The Best Coen Brothers Comedies, Ranked

You can rarely put your finger on the reason why, but Coca-Cola just hits the spot. It satisfies that craving, it scratches that itch. Is it the sharpness of the fizz? The tangy, sweetness of the vanilla and cinnamon? Or are they still putting cocaine in those famous glass bottles? It is an age-old question that remains unanswered. While the presence of cocaine is most definitely absent from the list of ingredients, the same can be said for a Coen Brothers comedy flick. Their comedy just works, it feels right, it sends those penetrative tickles deep into your stomach and nothing else is quite like it, but that formula, like that of Coke’s, is one which is steeped in mystery, and often has you questioning why it’s so good.

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen have been making comedies since the 80s, and while some of the best Coen Brothers films are very serious, most have a quirky streak of humor running through them, and some are just flat-out laugh-out-loud comedies; the genre is simply one of the heavy guns in their armory. The silly, cartoonish, and often childlike attributes of their dark-humor films bring a distinguishable taste to their movies that films of the same genre usually do not. These are some of the best comedy films, that are unmistakably, inimitably Coen…

6 Burn After Reading

Focus Features

By 2008, dark comedy was a mainstay in the Coens’ ever-expanding repertoire. Burn After Reading brightly albeit convolutedly centers on two gym-workers, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand, longtime Coen collaborator and Joel’s wife) and witless jock Chad Fieldheimer (a hilarious and instantly iconic Brad Pitt role). Their chance discovery of a disk containing the dangerously exposing memoirs of a politician places them in an unexpectedly influential position. This movie is laced with the characteristic eccentricities and quirkiness of a Coen Brothers flick, though at times appears nonsensical. However, a winning combination of deeply unlikeable, narcissistic characters interacting with their fun, unpretentious counterparts helps to ease the load on a funny film that is a little narratively-challenged.

5 Hail, Caesar!

Josh Brolin in a suit and mustache sits in Hail Caesar
Universal Pictures

A film characterized by the mispronunciation of the phrase “Would that it were so simple,” Hail, Caesar! details a hectic day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of Physical Productions at Capitol studios. The Coen Brothers had initially conceived the idea for the movie 12 years prior to release, and it stands as the humorous counterpart to their other exploration of moviemaking, the terrifying Barton Fink.

Related: Are the Coen Brothers Done Making Movies Together?

The 2016 flick traverses the struggles and pressures of Eddie’s job, as he juggles, schmoozes, and effectively attempts to steer the ship at one of the world’s great film studios. From the hilariously pedantic, over-scrupulous nature of director Laurence Laurens (Ralph Fiennes), to acting supremo Baird Whitlock and conniving journalist, Thora Thacker played by the Coens staples George Clooney and Tilda Swinton respectively, Hail, Caesar! is filled with wonderful performances. The film contains within its very structure the formula to what makes Joel and Ethan’s comedy writing so revered, and immensely funny.

4 Raising Arizona

Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage sit on a couch and watch TV in Raising Arizona
20th Century Fox

Raising Arizona documents a couple’s kidnapping of the child of a businessman following unsuccessful attempts at adopting. Herbert “Hi” (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) McDunnough are desperate for a child of their own, but due to Ed’s infertility and Hi’s criminal past, the pair can neither conceive, nor adopt. The movie explores the complexities of human nature and delves deep into the challenges of the young couple all while balancing the lighthearted, satirical tone of the narrative. Raising Arizona has one of the best Nicolas Cage performances, and hilarious work from John Goodman as well. It dips into surreal, ridiculous territory but does so with endearing charm.

3 A Serious Man

Michael Stuhlbarg wears a suit in A Serious Man
Focus Features

Featured in The Guardian‘s top 100 films of the 21st century, A Serious Man has almost received all the recognition it deserves in the 12 years since its release. Set in 1960s mid-western America, A Serious Man is a comical portrayal of a Jewish man in the midst of a midlife crisis in this absurdist adaptation of the Book of Job. The directors successfully manage to weave together serious life events with a flippant, facetious tone that is simultaneously cruel and hilarious, and philosophically fascinating. There is a sense of humorous voyeurism in the exploration of the narrative, as Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) faces divorce and a complete loss of identity. Roger Ebert captured the film’s essence perfectly when he said, “Have I mentioned A Serious Man is so rich and funny? This is not a laugh-laugh movie, but a wince-wince movie. Those can be funny, too. ”.

2 O Brother, Where Art Thou?

John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney wear prison outfits in O Brother Where Art Thou
Good Vista Pictures Distribution

O Brother, Where Art Thou?the Coen Brothers’ first movie of this century, stars George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro as escaped convicts as they flee from law enforcement through rural Mississippi in this loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. The film’s title was actually taken from the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travelswhere O Brother, Where Art Thou? featured as a fictional novel. The Minnesotan duo eke every morsel out of this movie’s fun-filled, ebullient, and zestful nature.

Related: The Coen Brothers: How the Directors Dissect American Culture

At times, the characters appear to be irrepressible in their unintentional pursuit of comedic brilliance and seemingly run the picture themselves. Along with the protagonists’ outlandish naivety and the colorful cast of supporting characters, the sound of O Brother, Where Art Thou? allows for a real degree of comedic expression; its score was immensely popular, with the likes of I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow and Down to the River to Pray racking up tens of millions of streams worldwide from the movie’s cult following.

1 The Big Lebowski

Bridges and Goodman look at the camera in The Big Lebowski
Gramercy Pictures

The Coen Brother’s smash hit The Big Lebowski arguably holds the most cultural significance in their vast filmography, along with shaping aspects of the pop culture zeitgeist ever since. Many of us have mentally stored quotes and quirks from the 1998 movie, from “the Dude abides” to “just take it easy, man;” most high school and college kids are indebted to the filmmaking brothers in that way. Yet, The Big Lebowski was a monumental flop at the box office when it was released 24 years ago, and only really amassed a following as one of the best cult classics of the ’90s thereafter, though by now it’s essentially in the mainstream (which it helped define).

John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Jeff Bridges expertly play the bowling trio of Walter, Donnie, and the Dude respectively. The Big Lebowski masters the tremendous art of storytelling, and follows the hazy hedonism of protagonist The Dude, as he inadvertently becomes embroiled in a kidnapping scandal that goes from bad to worse while his two friends come along for the ride. White Russians, army war veterans who seem incapable of stringing a sentence together without shouting, the funniest nihilists in moviesand a sense of peculiarity all delightfully enrich the discombobulating world of the ever-confused the Dude. The Big Lebowski is arguably the funniest Coen Brothers movie, if not one of their best ever.


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