten Tomatoes has compiled a list of the 10 best-reviewed Coen movies.

Averaging all of the rankings, you get a list that looks something like this:

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A few notes: Fargo was never ranked lower than third; Raising Arizona was never ranked higher than third; No Country for Old Men would rank second if not for Ann Hornaday's oddly complete distaste for it; Barton Fink (as high as No. 2 and as low as No. 13) and The Big Lebowski (from No. 1 to No. 11) are probably the most divisive. The bottom four are almost unanimous.

I have no particular desire to be a contrarian, and my own list is not far from what seems to be the (very rough) consensus. I do think that A Serious Man and, to a lesser extent, The Man Who Wasn't There, are underrated (their common feature: both are a little boring), while O Brother Where Art Thou? and, to a lesser extent, Miller's Crossing are a bit overrated (their common feature: a Southern setting?). My preference, I will freely admit, is for the stranger of the Coens' movies, which is reflected in the labels I've given to the groupings below. (I feel stronger about the groupings than I do about the order within them). I settled on Fargo at No. 1 in part because, with its noir-ish plot, dark humor, and Minnesota setting, it feels a bit like the quintessential Coen brothers movie.

By the way, even the "misfires" are pretty good. All but the last two in this list reward repeated viewing. (I tried to watch The Ladykillers a second time; I failed.)

The Trinity

Fargo
The Big Lebowski
No Country for Old Men

The Great Oddities

A Serious Man
Barton Fink
Raising Arizona

Superb Entertainments

Miller's Crossing
Burn After Reading
Blood Simple
True Grit

Interesting Misfires

The Man Who Wasn't There
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Hudsucker Proxy

Watchable

Intolerable Cruelty

Unwatchable

The Ladykillers

There's something very satisfying about making such lists, and yet it's almost impossible to stay satisfied with one. (Maybe Raising Arizona should be fourth? The Big Lebowski first?) Perhaps it's better to be more specific: New York has ranked the Coens' best "idiot movies" and the best of their films' mustaches, Time has ranked their movies' best "moments," and The Awl has ranked the films based on which achieve the "most thorough realization of a world." I'm still waiting to see them ranked by "best accents" (Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother? Tommy Lee Jones in No Country? Frances McDormand in Fargo?). Just a matter of time, I'm sure.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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