With the release of “Hail, Caesar!,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s 17th feature film, it’s fitting to assess their oeuvre in the form of a best-to-worst list. Herewith, the Coen canon ranked in handy descending order, the better for inevitable quibbles, arguments and fisticuffs to ensue:
1. “Fargo” (1996)
This choice reminds me of a cartoon I saw once, where two gorillas are eating bananas and one says to the other, “I know everyone loves bananas, but I really love bananas.” I really love “Fargo.” The wintry atmospherics, the Minnesota accents (they’re my people, I can vouch that these were spot on), the absorbing story line, Carter Burwell’s grave, melancholy musical score. But mostly I love “Fargo” for the gift of Marge Gunderson (played with sensitivity and implacable force by the sublime Frances McDormand), who so perfectly personified the movie’s balance between dark comedy and deep moral seriousness.
2. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)
If I weren’t so amused by the fact that Newt Gingrich and I agree on something, I might have made this one No. 1, if only to remind readers of its elegance, style, humor and irresistible leading man in Gabriel Byrne. You know him now as a conflicted therapist on HBO’s “In Treatment,” but in this Prohibition-era noir drama, he was a young man laconically navigating a dark underworld of crime and forbidden desires. A flawless example of the Coens’ style harmonizing sweetly with the subject at hand.
3. “Raising Arizona” (1987)
I understand some viewers’ quibbles that this satire on baby lust goes off the rails (most often thanks to John Goodman’s strident performance as a hulking, hirsute prison escapee), but I have a weakness for its bent humor and an affinity for the shots it takes at kids-as-commodities culture. Plus those deathless lines: “Edwina’s insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” “There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet.” “I just love biblical names. If I had another little boy, I’d name him Jason, Caleb or Tab.” Perfection.
4. “Blood Simple” (1984)
The Coens’ assured, astonishing debut film, a gritty piece of Texas noir that can still scare the jujubes out of you. A small, spare masterpiece of atmosphere, taut pacing and screen acting from McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh. Shivers.
5. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
Suffused with ache of thwarted artistic ideals and the sting of self-sabotage at its most savage, this portrait of a 1960s folk singer in Greenwich Village (loosely based on Dave Von Ronk) allows viewers to immerse themselves in a vanished New York, while introducing them to an extraordinary talent in Oscar Isaac. Moody, moving and musically on point throughout.
6. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
The Coens have their weaknesses, and one of them is re-creating Hollywood genres less as works of genuine feeling than facile pastiche. This, happily, is a work of genuine feeling, even if they’re just paying homage to better films. For the real thing, I still prefer “Sullivan’s Travels,” but for a respectable nod to Preston Sturges and “The Odyssey,” this sepia-toned period piece possesses a jaunty, infectious joie de vivre – not to mention George Clooney pulling off a dapper Clark Gable mustache. Extra points for giving Ralph Stanley a richly deserved comeback on T Bone Burnett’s gorgeous old-timey soundtrack.
7. “Barton Fink” (1991)
The writer’s friend. Anyone who has suffered through writer’s block — or through a high-concept Hollywood star vehicle with no redeeming artistic value — appreciates this ode to cruelly thwarted creativity. For cineastes it’s another of the Coens’ fascinating plunges into show business lore, in this case the story of Clifford Odets and other playwrights, novelists and journalists who came to the Los Angeles colony only to learn it’s where dreams come to die.
8. “Hail, Caesar!” (2016)
The Coens’ newest venture fits snugly and securely into their established canon, engaging the cardinal issues of their career, from paying homage to bygone popular culture to wrestling with faith and human frailty. Funny, often ravishingly beautiful, this zany Hollywood satire, set in the 1950s, is as jaundiced valentine to cinema as both art form and industrial practice at its most regularized and ruthless.
9. “Burn After Reading” (2008)
I say this is a funnier movie than “The Big Lebowski,” and I’ll stand on Jeff Bridges’s coffee table in Brad Pitt’s cowboy boots to say that. In fact, it’s Pitt’s all-out performance as a dimwitted gym rat that helped put this cockamamie cavalcade of slapstick, sex comedy and political satire over the looney-toons top.
10. “True Grit” (2010)
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this stately, beautifully crafted western, which features a breakout performance from young Hailee Steinfeld as a character who could be Marge Gunderson’s great-great-grandmother. Kudos to Matt Damon for scene-stealing support. The Coens lose points only for doing a remake of an already great movie — not the best use of their considerable gifts.
11. “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)
This mannered period comedy — a takeoff on such rat-a-tat-tat two-handers as “The Front Page” — would have been higher on the list if it weren’t for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s nails-on-a-chalkboard Katharine Hepburn imitation. The hilariously gruff presence of Paul Newman as a no-nonsense corporate boss and Tim Robbins’s bumbling-genius naif save the day. Extra points for a dazzling production design.
12. “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
Yes, I’m putting this ahead of “The Big Lebowski,” and I’ll stand on Jeff Bridges’s . . . oh well. Someone’s got to stand up for this admittedly middling screwball comedy, which sent critics and viewers skittering in all directions when it was released. Maybe it tries too hard to clear its verbal high bars, but it gets an A-minus for effort. I’m going to allow it.
13. “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
You’ve probably surmised that I’m in that minority of Coenphiles who failed to grasp the charm of this loud, labored, labyrinthine exercise in self-indulgence, amusing references to the Port Huron Statement notwithstanding. I love the Dude as much as anyone, but the self-conscious quirkiness quickly palls. I’ll keep trying, I promise, but for now — I still don’t get it.
14. “A Serious Man” (2009)
This retelling of the biblical story of Job featured a captivatingly nebbishy central performance by Michael Stuhlbarg and a finely tuned understanding of mid-century Jewish life in Minnesota, but the net effect of countless sharply observed details still amounted to very little. Accept the mystery, and this is a pleasant-enough diversion within the Coen canon. Ask for me, and ye shall not receive.
15. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
Another noir style-for-its-own-sake exercise — pretentious, empty and agonizingly slow.
16. “No Country for Old Men” (2007)
A technically perfect movie in which the Coens deploy every cinematic element at their disposal — writing, cinematography, editing, sound, performances — with the virtuosity of artists at the height of their powers. All to follow around a serial killer blowing people away with a cattle stun gun. Sorry, not worth it.
17. “The Ladykillers” (2004)
A pointless remake emblematic of the Coens’ weaknesses for empty style, pointless remakes and treading water between more original projects.