The Good, the Django and the Deadwood.
Despite the Golden Ages of the genre being well and truly over with no revival in sight, the Western has managed to soldier on, through the wave of terrible Wyatt Earp movies in the 1990s to Will Smith’s bizarre Wild Wild West and even the dreadful supernatural Westerns of the 2000s, like The Quick and the Undead, Cowboys and Aliens and Jonah Hex. The Western has endured. Time will only tell whether saloons and spurs will come through the colossal flop The Lone Ranger unscathed. The Western is a tragically misunderstood and under-appreciated form of cinema, but has been monumentally influential on film as we know it today. Here is a list of the ten best Western movies that thankfully refuse to accept the death of the genre. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ve narrowed the field down to Westerns produced after 2000. Hi Ho Silver!
10 | DJANGO UNCHAINED
Django Unchained never reached the heights of the classic films it plundered for inspiration, but was nonetheless a reasonably entertaining film. There is an amazing flick hidden in the reels of Django Unchained, unfortunately Tarantino’s film never quite lives up to that potential. It is one of the only Westerns on this list that’s more Leone than Ford, which has to count for something.
The Good: The journey to Calvin Candie’s plantation culminating in a neat sequence set to Jerry Goldsmith’s score from Nicaragua
The Bad: The haphazard tone, never quite sure whether to treat slavery seriously or not
The Ugly: Quentin Tarantino’s misguided cameo and his lamentable Australian accent
9 | OPEN RANGE
A more classical sort Western than Django Unchained, Open Range is one of the better entries into Kevin Costner’s filmography. It also has one of the best shootouts this side of Michael Mann’s Heat. Costner, who directed as well as starred in Open Range, gives the showdown a sense of intense realism by shooting the action in giant wide shots. We’re able to see and fully appreciate the geography of the engagement, which was refreshing amidst an era of action films that seemed hellbent on editing themselves into total bewilderment. It also has Diego Luna, who everybody likes.
The Good: The amazing shootout
The Bad: The romantic subplot with Annette Benning
The Ugly: Kevin Costner’s accent
8 | APPALOOSA
Appaloosa flew under the radar big time when it was released back in 2008, as many entries into this illustrious genre seem to. It was Ed Harris’ second feature as director, after the critically acclaimed Pollock in 2000. Unfortunately Appaloosa got engulfed by massive Summer releases like The Dark Knight, and barely recovered its 20 million dollar budget. Viggo Mortensen should definitely play more cowboys.
The Good: Viggo Mortensen
The Bad: Renee Zellweger
The Ugly: Renee Zellweger
7 | DEADWOOD
It’s not a film, we’re fully aware of that. But for the three seasons it aired before HBO regrettably pulled the plug, Deadwood was one of the best modern Westerns on any screen. Deadwood is an actual town in South Dakota that used to be infamous for it’s violence and near-lawlessness. The show incorporates real life historical figures, including Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp and true events, like the murder of gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock. Star Timothy Olyphant sounds uncannily similar to The Man With No Name, which Gore Verbinski would later take advantage of in Rango.
The Good: Will Bill Hickock
The Bad: Nowhere near enough shoot-outs
The Ugly: Al Swearengen passing kidney stones
6 | 3:10 TO YUMA
There’s nothing slick about James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, it’s just a good story told very well. Batman plays a crippled rancher who agrees to hold Maximus in his custody and fend off a wild bunch of bad guys until the 3:10 train to Yuma arrives. 3:10 is a throwback to the sort of classic American Western that John Wayne used to govern. It also has a fantastic extended cameo by Peter Fonda, son of Henry Fonda who of course played Frank in Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time in the West.
The Good: The killer score by Marco Beltrami and also Peter Fonda acting grizzly
The Bad: The uninspired cinematography in a genre that should lend itself to wonderful images
The Ugly: This is one of at least two films directed by James Mangold where a vet operates on a human
5 | NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
“Hold still.” Josh Brolin looks so good with a moustache it’s always slightly aggravating when he doesn’t have one. No Country For Old Men is a rarity in the sense that it’s essentially flawless. Plus a film that includes Josh Brolin’s moustache and Woody Harrelson wearing a cowboy hat surely knows where it’s at, if you catch my drift. “I mean the nature of you.”
The Good: The coin toss
The Bad: There’s actually very little wrong with this film
The Ugly: Chigurh’s haircut
4 | WINTER’S BONE
We’re quite aware that technically Winter’s Bone isn’t a Western, but it certainly has all the characteristics of one. Replace Jennifer Lawrence with Clint Eastwood and all the dodgy meth dealers she questions with cowboys and you got yourself a Western, my friend. I guess if you put Clint Eastwood and cowboys in any film it’d probably be a Western. John Hawkes as Teardrop, who also had a leading role in Deadwood, was born to play a gunslinger.
The Good: Jennifer Lawrence pulling a Clint Eastwood. A prettier Clint Eastwood
The Bad: Crystal Meth. It’s bad for you, don’t ever try it
The Ugly: Everybody in this film except for Jennifer Lawrence, who makes up for all of them.
3 | RANGO
Back in 2011, Rango came out of nowhere. With few exceptions, I’ve never been able to appreciate computer generated animations as much as the entire rest of the world seems to. Rango is one of those exceptions. For any Western lover, Rango is 107 minutes of amazing unashamed homages to classic Westerns. The references range from the obvious (the John Huston in Chinatown-esque mayor) to the subtle (the windmill in the town makes exactly the same noise as the one at the train station in Once Upon A Time in the West). And even though Johnny Depp was in it, we never had to see him.
The Good: The energetic chase through the canyon
The Bad: Johnny Depp’s involvement
The Ugly: The entire population of Dirt
2 | TRUE GRIT
True Grit was a welcome change of pace for the Coen Bros., arguably the first clear-cut genre film from a filmmaking team known for taking conventional genres and twisting them. Fundamentally True Grit is simple enough – a Texas Ranger, a U.S. Marshal and a young girl hunt the man who murdered the girl’s father – but there’s a subtle excellence in the execution of every scene, from the encounter with the Bear Man to Rooster’s last stand.
The Good: Rooster Cogburn under oath in court
The Bad: Matt Damon spanking Hailee Steinfeld
The Ugly: Lucky Ned’s teeth
1 | THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not only one of the best Westerns of the past fifteen or so years, it’s also one of the best Westerns to be made, ever. I’ve professed my admiration for Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik on ReelGood before, and Assassination of Jesse James is arguably his finest film. It’s unlike any other Western on this list, or indeed any Western ever made, perhaps something Terrence Malick might have made back when he was responsible for quality films. Cinematographer Roger Deakins apparently cited the train robbery sequence as the highlight of his career.
And as a special bonus for being such an attentive reader, here is the greatest flashback ever committed to film, from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.