Magnificent: The Essential Westerns of the New Millennium

Magnificent: The Essential Westerns of the New Millennium

Howdy folks!

Now I'm sure I'm not the only one, but growing up I really loathed westerns. I mean, I loved cowboys as much as the next kid, but westerns on TV always meant my dad was watching whatever he was wanting to watch and I was no longer watching G.I. Joe or Transformers. Thankfully, somewhere along the way my attitude toward the genre changed quite a bit and instead of being something that divided us, westerns became something of a bonding experience for my father for I. Instead of dreading westerns, I looked forward to them, and I looked forward to seeing the, with him. 

Some of my favorite memories with my dad involve going to see Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. I remember talking to him about how excited I was about Tombstone and I'm excited still about us maybe getting together to catch the new The Magnificent Seven. Our tastes are more different than ever in most areas (politics, TV, music, and most films), but the love of movies that made the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood the biggest icons of their era never seems to die, even though fewer and fewer of these pictures seem to get made every year. 

Fortunately, there are still a few that shine through, and when one really hits it seems to highlight the things that are eternal about this genre and why it continues to endure. So sit a spell and let's go over the ones I'd consider the best westerns since 2000. 

It's Clobberin' Time! 

 

7. Open Range (2003)

Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening and Michael Gambon

Directed by Kevin Costner

While Kevin Costner is still a respected actor (despite the one-two punch of Waterworld and The Postman) and does have the distinction of having directed a Best Picture winner, he's never really achieved the iconic status that he seemed destined for in the late 80s/early 90s. In some ways he's actually turned into a terrific character actor, especially if you need a certain type of "salt of the earth mentor" in your movie, which made him perfect casting for Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel, where he was definitely one of the best parts of the film. While he's currently trying his hand at the sort of Liam Neeson/grizzled action star trope to some success, I wish he would just return to westerns, where his screen persona simply fits him like a glove. 

Case in point is Open Range, Costner's ode to westerns such as Rio Bravo, casting himself in the role of the mysterious gunslinger while letting Robert Duvall do all the heavy lifting in terms of levity and emotion. The duo are driving a herd of cattle out west with companions Button (Diego Luna) and Mose (Abraham Benrubi) when they run into a group of corrupt cattle ranchers lead by Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), and the fight is on. Outnumbered and outgunned Charley and Boss (Costner and Duvall) saddle up for one last gunfight in the middle of the street against Baxter's goons, as onlookers try to catch the action while trying not to get caught in the crossfire. 

Costner's film is such an elegant lovesong to the classic American western that it feels like some sort of rare snowflake even within it's own genre. The film is so earnest that some may find it offputting, but as a lover of movies such as High Noon and Shane , with Costner's hero cut straight from the mold of classic Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart cowboys of yesteryear, that the picture falls right in my wheelhouse. I also can't put enough emphasis on how incredibly entertaining Robert Duvall is every second he's on screen, and the chemistry between the two feels very earned and natural. To top it all off,  Costner even manages to stage a classic gunfight that stresses chaos over choreography that feels as real as any I've ever seen in a horse opera. 

6. The Proposition (2005)

Starring:  Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, David Wenham, and Emily Watson

Directed by John Hillcoat

If there's a more nihilistic western than The Proposition, I'm not sure that I'd want to see it. Transplanting the genre to the Australian outback, this is one of those bleak, "men against both the wilderness and society" type films that Roger Ebert famously compared to work of Cormac McCarthy and reminds me of the best films of Sergio Corbucci. Revolving around one man's struggle to decide whether to kill one brother to save another, this is a picture that pulls no punches and wallows in its beautiful misery, daring you to keep watching.

Guy Pearce gives a haunting performance as Charlie Burns, a captured outlaw given nine days to find and kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), or his younger brother is to be executed. Arthur is a monster in human form, raping and pillaging the countryside, burning down homesteads, and seemingly unstoppable to the local authorities. Young Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) is basically a child; an innocent born to an evil family, but one that will pay the price for the sins of his brothers if this act is not done in time. For Charlie himself, his older and younger brothers seem to represent the two sides of his soul, and whichever one is eliminated the other half will surely win out. 

Director John Hillcoat gives you such an intense look at this time and place that you can practically feel the grime, and the heat, and the dirt of this land still trying to be tamed by civilization. Hope is in short supply, as the people in this film give in to their baser instincts more often than not, no matter which side of the law they are on. The Proposition is definitely not a picture for the squeamish, but for fans of the darkest shades of this genre, the film is a treasure that is not to be missed. 

5. Django Unchained (2012)

Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Walton Goggins

Directed by  Quentin Tarantino

In so many ways, this feels like the film that Quentin Tarantino built up to for more than a decade. While QT relied on western themes and motifs while melding them to Asian cinema and war films in Kill Bill  and Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained was his first honest venture into the genre. With a game cast and tons of bloody action, what you end up with is a rip-roaring revenge tale that unleashes its fury on racism and the institution of slavery in the same way The Inglorious Basterds aimed to take down Hitler and the Nazi party.

For a picture to contain so much rage and anger and to be filled with so much savage imagery, it's a credit to its director that Django Unchained still ends up such a great a example of populist entertainment. Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is an especially depraved villain and stands out as perhaps the most deplorable person to ever grace a Tarantino film, but he's matched pound for pound by Jamie Foxx's Django and his love Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) whom I would count as the most heroic figures in the director's filmography. Add in an incredible soundtrack, gunfights galore, the biggest blood squibs ever seen, and an impossibly gregarious turn from Christoph Waltz and you've got the makings of a genre classic.

4. True Grit (2010)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, and Josh Brolin

Directed by The Coen Bros

The original 1969 version True Grit ( or the "real" True Grit as my father referes to it) definitely has its own legion of fans, but for me the Coen Brothers' remake released in 2010 is one of the best examples of presenting the same material through a different lense. Sure, essentially this True Grit has the same story, but in the end what the Coens come up with is a film that feels so fundamentally different at its core. The original film is a pretty straightforward and excellent John Wayne vehicle with a big, boisterous turn that earned him his Oscar, while the remake is a movie that feels more elegiac and poetic, as the Coens' screenplay borrows even more from the novel than the original movie, making their dialogue feel more imaginative and melodious, despite the fact that this picture is replete with drunkards and morons. 

Their dialogue is especially memorable in any scene with Mattie Ross, featuring a starmaking turn by Hailee Steinfeld. Obsessed with bringing her father's killer to justice, it's the 14 year-old Ross who hires U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges at his most grizzled) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to track down the wild Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who callously shot down the elder Ross in the middle of the street. Every scene with Steinfeld is an absolute winner, as the labyrinthene dialogue of the piece simply rolls off her tongue with authority. Even with two action stars doing some excellent roughneck work here, it is Mattie's tongue-lashings and her sharp wits that seem to be the most fearsome weapons used onscreen. 

Plain and simple, the movie is just captivating. Roger Deakins' incredible cinematography is top notch work, Bridges and Damon have a hilarious back and forth, and the Ned Pepper gang are appropriately strange but also imposing villains. Mostly, I just love how the directors molded this classic story into a vintage Coen Bros film. The movie isn't afraid to get charmingly weird, and yet this is a harsh and dangerous land in which this 14 year-old girl sallies forth. Thankfully, she brought the meanest U.S. Marshall she could find to help her on quest for justice. 

3. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Starring: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, and Woo-sung Jung

Directed by Kim Jee-woon

So I know that the inclusion of this movie is stretching the definition of the western a little bit, but I also feel like you could have said the same thing about A Fistful of Dollars when it premiered in 1964. There's nothing traditional about Kim Jee-woon's action epic, as the movie takes place in Manchuria during the early days on WWII, but at it's heart is a movie that is pure Leone. The movie revolves around a buried treasure hunted by three men; a super cool bounty hunter, a ruthless outlaw, and a rowdy scroundrel of a thief. Sound familiar?

The name of the game here is action. Kim Jee-woon currently ranks as my second favorite action director (Gareth Evans is in the top spot) and this film is packed to the gills with incredible gunfights, knife fights, fist fights and one of the best chase sequences ever caught on camera. The director uses his camera like a weapon to tell his story; surprising you at every turn by following his characters where you think his shots won't go. Just when you think a sequence will cut, the camera shot will just keep going, keeping audiences off-kilter by manipulating their expectations. On top of that, the movie is ridiculously filled with over-the-top, gorgeous money shots of these characters in audacious action. If you're looking for your westerns to be fun above all else, The Good, The Bad, The Weird  is the movie you are looking for, full stop.

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Starring: Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt

Directed by Andrew Dominik

The reason that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ends up an American classic is because there are four specific individuals working at a level that is completely unbelievable. First up is Andrew Dominik, who directs this film with a pensive style, letting the movie wash over you with its moody images, feeling somewhere in between a Terrance Malick film and a Ken Burns documentary, yet still able to spring into violent action. This is a director in complete control, with comedic scenes turning tense at a moment's notice or pastoral sequences that linger in the brain long after the movie is over.

Dominik's work goes hand in hand with the man shooting those sequences, and I'd count Roger Deakins as our finest living cinematographer. Though his career started in the mid-70s, his legacy has kept building and building because of his work on films such as No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Prisoners, and Sicario, proving Deakins seems to be getting better and better with age. Here he provides some of the most beautiful images ever produced for the screen, as if a dream about Jesse James' life were simply projected up on your wall. There are wordless sequences of such quality that they always elicit an extreme emotional response from me, especially when coupled with the hypnotic score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Roger Deakins is like a painter, telling this story with gorgeous visuals, and this movie is his triumph. 

The last two individuals work in tandem as the title characters of the piece. Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt have never been better than they are here, with Affleck receiving an Academy Award nomination for playing the role of Robert Ford, while Pitt's Jesse James won him the Venice Film Festival award for Best Actor. Affleck's celebrity obbsessed character can be tough to watch as times, as Ford's manner is just such a natural weasal of a man. He's so obviously just hanging onto his place in the James gang in order for him to find his own fame that he frequently goes head on into situations by making them as awkward as possible.

Pitt, on the other hand, is like a coiled snake, ready to strike at a moment's notice. I've never seen Pitt in such command, seeming completely calm and collected, with the threat of violence just under the surface. There are so many layers to this performance, as James is a person relishing his fame, but also weary from it. The pressure of his outlaw life is getting to him, making him paranoid and taking it out on everyone around him. The beauty of this performance, is that so much of this is gotten across with just Pitt's face and mannerisms, even just his body language is subtle and fascinating.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film in the proud tradition of melancholy westerns such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Jeremiah Johnson, and plays more like mournful song than a traditional shoot'em up. It's also one of the best movies about celebrity I've ever seen, which is ironic considering I just re-watched this film as Pitt is back in the news due to his divorce. Robert Ford's affection for Jesse is immense, but not more than the love of his own fame, and here we see how that kind of attention can both make and destroy those kinds of people who seek it out. 

1. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Starring: Russell Crowe and Christian Bale

Directed by James Mangold

I hesitated to rank the movies for this list at first, because each mean so much to me in different ways, but picking one film from this list to see above all others was pretty easy with 3:10 to Yuma. James Mangold's 2007 remake is a perfect western; a movie about men being men, and having to stand up for what they believe in, even in the face of death. It's about common people standing up to villainy and about people of different stations coming to find understanding. Like the original film, the movie revolves around a rancher, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) who has to escort a nortorious outlaw, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), to a nearby train station in order for him to face justice. With his gang in pursuit, Dan's posse whittles down to just him, and in order to save his farm and his family he has to keep going against a small army of guns. At its end though, this is a movie that is so much more than its simple plot.

For fans of the western as an artform, I can't imagine not liking this movie. While westerns often come in two forms, "fun" or "serious", Mangold seems to ride the line between both presenting a movie with dire consequences and authentic details, but also constructs one of the most action packed films of the genre. With edge-of-your-seat chases and a town-wide gun fight finale that stands as an all-timer, 3:10 to Yuma is about as fun as westerns get, but never seems silly or too stylish that it takes you out of the picture. 

The movie also has an incredible emotional impact because of the Dan's determination, putting everything he has on the line in order to bring Ben Wade to justice, even if death is around the next corner. Christian Bale brings a quiet nobility to Evans, trying ever so hard to disappear into this role of a poor rancher but also making you believe he can handle himself in a gunfight armed with not much more than a rifle and the gravel in his guts. It's a testament to Bale, who was still Batman at the time, that he could diminish his star power just enough that he could make Dan such a credible everyman, which is what makes the dynamic with Ben Wade work in the picture. 

As for the notorious outlaw, Russell Crowe is pure screen charisma here, getting to play Wade with as much swagger as I've ever seen him have. Whether charming bar-maids or Dan's family, you can seen why so many would fall under his spell. Wade is the personification of what a legendary outlaw should be, a Robin Hood that's really only out for himself and doesn't really give back to the poor. Then again, Crowe brings more dimension to Wade by bringing an understanding to what Dan is doing on his very blue collar mission and seems to respect it. 

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Ben Foster's Charlie Prince, Wade's main Lieutenant, who looks and acts as if he stepped out of a Sergio Leone movie rather than a classic Hollywood version of the genre. With his super cool riding jacket and his Schofield pistols, Prince is a force of nature killing all in his path to get his boss back, and stands with villains like Darth Maul or Go-Go Yubari as heavies who are just there to kill and look cool, and Foster pulls it off with aplomb. 

When it comes down to it, 3:10 to Yuma is just simply a 100% satisfying movie experience. It's a film that's fun as all get out, but it doesn't feel like empty calories like so many "fun" westerns can be. This is a movie with real life and death stakes, it just does it in the most entertaining way possible. This is the western down its very essence and the results are as exciting as I've ever seen. 

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