8. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Hurling defiance in the prudish face of tradition, outlaws are the heroes in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, perverse but personable bank robbers, with pipe dreams of leaving America and maybe even going straight.
Hill’s film won four Oscars (celebrating Conrad Hall’s cinematography and Burt Bacharach’s original song, “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” amongst others), spawned sequels, remakes, and even a short-lived TV series, also deserves distinction for having strong female characters. Katharine Ross’ Etta, Sundance’s squeeze, stands up to the patriarchy throughout the film, thwarting the female stereotype with speed, in one of the most efficacious films of its era.
7. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s guns-blazing, vitriol-spewing, outlaw epic, The Wild Bunch, is a poetic, chaotic, and controversial classic. Released the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969, Peckinpah’s film eschews any signs of feminine empowerment, focussing on machismo posturing, and extreme, orgiastic violence.
The eponymous Wild Bunch—a brilliant cast of character actors; Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, and Robert Ryan amongst them—are a waning outlaw gang, close to the Mexican border, they’re in the midst of one last caper before going clean.
Bookended by two of the most elaborate, sensational, and shockingly blood-soaked shoot-outs ever filmed, even by today’s standards, Peckinpah’s film remains a dubious and morbid genre deviation. With quick, startling cuts, slo-mo splatter, multi-angle coverage, inventive sound design, and intricately arranged action scenes, it’s a dangerous and macabre delight. When has it ever been so fun to root for the bad guys?
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ruthless masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, should be thought of as a Revisionist Western due to it’s time and setting (it begins in 1898, New Mexico), but also in a more insular vein: as origin myth. Daniel Day-Lewis’ infamous oil baron, Daniel Plainview, is a hard-hearted force of nature, and watching this monster-in-the-making is compelling, punctuated by mise en scène embellishments and shocking claps of violence.Anderson has cited John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as an influence, and both films contain a Heart of Darkness-style cautionary measure.
A close-fisted, greed allegory, There Will Be Blood has literary origins—it’s loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!—and is thick with symbolism. When Plainview makes his final contention in a truly unforgettable face-off, the idea of sharing a milkshake will take on a new elucidation for viewers forever.
5. El Topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sophomore film, El Topo is a violent spectacle, and a mind-altering adventure through an alternate dimension, as indebted to Nietzche as it is to LSD. Jodorowsky draws from a deep well of influence that contains silt from Spaghetti Westerns, religious augur, surrealism of the Cocteau genus, eroticism, and enough purple haze that it became soused with a new label, that of Acid Western.
It was Pauline Kael that coined the term “Acid Western” in her 1971 review of the film, and it stuck. There’s a nonlinear, psychedelic fashion to El Topo, established right away as a gunfighter, clad in sable, with his son, Hijo, skyclad, appear in the desert.
As a preamble to much bloodshed, the pair appear like mythic heroes, and in due process a revenge scenario loosens around them. Later, surfacing like Zarathustra, El Topo emerges from a subterranean grotto, enacting strange symmetry, making for the ultimate midnight movie experience, spasmodically outlandish, OTT odd, and impossible to shake.
4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best representations of his work and is a pivotal film in the New Hollywood movement that emerged in the 1970s.Warren Beatty is wonderful as John McCabe, and Julie Christie stuns as the madam, Constance Miller, in a story of mores and principles where corporate villains suppress and shame free enterprise—here represented by John and Constance’s brothel/bar business.
It may be a familiar yarn, but it’s never been told in such a fashion. Altman’s attention to detail is astonishing, his use of icy snow, coupled with the Leonard Cohen soundtrack, adds up to a poetic, elegant, and deeply resonating film. Rarely does a film possess such immersive and haunting virtues, McCabe & Mrs. Miller may be the definitive Altman film, certainly a pièce de résistance, no serious cineaste can afford to miss it.
3. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Kelly Reichardt can hardly be called a genre director, she more ascribes to the auteur school of subtle, and striking, with an emphasis on intimacy and naturalism. This is the approach she takes on her unconventional look at life on the Oregon Trail in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff.Hollywood glitz is replaced by anxiety, decay, and cruelty, displayed with a deft artist’s touch.
Starring Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow, a matriarchal figure on a wagon train lost in the Oregon desert, who’s guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), is a racist, manipulative lowlife, who may be intentionally leading the small band of settlers to their deaths.
Filmed as an homage to the classic Westerns in the 1:1.33 screen ratio—the standard of Hollywood’s Golden Era—Reichardt’s frames make prisoners of her characters, opposite to John Ford’s overpowering landscape approach. It’s a bold and risky strategy, which here works wondrously.As a feminist parable, Meek’s Cutoff is a seditious surprise, and as an intimate genre exercise, it’s an eloquent feat of strength from an inventive director at the top of her game.
2. Dead Man (1995)
According to author and film critic J. Hoberman, “[Dead Man] is the Western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make,” and, considering the existential, post-modernist, and apocalyptic statements issued in Jim Jarmusch’s film, Hoberman speaks truth.
Using his signature minimalist and informed style, Jarmusch cast Johnny Depp in the title role as William Blake, a visitor to the Western frontier, who also, cruelly, isn’t long for this earth. Depp’s William Blake is a deliberate literary allusion to the 18th century poet—a repeated reference is that Blake’s poetry exists in the bullets of his gun—and Dead Man cascades such suggestion.
It’s as if the film couldn’t exist in a post-Blood Meridian, post-Place of Dead Roads universe (Revisionist Western novels of great weight, by Cormac McCarthy and William Burroughs, respectively). Reluctantly partnered up with a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Virgil to Depp’s Dante, they embark on a funerary dirge that won’t end in their favor.
Dead Man offers an inspired list of crazy cameos (including Robert Mitchum, and Iggy Pop), a riveting score by Neil Young, and, more perversely, an unconventionally damnable treatment of capitalism, racism, and violence. The darkest, most shocking film in Jarmusch’s oeuvre, it’s also his most far-reaching.
1. Johnny Guitar (1954)
Best known for Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray’s singularly strange take on the Wild West, Johnny Guitar, is every bit as cool, maybe more so.Martin Scorsese called it “an intense, stylized, unconventional picture full of ambiguities and subtext that render it extremely modern,” and it’s easy to see why.
For starters, the eponymous Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), is largely a periphery character, taking the backseat to saloonkeeper Vienna (Joan Crawford). Johnny arrives in an Arizona town just as troubles are a-brewing between Vienna and the upright (and uptight) townsfolk, led by the evil Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who wants to shut her and her den of ill-repute down to make room for railway expansion.
A proto-feminist parable, the impossibly cool Ray presents a multi-textured film with stunning, often unexpected uses color, and larger-than-life characters. Ray’s contempt for authority and hypocrisy was on dizzying display in Johnny Guitar, as was his intolerance for corrupt power structures and bigotry.
Belonging to each generation that re-discovers it, Johnny Guitar is an unmissable fever dream of twenty-first century confusion.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.