Last week, as soon as I was able, I watched the 18th Coen Brothers film, the western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, on Netflix. And then I watched it again. I did this because I love the Coen Brothers, and also because I am addicted to ranking Coen Brothers films.
I am clearly not alone in this. It seems like every time there’s a new Coen Brothers film, somebody (or many somebodies) finds it necessary to offer up an updated list of the best (although they really mean favorite) movies in Joel and Ethan’s canon. No other filmmaker inspires this kind of compulsively orderly fandom. With the legends of an older generation, such as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, it’s generally accepted which four or five movies are the best. For contemporaries of the Coens, such as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, we all know which eras in the ’80s and ’90s represent their respective pinnacles. When it comes to the directors who immediately followed the Coens — Tarantino, the Andersons, Sofia Coppola — there still aren’t enough movies to make ranking them all that interesting.
The Coen Brothers have made a lot of movies over the course of 35 years, and almost all of them are good. They have worked in many different styles — period drama, slapstick comedy, southern noir, revisionist western — and yet all of their films are united by a common Coens-ness. This makes their films easy to measure against each other, and also uniquely open to interpretation based on the specific needs of the viewer; what one person might appreciate about the Coen Brothers (stoner jokes!) might be completely different from what another person appreciates (the philosophical themes about how God is dead and mankind is ruled by fate!).
For this reason, you can make a reasonable case for a dozen films each being the best of the Coens. (You can also make a mildly annoying contrarian case for four of the remaining movies, and an insane and inexplicable case for the other two.) As I was watching Buster Scruggs, I wish I could say I was completely lost in the wordless interplay between Liam Neeson’s heartless traveling huckster and his armless and legless companion (Harry Melling), or the burgeoning romance between the stranded Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and the dashing cowboy Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). I was mostly absorbed, but I was also thinking: Is this better than True Grit, the other Coens western from the ’10s? Would I dare put it in the company of Inside Llewyn Davis, or even (gasp!) No Country For Old Men?
The urge to make Coens-related lists truly is a mental illness.
Because I believe in transparency, I am going to walk you through my process of ranking of Coen Brothers movies, in light of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In a sense, I suspect that all Coens Brothers lists are assembled in a similar fashion.
First, let’s ask two very important questions:
IS THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS THE BEST COEN BROTHERS FILM?
No, it is not.
IS THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS THE WORST COEN BROTHERS FILM?
I’m sorry, did The Ladykillers change its name to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? No? Well, then of course it’s not the worst.
Now, we have already established that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs falls somewhere between no. 2 and no. 17 on my list. In order to land on a more precise ranking, it is helpful to go through the six tiers of Coen Brothers films.