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.
FIRST TIER (in preferential order): Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Raising Arizona
These are my top three Coen Brothers films. I saw all of them between the ages of 18 and 30. When ranking the best Coen Brothers films, the top three will always originate from that period of your life. Therefore, it’s technically impossible for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (or any other subsequent Coen Brothers film) to land here, no matter how accomplished it might be.
SECOND TIER: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink
The paradox of the second tier is that these are the films that I would be more excited to watch right now if given the choice of watching any Coen Brothers film. I haven’t seen them as many times as the movies in the first tier (well, with the exception of Lebowski) and they don’t have the stodgy “canonical” baggage of the top tier. (You will be roasted by Film Twitter if you don’t mention Raising Arizona, Fargo, and/or No Country For Old Men at the top of your list.) They’re just extremely pleasurable to watch if you ever have an afternoon to kill.
Buster Scruggs doesn’t belong here, by the way, though I am extremely fond of the Tom Waits sequence. It’s my favorite thing he’s done since Mule Variations. If I were ranking parts of Coens Brothers movies, I’d be tempted to put that section of Buster Scruggs in this tier, along with the “security … of your shit” scene from Burn After Reading.
THIRD TIER: A Serious Man, Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing
I almost put Buster Scruggs here. After two viewings, I like it a lot. It’s very bleak — possibly their bleakest since A Serious Man — and yet it’s made with the same sort of craftsmanship and eccentric humor that makes Miller’s Crossing such a reliably rewatchable treat. However, Buster Scruggs doesn’t quite seem … important enough yet, in the way that Blood Simple feels important as an early, definitive statement of the Coens’ style and themes.
Of course, it’s not the fault of Buster Scruggs that it doesn’t yet have the gravitas of the other films in this tier. I’m the one at fault for making a damn list just a few days after the movie came out.
FOURTH TIER: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, True Grit, Burn After Reading
This feels right.
Now, before putting Buster Scruggs in an exact spot, an important note: When placing a new film on your Coen Brothers list, you must automatically lower that movie one spot from where you want to put it, in order to account for the recency effect. After that, you must then automatically raise it two spots, to account for the fact that Coen Brothers films always get better with age.
I was initially tempted to put Buster Scruggs between True Grit at no. 10 and Burn After Reading at no. 12. However, after factoring the aforementioned “time-based bias” accounting, I wind up with Buster Scruggs at no. 10, True Grit at no. 11, and Burn After Reading remaining at no. 12.
FIFTH TIER: The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Hudsucker Proxy
The most annoying brand of Coen Brothers fan is the person who loudly insists that The Hudsucker Proxy is ACTUALLY the best film they ever made … and I suspect I will eventually become that person.
SIXTH TIER: Hail Caesar!, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers
Confession: I tried watching The Ladykillers once late at night and fell asleep. I don’t know that I’ve seen more than 20 minutes of it. The film’s reputation is so bad that I’ve never felt compelled to go back. Is it possible that The Ladykillers is ACTUALLY the best film they ever made, and the public simply hasn’t recognized it because we all fell asleep after the first couple of scenes?
We shall see at the next Coen Brothers movies list!