The Hollywood Western was once one of the most preeminent and stirring of genres. Set in the late 19th century, attentive to Old West myth-making, folk heroes, and morality tales, it was an altogether American invention.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age the Western was exceedingly popular, nothing else was as popular and directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks made some of the finest horse operas of the day, and while certain aspects of these films might still feel old-fashioned, there are certain aspects that still feel starkly modern.
For quite some time, as the following list attests, a new brand of Western, reworked for modern audiences and placed in a contemporary setting, has upturned shopworn Hollywood conventions and proven to once again be very popular as it updates Western tropes in a much more modern dress. The following selections show the cream of this excellent and exciting crop.
10. Hell or High Water (2016)
A deliberately listless West Texas setting is ideal for director David Mackenzie (Starred Up ) and writer Taylor Sheridan’s (Sons of Anarchy, Sicario ) neo-Western crime-spree thriller. Jeff Bridges is in fine form as a worn out Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, hot on the heels of small-time bank robbing brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster).
An elegiac and intricate character study, marvellously buttressed by solid performances and stunning cinematography from Giles Nuttgens (The Deep End , God Help the Girl ), Hell or High Water is a fatalistic tale of sincerity, mishap, and, ultimately, atonement.
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
When A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night debuted at Sundance in 2014 it was hailed by New York Times critic Brooks Barnes as “the first Iranian vampire Western”, and that’s an accurate appraisal. But it’s much more than just a moody, atmospheric vampire film with revisionist Western aspirations, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut is a Beckett-like creation, full to burst with dark tableau and an effulgent frame of mind.
Set in an apocryphal Iranian interurban deep within the recesses is Bad City, and her denizens dwell in a climate of fear and flesh as a lonely vampire lives amongst them. Sheila Vand plays the eponymous vampire with glow and discretion, adding to the obliquely effective emotional landscape at the crux of Amirpour’s mythology.
The black-and-white cinematography is ethereal and adds to the otherworldliness as visual symmetry underlines the narrative and antes up feelings of existential ennui. The listless and lonely sound of the wind rattles like an Antonioni film, a pleasing post-punk soundtrack, and one of the best and most expressive feline performances you’ve seen in years (can Masuka appear in more movies, please?) further adds up to an arresting and exquisite accomplishment.
8. Walker (1987)
Firebrand filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man ) explains on his website that “Walker was made in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people. We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the Nicaraguans against the yanks’ outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation. Then, as now, this was not a popular position with certain people in power. But it was the right one.”
Cox, along with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, imagined a biopic about William Walker (Ed Harris), a filibuster from Tennessee, who controlled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857. As a comical social commentary on the Reagan administration and the contra war they waged, Walker is an offbeat Western—helicopters and other modern day technologies exist in an unconventional cosmology—which scores extra cool points for having a Joe Strummer a musical score (and cameo). A surreal experience from a celebrated cult director.
7. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
“Four years ago, something terrible happened here…”
Director John Sturges, who would later make one of the quintessential Westerns in 1960 with The Magnificent Seven, made this suspenseful, Southern-fried, heroically Hitchcockian neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock in 1955, and cinephiles are still discussing it today.
With an A-list cast led by Spencer Tracy that also includes Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan, this film still packs a punch some 60 years on.
One bad day a one-armed war veteran named John J. Macreedy (Tracy) arrives in the titular desert town of Black Rock, and he’s not greeted with anything close to hospitality. After a mysterious man named Komoko, Macreedy is greeted with varying degrees of disdain by every single local he runs across, including Hector David (Marvin), the local badass, as well as tough guy Reno Smith (Ryan) amongst others.
As Macreedy’s investigation ever deepens, disdain becomes hostility becomes violence, and shit gets to Molotov cocktail levels of real. Often cited as one of the 1950’s finest American films, Bad Day at Black Rock has all the hallmarks of an enduring, expertly crafted classic.
6. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Teeming with visual poetry both pragmatic and romantic, David Lowery’s achingly radiant Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (even it’s title conjures heartache) is a cinematic marvel. Set in the 1970s, this film is a colossal cascade of emblematic imagery enclosed in a deceptively smooth tale of Bob Muldoon (a cool and compelling Casey Affleck), an outlaw on the run, and looking to reconvene with his lover, Ruth Guthrie (a radiant Rooney Mara) and daughter, Sylvie (Kennadie Smith and Jacklynn Smith).
Dogged by the law, some strong-willed lawbreakers, and inescapable adversity, Lowery has given us an old school objet d’art in the fashion of the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s (Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven , Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde , and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us  especially).
Cinematographer Bradford Young uses a lyrical pictorialism––a predilection for natural light and often abrupt contrasts––to create a mythical, magical, hyper-realized yet natural seeming world. Lowery’s script has wilful and deliberate disparities that add to the strange yet ingenious thrill of it all. For the attentive viewer and for those who like to get lost in the unfolding of a finespun fiction full of grace, this is your picture.