Monday, 18 October 2010

The Western 00's

The Best Westerns of the 2000s - The Magnificent 7th Part of our ongoing series.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (C)2007 Warner Bros.

Western is one of the most important genres in cinema, yet it was mostly sadly neglected in the Naughties. There were only a few film which clearly fit the genre bill, so I had to bend the limits a bit. I had to go through trouble to present you a top 10 list. Some of these films aren't even great, merely OK. But in addition to that, there are a couple of masterpieces that rank good among the whole decade.

3:10 To Yuma (2007)
Director: James Mangold

I like James Mangold as a director, yet he seems to go further into the basic Hollywood style with each film. There's not too many signs here of a personal style - anyone could've directed this and made it almost as good (unless it's someone like Michael Bay, who merely thinks he has a personal style).

Nevertheless, this remake is by no means a bad film, and I would hope Hollywood would make more of these westerns in a traditional style. This is, of course a remake of an old film, now starring Russell Crowe as a crook and Christian Bale as the farmer designated to bring him in front of the law. Of couse, his will for justice will be tested by threats to his family and his own life. Crowe isn't as bad a guy as I'd like him to be but that's usually the case when casting big movie stars as villains. An entertaining popcorn western.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominik

A poetic character study about the curses of fame, fear and betrayal. These themes are fitting to read all sorts of things about the world today, too. The lust for glory in the 1880s that is more important than friendship, and the respect for one's whole life isn't that different from today, after all. The film takes time to tell the story but doesn't stretch anything in vain. Shots of nature and scenes of silence tell important tales constantly. Three hours fly by when pondering the multidimensional subtexts. One might complain about the anticlimatic ending, but I feel it's crucial to show how shitty the end can be for these wannabe-celebrities. I'd like to say they don't do them like this anymore, but apparrently they do.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee

My hatred for the movie Crash originally made me like this movie before I'd even seen it. It actually wasn't as good as I expected, yet it's still better than anything directed by Paul Haggis by miles. It's cool that modern Hollywood can finally produce such a crushing love story between members of the same sex, even though it took an asian director to nail the subject matter. It's a film about pining and unfulfilled love, just like all great romance films are. Like in Jesse James, the landscape also tells a big part of the story.

Dogville (2003)
Director: Lars von Trier

It's easy to forget that this is essentially a western, as all the things we usually recognize a western from have been stripped away. But this is a film that takes place in a small country town in the American midwest in the early 20th century. And the film is about America's two-faced bloodlust. Had there been more sets than just a chalklined floor it should be obvious to everyone.

In the beginning it seems the film would be quite like theatre without sets, and like a novel with it's structure divided in chapters. In fact it's a superb film that relies on many storytelling methods unique to films. The camera work among the chalk-lined floors is nothing short of breath-taking. Trier, if anyone, knows how to strip films down to their core essence. The film emphasizes its great performances, and even Nicole Kidman seems loveable and naive. Which is of course a fatal mistake.

No Country For Old Men (2007)
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

This is another multilayered portrayal of the decay of America. But even though the themes are familiar, the Coen brothers create a highly original piece of work. This isn't a straight western, as it takes place today, but the role of the landscape of the praries and fields of Texas are in such a big role here, it has to be seen as a postmodern western. There are no heroes in this work, just bad men and REALLY bad men. OK, Tommy Lee Jones is kind of good, but he's a really inept character, incapable to stop the carnage or to help stop the American degradation. No hero by all means. The film has a really cynical look about the irrationality of life. As they tend to do, the Coens also lace this pitch-black story full of equally black humour. And thus it was both the best comeback film in my memory, and one of the best Best Picture winners of the decade.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

The Coens again, the best American western filmmakers living today. This one, however is right at the other end of the spectrum from NCFOM. The first part of their Idiot-trilogy starring George Clooney, is also the best and funniest of the three. The moronically grandiose idea of translating Homer's Odyssey into a tale of men on the lam in the prohibition-era midwest is so stupid it works like a charm.
Great music, memorable scenes, great casting, great and funny dialogue. What's not to love?
Damn, we're at a tight spot.

Open Range (2003)
Director: Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner made a film about how modern scumbags threaten to extinct the proper cowboys, herding cattle in the open praries. Today, it's almost too old-fashioned for it's own good, but at least offers a great shootout, which has been mostly absent from other westerns on this list.

The Proposition (2005)
Director: John Hillcoat

I like my westerns bloody and gritty, because I believe that’s how America came to be. Now, this one is violent like Peckinpah squared and gritty like Leone quadrupled. And it's not about America at all but depicts the old times down under. Australia has apparently been made with as much blood to paint the Ayers Rock. There are no good characters on this one either, just evil and eviler. And heads exploding, piles of corpses, lynchings and a drunk bounty hunter played by John Hurt. Great music by Nick Cave and scenery shots, too. It's an experience that you won’t easily forget.

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

An important movie for the whole 21st century. Whereas Citizen Kane spent all his life trying to be loved, Daniel Plainview pushes away everything that could bring him happiness, including his son (twice), would-be friends, and religion. All that's left is his driven greed, that made him work indominably in the beginning, even though he broke his legs. But he doesn't get a reward from this hard work, just fortunes and insanity. It's still not as if everyone else in here is virtuous. Daniel sees both good and bad people just as something he can take advantage from or potential threats.

The movie is somewhat of a metaphor in itself. It is not the first western to suggest that America is built on greed and blood, but one of the most effective ones at that in recent years. The film is gorgeously shot. One can spot the same locations that were seen in No Country for Old Men, including the tree under which the mexican drug dealer died.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Yet another film about an old cowboy that realizes that his time is up. Director/star Tommy Lee Jones touched a lot on the thematics of the Coen brother's film two years before he himself starred in it. Here, Lee Jones tries to fulfill a promise to a friend and get him buried in Mexico. He has to step on law and resort to, among other crimes, kidnapping, to accomplish this extremely hard act of ultimate friendship.

Again, this is a film that is set in the modern day, but uses the themes, settings and landscapes found on all good westerns. A beatifully shot and edited film, and by all means a good direction from TLJ. He appears to be one of the actors that just gets how a good film should flow and be made. It is also a fitting paragraph to let Tommy Lee slowly ride onto the sunset on a mule to quit this list here.

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