True Grit
"True Grit"
There are two genres that every filmmaker wants to tackle: the musical and the western. Having flirted with the latter a number of times, the Coen Brothers, undoubtedly one of the foremost filmmaking teams of their generation, have finally delivered their first full-flung oater with "True Grit," a second adaptation of the Charles Portis novel made famous for winning John Wayne his only Oscar the first time around.

The Coens' "True Grit" is something of a triumph in general, but perhaps the biggest surprise is how traditional the film feels -- there's little post-modernism or revisionism in there, and you feel that even The Duke himself would have approved. With the picture hitting theaters today, we decided it was as good a time as any to take a look over the most American of genres.

If we're being honest, this list could have run to double the length (and we may yet follow it up with a part two) -- the western is one of the oldest archetypes in cinema, even if it's fallen out of favor in recent years. As ever, we've tried to re-examine some terrific pictures that are overlooked these days, but there are a few stone-cold classics that we couldn't resist writing about too. It's by no means comprehensive, but if "True Grit" gets you itching to revisit the Old West over the holidays, these are some good starting points.

“The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943)
Playing rather like a nihilistic Western version of “12 Angry Men” (complete with a conflicted Henry Fonda) if “The Ox-Bow Incident” had been made now, we would probably accuse it of being a too-on-the-nose analogy for U.S. involvement in the War on Terror. But it was made in 1943, and as the prominent War Bonds advertisement displayed at the end of the print we saw attests, it’s really talking about a different war altogether. However, that it is a parable about mob rule, the dangers of someone’s-gotta-pay mentality and the immorality of never suspending the rule of law EVER, is in no doubt -- this rather talky film was clearly made to teach us a lesson. And aside from a strangely episodic first third, it does that extremely well -- the simple story of an illegal posse who ride out looking for revenge and end up exacting it on the wrong people, still has the power to make the blood boil. Featuring early standout performances by Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn, this largely forgotten film should be required viewing for anyone thinking of, I don’t know, denying person X’s civil liberties or torturing person Y in the "national interest." [B+]

“Shane” (1953)
An all-time classic of the genre and Alan Ladd’s finest non-noir hour, this film is a summary example of how telling a familiar story from a different angle can make it feel completely fresh. The story: an ex-gunfighter happens into a job on a farmstead where his respect and love for the family he joins ends up driving him back to the life he was trying to escape, in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The angle: it’s mostly told through the eyes of a child. Somehow the naivety and black-and-white innocence of little Joey’s hero worship makes Shane’s choices all the clearer, and all the harder too. Stakes? It’s got ‘em in every single scene, making “Shane” a riveting and truly touching watch. Aside from “The Dirty Dozen,” this is one of the few films that men are officially allowed to cry at with no ensuing loss of masculinity. [A]