Brow Beat

What Is It About the Coen Brothers’ Movies That Makes Everyone Want to Rank Them?

Hail Caesar!, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images courtesy of Mike Zoss Productions, Paramount, and Working Title Films.

new Coen brothers movie was released this past weekend, which means everyone promptly began ranking the Coens’ movies in order of preference. Here’s Bilge Ebiri’s in Vulture. Here’s Ann Hornaday’s in the Washington Post. Here’s David Sims’ in the Atlantic. Here’s Devin Gordon’s in GQ. Here’s Ian Phillips in Business InsiderHere are some random people’s on Twitter. Here’s Slate culture editor Dan Kois in 2011, and here he is again in 2013, after what must have been a powerful 2012 viewing of The Hudsucker Proxy. And here’s the only full Coens ranking that Slate has yet published, by David Haglund, in 2011. 

If you were to go all Nate Silver on this corpus of Coen-ranking lists, you’d probably discover that everyone hates The Ladykillers, everyone likes Fargo, and everyone has one “surprising” favorite that they think reflects something unique about their innermost self. So why do we feel compelled to do this? What makes the Coens’ movies so intensely rankable?                            

I thought about this a lot while everyone else was watching the Super Bowl, and I came up with the following definitive list of reasons the films of Joel and Ethan Coen seem to beg us to organize them by perceived merit. (N.B.: Although this list is about the practice of ranking, it is not itself ranked.)

(1) There are enough Coen brothers films to make ranking interesting, but not so many that it becomes overwhelming. Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t have enough movies yet. Robert Altman has too many, a lot of which are not that great.

(2) Almost every one of them is someone’s favorite. A few Coens movies are widely disliked—The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There—but all the rest have their partisans. (Ask Dan Kois about The Hudsucker Proxy.)

(3) All the movies under consideration were generated by roughly the same process. The Coens write, direct, produce, and edit all their films. They use the same collaborators—cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, sound designer Skip Lievsay, casting director Ellen Chenoweth—again and again. They spend roughly the same amount of money every time. Ranking Coen films doesn’t require you to compare, say, Oceans Twelve ($110 million) and Schizopolis ($250,000). 

(4) The Coens started strong and never lapsed for long. Every Quentin Tarantino ranking has to account for the fact that the director’s imperial phase came and went with his first two movies, whereas there would be nothing especially surprising about a Coens list that put Raising Arizona (1987) next to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) at the top. That career-long consistency makes Coen-ranking a more flexible medium for self-expression.

(5) The Coens’ favorite themes—criminal schemes gone awry; desperate individuals caught up in events beyond their control; the challenge of maintaining a moral compass in a brutal world—recur from film to film. It’s impossible to watch a new Coens film without tracing its connections to its fellows: Hail, Caesar! is set in the 1950s like Hudsucker, it’s an old-Hollywood story like Barton Fink, and it revolves around a kidnapping like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski and Fargo. It’s a short hop from that kind of pattern recognition to making relative value judgments and tweeting about them. 

(6) Beyond these recurrent obsessions and motifs, though, what’s really consistent from film to film is the Coens’ artistic voice. They keep their protagonists, even the most sympathetic ones, at a remove from the audience. Their jokes never quite grant the relief of a belly laugh. Their comedies are tense; their thrillers hover on the verge of farce; even their most picaresque movies are intricately organized. (We know exactly how much money Llewyn Davis has on him at any moment.)

This unifying spirit is the real key to the rankability of the Coen canon. If you try to rank the films of Steven Spielberg, you find yourself trying to compare, say, Schindler’s List and Raiders of the Lost Ark, at which point you have to throw up your hands: These are movies that do different jobs using different tools. Whereas the Coens are always using the same meticulously honed tools to do the same strange job. 

(OK, OK:

Miller’s Crossing
Barton Fink
No Country for Old Men
Inside Llewyn Davis
Blood Simple
Burn After Reading
Raising Arizona
A Serious Man
The Big Lebowski
The Hudsucker Proxy
Hail, Caesar!
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Intolerable Cruelty
The Ladykillers

I never saw the other two.)