Kick up some dust, ready the saddles and charge guns ablazing because we’re talking westerns! A genre that brought a manliness to American cinema with the likes of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and directors like Sergio Leone and John Ford for our grandfathers to secretly swoon over as men chewed off the heads of rattlesnakes and shooting thieves in cold blood.
I can’t stress how excited I am for two winter westerns this year (and technically next year) with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Inarritu’s The Revenant. Secretly reviving a genre that was thought to be too vintage for today’s movie going audiences, there have been brilliantly thought out and re-imagined takes on the old west beyond desert plains and the classic saloon. Westerns have their place in history as one of the most important genres to film when it comes to inspiring film makers with visuals, motivations, and all around concepts – which also has a lot to do with Akira Kurosawa’s inspiration on Westerns – but he will get his own article.
The list does not limit any style of western nor an era of western, the films only need to be considered a “western”.
10. Unforgiven (1992)
After seeing this recently, I realized how good this film actually is. It shows the maturity of a character type that Eastwood was always known to portray, but it also showed where Eastwood was going with his directing career which proved to mature equally as much as his age. A stellar cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris, it brings a vulnerability to a character type that was considered almost mythological.
9. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Nothing better than a revenge story in film. There is always an emotional pull towards the characters around our protagonist as well as the protagonist themselves. Are they the heroes or the villains? Are their actions justified or are they wrong? This is the beauty of The Outlaw Josey Wales and Clint Eastwood is classic in this 70’s era western drama.
8. The Wild Bunch (1969)
A game changer to the western because it showed blood. Violent and raw to the bone, The Wild Bunch brought a new style of film making to the table when the infamously insane director Sam Peckinpah gave a no-holds-barred approach to his film that creates something the 60’s rarely saw in such a way.
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by That Coward Robert Ford (2007)
If you expect this film to be a standard “shoot em up” western you’d be really disappointed. What this film delivers is a new age sensibility to a timeless character that has never been told in such an operatic fashion. Brad Pitt is always great, but it’s the obsessive character Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) who brings this film to where it stands. A tad long for most viewers, it’s hard not to appreciate the sweep of the story as well as the classic visuals that remind us of old western films from each era.
6. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Sergio Leone proved he doesn’t need Clint Eastwood to make a classic western and it’s all in the style we know and love. Leone brings a story about a chunk of water filled land to the forefront as a business man sends his enforcer to scare off the men and women around the land to vanish from the property. Like a great western does, it brings us to the dry lands of the old west with wily gunslingers and outlaws who will do anything for theirs and it’s not more entertaining than Once Upon a Time in the West.
5. 3:10 To Yuma (2007)
One of the many western remakes that has worked, the cast is studded with stars like Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, and the underrated Ben Foster. Bale is a straightforward man of the west with a chip on his shoulder while Crowe is the charming and conniving outlaw Ben Wade. An acting duel for the ages that doesn’t disappoint with some of the more realistic and unsettling moments you’d suspect from the real old west.
4. No Country For Old Men (2007)
When we think of Westerns, this isn’t always the first film that comes to mind simply because it can be considered a plethora of genres and that’s the only reason it is at #4 instead of the Coen Brothers other western. No Country For Old Men brings a gritty and silent trek through deserts, small towns, and gas stations with a tension so thick you’d need a buzz-saw to cut it with. Jaview Bardem portrays one of the most brilliantly realized villains of all time and Josh Brolin holds his own a sometimes funny man with some crazy luck in between.
3. True Grit (2010)
People scoff at the idea of remakes and that’s fair, but the Coen’s did a remarkable job at bringing back to life a story fans of westerns have loved since 1956. No more is the poorly acted, eye patch wearing John Wayne, but instead a rumbling drunk Jeff Bridges and one of the best performances by a young actor in history thanks to Hailee Steinfeld. It’s visceral, but comedic, violent but heartfelt, and it improved an already beloved tale of vengeance and honor.
2. Django Unchained (2012)
The new age western can be summarized with one film and that’s Django Unchained. With the trademark violence and storytelling of Quentin Tarantino with the most exciting performances from another all-star cast, this is a near flawless film that has something for it’s audience with every word uttered and every shot fired. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are unforgettable in this homage to spaghetti westerns and is a perfect middle finger to slavery.
1. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Truly a stable to the genre that holds up as one of the best films ever created, Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone bring us a sweeping tale of three men who don’t fear shooting off people’s hats and robes with acute precision. Unlikely team ups bring forth an epic western tale of outlaws, corruption, and the Civil War era mentalities that plagued the U.S. for so many years. The iconic score is one people know from around the world whether they know it or not and the ending alone is iconic and parodied in nearly every film.