Laramie Movie Scope:
Best Modern Westerns (1984 to present)
Best of the New Age Westerns
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
September 3, 2023 -- Movies about the Old West — outlaws and good guys, black hats and white hats, bank robbers and cattle rustlers, bounty hunters, lawmen, and mysterous lone gunslingers, were a mainstay of the movie industry and TV networks from their very beginnings until the mid-1980s, when they fell out of favor, but they never completely disappeared.
I remember one fellow confidently telling me back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that there would never, ever be another western in movie theaters, but, of course, many Westerns have been released since then.
One of the early movies that signaled a revival of this venerable genre was Silverado in 1985. With a budget of $23 million, top notch production values and a soundtrack that got a couple of Oscar nominations, this was a very serious attempt to revive the Western genre. It was also Kevin Costner's first Western, five years prior to his career-defining achievement, the award-winning Dances With Wolves. That is the main reason Silverado is included in this list.
Below this list of top films of this particular Western Revival period, are honorable mentions, and why certain films are left out of this list
Best 10 modern western films (1984 to present)
1. Open Range (2003)
This entertaining throwback western features two veteran Western stars, Kevin Costner (who recently hit Western paydirt again in the Yellowstone TV miniseries) and Robert Duvall of the highly-regarded Lonesome Dove TV miniseries. It also features a fine supporting performance by the late Michael Jeter, one of his last. It features an epic gun battle as well as a romance (between characters played by Costner and Annette Bening).
2. Hell or High Water (2016)
I am a big fan of Taylor Sheridan's writing. He is well-known for Westerns, because of his very popular Yellowstone series. He has also written two excellent modern day Western screenplays, including this one, featuring two small time bank robbers, a property foreclosure, Texas Rangers on their trail, and a deadly shootout.
3. Wind River (2017)
I did mention being a big fan of Taylor Sheridan. He wrote and directed this modern day Western too, and it also is set in my home state of Wyoming. It features strong performances by veteran Western actor Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves and Thunderheart) as well as great performances by Marvel stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson. Gil Birmingham (of Hell or High Water) gives a sensational supporting performance as a grieving father.
As I mentioned earlier, the reason this movie, produced and directed by Western fan Lawrence Kasdan (who also produced and directed Wyatt Earp in 1994) is included in this list is because of its historical importance in reviving the western genre. An unusual Western cast includes Kevin Kline and Monty Python's John Cleese, plus an early career appearance by noted actor Richard Jenkins. This movie also features Kevin Costner, who would later teamed up again with Kasdan in Wyatt Earp). This is a Western that joyously celebrates the genre, and is a lot of fun to watch.
5. The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Antoine Fuqua's terrific reimagining of the 1960 classic of the same name (which, in turn, was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic, Seven Samurai) is worthy of its noble heritage. Gifted actors create memorable characters in an all-out war of good versus evil. It features a full measure of revenge and a bit of humor as well.
6. Tombstone (1993)
A lot of movies have been made about the legendary Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This lengthy film puts the gunfight in context and it follows the feud between the Earps and the organized crime organization known as “The Cowboys” to its conclusion with the “Earp Vendetta Ride.” It features memorable performances by veteran action stars Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp) Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday) Powers Boothe (Curly Bill Brocius) Michael Biehn (Johnny Ringo) and Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton). Also of note, a tip-of-the-hat appearance by veteran Western star Harry Carey Jr., who also appeared in the classic John Wayne Western The Searchers (1956).
7. Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino tried his hand twice in the Western genre, and I think this is the best of the two. I also like this one better than Inglourious Basterds for that matter. The odd couple of Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are fun to follow. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson play great villains in this tale of good versus evil that spans the country from the desert southwest to the Deep South
8. The Revenant (2015)
The Old West never looks as old as it does in this tale of revenge set against the backdrop of unforgiving wilderness, war, racism and fur trading. Most of all, this is a raw tale of survival, and it features the scariest bear attack you'll ever see in a movie.
9. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood embodies the Western genre as much as John Wayne does. He went from being a TV cowboy on Rawhide (1959-65) to a Spaghetti Western star (appearing in arguably the best Western ever made in 1966, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) to an Academy Award-winning producer, director and star of this great Western. Only three Westerns have ever won Best Picture Oscars, and two of them, including this one, are on this list.
10. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner is best known for two kinds of movies, Westerns and baseball movies (and nowadays the Yellowstone miniseries). This film, produced, directed and starring Costner, was filmed in South Dakota and Wyoming. Set in the post-Civil War era, it was a huge box office hit, and one of only three Westerns ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. It defined Costner's career, and greatly boosted those of his Native American co-stars, Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal and Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
Honorable and dishonorable mentions
So where are the oft-cited examples of good modern Westerns, like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) No Country for Old Men (2007) Meek's Cutoff (2010) The Sisters Brothers (2018) Dead Man (1995) The Homesman (2014) Bone Tomahawk (2015) The Missing (2003) Ned Kelly (2003) Wyatt Earp (1994) The Quick and the Dead (1995) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) First Cow and True Grit (2010)? I saw them, but I didn't like them that much. Some of these I actually dislike.
There are some other films that didn't make the cut for various reasons, but are probably equally deserving. When you are making a short list, something always has to get cut. Here is what you might call my “Honorable Mention” list: The Last of the Mohicans (1992) 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Appaloosa (2008) All the Pretty Horses (2000) Blackthorn (2011) The Harder They Fall (2021) The Hateful Eight (2015) Thunderheart (1992) and Quigley Down Under (1990). In addition, there may be other deserving Westerns that I have not seen or have otherwise escaped my attention.
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Copyright © 2023 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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