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Ten Great Modern Westerns

29 June 15 words: Ashley Carter
Western Slow West was released this week, so we made a top ten list in regards to the genre
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

With every moderately successful Western release comes a string of articles proclaiming that the genre is back. Although the films might not be coming as thick and fast as they once were, there has been a string of consistently good Westerns since the turn of the century, some of which warrant a reputation as amongst the best in the genre’s history. Starting at the year 2000 (criminally ruling Wild Wild West invalid) here’s ten of the best modern Westerns.

Open Range (2003) dir. Kevin Costner
With Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp and the brilliant 500 Nations documentary series, Kevin Costner firmly established himself as the face of the Western genre in the nineties. But it was his 2003 film Open Range that remains his best effort in the genre. It’s a stock Western plot - a former gunslinger taking up arms against a corrupt lawman - but is executed with aplomb by a great cast including Robert Duvall, Diego Luna, Michael Gambon and Annette Benning.

The Missing (2003) dir. Ron Howard
With the most Western-looking face in human history, Tommy Lee Jones is another whose name has become synonymous with the genre. Set in 1885 New Mexico, it’s the story of a frontier medicine woman (Cate Blanchett) forming an uneasy alliance with her estranged father (Jones) when her daughter is kidnapped by an Apache brujo. One of Tommy Lee Jones’ best performances, and arguably Ron Howard’s most accomplished film, The Missing is a beautifully shot, suspenseful tale of child abduction and redemption.

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The Missing

Deadwood (2004-2006) Created by David Milch
There is hardly a week goes by where I don’t get angry that this was cancelled. One of the finest TV series ever made, Deadwood had such an authenticity in everything it presented from its language and characters, to its plotlines and sets. It succeeded in blending fictional characters with actual figures from history in the real-life town that was notorious even by the standards of the time. It was an outlaw community that served as a magnet to prospectors, whores, settlers and outlaws. Deadwood re-launched the career of Ian McShane, whose Al Swearengen ran The Gem Saloon, the focal point of the series’ action. Fans of the show were left on the cliffhanger ending of Season 3, after which the show was brutally cancelled by HBO.

The Proposition (2005) dir. John Hillcoat
Though set in Victorian Australia, The Proposition is as much of a Western as any other on this list.  John Hillcoat’s brilliant film is the story of a British lawman (Ray Winstone) in pursuit of the Burns Gang: three brothers that raped and killed a pregnant woman. After capturing two of the bothers, he gives Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) nine days to catch his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), otherwise he’ll execute the younger brother, Mike.  It’s a wonderful presentation of Australia as a barren, brutal unforgiving wasteland with brilliant performances from Winstone, Pearce and Huston, as well as John Hurt and Emily Watson. Nick Cave’s subtle, savage script is as perfect as his soundtrack.

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3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma (2007) dir. James Mangold
Not worthy of comparison with either the film directly before, or after it, on this list, but still worth mentioning as a fast-paced, fun modern Western. A remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford film, it features Christian Bale as a disabled rancher that agrees to escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade to the titular train, which will carry him to a court and probable death sentence. Russell Crowe is the killer with a soft side, playfully doodling on his sketchpad whenever he’s not burning people alive. Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Alan Tudyk and Ben Foster help make up a nice cast in a Western that doesn’t try too hard to be modern, happy to just be an old-fashioned, entertaining romp.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) dir. Andrew Dominik
Andrew Dominik’s superb meditation on the last days of notorious outlaw Jesse James is a sublime example of the evolution of the Western. With no opening credits or title, the film simply opens with sumptuous, Malick-esque cinematography and haunting, enigmatic narration. Brad Pitt was never better, nor Casey Affleck, whose childish sycophancy around James is played to perfection. It’s a brilliant study of death, not just of James, but also of his kind, his way of life and the Old West itself.

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Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007) dir. Yves Simoneau
Based on Dee Brown’s phenomenal book, this HBO movie is heartbreaking in its portrayal of the Native American displacement as the US expanded further West. Starting with General Custer’s shellacking at Little Bighorn in 1876, it concludes on the brink of the 20th Century with almost 100,000 Native Americans landless and countless others dead. Through the perspective of four main characters (both Native American and white), Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee covers every major event, including the aftermath of Little Bighorn, the making and breaking of each significant treaty, the Lakota exile to Canada, the revival of the Ghost Dance, the Trail of Tears, the massacre at Wounded Knee and the murder of Sitting Bull. It’s an intense and faithful adaptation of an utterly miserable period of history.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt’s brutally efficient film is brilliant in displaying the utter hopelessness that faced most settlers in the Old West. The unforgiving, barren landscape claims lives indiscriminately, and one piece of bad luck can ensure the slow, agonizing death of you and your entire family. Set in 1845, in the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, a wagon group of three families has hired Stephen Meek to guide them over the treacherous Cascade Mountain range. His promised shortcut leads them across an unmarked path in the high plain desert, where they soon become lost amidst the rocky terrain. Cracks inevitably emerge within the group as they struggle to survive. It’s a wonderfully shot, stoic film that didn’t get as much praise as it deserved.

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Meek's Cutoff

The Homesman (2014) dir. Tommy Lee Jones
Tommy Lee Jones’ directorial effort is brilliant in illustrating how fragile and, ultimately, cheap life was in the Old West. Misery is heaped on top of misery in a tale of the forgotten men and women - those who didn’t achieve their goals, or beat the bad guys; the ones that either died trying, or gave up when it became too hard. It might not be as entertaining as other films listed here, but its ultra-realistic, miserable portrayal of the disenfranchised characters of the West, and just how they coped with living in that fresh Hell is wonderful.

The Salvation (2014) dir. Kristian Levring
The main success of The Salvation lay in its combination of some of the textbook traits of the classic Westerns, with an innovative, fresh sensibility. It appealed to those who seek comfort in the revenge stories of cowboy movies of the fifties and sixties, whilst presenting a stylish, European aesthetic for those looking for something more visually modern. The always-brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is joined by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jonathan Pryce in what is a slick, ruthless portrayal of the more barbaric periods of the Old West.

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