For my next trick, I have rewatched all 18 feature films written and directed by the Coen Brothers, the duo I have officially labelled my favorite filmmakers.
Joel and Ethan Coen have been releasing movies for 36 years now, which really ages me — I clearly remember watching their second film in the theater when I was 15.
Indeed, one of my big takeaways from this exercise is how wonderfully the Coens’ films have aged. I chalk that up to their fondness for period pieces but also the confidence and boldness of their filmmaking right out of the gate. A vision this audacious and assured always feels fresh.
Now, on to the countdown. As I did with my Pixar list, I will share where I ranked each film before and after my rewatch.
#18. The Ladykillers (2004)
(down one spot from previous ranking)
This film, and the one below, are widely considered the Coen Brothers’ two worst films, and my own list doesn’t stray from that consensus. Upon rewatch, I swapped their positions, moving The Ladykillers to the bottom spot.
Here’s where I offer up the old cliché that the Coen Brothers’ worst movie is better than a lot of people’s best, and that’s true. The Ladykillers is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just up against some incredibly stiff competition.
Tom Hanks, the biggest star to ever appear in a Coen movie, delivers a delightful performance as a Southern Fried literature enthusiast and casino robber who charms a churchgoing widow (Irma P. Hall) so he can secretly tunnel from her basement to an underground vault.
Hilarious supporting turns by J.K. Simmons and Marlon Wayans, plus a heartfelt turn by Hall, add to the film’s appeal, as does the glorious gospel soundtrack.
The film is a remake of a 1955 British comedy classic, and was originally intended for director Barry Sonnenfeld. The Coens came on as hired hands, and it shows. They pull off some nifty recurring motifs, and the high-falutin dialogue is a treat, but this movie feels the least like a Coen Brothers movie of anything in their catalog, and that lands it in last place.
#17. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
(up one spot from previous ranking)
I’d seen this film only twice, and not in many years, so it was a pleasant surprise given that it was previously ranked in last place. Pleasant enough to bump it up only one spot, granted, but again, look at the competition.
It’s interesting that the Coens’ two worst films came in successive years, an uncharacteristic slump two decades into their filmmaking career. Perhaps these two movies represented a flushing of their creative system, because they came back with a vengeance a few years later, winning multiple Oscars and kicking off one of their most successful stretches. But I’ll get to those movies later.
Intolerable Cruelty was another film not originally intended for the Coens. They polished an existing script and saw the film passed around by other directors — including Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme — before it ended up back in their laps.
George Clooney plays a vain, ruthless divorce attorney who meets his match in a conniving gold digger played by Catherine Zeta Jones. This is a pitch-black romantic comedy, the kind where the leads get together only after literally trying to kill each other.
Clooney delivers one of his trademark Coen Brothers doofus roles (he excels at these) and Zeta Jones is a wickedly effective comedienne. She has also never looked more beautiful, which is saying something.
That covers the Coens’ two “director-for-hire” movies — both worth watching but not essential. Stay tuned… everything else is gold.