Over the past century, the Western ranged from being by far the most popular genre to almost dying out completely. But as often as it has been pronounced dead, it has been resurrected. One of the genre's key resurrections was Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), which emerged almost instantly as a masterpiece and a landmark film, but, despite that, actually went on to win four Oscars. After Unforgiven (and a previous Oscar-winner, Dances With Wolves), the Western had a minor resurgence; by one count, there were more Westerns produced in the 1990s than in the 1970s and 1980s combined. This year three excellent Westerns have been released, prompting many writers to use phrases like "the best Western since..." or, more specifically, to measure the landmarks. Here, to put the record straight, are the seven best Westerns sine Unforgiven.
1. Dead Man (1996, Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch's brutal, black-and-white poem of a movie was, like Unforgiven, as well as Ride the High Country and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a Western death-rattle, but it was something entirely unique as well, like a dream or a primal odyssey. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, not the poet, who comes to the town of Machine for a job but winds up shot and dying in the woods, aided by an American Indian called Nobody (Gary Farmer). The great Robert Mitchum co-stars -- in one of his final roles -- as a monstrous town boss who sends out a band of killers after Blake.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)
Playing like a Malick dream-poem or a Lynchian nightmare, this magnificently long, slow film neither deconstructs nor celebrates the Jesse James myth. Rather, it spreads it out flat like a road map, and examines the way that James captivated everyone with his calculating stare and cocky smile. It's a film about celebrity and anti-celebrity, and no one could be more perfect than Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as the weasely Bob Ford. Roger Deakins' astonishing cinematography makes incredible use of night and shadows, snow and splintery trees.
3. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, Tommy Lee Jones)
Jones' film is another grungy odyssey, recalling Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). An old cowboy (Jones) kidnaps the border guard (Barry Pepper) who shot and killed his partner (Julio Cesar Cedillo); the two men and one corpse make their way back to Estrada's hometown for a proper burial. It deliberately challenges notions of borders and the differences on either side.
4. Open Range (2003, Kevin Costner)
Costner more than made up for his soggy, self-righteous Dances With Wolves with this excellent, low-key cowboy movie. Costner gives the spotlight to Robert Duvall as an old time cattleman, with Costner as his second-hand man. Looking for grazing land, the crew moves too close to a big time baron's territory and winds up battling for everything they have. The climactic shootout in the mud is a superb throwback to Anthony Mann's The Far Country (1954).
5. The Proposition (2006, John Hillcoat)
Coming from Australia, John Hillcoat's The Proposition is probably the out-and-out toughest Western of recent years. Emily Watson is on board as the requisite female example of civilization (she even manages to track down a Christmas tree in the middle of the dusty nowhere). Accompanied by a sickly, yellow atmosphere scored with buzzing flies, the film heavily blurs the lines between the law (Ray Winstone), the hero (Guy Pearce) and the bad guy (Danny Huston), the latter of which is the hero's brother. Its most notable scene comes during a public flogging. The bystanders cry out for blood, but when the actually see it they turn away in droves. Incidentally, Nick Cave, who wrote the screenplay for this film, appears as a balladeer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
6. The Quick and the Dead (1995, Sam Raimi)
Raimi's non-serious throwback to the days of Sergio Leone features Woody Strode in a neat cameo and a Leone-like hero in the stoic Sharon Stone. It's slick, wild and funny even if the plot centers around the most sadistic in Western history, a shooting contest that leaves the losers dead in the dirt. Gene Hackman plays the man in charge, but the cast also boasts Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe before their mega-stars rose.
7. 3:10 to Yuma (2007, James Mangold)
Crowe returns to the Western twelve years later, but this time he's in charge as the wily Ben Wade, a ruthless outlaw who is captured and escorted to the title train by a poor, desperate farmer (Christian Bale). Delivering his best work to date, Mangold actually improves upon the 1957 original -- both films were based on an Elmore Leonard story -- by focusing on down-to-earth storytelling and character nuances. Peter Fonda, who himself once directed a great Western, The Hired Hand, is terrific as a cranky bounty hunter.
I felt it only fair to also mention David Von Ancken's Seraphim Falls (2007) from earlier this year, which is about three-quarters of a great movie, but falls apart in its overly explained flashback and overly planned conclusion. Walter Hill, one of the few Western veterans alive today besides Clint Eastwood, last year made a solid TV Western called Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, that is now available on DVD. (Hill also worked on TV's "Deadwood.") Finally, there is Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), which I'm hoping to catch up with later this week and which has been proclaimed as a major landmark in the Western genre and a vastly underrated film.