Dramas and documentaries worth watching and remembering.
Yes, it’s true: You’ll find a documentary about competitive chicken breeders and a French-Belgian contemporary drama inspired by John Ford on our list of the Top Ten Films of 2016. But you’ll also find five traditional — well, OK, relatively traditional — westerns as well. We decided to cast our net wide while compiling our year-end review, given the diversity of C&I readers and their eclectic tastes.
As it turns out, all ten of these titles currently are available either on DVD and Blu-Ray or through streaming platforms. So without further ado, let the countdown from 10 to 1 begin:
Louise Osmond’s outstanding documentary tells the amusing and uplifting story of “commoners” in an economically deprived Wales mining town who compete in The Sport of Kings by pooling their resources to purchase and train a champion Thoroughbred.
Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story
Country music star Trace Adkins earns his spurs as an actor with his best big-screen performance yet, as a former outlaw forced to strap on his guns again to battle a deranged lawman (Kim Coates) in this rousingly old-fashioned shoot-‘em-up.
Filmmaker Nicole Lucas Haimes strikes the perfect balance of bemused curiosity and respectful empathy in her pretty clucking wonderful documentary about the thriving subculture of competitive poultry breeders.
Jane Got a Gun
Despite its troubled production history, Gavin O’Connor’s under-rated drama impressed as a solidly made and surprisingly satisfying western about a resourceful pioneer woman (Natalie Portman, persuasive and compelling) who rises to the challenge of protecting her wounded ex-outlaw husband (Noah Emmerich) from his former partner in crime (Ewan McGregor).
The second (after Chicken People) of two CMT-produced documentaries on this list is an entertaining and illuminating behind-the-scenes account of the making of Smokey and the Bandit (1977), emphasizing the complicated relationship between superstar Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham.
Kiefer and Donald Sutherland bring out the best in each other throughout John Cassar’s period drama, which is refreshingly and unabashedly sincere in its embrace of western conventions and archetypes. Kiefer is a notorious gunslinger who returns to his home town to hang up his guns; Donald, Kiefer’s real-life dad, is the gunslinger’s skeptical father, a preacher who fears (with good reason) his son will backslide into violence.
The Magnificent Seven
Antoine Fuqua’s exciting remake of John Sturges’ classic western (which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) pits an all-star team of hired guns led by a righteously badass Denzel Washington against the army of varmints and killers led by a sociopathic Peter Sarsgaard. Call it popcorn entertainment of the highest order, and you won’t be far off the mark.
In a Valley of Violence
Ethan Hawke rides tall in the Magnificent Seven remake, but he’s even more effectively cast in Ti West’s brutally gritty and slow-burningly suspenseful western about an Indian Wars veteran who cuts a bloody swath of vengeance through a small town after some galoots make the mistake of brutalizing his dog. Extra added attractions: Dollops of dark humor, sly allusions to Spaghetti Westerns, and John Travolta’s fine performance as a lawman whose worst fears are fulfilled.
French director Thomas Bidegain tips his Stetson to John Ford’sThe Searchers in his riveting contemporary drama about a provincial businessman who takes his son along for the ride during his years-long search for his missing daughter — who may have allied herself with Islamic terrorists, and most definitely doesn’t want to be found. (The businessman, it should be noted, is introduced as an enthusiastic participant at a gathering of rodeo and country music devotees.) Like Ford, Bidegain boldly undercuts our expectations, values ambiguity over certainty — and builds to a quietly devastating final scene that suggests some divides can never be reconciled.
Hell or High Water
To pay it the highest compliment imaginable: This extraordinary modern-day western earns its place alongside classics of the genre. Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan evenly divide our sympathies between two desperate brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) methodically robbing small-town branches of the bank that may foreclose on their family land, and two Texas Rangers — a grizzled veteran (Oscar-worthy Jeff Bridges) on the verge of retirement and his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham) — relentlessly following their trail. The final face-off is all the more powerful, and memorable, for what doesn’t happen between the last men standing.