Truth be told, the 90s was not the best era for the Western genre but it started out strong, we had masterpieces like “Unforgiven”, and major hits like “Dances with Wolves” and “Tombstone”. There were also epic westerns such as “Far and Away”, “Legends of the Fall” and “A River Runs Through It” starring the biggest stars of Hollywood at the time. Alongside traditional westerns, we were also getting neo-westerns such as “Desperado” revisionist films like Sam Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead” and funny ones like “City Slickers” and it was all great but for whatever reason, it seemed like there were not enough space for the genre.
Most of the old-school westerns have moved to television and some of the original theatrical releases got overlooked as well. Who knows why because box office hits of the “Young Guns” franchise and “Tombstone” should’ve convinced producers to produce more films in the genre as well as the success of the mentioned epic western dramas but that was the way it was. In this list, we’ll explore those titles that perhaps deserve more recognition.
10. The Newton Boys (1998)
Is it a fully satisfying movie? Not probably but there’s a strange charm about it which is undeniable. Maybe it comes from Richard Linklater’s obvious love for cinema. When you watch one of his films, you feel how much effort he puts into every frame and that’s coming from his passion for the art. It’s also the only time where we can see both of his most popular frequent collaborators Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke in the leading roles, alongside Vincent D’onofrio and Skeet Ulrich. All are well-cast because they all are easily likable and charismatic actors enough to get your attention.
Linklater is the master at making “hang-out” movies and in a way, “The Newton Boys” feels such as well. Some didn’t like this aspect. It’s understandable that many fans of the genre prefer to watch the robberies than the conversations about it but that’s also what makes “Newton Boys” an unusual and original film. Its handsome production and generally absorbing period details make it a mostly entertaining watch.
9. The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
In 1990, Martin Scorsese produced a brilliant Stephen Frears adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulp novel “The Grifters”. It did fine business at the box office and also got Oscar recognition in numerous categories, even though one can call it “underrated” in our modern world right now because it doesn’t get enough mentions in the cinephile circles anymore. Scorsese collaborated with Frears again this time on a western called “The Hi-Lo Country”, which was a box office flop and got mixed reviews. That’s a shame because the film has so much sincerity to it, almost like “The Last Picture Show”, you feel like you’re in that environment with these characters and you’re interested in them and their actions.
This is also a film that would please the fans of traditional westerns as many elements of it are present throughout the film. Billy Crudup, Woody Harrelson and Patricia Arquette all shine in the leading roles but the supporting cast is full of surprises as well; including a charming turn by Penelope Cruz in her English-language film debut and Sam Elliott in a rare villainous mode. You can also catch Elliott in a villainous role in another western of the era “The Desperate Trail” (1994) and of course, “Justified”. Coming back to “The Hi-Lo Country”, it’s not the right choice if you’re looking for action but as a character drama in a western setting, it’s worth taking a look.
8. The Jack Bull (1999)
John Cusack had a fantastic filmography from 1984 to 2007, then he suddenly stopped caring. Sure, there were highlights like “Love and Mercy”, “ChiRaq” and another western called “Never Grow Old” to prove that he still got the acting chops to impress but he’s seemingly not as picky as he used to be, let’s say. Even in his hey-days, there were films that largely overlooked and that includes “The Jack Bull”, a television western. It must be little more special to him because it’s written by his own dad Dick Cusack, an actor who often had parts in his children’s films but never wrote any other film.
Directed by John Badham of classics like “Saturday Night Fever”, it’s a surprisingly effective western. The plot is too familiar for the genre fans but its execution of it makes it a stand-out. Badham goes for a gritty tone with a compelling lead character whose actions make you ask how far would you go for something you believe in? Could violence be the way to sustain justice? Even though it sticks to traditional old-school Western elements, it refuses to be a phony film with stereotypical characters. Just like any Western needs, the film also has beautiful scenery.
7. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)
Walter Hill is the master who delivered so many entertaining and cool stuff over the years and the man loves Western for sure. You could see the elements of the genre even in his non-western stuff, that’s how much he loves it. The 90s didn’t bring out stuff as strong as “The Long Riders” but still, Walter didn’t stop. His “Wild Bill” and “Last Man Standing” could be alternatives to “Geronimo” on this list, as they’re both well-made films and certainly deserve little more love but then again, “Last Man Standing” has more fans than this and “Wild Bill” is flawed.
Not saying “Geronimo” doesn’t have any flaws but its impressive direction, intelligent writing, splendidly photographed shots, and mostly historically accurate plot that honors Geronimo and the Apaches are more than enough to overlook them. There’s also a very strong cast that includes Wes Studi, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman who all deliver top-class acting performances. Unlike most westerns of its kind, the film doesn’t simply paint the picture of “good vs. evil” but treat its character with so much complexity. The film didn’t do well at the box office probably because it doesn’t have the dramatic beats of films like “Dances with the Wolves” but it doesn’t mean it’s bad in any way. The last but not the least, it also features a knock-out soundtrack.
6. Thousand Pieces of Gold (1990)
Based on a 1981 historical novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn with the same title, the small-budget drama “Thousand Pieces of Gold” is based on the life of Polly Bemis, a 19th-century Chinese immigrant woman in the American Old West which is already an interesting premise for a western because rarely a film has covered the Chinese immigrant experience. She winds up in a mining town in Idaho, where she must somehow work off her debt: 1000 pieces of gold. This is probably the most “arthouse” film on the list with a notably slow pace for an a Western but at the same time the epic feel of it makes it unique for its kind.
The film is the directorial debut for Nancy Kelly whose direction is very soulful. She didn’t get the support since then to make more films unfortunately and “Thousand Pieces of Gold” is still very underseen which is a shame because it brings such a fresh spin on the Old West. Thanks to Kelly’s background in documentary films, the movie has a unique kind of realism to the entire story. The location use of Montana is splendid here, and the story is very humane and captivating. Though at the center of it all it’s Rosalind Chao’s fantastic performance. She’s the unusual hero of our story and her performance captures everything in probably a career-best work.