5. Lone Star (1996)
Polymath filmmaker John Sayles (Eight Men Out ) was at the peak of his considerable powers in 1996 with his richly detailed and evocative neo-Western, Lone Star. Set in the sun-scorched Texas border town of Frontera, where Sheriff Sam Deeds (a perfectly cast Chris Cooper) unwittingly opens up Pandora’s Box when he unearths too much of the past after finding an old skull in the desert.
As Deeds traces the murder of Sheriff Charlie Wade (the legendary Kris Kristofferson) some 40 years earlier, Deeds’s search soon points toward his late father, the much-loved Deputy Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Ignoring warnings and several red flags not to delve any deeper, Deeds rekindles a romance with his old high school flame, Pilar Curx (Elizabeth Peña) while inadvertently firing up old unsettled tensions in the town and exposing dark secrets long thought buried.
Lone Star does for the Western what Chinatown (1974) did for the noir, with a razor-shredding perception in what amounts to Sayles’s finest film to date.
4. Logan (2017)
Director James Mangold’s excellent 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma indicated that we was a filmmaker with a fondness for the Western, and maybe that’s why his uniquely spiritual, utterly character-driven, swan song for the world-weary X-men fan favorite Wolverine, 2017’s Logan, is actually an elegiac homage to the Technicolor grandeur of Shane (1953).
Set in the a bleak and uncomfortably close future, a rundown Logan (Hugh Jackman, excellent) cares for an ailing, dementia-addled Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a dilapidated outpost on the Mexican border.
Planning to hide his old friend from the outside world, things go sideways once they meet a spirited young mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen). And as sure as the sun fades in the West, Logan must now protect the girl and do battle with the cruel forces that want only to capture and exploit her.
Tonally, thematically, and visually, Logan is one of the most mature of the glut of Marvel superhero films. It’s grounded, grown-up, and grisly, and all the better for it.
3. Wind River (2017)
Wind River is a character-driven neo-Western thriller from writer-director Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter Hell or High Water, which kicked off this very list) and deserves plaudits for addressing a very real, and very ignored problem plaguing North America’s First Nations population; sexual assault of women on reservations.
Unfolding in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a wildlife officer who finds the frozen body of an 18-year-old woman, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow). Her autopsy reveals that she was raped and that’s when FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent to conduct the investigation.
Somber, often serene, and heartbreaking throughout, Sheridan’s efforts in exposing injustices meted out towards at risk members of the American populace yields with it many upsetting and startling social ramifications. It’s also refreshing to see a largely indigenous and extremely talented cast (Graham Greene, Apesanahkwat, Tantoo Cardinal, Gerald Tokala Clifford, and Martin Sensmeier amongst them).
The fitfully chilling score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds to the mounting dread, the climax, when it lands, is edge-of-your-seat, holy-shit-this-isn’t-going-to-end-well-for-many fare, and I know for myself, some of the subject matter hit very close to home, adding additional resonance. A risky, unafraid, and unflinching film with intensity, upset and squeam, Sheridan’s debut as director is one of promise and virtue.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Based off of Cormac McCarthy’s bloody, brutal, and brilliant 2005 novel of the same name, No Country For Old Men is Joel and Ethan Coen’s uncompromising suspense thriller (and modern revisionist Western as well) which contains, amongst other dark delights, Javier Bardem’s absolutely terrifying turn as hired hitman Anton Chigurh.
The pulpy plot, set in 1980, concerns lowly Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time, having not much luck hunting in the Texas desert when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone sour––dead and dying men and their dogs, and could this be a suitcase with a cool two million dollars inside? Llewellyn takes the money and cheeses it and then his troubles begin. Soon Anton is hired to recover the money and nothing short of an act of God will stop him.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott succinctly said it all when he remarked that “for formalists – those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design – it’s pure heaven.” It’s heaven all right, and it’s populated by fallen angels with crooked halos and bloodlust, too.
1. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
“It’s a goddamn siege,” musters Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) in his isolated police precinct, encircled by a brutal street gang bound by a chilling blood oath to avenge their fallen.
John Carpenter’s first professional motion picture, Assault on Precinct 13 bears all of the director’s familiar hallmarks—including one of his greatest and most intense electronic synthesizer scores—making for a stylish siege thriller that links elements of both the Western and the horror genre with his developing dangerous style.
Partially inspired by exploitation cinema, and made in the midst of its mid-70s heyday, this crime-thriller doesn’t pull any punches in its violent depiction of urban violence and cultural disparity––the infamous ice cream truck child murder still shocks some 40 years on. After the L.A. police brutally massacre seven members of a don’t-fuck-with-us street gang it incites the gang members to make the aforementioned blood oath and swear vengeance via the drawn out destruction of the titular police station precinct.
Carpenter wisely and intentionally avoids any socio-political false fronts, focussing on an alternately comedic and climactic thriller that spawned a so-so remake, loads of imitators, and of course, generations of fans.
“Assault on Precinct 13 is Carpenter flexing his muscles,” says Guillermo del Toro, “revamping the archetypes of a Western and establishing his own.”
This is a film that stands not just as one of Carpenter’s finest, but one of the best actioners of its era; a joyfully deranged genre mashup par excellence, and an uncompromising cult classic like no other. The film also earns accolades for slyly supporting a subversive take on racial and sexual politics, and the results remain absolutely outstanding.
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.