5. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)
It’s often in the sparsely populated regions near the borders that a country can look its youngest so it’s hardly an accident that the one modern day picture to make this list occurs over the scorching divide between Texas and Mexico.
This setting betrays the debt Tommy Lee Jones’s film owes to the work of Sam Peckinpah – albeit more Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia than any of his full on westerns – but, whereas Peckinpah would punctuate his films with kamikaze gun fights, Jones chooses to characterise his work with eerie silences that feel haunted by the ghosts of history, both personal and national.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada uses its period and place as the basis for a response to the current upheaval over immigration.
In a manner reminiscent of the 1996 John Sayles classic Lone Star, the film creates a profound sense of continuity with the past, adding melancholic weight to its kinships and tragedies in a way that seems to send ripples through time – an effect that can partly be attributed to the carefully jumbled chronology, which emphasises each individual life journey and the ways in which they intersect.
The film’s small town activity (delivered by a universally excellent cast) serves as a captivating launch pad for the film’s second half, where the story finally transitions fully into the wilderness and whittles its central cast down to just two characters. The beautifully shot landscapes are used to intensely psychological effect as Tommy Lee Jones forces Barry Pepper to escort the corpse of Melquiades back to his home town.
While it would’ve been all too easy to turn this into a tale of unrelentingly grimness, the tone of the film is ultimately more bittersweet and elegiac but somewhat optimistic. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a multi-tiered story of redemption which realises that redemption only means anything when its birthing pains are vivid and gruesome.
4. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
From Kill Bill’s Ennio Morricone-swiping soundtrack to George Clooney’s threat to “turn this place into the fucking Wild Bunch” in From Dusk Till Dawn, Quentin Tarantino clearly wanted to make a western long before he made Django Unchained. When it finally came out, it was simultaneously as genre-loyal and subversive as anyone would’ve expected.
The logical flipside to the self-reflexive Nazi-killings of Inglourious Basterds, this is another inspired blending of history with cinema’s simplistic impression of history.
Christoph Waltz, the unofficial mascot of New Tarantino, is once again an ambiguous outside force sending waves through the film’s distinct reality but this time his gleeful costume-wearing places him as a force against historical atrocities – his discomfort is telling when he hears a German composer’s music playing in an all-American slaver’s house.
While the magnetism of Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz initially steals the show from Jamie Foxx’s title character, the freed slave’s story arc gradually intrigues as the film’s subtly humanistic centre. Tarantino defies Hollywood’s pattern of awkwardly disregarding the horrors of slavery by not only acknowledging these barbarities but also respectfully giving autonomy to one of its victims, allowing him to navigate the Leone landscape as a self-determined hero for once.
So not only is Django Unchained a lot more fun to watch than the following year’s ‘Best Picture’, 12 Years a Slave, but, by tying its American history lesson to recent cinematic history, is perhaps a little more socially constructive too. Of course, you’d be forgiven for ignoring Tarantino’s celluloid -writing whenever Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are on screen in the two best roles of their respective careers.
3. True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit is every bit a work of mythology as the 1969 John Wayne film but it’s a new, stranger, more morally complex form of mythology.
When artists as distinct as the Coen Brothers make so many period pieces, it’s almost inevitable that their body of work forms an intriguing continuity as they create a different, quirkier America in their own image but on a timeline parallel to our own. It’s only natural to think that the desperate eccentrics of Fargo and Raising Arizona would come from a long line of similar-mannered individuals.
The Coens’ remarkably clever way with words translates seamlessly to the old time incarnations of Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin but credit goes to an outstanding (and outstandingly written) Hailee Steinfeld for bringing the brothers’ trademark sinister philosophical ambiguity to the old west.
One of the all-time great screen performances from any fourteen-year-old, Steinfeld’s vengeful Mattie Ross is a naïve but bitter and coldly practical-minded adventurer who is bluntly sincere and stiffly poker-faced all at once. There’s a fitting hollowness to the film’s many killings as Mattie’s righteously driven lust for the blood of the drunk who killed her father is met with no satisfaction, only a long lingering sense of loss.
In a film where ‘true grit’ may well be a euphemism for some pretty dubious qualities, it seems appropriate that, for the most part, the film’s heroes and villains are not especially emphasised as such beyond their respective positions in the plot. From there, things happen, people die and it doesn’t mean much – the Coen Brothers history book condensed into a few words – but a tender hope in humanity remains regardless.
2. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
Taking us back to a time when the maps were still being drawn, Meek’s Cutoff sees civilised humanity returning to the wild and finding itself ill-equipped and defeated by the sheer scale of a country far bigger than themselves. Their environment feels eerily, vulnerably expansive.
There’s a mocking, deadening silence to the landscape that makes their laboured journey feel all the more futile and aimless. While the threat of death is as ever-present here as it is in any other film on this list, it is most likely to come not from the barrel of a gun but at the end of an excruciatingly gradual process of degradation.
The film’s bare bones arrangement proves to be a haunting set-up for its political allegory as the Bruce Greenwood’s title character leads his group of settlers to their possible demise out of blind bravado. Meek selfishly aspires to be a hero, role model and leader and it’s this proud, stubborn ambition that makes him destructive in all three of these fields.
Of course, this lost navigator is only dangerous because people choose to rely on him. Kelly Reichardt calls into question the traditional standard of masculinity as Meek spreads self-serving myths and tells his followers to keep away from the one man who might have a clue of how to find water.
Meanwhile, the necessary questioner of Meek’s baseless authority, Emily Tetherow (played by this list’s biggest badass, Michelle Williams), is given second class status along with the other two women, forced to merely observe the men discussing their fates from a distance through their tunnel vision bonnets.
In a way, this tense and entrancing film is a reworking of the legendary conflicts between white hatted heroes and black hatted villains of yore, only this clash isn’t defined by a bang but by the agonising squeak of wagon wheels. There may have been a place in the old west for quick-draw champions but true civilisation doesn’t give all its authority to such impulsive alpha figures.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
One only needs to have a cursory scroll up this very page to see how recent westerns have developed a habit of analysing and deconstructing the genre’s mythology but none find more drama in the actual formation of these myths than Andrew Dominik’s elaborately named, beautifully shot Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The film’s title predetermines both the story’s outcome and Ford’s infamy with the same sense of bias that folklore has retroactively labelled a murderous, possible psychopath as a workingman’s hero. While the likes of outlaws Jeremy Renner and Garret Dillahunt fail to become subjects of legends, men like James and Ford create legends that transcend the reality of their subjects, sometimes in their favour and sometimes not.
Jesse James opens the film one year older than Jesus was upon crucifixion and now, wary of his own mortality, is driven to his own martyrdom. His brother Frank’s plan was for the story of the James boys to end without climax but every Billy the Kid needs his Pat Garrett so Jesse secures his legacy by moulding an oblivious assassin for himself.
Half of the film’s story is told through the expressions on Brad Pitt’s face. As Jesse James, he strikes an intimidating presence as an unpredictably violent figure but his eyes betray a calculating mind that’s constantly alive and hiding behind a menacing and friendly grin.
Jesse’s killer, meanwhile, is relatively transparent and off-putting in his awkwardness. Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford is a scorned fanboy – young, naïve and ambitious but sour, spiteful and always ill at ease. His part in the film’s tragically poetic clashing of minds is characterised by both fascination and humiliation as his emotions lead him to be a patsy eventually thrown to the dogs of history.
With one of the most beautifully crushing final half hours of recent cinema, Andrew Dominik’s ambitious creation sees folklore taking cruelly comic vengeance on one of its perpetrators. It’s a maddening portrait of self-consuming hero worship, a grand expression of the pitfalls of ambition and a western for our times.
Author Bio: David Pountain is fond of the works of Ingmar Bergman, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, Wong Kar Wai, Steven Spielberg, Richard Linklater and Yasujiro Ozu. He is also one of the writers for filmdooworld.com and he also has his own film blog.