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Assessing Texas Monthly's Top Texas Films

by Stephen Becker 13 Jun 2011 2:56 PM

The larger question that emerges after looking over the list is: What’s it going to take to crack it?


Texas Monthly assembled a panel of five Texas film experts, locked them in a room and told them not to come out until they had come up with the definitive list of the 10 best Texas films. You can read through their reasoning in chat form, but I’ll get straight to the list (in no particular order):

  • The Searchers
  • No Country for Old men
  • Hud
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Red River
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • Blood Simple
  • Tender Mercies
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Giant

One of the guidelines that the group developed was that the film had to really feel as if it could only have been made in Texas. And from looking at the list, it’s evident that this principle was followed above all others. In fact, it was the main reason Dazed and Confused – a film loved by the panel (and me) – was not included. Among the other films that were discussed but ultimately left off: Slacker, Friday Night Lights, Rio Bravo, Urban Cowboy and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Among the films not even considered: Bottle Rocket, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, Apollo 13, The Alamo (neither version), Paris, Texas, The Apostle, Places in the Heart or (blessedly) Dr. T and the Women – arguably the worst-Texas set film and, unfortunately, one of the few set in North Texas.

As for the list, it’s hard to argue with the inclusion of any of those films. Most of them capture the romanticized, wide-open version of the West that both natives and outsiders associate with our state.

Of the rejects, I would have lobbied a little harder for Friday Night Lights. It’s not a great film, but it’s the best Texas-based football movie. And a film about football should be on the list somewhere. Friday Night Lights also captures the rhythms of daily life of a small town, which helps to explain why people who live in them are so football crazed.

But the larger question that emerges after looking over the list is: What’s it going to take to crack it?

No Country for Old Men (2007) is a recent addition to the canon, but the other nine films were all released by 1984 (Blood Simple). As I was mulling this over with Jerome, he immediately thought of Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas. In the 1983 book, Don Graham asked eight critics to come up with their lists of the top Texas films. For fun, let’s look at Jerome’s list: The Searchers, The Last Picture Show, Red River, Midnight Cowboy, Hud, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Bonnie and Clyde, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, North Dallas Forty and The Chase. I asked him if he would add any movies to the list, and he said yes to No Country for Old Men and Tender Mercies, probably in place of The Chase and Gregorio Cortez.

Which is further proof that the list is pretty much set – seven or so dead, solid locks with three spots available for the best of the rest.

It’s not for lack of talented directors. Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater are all Texans, but none of them seems very interested in telling traditionally Texas stories. (Though Malick’s The Tree of Life is set in the state.) Is that because they are from here and are uninterested in exploring themes that they feel they already know? The state’s lore must’ve certainly felt fresh to Peter Bogdanovich when he came all the way from New York to make the The Last Picture Show, and Minnesota natives the Coen Bros. managed to land two films on the list.

There is a chance the next Great Texas Film is already percolating in someone’s mind. The makers of Skateland, recently in theaters, seem interested in telling Texas stories. And the strongest element of Skateland is its attention to period and geographical detail (even if it was made next door in Louisiana). Meanwhile, Dallas’ David Lowery showed tremendous promise with St. Nick. And, as he told me recently, the state has a certain spell over him.

The trick to making that next iconic film is figuring out how to establish an undeniable sense of place without relying on the touchstones already claimed by other films on the list. So endless horizons and cowboys are non-starters.

But that still leaves a lot of room to work. Despite my earlier championing of Friday Night Lights, there is still a classic football movie out there to be made. (Thought some would say the TV version of FNL is better than any movie you could hope to make on the subject.) Also key: we’ve got to expand our understanding of what “Texas” is. If Hustle & Flow had been set in Houston’s hip-hop community instead of the one in Memphis, wouldn’t that have made it a true Texas story? And surely places like Fort Hood, Marfa and Big Bend have stories to tell that don’t involve boots or bulls but are no less Texan without them. Heck, we border another country, and that dynamic – and all the stories that could come of it – has hardly been tapped.

So for now, I’ll say it again – the Texas Monthly list is a solid one (though I’m still working on an argument to get Dazed and Confused on there). But I hope someone will take up the challenge of adding to it before the next one of theses lists is pieced together.

  • Gracie

    “Though some would say the TV version of FNL is better than any movie you could hope to make on the subject.”

    Yep! The show – particularly the first season – does a wonderful job of portraying how integral high school football is to small-town Texas life.