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Best (Modern-Day) Westerns

t3lrh6bnv74llvbfpqscbrgau9The new Western The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake, based on the 1960 Yul Brynner-Steve McQueen picture directed by John Sturges, which was itself an Americanization of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai.

The movie’s $35 million debut marks the best opening yet for director Antoine Fuqua, another solid launch for headliner Denzel Washington, and the second-highest first-weekend gross for a Western—a distinctly American genre once hugely popular but considered all but dormant until Kevin Costner’s epic Dances with Wolves became a massive hit and swept the Oscars in 1990.

It’s fair to say 1990 marked the start of the current modern-day renaissance of the Western: in addition to Dances with Wolves, that year saw the release of Young Guns II and Back to the Future Part III, both of which surpassed their predecessors and successfully spun the oft-stodgy frontier formula into hip crowd-pleasers. These three films blazed the trail for Clint Eastwood’s rueful revenge tale Unforgiven, which rightly took home the Best Picture Oscar in 1992.

Since then, there has been a flood of high-profile classic-style Westerns, but also a few off-beat genre-skewing pictures that jigger the traditional oater formula by tilting towards the macabre (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), girl power (Bad Girls, 1994), animation (Rango, 2011), sci-fi (Cowboys & Aliens, 2011), and outright comedy (A Million Ways to Die in the West, 2014).

In salute to this storied genre, and in advance of viewing The Magnificent Seven, here are some of the finer and more outrageous modern-day Westerns to jangle my spurs.

Unforgiven (1992)

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Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning meditation on killing and revenge is a deconstruction of the classic shining-hero Western mythos. There are good guys and bad guys aplenty, but none are as simplistic as we’re used to seeing in Westerns—all of them are drawn with complex and contradictory shades of morality.

Beyond the long-awaited return of star/director Eastwood to the saddle, the film boasts scenic cinematography, an exquisite production design, and superlative performances—especially from Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Gene Hackman (who took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his vicious villain Little Bill Daggett).

Tombstone (1993)

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Despite a troubled production that saw its director replaced mid-shoot, this insanely star-studded retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend is a rousingly entertaining, testosterone-laden, and violently bloody affair.

Starring Kurt Russell (with iconic moustache) as Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, and co-starring a stagecoach full of solid supporting actors (Michael Biehn, Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Booth, Michael Rooker, Billy Zane, Jason Priestly, Billy Bob Thornton, and even Charlton Heston). The O.K. Corral legend received a more elegiac treatment in Lawrence Kasdan’s sprawling Wyatt Earp a year later, but few Westerns have earned such cult appeal as this eminently quotable classic.

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

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Director Sam Raimi brings his macabre Evil Dead sensibilities and whiplash visual style to this crackerjack tale of retribution. Sharon Stone is fine in the lead role, but she’s easily outgunned by her co-stars Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and, in his fourth Western in as many years, Gene Hackman as the Big Bad.

Open Range (2003)

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After the colossal bomb that was The Postman in 1997, Kevin Costner’s third directorial effort arrived with little fanfare but is surprisingly entertaining in an old-fashioned sort of way—the good guys are unflaggingly righteous and the bad guys are appropriately despicable. Costner is nicely partnered with Robert Duvall as a pair of longtime cowboys who arrive at a small town lorded over by a corrupt sheriff and are driven by their code of honor to intervene.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)

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Quentin Tarantino’s Eastern-Western mash-up may indeed have been conceived as a sprawling four-hour saga, but Volume 2 is so drastically different in tone from Volume 1 that it’s hard to fathom how such a schizophrenic epic would have played to audiences. Whereas Volume 1 is a frenetic riff on Bruce Lee and Eastern kung-fu exploitation flicks, Volume 2 feels more like a traditional Western—it’s more leisurely paced, has only a few characters, and the out-for-revenge plotline is more clearly delineated. The dusty locations help immensely, too.

True Grit (2010)

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Jeff Bridges reunites with the Coen Brothers in this straightforward retelling of the novel that inspired the original John Wayne picture in 1969 (for which Wayne won the Oscar for Best Actor). Gorgeously lensed by longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, and featuring strong supporting performances from the likes of Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

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Yes, you read that right: The Lone Ranger.

Sure, it’s one of the biggest and most expensive bombs in Hollywood history, but long after the controversy over the film’s notoriously un-PC casting of Johnny Depp as a gonzo Tonto has been forgotten, and in the wake of several subsequent and equally embarrassing mega-budget misfires since, what fresh viewers will discover is a larger-than-life throwback to the golden years of the Wild Wild West.

Every buck of the movie’s massive budget is evident onscreen, from the many explosive action sequences to the sumptuous production design—notably those magnificent period trains. A tad overlong, granted, but eminently entertaining…and the final act shows off some of the wildest stunt choreography and full-scale practical effects ever put to celluloid.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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Kurt Russell and his indelible moustache are reunited for this brutal and unconventional tale of cowboys and cannibal Indians. Russell and Patrick Wilson head off into the wilderness to rescue Wilson’s wife when she’s kidnapped by a savage tribe of “Troglodytes.” Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins are also on hand in the search party. Highlighted by crisp dialogue, panoramic vistas, a truly eerie sound design, and some of the most shocking and gut-wrenching graphic violence ever depicted in the movies, let alone in a Western.

Kurt Russell’s other 2015 Western—Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight—got more press and received a wider and more prestigious theatrical release, but this is the better film by a long shot.

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