I love Westerns. Along with noir and musicals, they’re one of the three uniquely American genres, but Westerns stand way the hell out in that pack. It’s definitely a genre built on stereotypes: The badass outlaw, the snake oil salesman, the no-nonsense lawman… But when the hell has there ever been anything wrong with that? Everything from Star Wars to Black Lagoon practically vomits references to Western film lore. With larger-than-life inspirations like Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday, it’s no wonder half the characters played by The Duke and Clint Eastwood exude ridiculous amounts of machismo.
But this isn’t about those guys, because it wouldn’t be a fair fight if I let Eastwood and Wayne in on the action—I could fill this list twice over with the two of them. With apologies to The Magnificent Seven (which I haven’t seen), here are my top five Westerns.
5. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Determined to earn the reward money and the respect of his family, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) joins the posse transporting Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma Prison. When the group’s numbers begin to dwindle, Bale and Crowe butt heads more and more while also gaining a begrudging mutual respect. The interplay between the two is the film’s greatest strength, driving its plot without becoming a crutch. You’re always aware of what’s at stake for Bale and why it’s so important for him to finish the job. An out-of-place action sequence aside, 3:10 to Yuma is a great example of how one of the great American genres can remain fresh while relying on convention.
4. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)
A Korean-made Western? Hell yes. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an action comedy set in Manchuria, but it borrows liberally from Western tropes and lore, not to mention the music and costume design. GBW’s story follows a bounty hunter (the Good), an assassin (the Bad) and a bumbling small-time crook (the Weird) in their journey to not only take each other down but find a mysterious treasure buried deep in the desert. Along the way, they fight Korean nationalists and the Imperial Japanese Army as they race to the treasure’s burial site. GBW doesn’t skimp on the well-shot action sequences or slapstick humor, but it also knows when to get serious, and the occasionally playful animosity between its protagonists is evident throughout: You know they’re going to try to screw each other over—it’s just a matter of when.
3. Serenity (2005)
I could rant about Firefly, but it’s been done to death and chances are good that you don’t care. What I will talk about is its legacy: Serenity is a post-Civil War Western in space, long after humanity abandons Earth That Was and colonizes dozens of newly terraformed worlds. When a ragtag band of mercenaries picks up a pair of fugitives, they get a little more than they bargained for: One of them is carrying classified information—secrets the government will stop at nothing to keep hidden. Cue armies and assassins pursuing our heroes. Serenity is interesting not only because it blends the two genres so seamlessly, but also because it throws out the “issues of the future” and suggests instead that the problems facing society today will more or less be the same ones we face hundreds of years from now.
2. True Grit (2010)
What’s interesting about this movie is that the Coen brothers usually stick to original works or homages to classic literature, so tackling Charles Portis’s novel (also adapted into a John Wayne film in ’69) was a change of pace. Staying true to form, the brothers filled the film with dark humor and quirky characters. Their retelling of the Western classic is much darker than the John Wayne film, its characters and themes far less lighthearted and optimistic, right up to the somber ending. There’s no fanfare and no triumphant ride into the sunset. Though it’s not short on ballsy heroics, True Grit’s grimly realistic portrayal of the Old West sets it apart from its contemporaries.
1. Tombstone (1993)
Former lawman Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) is looking to lay down his guns and start a new life with his brothers (Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott) in the city of Tombstone. Not long after he runs into his old friend Doc Holliday (played splendidly by Val Kilmer), Earp finds himself drawn into a conflict with a gang of outlaws. To bring order to the city, the Earps, along with Holliday, take up their guns against the cowboys, spreading peace and justice by killing everyone who doesn’t like it. Tombstone is a great movie, but it walks a fine line: It’s both easy to poke fun at and really well-made. The dialogue oozes sarcasm and dry wit, friend and enemy exchanging jabs throughout, even when they’re about to fill each other with lead. Tombstone is a modern classic of the genre if there ever was one, even holding up beside the likes of Unforgiven.