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10 Great Indie Western Movies Worth Your Time

29 December 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Chris Osterndorf

best indie westerns

The western may be this country’s defining genre. Within it, there’s something impossibly tied to both the history of American cinema, and of America itself. So many classic films fall into the genre, and while it has evolved throughout the years, its popularity ebbing and flowing, the continued existence of the western itself is significant.

This is why it’s interesting to see the grand scope of the genre scaled down to indie sensibilities. When you think western, you probably think classics, like John Ford’s The Searchers, spagehetti-westerns like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or revisionist westerns like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

This year alone, there are still two neo-westerns set to come out, with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (both of which curiously take place in very snowy, un-western like settings.)

But although the genre’s indelible titles are, of course, worth watching, one should not discount smaller, lesser-known westerns, as they’ve brought a much needed strangeness and energy to the genre – in recent years especially. Here are ten of the best indie westerns to get you started.

 

1. El Topo (1970)

El topo

Not only the godfather of indie westerns, but one of the essential cult movies of all time, El Topo is unlike any cinematic experience you’ll ever have.

Always bonkers director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s breakthrough feature finds a gunfighter named El Topo (or ”the mole”) experiencing many bizarre encounters on a journey across the desert, though the film’s narrative is not really the reason to watch it. Instead, it’s best just to bask in its utter weirdness, from Jodorowsky’s obsession with deformities and sex, to his choice to act opposite his own young son (Jodorowsky plays the title character.)

Though not quite as surreal as Jodorowsky’s later efforts like The Holy Mountain, El Topo is still totally unique as a western and as a movie in general. And if you enjoy the film, you’re in good company; David Lynch, John Lennon, Dennis Hopper, and Bob Dylan are counted among its many fans.

 

2. Dead Man (1995)

dead-man-original

If Jodorowsky introduced the idea of the surrealist western with El Topo, Jim Jarmusch defined it with Dead Man. Already a defining presence in the American indie scene when this film came out, Dead Man took Jarmusch to his craft to new heights with this story of an accountant who, after committing a murder, is taken on a spiritual quest by a Native American named Nobody. Pre-Pirates Johnny Depp shines as William Blake, the aforementioned accountant, in a role it’s hard to imagine him taking today.

Psychedelic and poetic, Dead Man is both Jim Jarmusch’s meditation on and subversion of the western genre; a film only he could make.

 

3. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee Jones is not well-known as a filmmaker, but perhaps that’s a shame because his few efforts behind the camera have proven to be very fruitful. In The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, his first feature following one TV movie, he directs himself in the role of Pete Perkins, a rancher trying to keep a promise to his dead friend. Impressively, the film played in competition at Cannes, where Jones took home the Best Actor prize, and writer Guillermo Arriaga won Best Screenplay.

An obvious devotee of the western, Jones directed another entry in the genre with last year’s The Homesman. But The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada remains his western to beat.

 

4. The Proposition (2005)

The Proposition

Remember how the western was a uniquely American genre? It’s true, but that’s not to say other countries haven’t put their own spin on it.

One particularly good example of this is John Hilcoat’s The Proposition, a tale of outlaws and brothers set in rural Australia around the turn of the century. Starring the criminally underrated Guy Pearce and penned by musician turned screenwriter Nick Cave,

The Proposition is special because it feels completely Australian, and yet very much in the tradition of American westerns too. Hilcoat would go on to direct the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which also features some western tropes, as well as the Depression-era western Lawless, in 2012. But The Proposition is his best, most highly original claim in the genre (he’ll return next year, working in a new milieu, with the crime drama Triple 9.)

 

5. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

If you couldn’t guess the genre of this film, based on the title, you’re probably not a western fan at all.

But if you are a fan of the genre, make sure you don’t miss Je-woon Kim’s film about two Manchurian outlaws and a bounty hunter being chased by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits in the 1940s. It’s good, it’s weird, but it’s definitely not bad. Like The Proposition, Kim mixes elements of the standard western with eastern style. But The Good, The Bad, The Weird is in some ways even more daring, in that it doesn’t even have the English language to fall back on for familiarity.

Make no mistake though, this is a western, and a great one. Fans of Kim’s 2010 film I Saw the Devil should definitely check it out, as should all fans of Korean cinema, who will recognize familiar faces like Kang-ho Song and Byung-hun Lee.

 

 

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  • V.C. Privitera

    Awesome List…especially the first page, those were all my choices.
    I must see Slow West, the film looks quite outstanding and a really unique take on the Western Genre.
    Bone Tomakawk is another film that I’ve been seeing more & more great critical reviews from….not to mention that Kurt Russell having that same “mustache” that only Russell can don, the film definitely seems like it’s worth a viewing.

    When it comes to choosing just which to see between The Revenant or Hateful Eight, I will no doubt be picking to see The Revenant, as I’ve been eagerly anticipating this film to see on the big screen since the first screen shots were released months ago and learning the extant of all the behind the scenes and how the film was ultimately shot just brings a more burning desire to catch The Revenant in the Theatres. I’m truly hoping the film will be as great as all these Previews/Trailers have been making this film out to be.

    After just getting too exhausted with the lopsided conclusion of Django Unchained, I just don’t care to watch a close to 3hr Western Film of your basic Tarantino dialogue driven genre. I’d rather wait to see that later on and experience The Revenant for myself personally.

  • Unkle Dee

    Great list. If you haven’t seen already, i suggest Red Hill (2010) and The Dark Valley (2014). And i am planning to watch Homesman (2014) soon

  • Unkle Dee

    The Revenant and Hateful are great too

    • Sercan

      Have you already watch them? How come?

      • Unkle Dee

        dvdscr. could not resist. In my country (Ukraine) all movies are only dubbed versions in cinemas (no original language).its a pity. But i will watch them in cinema anyway. Hateful is coming 14january, and Revenant 7january.

        • Sercan

          I see. But with all due respect, I would not count them as an ”indie western”. They both are the Oscar contestants.

          • Unkle Dee

            For all the concept of the indie movie is little different. There is so to say the degree of independence. I agree with wiki/ Independent films are sometimes distinguishable by their content and style and the way in which the filmmakers’ personal artistic vision is realized. Assassination of Jesse James, The Revenant and Hateful are all big productions compared to most indie movies but at the same time there are made by directors with sufficient freedom to realize their vision. Oscar certainly is very mainstream oriented. But it has its indie history. http://www.backstage.com/news/14-oscar-winning-films-made-surprisingly-small-budgets/ And Spotlight won an oscar.

  • Unkle Dee

    and
    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is kind of indie western

  • Deadman was absolute drivel! Pointless, plotless, uninteresting, self-involved. It would have been a far better movie if Depp had died in the first 10 minutes. I love Jarmusch, this is the worst thing he ever made.

  • Nico Finger

    The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a HK-Big-Pic…”Indie”?

  • Pancho

    Slow West is really boring