1. “Unforgiven” (1992)
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Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning epic “Unforgiven” takes a dark and violent look at the myths and history of the West in a gloomy and melancholic light. Retired outlaw William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood in the film, returns to the ring after decades of farming. For its ambiguity and noir atmosphere, the picture debunks and honors one of cinema’s most famous genres by brilliantly balancing violence and valor, courage and revenge. “Unforgiven” was the third Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has since been inducted into the National Film Registry because of its anti-violence message.
2. “Django Unchained” (2012)
“Django Unchained” is the ultimate Quentin Tarantino film. It is messy, brash, raucously funny, and weirdly emotional. It’s a bold recreation of the spaghetti Western, but it’s also an homage and a subversion. Django (Jaime Foxx) is an African-American slave in the Deep South during the antebellum era. As a German bounty hunter disguised as a traveling doctor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) pledges to free him in exchange for his assistance in securing a huge reward. Typical of Tarantino, the film is full of visual and narrative allusions, as well as the likes of Bruce Dern, who has long been linked with the genre. In addition, Tarantino’s brilliant original script and Waltz’s scene-stealing supporting performance both won Academy Awards for this elegant, gruesome historical drama.
3. “The Homesman” (2014)
In spite of Hilary Swank’s stunning performance and a profoundly challenging narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’ melancholy and introspective Western slipped under the radar last year. In a departure from Western convention, Jones allows women to take the lead in the action. “The Homesman,” which takes place in the mid-1850s, follows Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) as she embarks on a journey to convey women fleeing pioneer life to Iowa. She hires a low-life drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) to accompany her because she realizes how difficult the voyage will be. Prieto’s cinematography captures the raw beauty, psychological danger, and perpetual threat of the Nebraska Territories. “The Homesman” is a modern Western that is both subtly feminist and unrelentingly grim.
4. “True Grit” (2010)
While the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men” had given the Coen brothers some experience in this field, it remained to be seen how they’d do with such iconic material. Fortunately, they had a gift for dry humor and stunning visuals that perfectly complemented this Western tale. To find the culprit responsible for her father’s death, 14-year-old Mattie Ross partners up with a senile, inebriated US Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges). “True Grit” is the Coens’ first foray into a specific genre, as opposed to previous efforts like “No Country for Old Men” and others. Hailee Steinfeld’s breakout performance is the result of a deliciously old-fashioned narrative and a breakout performance.
5. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
A somber, atmospheric adaptation of Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel, “The Assassination of Jesse James,” by Andrew Dominik, was more than adequate. The film depicts the relationship between James (Brad Pitt) and Ford (Casey Affleck) and the events leading up to the iconic (and titular) killing in a way that is both psychologically complex and frightening. With a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, this film works as both a portrait of an outlaw and an examination of masculinity. Casey Affleck’s performance, which won multiple awards from critics and was nominated for an Academy Award, is a masterwork of cinematic craft. “The Assassination of Jesse James” is the quintessential tone poem of the new century’s Westerns, evoking the style of films like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”
6. “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)
“3:10 to Yuma” recovers the Western’s wounded heart and rescues it from the swamp of meaningless bloodshed, according to Roger Ebert of James Mangold’s extraordinary remake. One of Hollywood’s best modern Westerns accomplishes an astounding accomplishment by delivering a thrilling ride, a well-crafted story, while also faithfully recreating the 1957 classic (and Elmore Leonard’s original short story). When legendary bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is apprehended, Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale) offers to transfer him to the 3:10 to Yuma, a train that will carry the killer, who is fighting to survive on his drought-stricken ranch, to court. In this gripping two-hander, both actors provide visceral performances, and director James Mangold’s vision is equal parts throwback and modern. Above all else, “3:10 to Yuma” is a thrilling experience that won’t let you sit still.
7. “The Proposition” (2005)
In this nail-biting tale of devotion, vengeance, and the pursuit of justice, John Hillcoat (“The Road”) transports the Western to Australia’s Outback. Ray Winstone plays the lawman who apprehends Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), a legendary bandit, and gives him nine days to decide whether to kill his older brother or put his younger brother to death. The film’s aesthetic and narrative homages to Sergio Leone’s classics, as well as its uncompromising efficacy as a depressing mood piece, made it a popular moral parable. Film critics in the United States paid particular attention to Winstone, Danny Huston, and Emily Watson in “The Proposition,” which broke out of Australian cinema and became an international sensation.
8. “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)
What should come as no surprise is that “Meek’s Cutoff,” director Kelly Reichardt’s Western-themed indie flick, was an overwhelming success. When Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) was leading a wagon train through the Oregon desert in 1845, he used the route afterwards dubbed the Meek Cutoff, which was later renamed after him. Reynardt’s calibration is effortless and sophisticated at the same time; it is a minimalist, character-driven Western thriller disguised as a gradual burn. Meek’s Cutoff is that uncommon historical drama that feels entirely lived-in and authentic since it is textured with both a historical sense and a current perspective. With Greenwood and Reichardt muse Michelle Williams as the driving forces, this modern Western comes to life like no other.
9. “Lone Star” (1996)
It is Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) of “Lone Star,” John Sayles’ psychological Western, where the discovery of human bones and an ancient sheriff’s badge brings up horrible memories for the young lawman. The film entangles Sam in a web of ethical, familial, and multicultural conflicts through an artful examination of the past and present. “Lone Star” is a classic romantic tale of forbidden love, inescapable consequences, and the ghosts of the past that eventually ends in tragedy. He favors dialogue over action and emotional resonance over violent resolution in Sayles’ interpretation of the Western. The outcome is a heartfelt and devastating film, anchored by Cooper and the late Elizabeth Pea’s great performances.
10. “Dances with Wolves” (1990)
The greatest Western epic, “Dances with Wolves” is a film of immense grandeur and historical profundity.. Lt. John Dunbar’s (Kevin Costner) allegiance are put to the test after being welcomed and accepted by a group of Native Americans in this Civil War-era drama. “Dances with Wolves” is widely regarded as one of Costner’s greatest achievements as a filmmaker. National Film Registry has recognized Costner’s film as a modern American Western because of its stunning cinematography and emotional impact. Moreover, it won the Academy Prize for Best Picture, making it the first Western to win the prestigious award since 1931’s “Cimmaron.”
11. “The Rover” (2014)
Tonal control is maintained throughout “The Rover,” Australian filmmaker David Michôd’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed family crime thriller “Animal Kingdom.” An Australian Western-noir classic, Guy Pierce plays a hardened loner who tracks down the criminals who stole his only property, his automobile, and captures one of the crooks’ brothers in the process (Robert Pattinson). As they continue on the perilous voyage, the two forge an uncomfortable friendship. When it comes to 21st century economic ruin, “The Rover” brilliantly filters present existential dread into a filthy, dismal, and morally-minded Western framework. Many of the films on this list are expressionistic rather than action-packed, but “The Rover” stands out because of its confidence in stillness and geographical detail.