Saturday, July 6, 2013

Random Top Ten List: Best Westerns of the Last Decade

I haven’t see the new version of “The Lone Ranger” but it doesn’t look very good and from the box office reports to looks like it will lose the Disney Studios tens of millions of dollars (everybody “Whaaaah!”) It’s bringing out another chorus of “The Western is Dead” from critics. For decades some have claimed this to be the case. People were making the claim before “Dances with Wolves” won Best Picture in 1990 and since “Unforgiven” won Best Picture in 1992.
But if you look at the last decade, there have been a number of good Westerns, especially if your definition isn’t bound by time (“the Olde”) or place (geographic West rather than the Spirit of the West.) Here’s a list (alphabetical) of my favorite ten Westerns for the last decade:

“3:10 to Yuma” (2007) – This remake (with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale) might not be as good as the 1957 original (with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin), but it’s still very good. Both films present a good man with the temptation to choose a short cut to provide for his family. Crowe plays an excellent tempter to Bale’s good man. (Also fun to see Peter Fonda decades off his Harley on a horse.)

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007) – The film was longer than the title, but worth everyone of its 160 minutes. Cinematographer Roger Deakins filmed perhaps the most gorgeous Western ever made, and writer/director Andrew Dominik wrote one of the most thoughtful of Western scripts, with great insights on the danger of lusting for fame. Brad Pitt is good as James, but Casey Affleck is better as Ford.

“Django Unchained” (2012) – Yeah, the Western is dead when just last year a Western made a huge profit and was nominated for Best Picture. (Perhaps, technically, a “Southern”, but it’s a Western.) Quentin Tarantino’s salute to spaghetti westerns is very violent and goes more than a little over the top in the third act. But its righteous indignation at the evil’s of slavery is well earned. Christoph Waltz deserved his second Oscar under Tarantino’s direction.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) - A rare Western that doesn’t focus on lawman or outlaws, cowboys or soldiers but rather ordinary settlers. In fact, rarer still, it focuses on the women settlers and was directed by a woman (Kelly Reichardt). A sad, and disturbing tale of the Oregon trail that won’t be wholly unfamiliar to fans of one of the first educational computer games.

“No Country for Old Men” (2007) – Ethan and Joel Coen are the only film makers today that will draw me to see a film, no questions asked. Though set in the present day, this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy novel is a Western tale of bad guys and outlaws and those that come between them. I love the film, and it did deserve its Best Picture Oscar, but I miss the sheriff’s theological musings from the novel.

“Open Range” (2003) – Perhaps I’m cheating on the time frame to include Kevin Costner’s very traditional Western, but I love it so I don’t care. Robert Duvall is a joy as is most everyone in the cast. The first R rated film I showed my teen and near teen aged kids, because I was thinking it was PG-13. (The rating was earned with one graphic gunshot wound.) I don’t regret it.

“The Proposition” (2005) – Now this violent Western really earns its R rating. Set in frontier days of Australia, Nick Cave’s screenplay sets up a nasty situation wherein a man (Guy Pearce, who managed to be in several of my favorite films of 00’s) must track down and kill his older brother…or his younger brother will be killed. Though not parallel, the situation has the feel of the proposal the disguised Joseph gave his brothers toward the end of the book of Genesis.

“Rango” (2011) – Some of the same people involved with new “Lone Ranger”, writer/director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp, made this deeply strange animated Western about a lizard who joins mammal townsfolks to confront an outlaw snake. (Tim Olyphant, star of “Justified”, the best “Western” currently on television, provides the Eastwoodesque “Voice of the West”.)

“Serenity” (2005) – Okay, it’s spaceships instead of horses, but this still is a great Western, a sequel to the great Western television show, “Firefly”, created by Joss Whedon. Arguably, much of the appeal of the Old West is the libertarian spirit of freedom, which is at the heart of this legend of outlaws (from the show’s theme song, “Take my love, take my land, Take me where I cannot stand, I don’t care, I’m still free, You can’t take the sky from me.”) Probably, you are advised to watch the entire run of the show (13 episodes) before viewing the film, but if you do that, it will make you laugh and it will make you cry.

“True Grit” (2010) – The list ends as it began with a remake of a traditional Western. But I think this film is even better than the 1969 original (which is pretty amazing since the original had an Oscar winning performance by the King of the Westerns, John Wayne.) This is also the second appearance on the list of writer/directors (producers/editors) Joel and Ethan Coen. They capture, even better than the original, the redemptive aspects of the Charles Portis novel. So, yeah, people will continue to say the Western is dead. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen’s still have another good Western hidden up each sleeve (which would be four more great Western, by my count.)

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