A Serious Man (2009)
Seemingly the most personal and autobiographical of the brothers’ films, this examination of Jewish faith and family in 1960s Minnesota gives us a lot to like, if not to love. The cast (including Michael Stuhlbarg’s frustrated, questioning patriarch and Amy Landecker as his sultry, smoky neighbour, Mrs. Samsky) is stellar, and the set pieces are by turns charming (a stoned Bar Mitzvah boy’s meeting with a Dumbledore-esque rabbi) and fascinating (like the opening Old World ghost story and the ominous, ambiguous ending). And yet, for all its strengths, I suspect my somewhat muted enthusiasm for A Serious Man may echo one of Stuhlbarg exasperated lines: “Why even tell me the story?” But it’s hard to argue with the storyteller’s shrugged reply (an encapsulation, perhaps, of the Coens’ own philosophy): “You can’t know everything.”
No Country for Old Men (2007)
From this point on, the rankings get more difficult, because each of the remaining films are such ambitious, assured, and singular genre mash-ups that it’s like comparing insanely flavourful apples with mind-bogglingly delicious oranges. But I’ll give it a shot. No Country For Old Men is, quite simply, one of the most suspenseful films of the twenty-first century, with moments of breath-taking tension and, of course, Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning embodiment of death as the relentless assassin Anton Chigurh. To be honest, the mood of bleak hopelessness the film establishes so well is probably the reason it’s not higher on the list, because, really, there’s only so much contemplation of mortality I can take, no matter how exhilarating the delivery system may be.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Yes, yes, I know — everyone hates this movie, and I just lost all credibility with you mean kids down in the comments section. And I’m well acquainted with the standard refrain: The Hudsucker Proxy is a desecration of the brilliant screwball comedies it cynically emulates, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fast-talking homage to Rosalind Russell is an annoying, misbegotten disaster. Critics and audiences loathed the film, and most would rank it as the worst of the Coen bros’ canon. Well, tough. I like it. It’s packed with great moments, I laughed all the way through the first time I saw it, I’m still quoting it more than a decade later, Paul Newman is a hoot, the production design is gorgeous, and the “blue letter” and “birth of the hula hoop” sequences are brilliant. So there.