Thursday, March 24, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Westerns

Sticking to my "1 director, 1 film" rule, that's why you don't see classics I love like Stagecoach, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, or Red River, because those directors have other entries to the list. Also, I don't feel like No Country for Old Men is a western. It's often classified as such, and if I thought it was it'd be in the top 5, but I don't think it is. As always, don't forget to check out Clint's list on his blog.

1. Unforgiven

Not surprising to see Clint Eastwood's masterpiece atop this list, as I recently put it as my all-time #16 movie. If you wanna read that piece again, it's right here.

2. Rio Bravo

Another that was on my all-time movies list, Rio Bravo came in at #25. You can read about it here.

3. The Searchers

Usually thought of as THE western and one of the greatest movies ever made, The Searchers only comes in at #3 on the list because the older I get the more I dislike the unsuccessful comic relief as well as the B-story of Martin and his bride and all that. Those are the things that Roger Ebert said "This second strand is without interest, and those who value The Searchers filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line." But the more I watch the movie the harder it is to filter that stuff out because it simply doesn't work, and is put in contrast to the main storyline, which is the greatest and most iconic in western history. The movie contains John Wayne's best performance, as the racist Ethan Edwards. He's powerful and mysterious and unlikeable. A great character and great work to prove that Wayne was a terrific actor when in the right circumstances. It's also John Ford's most beautiful movie, utilizing Utah's Monument Valley in gorgeous color. So, its A story is the best western ever made, but the B story brings it down overall as just my #3.

4. Shane

Shane is a pretty perfect movie. It was a favorite of mine as a kid and was one I was happy to find I loved even more as an adult. It's kind of standard western stuff, but done so well you don't care that it's nothing new. Even in 1953 it was nothing new. It contains tremendous acting from the entire cast, especially Alan Ladd as the title character, and famously Jack Palance as the villain's right hand man/hired killer. It's a wonderful movie to look at, it deservedly won an Oscar for its cinematography. I'm not really sure what more I can say other than that it's a perfect movie and is a tribute to how much I love the western genre that it's only #4 on this list.

5. Dances with Wolves

Unfortunately, Dances with Wolves' reputation (especially among movie buffs) has been damaged over the years because it beat Goodfellas for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. While I personally would've also given both of those awards to Scorsese, that doesn't mean that Dances with Wolves isn't a worthy choice. Although at its core it is still the "white man, savior of the Native people" storyline, it's done with more care and nuance than others of that kind (Avatar, The Last Samurai, etc.). We hear a lot of the Native's language (Lakota and Pawnee), and the movie takes great pains to show us the slowly evolving relationship between Kevin Costner's Lt. Dunbar and the Sioux, led by Graham Greene's Kicking Bird. We see them exchanging words, slowly learning each others language, and forging bonds that help both of them as the white man is encroaching on the Native's lands and lives. A big beautiful epic, it's the kind of movie (especially alongside Costner's terrific Open Range) that makes you wish the filmmaker would make more westerns.

6. Jauja

Since I just wrote about Jauja recently when I saw it, I won't put too much here, other than to say that I can't think of a western that provokes the kind of thought in me that this one did. Of course, it also has an extended scene of a man masturbating in a pool of water, and none of the other movies on this last have that either, but it's the provocation of thought that I enjoy the most about it.

7. Jeremiah Johnson

Sydney Pollack's epic mountain man tale Jeremiah Johnson wouldn't work as well without the tremendous lead performance from Robert Redford and the stunning landscapes of Redford's adopted home state of Utah. We don't know anything about Jeremiah's backstory other than the opening narration telling us he wanted to be a mountain man, trapping and hunting bear, beaver, elk, and whatever else he can sell for profit while not having to live in the hustle and bustle of the city. But Redford tells us a lot in his performance, shows us in very little dialog that Jeremiah simply wasn't a modern man. He needed to be with nature, to be alone, to work and live off the land and all it provides. Pollack shows us many sides of Utah's land, the snowy mountains, the desert basins, the green forests. It's a wonderful movie to look at and really gives a sense visually of time passing, and land being traversed. There's action, love, humor, and a wonderful lead performance. It's an epic that is just shy of 2 hours, proving again that "epic" doesn't mean "ass bustingly long running time".
8. Hombre

Paul Newman has long been one of my favorite actors, and I prefer this greatly to his more famous western starring role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While I like that movie, I like it less as I get older. Hombre, on the other hand, adapted from the novel by the great Elmore Leonard (both my favorite crime writer AND favorite western writer, and maybe my favorite writer period if it weren't for those Shakespeare and Dickens guys) Newman gets to be all of his cool, smarter than everyone else, badass self in Martin Ritt's masterpiece. Adding accents like racism into the standard western mythology, as Paul Newman's John Russell was raised by Indians and the rest of the group on the stagecoach he travels on don't trust him and don't even want him sitting in the car, but on top with the driver. Like many of these movies there's not a ton of surprise story wise, bandits and money and standoffs and all that. But it's expertly made and acted by all involved. And when you've seen so many examples of a certain genre (western and noir being my 2 favorite genres) you start to really appreciate when the tropes of that genre are handled so wonderfully and successfully from a dramatic standpoint. Hombre is a great example of that.

9. 3:10 to Yuma

Another adapted from Elmore Leonard, most people prefer the 1957 original with Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, but for me I liked the 2007 James Mangold take just a bit more. While Russell Crowe can't compete with Glenn Ford's great performance as villain Ben Wade, I like Christian Bale's performance more than Van Heflin's. And the movie as a whole, while messier and not as concise as the original, motivates Ben Wade's ultimate decision in getting on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. It makes sense here in a way that it doesn't in the original. It was also the first time that Christian Bale really clicked with me. I like him in general, but he doesn't move me emotionally as an actor. Yet his desperation in trying to provide for his family in this movie really did hit my heart. It's too long, it definitely has a couple of things I would've cut out, reducing the runtime by 10-15 minutes or so, but it's totally fine like it is as well.

I also love that the train is late! I remember watching the original and thinking "Oh man, wouldn't it be a great dramatic development if the train was late?" But then it wasn't and everything turned out fine and it started raining or whatever (I hate the ending to the original). Then, this movie knew how to ratchet up the tension just by making the train not quite arrive at 3:10.

10. Lonesome Dove

I almost didn't include Lonesome Dove, since it's a miniseries and not a movie, but I couldn't not have it on my list. It's a big, sprawling, character driven, star studded, epic series. Led by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones doing some of the best work of their great careers. It's pretty standard western genre stuff, honestly, but done so well that it doesn't really matter. It's long, of course, so kinda hard to enjoy all 6 1/2 hours in one sitting, but worth breaking up over a couple of viewings, like how it originally aired. I haven't read the novel by Larry McMurtry, but this adaptation surely does it proud.

Some honorable mentions for:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Meek's Cutoff

The Wild Bunch


Dead Man

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