“High Noon” (1952)
Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” ranked #27 on the American Film Institute's 2007 list of great films, making it the 2nd highest-ranking western after “The Searchers” (John Ford is unfuckable-with) and this reevaluation (the AFI’s list originally hit in 1998) is a wise move. The gracious Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, the longtime Marshall of a small New Mexican town. He’s about to hang it all up for his new Quaker pacifist bride (a gorgeously luminous Grace Kelly) when he gets word that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) -- a soulless criminal that Kane brought to justice for murder -- has inexplicably been pardoned on some unexplained technicality. Kane can go on to greener pastures with his new wife, but the call of duty is too strong and he returns to rally members of the community to fight off the scum that is heading their way. Famous for being shot in (nearly) real time, which always seems deceptively simple but takes an enormous amount of skill to pull off, perhaps its greatest triumph is that it never becomes merely a formal exercise and actually remains one of the most entertaining of the westerns on this list. And the last scene when Cooper’s character contemptuously tosses his marshall’s tin star at the feet of the cowardly and thankless townspeople? One of the best “go fuck yourselves” kiss-offs in a movie, ever. [A]

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971)
Moody, atmospheric, enigmatic and ultimately brilliant, leave it to Robert Altman to construct one of the shrewdest anti-western westerns of all time. The film follows John McCabe, an ambitious gambler who arrives in a town named Presbyterian Church (after its most prominent building) and naturally, establishes a brothel by purchasing prostitutes from a pimp in a neighboring town. McCabe stumbles into success almost by accident, largely thanks to Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a professional madam who whips McCabe’s makeshift operation into shape. The success of the enterprise catches the eye of of a mining company who want to buy him out as well as the mines surrounding the town, but when he says no, three bounty hunters are set out to kill. Time for a big showdown, right? Not if you’re Robert Altman. The final sequence is jaw dropping because it turns the entire notion of the western hero right on its head. Altman practically mocks the pissing contest between McCabe and the killers by cross cutting their showdown with the battle to contain the fire at the church that has suddenly burned out. McCabe has no problem shooting anyone in the back and as he trudges through the knee-high snowdrifts and blowing wind, the futility of his struggle that is driven mostly by pride is held in stark contrast. Also look out for Keith Carradine, in one of his first film roles, playing the tragic, nameless young gunslinger who gets caught between the two forces fighting for Presbyterian Church. Gorgeously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond like a hazy dream and featuring a lovely, and gloriously anachronistic score by Leonard Cohen, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” is one of the shining examples of 1970s American filmmaking: an impressionistic, boldly individual and completely genre-defying western that still remains unlike anything before or after it. [A-]

“Open Range” (2003)
Post- “Dances With Wolves,” Kevin Costner’s directorial career, well, floundered would be a nice way to put it, with his follow-up efforts (an uncredited directorial stint on “Waterworld,” an all-too-credited stint on “The Postman”) were unable to hit the same epic stride that so impressed the Academy with his debut. And time has not been particularly kind to ‘Dances’ either, revealing it as a rather self-indulgent overlong vanity project that in many ways foreshadowed the frighteningly egotistical bent of his movies to come. So with this unpromising background, “Open Range” is a complete and welcome surprise, and sees a chastened Costner direct himself (as before) but this time with a light touch and a generous desire to showcase the supporting talent. And what talent: Robert Duvall, Annette Bening and Diego Luna are all in fine form, with Michael Gambon as an appropriately dastardly villain. “Open Range” is a classic western full of man’s-gotta-do ethos but leavened with an unusually strong female character and moments of genuine humor. By turns touching, funny and exciting (John Ford would be proud), this overlooked film deserves a lot more attention and praise than it got, and goes some way to help Costner atone for directorial sins past. [A-]

“Winchester ‘73” (1950)
The word ‘seminal’ could be applied to many of the films on this list, especially if like us, you have a full-on stiffy for the western genre. But while it’s a term that is most usually found in reviews of the John Ford/John Wayne oeuvre, there was another great, seminal western partnership during this period: that of director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart. Teaming here for the first time, you can see why they would go on to work together seven more times (four of them westerns). Stewart’s performance is a revelation -- keen-edged, desperate, almost deranged at times, and it’s wonderful to see him explode out of the laconic everyman role he often played elsewhere. The plot itself is unusual too, a revenge story built around the titular rifle that digresses at times to follow the rifle’s story, rather than the human protagonists’. But nonetheless, it remains a blistering human drama centering, as so many great westerns do, on a man haunted by his past and trying to embrace his destiny, ultimately discovering the two are irrevocably linked. [A]