If you frequent a website that writes about movies, the chances are very good that website has ranked the Coen brothers’ movies in the last week.
Anyone who wrote a Coen brothers ranking piece is hereby banned from writing another one for their next movie. Seriously. I’ve got a list.
— Matt Singer (@mattsinger) February 5, 2016
In addition to ranking the Coens’ films as a whole, there were lists of their best characters, their best minor characters (you get yours, Buzz the elevator boy), not to mention a ranking of their movies from least to most problematic. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin even went so far as to rank the rankings.
An article in HitFix lamented the fact that no one can agree what the Coens’ best movies are, which you can also take as proof of their greatness: Even among fans, the disputes over what rises to the top can be vicious. But if you look over the lists as a group, patterns start to emerge. Limiting our scope just to lists that include the Coens’ brand-new “Hail, Caesar!,” we averaged the rankings published by Vulture, GQ, Yahoo, Thrillist, Thompson on Hollywood, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, to come up with an overall meta-ranking, which is about as close to consensus as you’re going to get. Here are the results:
11. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
13. “True Grit”
14. “The Hudsucker Proxy”
15. “Burn After Reading”
With the obvious addition of the Coens’ two most recent films, the results aren’t too different from when Slate performed a similar analysis in 2011: “Fargo” and “Raising Arizona” on top, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” on the bottom. But there are some interesting shifts: “The Big Lebowski” has moved down several slots, indicating that cult fervor isn’t enough to secure it a place in the canon, and “Barton Fink” has risen back to its rightful place among the Coens’ Top 5. The biggest drop, however, is “True Grit,” which has gone from 7th-ranked (and 10-time Oscar nominee) to a place in the bottom third of the Coens’ oeuvre, just above perennial basement-dwellers “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Burn After Reading.” The biggest gainer? “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” from third-to-last to Top 10 — not exactly a full-fledged revival, but it continues to be the movie that diehard Coens aficionados say you need to give one more try.
It’s also fascinating to compare the Coens rankings as they currently stand with their rankings on Metacritic, which more closely reflect how the movies were viewed when they came out. There, “Raising Arizona,” which only one critic in the current group ranked lower than third, languishes in the basement, with a Metascore putting it below the despised “The Ladykillers,” which is almost universally viewed as the Coens’ worst movie, and possibly their only truly bad one. On Rotten Tomatoes, the 96 percent “Fresh” “True Grit” is their highest-ranked movie, beating out “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
So, as J.K. Simmons’ character in the (underrated, goddamnit) “Burn After Reading” might put it, what did we learn? That with the exception of “Raising Arizona,” the Coens’ dramas are less divisive than their comedies? That their first five movies are still pretty much their best? How about we take the lesson Simmons’ CIA underlings take from their own fatal botches — not to rank the Coens’ movies again. At least until the next one comes out.