American cinema’s love affair with Westerns dates back to the early silent films which spoke to an individual’s risk-taking abilities and the ability to establish new footholds. The genre’s popularity has waned, but a recent uptick could behold a new era. Below are the five top modern Western films in the past generation:
An animated family film from 2011, this movie works for all ages, blending a solid story with satire. The title character (voiced by Johnny Depp) arrives in town and is recruited to preserve law and order. This sounds like a standard Western plot, with one drastic difference: our protagonist is a lizard. However, the fact that it’s animated affords it the ability to develop into a wildly exaggerated farce that borrows liberally from the concepts that made this genre so popular in the first place. Rango is luckily available to watch on Netflix.
This 2010 remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic portrays lead character Rooster Cogburn as a much grittier character than he was in the original. Played by Jeff Bridges, Cogburn helps a young woman track down her father’s killer, but must deal with the usual villains that populate the territory, this time led by Josh Brolin’s character of Tom Chaney. The young woman, Mattie, was played by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. She narrates the film and is shown as an independent female with a mind of her own. The approach works well in scenes, making filmgoers forget her youthful appearance. The full version was recently removed from Netflix, but can still be streamed via Amazon Instant Video.
The oldest of the five films, this 1993 movie is a more modern twist on the legend of lawman Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell. Doing battle with Val Kilmer’s tuberculosis-affected Doc Holliday, among others, Earp is aided by his brothers Virgil and Morgan (played by Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton, respectively). At the same time, he pines for a married woman, Josephine, played by Dana Delany. The iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral is surprisingly short, but comes across with a greater sense of realism than previous portrayals. The film has only just become available on Netflix instant streaming.
Another Johnny Depp film, though this 1995 darkly comic look at the West is live-action and in black and white. Depp portrays a mild-mannered accountant who heads to a frontier town to take a new position, but ends up killing a man. The incident puts him on the run against hired killers, after which he’s then aided by a dead Native American named Nobody. Like many Depp films, the quirkiness of the characters adds to the appeal and takes the film in an unexpected direction. Dead Man can be rented from Netflix, and is also available on demand for Direct TV customers (see here).
Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 look at the plight of slavery, circa 1858, won him an Oscar for Best Original Script, while Christoph Waltz garnered Best Supporting Actor accolades for his bounty hunter who purchases the freed slave Django and trains him to work as his partner. Tarantino took heat from fellow director Spike Lee for his tale, but the story of Django (played by Jamie Foxx) and his attempt to rescue his wife from her brutal master (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a gripping and rarely seen look at this forgettable part of American history. Django is viewable on both Netflix and Amazon streaming services.
The films above represent the best that this genre has offered in the past quarter century, which helps sustain the lifeline that was created back in the days of The Great Train Robbery. While the continuation of such quality is dependent upon the willingness of studios to fund such market-friendly fare, it’s readily apparent that there are still stories to be told. In the hands of skilled craftsmen, such tales result in quality entertainment-the goal of any story.