Best Western Movies 1996 to 2008 Newer Westerns Worth Watching

Dec 2, 2009

The Bottom Line A few Westerns from the last 12 years that might satisfy Western Movie fans.

The Best Westerns 1996 to 2008

 Although not many Westerns have been made in the last 12 years, there are a few that should at least modestly satisfy a Western movie buffs appetite. There are only a few on this list that might make it onto a list of 100 Western Movies worth seeing. That’s not saying much I realize, but  it's more likely you’ll watch some of these then revisit the superb Anthony Mann Westerns of the 1950s.

So here’s a list of some Westerns that might be on your radar that have been made since 1996.

1996 to 2000

Dead Man’s Walk (1996)

 is the third of currently four sequels to one of the best TV Western niseries ever made Lonesome Dove. It’s better than Return to Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo and far better than the very disappointing recent Comanche Moon.

 The story unfolds in the Republic of Texas in the early 1840s. New Mexico is still a Mexican territory, though the writing is clearly on the wall it won’t stay that way. The conflicts are made more complicated because the American Indians fight both parties in an almost suicide mission to save the land they consider as belonging to them.

 Rookie Texas rangers Woodrow Call (Jonny Lee Miller) and Gus McCrae (David Arquette) are under the leadership of Major Randall Chevallie (Brian Dennehy), are on a mission to find the road between San Antonio and El Paso. Theirs is a rowdy bunch that includes wild woman Mattie (Patricia childress), one-eyed Johnny (Tim Blake Nelson and Long Bill Coleman (Yay McKinnon) and Shadrach the loner plainsman (Harry Dean Stanton). It’s a good thing they have help from guide Bigfoot Wallace (Keith Caradine) because they barely survive their confrontation with Buffalo Hump (Eric Schweig) a Comanche infamous for selling Mexican women and children into slavery.

Eventually the not so wild bunch wind up in Austin where they join the Great Texas Santa Fe Expedition which is led by a Colonel Caleb Cobb memorably played by F. Murray Abraham. Cobb is a former seafaring Pirate. There’s a little bit of romantic interest, Gus meets Clara (played by Jennifer Garner) and Call meets Maggie (Gretchen Mol) but then its time get to Santa Fe.

Problems ensue when their horse’s are stolen and then General Salazar (Edward James Olmos) of the Mexican Army forces them to make the Dead Man’s Walk which is is trek of hundreds of miles through dry desert in the middle of Apache Indian territory. If they survive they will wind up in the Mexican outpost of San Lazaro where their fate is unknown. The pacing is slow and episodic concentrating on character. There are many quiet well written scenes that allow the actors to really shine making this far more interesting than the previous Larry McMurty mini-series Streets of Laredo. You should still watch Lonesome Dove first, but then enjoy this mini-series available on a 2 disc DVD.

F. Murray Abraham steals the show of course but Keith Carradine and Harry Dean Stanton make memorable impressions as well. Good show, well directed by Yves Simoneau.

Riders of the Purple Sage ( 1996)

is another memorable made for television Western from 1996. It stars real life husband and wife, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in a story mostly faithful to Zane Grey’s early 1918 (0r 1911) novel.

 Madigan is part of a close knit religious community (not specified in the movie but Mormon in the novel) who is expected to marry a nasty creep of a guy who only wants the woman’s claim to land and cattle. Harris plays Lassiter who’s got a mysterious agenda and a reputation as dangerous gunfighter. He decides to help out Madigan and in the process starts feeling more than just protective of the woman. There’s an okay younger romance involving a grown up Henry Thomas (E.T.) that is not as interesting as Harris and Madigan.

Although it’s clearly a TV movie, it’s a much better than average one, and a decent adaptation of the Zane Gray novel.

NOTE: I’m not ignoring 1997’s Buffalo Soldiers which was originally shown on cable’s TNT It stars Danny Glover and is based on the true story of the African-American U.S. cavalry whose loyalty and humanity were tested when they were forced by the U.S. Army to fight in the ongoing battle with Native Americans in the settling of the American West during the 19th century. It’s a flawed film, simplifying real life situations and full of one note characterizations that make this potential important movie a slightly better than average t.v. movie and nothing more. I can’t recommend it.

1999’s The Jack Bull

 is a solid Western, the kind that once starred Randolph Scott but isn’t made anymore.

This one was made for HBO but feels like a medium budgeted theatrical film. It’s got a good cast that includes John Cusack, L.Q. Jones, John Savage, John Goodman and Miranda Otto. Cusack is a hard-working horse trader who wants to be treated fairly. L.Q. Jones is thes mustache twirling wealthy landowner bad guy who makes Cusack pay a toll to his use land. Since he can’t pay he has to leave two of his horses to cross the land. When Cusack returns and finds his horses mis-treated and near death, he wants L.Q. to be punished—nothing more, nothing less.

You know Cusack is going to have to risk everything to battle L.Q. and you know what’s probably going to happen in the end, but it’s a well done horse opera, very entertaining, well made, superbly acted and worth seeing if you like Westerns.

2000’s The Claim

is director Michael Winterbottom’s take on Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel; The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The setting has been changed from England to the Rocky Mountains during the Gold Rush of the American West. Peter Mullan beautifully plays Dillon an overly ambitious man who trades his wife and baby for a gold claim. 20 years later he’s a mining town kingpin who’s keeping one step ahead of a creepy railroad surveyor (Wes Bentley) and bedding the pretty saloon singer (Milla Jovovich). Then his very sick wife shows up with his daughter.

The slow moving film doesn’t pay-off until it’s almost over, but it is worth the trip. You’ll probably be reminded in many ways of Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

2001 to 2008

2003’s The Open Range

directed by Kevin Costner and starring Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Bening is a solid unpretentious gem.

Costner and Duvall play longtime partners in the disappearing trade of nomadic cattle herders who roam the countryside in the 1880s with their cattle letting them free-graze on the land.

As the West becomes more settled and populated, conflicts with ranchers become more common and one rancher (Michael Gambon) decides to ambush the herders killing one of the hired hands and leaving another (Diego Luna) near dead. So Costner and Duvall head to the corrupt town for revenge to find predictably that Gambon has a stranglehold over the town and it doesn’t look like the law is going to do anything about what happened. However, a local doctor and his sister, Dean Mc Dermott and Annette Bening a lonely not so old maid are also tired of the corruption in how the town is run.

The story takes its time giving us wonderful moments with Duvall who’s at the time of his game and having a great time being part of this good looking, well made little gem.

 I would be remiss if I avoided acknowledging the well made Deadwood series that began on HBO in 2004. Well produced, the series captures the feel of the old West and delivers some colorful characters. I though Ian McShane, Powers Booth , Keith Carradine and others in the cast did impressive jobs, however I just didn’t care about any of these characters and the series seemed to delight in being unpleasant and profane. I watched most of the first dozen episodes and then stopped.

I also didn’t like 2005’s The Proposition which tried too hard to be a revisionist Peckinpah inspired Western where everyone looks like they need a shower and has very colorful personalities. The violence is extreme and some of the lines are cleverly pretentious so I was not bored. John Hurt as a bounty hunter stole the show, but again I didn’t care about anyone in this Australian oater. Hellman, Peckinpah and Altman did it much better and 20 years ago. Next.

 2007’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

is an uneven long loose adaptation of Dee Alexander Brown’s 1971 book.

Parts of the film are powerful, and the bloody slaughter of Native American is given the full gory HBO treatment you would expect—which in this case is depressing (and it should be) to watch. Other parts alternate between being dull or full of Western movie clichés to somewhat interesting but with limited emotional impact. The movie sprawls but not in particularly interesting ways that try to be artistic by taking chances. Instead, this movie mostly plays it safe. It’s too ambitious for its own good.

Aidan Quinn is good, Adam Beach is only adequate and Fred Thompson’s supporting role is interesting (since he was running for President when this originally aired on Memorial Day in 2007). Too often people talk like this in the movie: "The earth belongs to the white man, There is no future outside of his world.”

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The original 1950’s film version of Elmore Leonard’s story was a modest successful film starring Glenn Ford. This one offers better acting, a much longer running time and a lot more violence. It’s also got an overly complicated ending. Still with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe delivering full movie star type performances, this is an entertaining movie—provided you don’t mind how it seems to cater to sado-massochists.

The opening robbery gone bad in the original was pretty clean, here it’s a drawn out blood bath and Russell Crowe establishes from the start he’s a cruel, cold hearted, cold blooded killed. He has a code of honor, but he’s a nasty piece of work. Bale plays his role a bit too tightly, but we get plenty of chase scenes and some explosions to make up for it. The movie is almost over-produced. It’s a solid bloodied up Western.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – (2007)

 Director Andrew Dominik tried to be Terrence Mallick and almost succeeds in pulling it off by making an over-long meandering, arty Western with lots of time spent making pretty pictures.

There’s not a lot of action in the movie, with the big shoot-out and robbery happening right at the beginning. Then it’s an interesting character study type of movie as we wait for what we know is already coming. Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard and Casey Affleck have the acting chops to keep you engrossed even though it’s too long and slow to get excited about. While you are watching it, it mostly keeps your attention.

2008’s Appaloosa is an almost. Ed Harris the director just doesn’t have enough style to make this overly familiar walk through familiar Western clichés soar. Ed Harris the actor makes it much more interesting and watchable then it should be, however so

I’ll call Appaloosa an above average Western that genre fans should thoroughly enjoy.

The cast includes some fine acting from Viggo Mortenson and Jeremy Irons and Renee Zellweger isn’t too annoying. The plot involves Harris and Mortensen clashing with the nasty rancher played in a deliciously sinister fashion by Jeremy Irons. He’s holding a New Mexico town in his utterly corrupt grip complete with murdering henchmen. Ed and Viggo almost let widow Renee screw up their partnership but of course that doesn’t stop them from watching each others’ backs when it becomes necessary to do so. It’s a good entertaining show, but offers absolutely nothing new. If you’re a fan of the cast and Westerns enjoy it soon. You might want to own a copy because a few months from now you’ll probably forget you even saw it.

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