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Tag Archive: best western movies


Review by C.J. Bunce

Although the first chapter in the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will have you thinking the new straight-to-Netflix movie is more of the same from the Coen Brothers, the subsequent chapters may have you think again.  It just may be the most thought-provoking, subdued, and effective film from the entire catalog of Coen Brothers films, and it may even eclipse Bone Tomahawk and the Coens’ own True Grit as this century’s best Westerns–at least in parts (and it’s a leap ahead of Quentin Tarentino’s past two efforts).  Netflix’s Mudbound was nominated this year in major categories (but didn’t win) and the studio brought in one documentary Oscar, but can this new Coens release bring Oscar home to Netflix for a major, large-scale production?

The common thread of the film is classic Americana: 19th century settlers possessed a kind of unique grit, and they paid a steep price, in unique and unglamorous ways, to build a nation.  The film chronicles six fictional fails and near fails that might have happened (mostly), presented as chapters of an anthology dime novel.  The first chapter follows the title character, a goofy but sure-shootin’ singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson, in a story that will have many thinking this movie is another Western parody like 1985’s Rustler’s Rhapsody (it is not).  The next chapter follows a determined thief (James Franco) unsuccessfully robbing a bank in an era before the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment (in a mash-up inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”).  Another story finds a young woman (Zoe Kazan of the famed film dynasty in a masterful performance) on a frontier wagon train just trying to make it to the next town.  The least of the tales comes off more as a one-note Aesop’s Fable, as Liam Neeson‘s character carts a young limbless orator (played eloquently by well-known Harry Potter actor Harry Melling) from town to town carnival style for money.  To round off the anthology, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, and Tyne Daly star in a John Ford-inspired stagecoach bit that would be good source material for a stage play.

But the best of the chapters is an adaptation of a Jack London story about an old gold prospector, a character study starring Tom Waits.  His performance could be seamlessly spliced into any of the best classic Westerns.  And it’s the kind of acting achievement that should earn Waits a supporting Oscar nod, if the Academy gets in lock-step with Netflix as a legitimate moviemaking studio.  The other performance worth Oscar contention is Chelcie Ross‘s trapper in the stagecoach segment.  His rambling story and delivery is laugh-out-loud funny, and you can almost see in the eyes of Rubinek and Daly a real struggle to hold back laughs.

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Bone Tomahawk

Review by C.J. Bunce

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 film release Bone Tomahawk starts as a classic Western about life on the frontier–living at home, visiting the local saloon, working in the local Sheriff’s office.  It quickly becomes a genre-bending damsel in distress/ “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” picture and much more.  Several other genre elements are woven together to create a solid, serious drama that is equal parts suspense thriller and gritty, meaty Western that rises above most efforts to make a classic Western in the past 45 years, if you forgive it for one scene that dips into gruesome, in-your-face horror.  Put Bone Tomahawk up there with Silverado.  It’s a far better Western than even the much celebrated Unforgiven.

Bone Tomahawk follows four men as they pursue the mysterious captors of a local frontier doctor–a woman (played by Lili Simmons)–and the criminal she was operating on (played by David Arquette) and the on-hand sheriff’s deputy (played by Evan Jonigkeit).  It’s a simple story, yet it couldn’t be more unique in its execution.  In possibly Kurt Russell’s finest bit of reserved, serious acting ever on film, he plays Sheriff Hunt.  Made of the same mettle as Gary Cooper in High Noon and John Wayne in The Searchers, he is relentless in his pursuit.  Patrick Wilson is equally relentless as the husband of the missing doctor.  His leg has been wounded from a fall and so he must forge ahead limping along throughout the film as he sleuths out what is really going on.  Think of him as a mix of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window Lost’s Matthew Fox is the slick but honorable, impeccably dressed gentleman barfly, who once had a thing for the doctor, and volunteers to help find her.  The posse is rounded out by the now crotchety character actor from film and TV, Richard Jenkins.  He’s droll and provides a different flavor of humor along the way.

Bone Tomahawk movie poster

Zahler isn’t afraid to let the movie flow at its own pace, and allow the viewer to soak up the scenery, the Western tropes, the camaraderie of the team as they eat and sleep and take their horses forward through the long desert way.  It’s an 1890s Assault on Precinct 13, only like High Plains Drifter the nature of the mystery is hidden from us for so long that the anticipation warrants calling this out as a top-notch suspense thriller.  Who stole the townsfolk and are they still alive?  And what is that strange music we hear in the wind before bodies start falling?  Like The Ghost and the Darkness, you want to run away from what is out there waiting for you–this feels like a ghost story, maybe even every frontier family’s personal nightmare come to life.

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Butch and Sundance

TCM Big Screen Classics and the Fathom Event series are bringing one of the top ten Westerns of all time back to theaters for a limited engagement.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is returning to theaters across the country Sunday, January 17, 2016, and Wednesday, January 20, 2016.  Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross star in one of the most famous stories of the west.  Bank robbers and the best ever buddy movie?  You can’t miss it.

The trio play off each other so naturally you really wish there could have been a sequel.  Great fun, with the most popular music of 1969.  “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” playing behind Newman and Ross’s bicycle ride reflects a carefree spirit that must have accompanied the actual risk-averse band of gunslingers.  The film stands strong today and on multiple viewings Newman and Redford only seem to get better.  You may even find you want to book a plane to Bolivia.

The film won Academy Awards for screenplay, cinematography, score, and for “Raindrops”–a double win night for Burt Bacharach.

Butch and Sundance vintage poster

Here is the original trailer for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

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Django Unchained - Still A

By C.J. Bunce

How does a Western get nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2013? As recently as two years ago the remake of True Grit was nominated for Best Picture and nine other nominations—but did not net a single win.  But would it have been nominated if it hadn’t been directed by the quirky directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen?  Five years earlier Brokeback Mountain, a film with a Western—or at least a cowboy– theme was also nominated for Best Picture, winning three of eight nominations.  It took director Ang Lee and a completely non-Western plot for that to happen.  Then you have to go back to Unforgiven in 1992, which actually won Best Picture and four of nine of its nominations, to find the last major, critically acclaimed Western.

What made Unforgiven win?  Certainly by supplying one of the two most popular Western actors of all time as the film’s lead helped, even if it was one of his more bland performances, with Clint Eastwood also serving as director. (Yes, John Wayne still remains the #1 most popular Western actor ever).  But more importantly, like the few notable Westerns since, it had a very non-standard plot for a Western.  With its gunfighter-turns-farmer-turns-gunfighter-one-last-time story, it was basically a dark sequel to John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman.  You could keep going—back to Dances with Wolves in 1990, an example of the “epic Western” which seemed to reward the director and acting efforts of rising star Kevin Costner more than the movie as a Western genre masterpiece.  Or back to Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid in 1969, probably the last classic era Western to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, winning five awards, including a key win for the script by William Goldman.  Then go back to the also-quirky Cat Ballou in 1965 starring Jane Fonda—the rare Western notable for featuring a female lead.

Going back even further gets you into the classic era of Westerns, and throws you into the strange era of “epic Westerns” getting recognized by the Academy.  These were movies that in hindsight are really not as well done as many smaller pictures of the period, but their huge all-star casts and expensive sets made the films hard to ignore, such as How the West Was Won, The Alamo, and Giant.  Surprisingly you have to look back to the adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo starring John Wayne in 1953 to get back to the era of the “hero Western” as recipient of an Academy nod, a film up there with Shane and High Noon as successful and admired Westerns receiving acclaim by the Academy.

Schultz and Django

But if you put aside the classic Western and look at what has been selected by the Academy since the 1960s it makes a lot of sense that Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained is not only a Best Picture nominee this year, but a real contender for the win.  Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the film follows a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) whose past owners lead him to meet up with German-born, dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz’s next target is the wanted-dead-or-alive Brittle brothers, and only Django can help him literally recognize his bounty.  Schultz serves as mentor in survival and pursuit skills for Django who is squarely focused on rescuing long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  The search ultimately leads to a more complicated than necessary scheme to buy Broomhilda from infamous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), if only his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) will not stand in the way.

So what is the formula for a successful Western in the 21st century and why should Django Unchained make the cut?

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