Movies set in Texas: 10 of the most important since 2001

2:05 p.m Tuesday, June 27, 2017 Movies
Anne Marie Cox/Focus Features
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof in Jean-Marc Vallée's fact-based drama, "Dallas Buyers Club."

Inspired by The New York Times’ recent power-rankings of the greatest films of the 21st century so far (which included one of Texas’ own great filmmakers), we decided to look at the most important Texas-set films of the 21st century. Now, these are films that are set  in Texas, not necessarily filmed there (although New Mexico did a great job of playing West Texas in last year’s “Hell or High Water”). 

In order to qualify, at least half of the film had to take place in Texas (which disqualifies last year’s fantastic “Logan,” which technically took place near El Paso), and the movie had to have had a theatrical run starting on or after January 1, 2001. 

We know some of these might not have been critical favorites, but they were important because they captured the era, and what it meant to be Texan at that time.

Enjoy the following list, and debate among yourselves in the comments. And don’t worry, there will be more “Best Texas films” lists to come.

Machete — and longtime Robert Rodriguez collaborator Danny Trejo — finally got a starring vehicle in “Machete,” an insane action piece that would later become a cult favorite and introduce Trejo to a new generation of action fans. He would later get a sequel in 2013’s “Machete Kills.”

“Grindhouse” is technically two movies couched as one in an attempt to capture that 1960s exploitation double-feature feeling. The sci-fi virus disease-themed “Planet Terror” is directed by Robert Rodriguez; the female action vehicle “Death Proof” is directed by Quentin Tarantino.

The film as a whole under-performed at the box office upon its release, but it has since become a cult favorite among fans. There’s no reason for this film to exist except for its directors’ love of genre B-movies. “Grindhouse” is a perfect example of the “Why not?” attitude of many Texan filmmakers.

“My All-American” stars Aaron Eckhart as Texas Longhorns coaching legend Darrell Royal. It was written and directed by Angelo Pizzo, the man who brought you “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” And it’s about none other than Freddie Steinmark, who helped lead the 1969 Longhorns to a national championship before his leg was amputated at the hip following a cancer diagnosis. It’ll make you cry and make you wish there were more films about Longhorn football.

Based on H.G. Bissinger’s book of the same name, this film-length foray into the world of West Texas football is completely different from the show that would come later (Connie Britton does play the coach’s wife in both properties, though). But it did establish many things that made the show great: the intimate camerawork, the Explosions In the Sky score, the focus on characters and real life with football as a backdrop. 

“Friday Night Lights” is also based on a true story, and it may be about West Texas high school football, but it came to symbolize Texas high school football in general. Almost 15 years later, it remains vital.

Cormac McCarthy’s book abut a fading Texas lawman and the nature of evil was the basis for this 2007 Oscar winner directed by the Coen Brothers and starring Texas’ own Tommy Lee Jones. A pontification on the senselessness of modern times told through a Texan viewpoint.

“Tree of Life” was Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a small time away and kicked off a run of five films in  six years. Divisive in its nature and in how it was shot, it is nonetheless a gorgeous film about a Waco family in the 1950s and its descendants.

Full of scope and ambition, it was also an indication of the types of films Malick would go on to make for the next six years, including another one on this list.

No, “Boyhood” isn’t on this list, because it’s not specifically about Texas. Yes, Texas is intrinsic to that film’s DNA, but it isn’t “about” Texas. On the other hand, “Bernie,” one of the many films Richard Linklater finished while he was filming “Boyhood,” is all about Texas.

Based on the true story of Bernie Tiede and his 1999 conviction in the shooting death of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, it nails the nuances of small-town Texas life. It was also one of the earlier films in the McConaughssance, with Matthew McConaughey playing the district attorney tasked with putting Jack Black’s Bernie away. Linklater even interviewed real citizens of Carthage for the film, which looks like a documentary.

“Song For Song” isn’t Malick’s best, according to our review. It is supposedly about music, and it is supposedly about Austin, but it says little about either of those things. But some have argued that might be the point, as tech hubs and corporations have started taking over Austin's music scene and eroding what is left of The Live Music Capital of the World.  

Also known as The Film That Finally Landed McConaughey An Oscar, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” is not without controversy. McConaughey won Best Actor for his portrayal of Texas electrician Ron Woodruff, who fought to get AIDS medication for others after he himself was diagnosed with the disease. Straight actor Jared Leto also won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender woman with AIDS. Leto’s character never existed and McConaughey’s portrayal of Woodruff was characterized as hyper-heterosexual and a bigot; in reality, contemporary accounts characterize him as bisexual and not homophobic in the slightest.

But the Dallas Buyers Club was real, and was run by Woodruff as a way to stave off his AIDS deaths sentence for years in the 1980s. McConaughey’s performance is magnetic (as is Leto’s) and also perfectly embodies the larger-than-life stories that Texans are fond of telling about their own people. 

Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger out for One Last Ride. Chris Pine and Ben foster as two West Texas brothers resorting to bank robbery to save the family ranch. A killer Texas music soundtrack. It’s a shame this film didn’t win any of the four Oscars it was nominated for this year.  

One of the things that makes the film so great is its attention to detail on all things Texan. Characters drink Shiner Bock and Lone Star. They take gambling trips up north to Oklahoma. And they listen to Texas country music, and that music sets the tone for much of the film’s sonic backdrop.

Not only does its look and atmosphere suck you in and immediately make you feel like you’re in Texas, but the film captured a lot of the anxieties many working-class people felt in 2016. It’s a Western for the 2010s. 

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