[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, “Broken Horses,” is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.]
READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn
With the On Demand release of “Broken Horses” — a feature that tests the bonds of brotherhood, the laws of loyalty and the futility of violence in the shadows of the US Mexico border gang wars — we’ve compiled a list of the best modern Westerns to get you in the sprit for a shoot em’ up with style.
Perhaps the epitome of the modern Western, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning epic “Unforgiven” is a melancholic meditation on the West, exploring its myths and its history through a dark and violent lens. The film is set in 1881, with Eastwood starring as William Munny, a retired outlaw who returns to the trade after years of settling down as a farmer. Celebrated for its moral ambiguity and noir atmosphere, the film simultaneously debunks and pays tribute to one of cinema’s most established genres by expertly juxtaposing violence and heroism, as well as courage and revenge. Principally noted for its anti-violence expression, “Unforgiven” went on to become the third Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has since been admitted to the National Film Registry.
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“Django Unchained” (2012)
Messy, bold, raucously funny and curiously affecting, “Django Unchained” is quintessential Quentin Tarantino. Part homage and part subversion, it’s also an audacious reimagining of the spaghetti Western. Set in the Deep South during the antebellum era, the film centers on Django (Jaime Foxx), an African-American slave. He teams with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter posing as a traveling dentist who buys him and then promises freedom in exchange for his help in collecting a large bounty. Characteristic for Tarantino, the movie is stuffed with visual and narrative references, not to mention classic actors associated with the genre like Bruce Dern. But it’s also a stylish, gory period piece in its own right, with Tarantino’s inventive original screenplay and Waltz’s scene-stealing supporting performance both going on to win Academy Awards.
“The Homesman” (2014)
Tommy Lee Jones’ haunting and contemplative Western flew under the radar last year despite a stirring lead performance from Hilary Swank and a richly confrontational narrative. Jones inverts what’s typical for the Western by allowing women to drive the action. Set in the mid-1850s, “The Homesman” follows Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) as she sets out to transport women in need of escape from pioneer life to Iowa. Realizing the difficulty of the journey, she hires a low-life drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) to accompany the her. Lensed beautifully by Rodrigo Prieto, the films tracks the group as they cross the Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat. Sneakily feminist and unrelentingly gritty, “The Homesman” is an embodiment of the modern Western.
“True Grit” (2010)
The Coen Brothers had already gotten their feet wet in this arena with the Oscar-winning phenomenon “No Country for Old Men,” but even so, how they’d fare with such classic material was another matter entirely. Fortunately, their knack for droll humor and visual splendor meshed seamlessly with this infamously Western tale. In “True Grit,” 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams with the aging, drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. Unlike “No Country” or the various other styles they’ve dabbled in, “True Grit” represents the Coens’ first true genre exercise. And through it, they string together a delightfully old-fashioned narrative and extract a breakout performance out of Hailee Steinfeld.
Andrew Dominik’s moody, evocative “The Assassination of Jesse James” did Ron Hansen’s eponymous 1983 novel justice and then some. A deeply psychological and quietly unsettling Western, the film dramatizes with piercing specificity the relationship between James (Brad Pitt) and Ford (Casey Affleck), and what led to the infamous (and titular) killing. This is a movie that gets under your skin — from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ eerily unshakable score, to the magnificent camerawork of the great Roger Deakins — working as both a portrait of an outlaw and an exposition of masculinity in the process. It’s a tour-de-force in craft, most notably in Casey Affleck’s performance, which went on to win several critics prizes as well as earn an Academy Award nomination. Evoking stylistic Westerns like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Assassination of Jesse James” is the new century’s definitive Western tonal poem.
“3:10 to Yuma” (2007)
Roger Ebert said of James Mangold’s remarkable remake, “‘3:10 to Yuma’ restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence.” Indeed, this propulsive and star-studded modern Western pulls off an impressive feat, managing consistent thrills, a smart narrative and an effective re-imagining of the 1957 eponymous film (as well as Elmore Leonard’s original short story). As the story goes, notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, and Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale), struggling to survive on his drought-plagued ranch, volunteers to deliver him alive to the 3:10 to Yuma, a train that will take the killer to trial. Both actors do visceral, intense work in this bracing two-hander, while Mangold’s vision is equal parts throwback and contemporary. But above all, “3:10 to Yuma” is an irresistibly exciting ride.