Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

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“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

When I first heard of Steven Spielberg’s decision to make a biographical film about the 16th president of the United States, I ended up harboring a good deal of assumptions about the movie. I heard Spielberg had planned to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s last year in office and assumed the movie would be set between the spring of 1864 and April 1865. I had assumed the movie would be about Lincoln’s various problems with his military generals and other politicians. I thought it would be a more focused similarity to the 1998 miniseries of the same name.

In the end, “LINCOLN” proved to be something quite different. Partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet members, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, the movie mainly focused on Lincoln’s efforts in January 1865 to have slavery abolished in the country, by getting theThirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. According to Tony Kutchner’s screenplay, Lincoln expected the Civil War to end within a month. He felt concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts at the war’s conclusion and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states. To ensure that the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, Lincoln wanted it passed by the end of January in order to remove any possibility of those slaves who had already been freed, being re-enslaved. To reach his goal, Lincoln needed Republican party founder Francis Blair to garner support from the more conservative Republicans and support from Democratic congressmen, who would ordinarily vote against such an amendment. In order to acquire Blair’s support, Lincoln was forced to consider a peace conference with three political representatives from the Confederacy. And his Secretary of State, William Seward, recruits three lobbyists – William N. Bilbo, Colonel Robert Latham and Richard Schell – to convince lame duck Democratic congressmen to support the amendment.

I am surprised that the movie went through a great deal in crediting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book as a major source for the movie. Very surprised. I own a copy of the book and know for a fact that only four-and-a-half pages are devoted to the Thirteenth Amendment and five-and-half pages are devoted to the Peace Conference with Confederate political leaders. If so little came from Goodwin’s book, where did Tony Kutchner receive most of his historical information for the movie? And if he did use other historical sources, why did Spielberg failed to credit other historical sources for the movie?

I recall watching the trailer for “LINCOLN” and found myself slightly repelled by it. As someone who had to endure a great deal of pompous and self-righteous dialogue in a good number of historical dramas, I noticed that the trailer seemed to be full it. Fortunately, the movie was only tainted by a few scenes featuring pompous dialogue. One of those scenes turned out to be Lincoln’s meeting with four Union soldiers – two blacks and two whites. Of the four soldiers, only the first black soldier – portrayed by Colman Domingo – managed to engage in a relaxed conversation with the President. The two white soldiers behaved like ardent fanboys in Lincoln’s presence and one of them – portrayed by actor Luke Haas – ended up reciting the Gettysburg Address. The scene ended with the other black soldier – portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo – also reciting the speech. Not only did I find this slightly pompous, but also choked with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, something I have never really cared for. Following Lincoln’s death, Spielberg and Kutchner ended the movie with a flashback of the President reciting his second inaugural address. I cannot say how the pair should have ended the movie. But I wish they had not done with a speech. All it did was urge me to leave the movie theater as soon as possible. Janusz Kamiński is a first-rate cinematographer, but I can honestly say that I found his photography in “LINCOLN” not particularly impressive. In fact, I found it rather drab. Drab colors in a costume picture is not something I usually look forward to.

The movie also featured a few historical inaccuracies. Usually, I have nothing against this if it works for the story. The problem is that the inaccuracies in “LINCOLN” did not serve the story. I found them unnecessary. Lincoln’s meeting with the four Union soldiers allowed Oyelowo’s character to expressed his displeasure at the U.S. Army’s lack of black officers and the indignity of pay lower than white soldiers. The problem with this rant is that before January 1865, the U.S. Army had at least 100 to 200 black officers. And Congress had granted equal pay and benefits to black troops by June 1864. Thirty-three year-old actor Lee Pace portrayed Democratic New York Congressman Fernando Wood, an ardent opponent of abolition. In reality, Wood was at least 52 years old in January 1865. Another scene featured a White House reception that featured a meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and some of the Radical Republicans like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Kutchner had Mary face Senator Sumner with a warm greeting, before she deliberately cut him off to face Congressman Stevens. The movie made it clear that the First Lady disliked the Radical Republicans, whom she viewed as personal enemies of her husband. Yet, the manner in which she disregarded Senator Sumner was completely misleading . . . especially since the senator and the First Lady had been close friends since the early months of Lincoln’s presidency. In reality, Mary Lincoln’s political views were more radical than her husband’s. But due to her background as the daughter of a Kentucky slaveowner, most of the Radical Republicans viewed her as soft on abolition and a possible Confederate sympathizer.

Thankfully, the good in “LINCOLN” outweighed the bad. More than outweighed the bad. Recalling my original assumption that “LINCOLN” would turn out to be some pretentious film weighed down by boring dialogue and speeches, I can happily say that the movie’s look at American politics during the Civil War proved to be a great deal more lively. Yes, the movie did feature a few pretentious scenes. However, “LINCOLN” turned out to be a tightly woven tale about the 16th President’s efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the end of January 1865. In many ways, the movie’s plot reminded me of the 2007 film, “AMAZING GRACE”, which featured William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish Britain’s slave trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike the 2007, “LINCOLN” proved to be more tightly focused and featured a more earthy and sometimes humorous look at American politics at play. One of the movie’s successes proved to be its focus on the efforts of the three lobbyists, whom I ended up dubbing the “Three Musketeers”, to recruit lame duck Democrats to vote for passage of the amendment. In fact these scenes featuring James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson proved to be among the funniest in the film. The movie also featured the tribulations Lincoln experienced with his immediate family – namely the volatile behavior of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln’s determination to join the Army – during this difficult period in which his attention toward the amendment’s passage. More importantly, the movie on a political situation rarely mentioned in movies about Lincoln – namely the political conflicts that nearly divided the Republican Party during the Civil War. Not only did Lincoln find himself at odds with leading Democrats such as Fernando Wood of New York and George Pendleton of Ohio; but also with Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens who distrusted Lincoln’s moderate stance on abolition and even his fellow conservative Republicans like Frances and Montgomery Blair, whose push for reconciliation with the Confederates threatened the amendment.

Now one might say that is a lot for a 150 minutes film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. And they would be right. But for some reason, it worked, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Kutchner’s screenplay. One, for a movie with a running time between two to three hours, I found it well paced. Not once did the pacing dragged to a halt or put me to sleep. “LINCOLN” also attracted a good number of criticism from certain circles. Some have pointed out that the film seemed to claim that Lincoln kick started the campaign for the amendment. The movie never really made this claim. Historians know that the Republican controlled U.S. Senate had already passed the amendment back in April 1864. But the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives and it took another nine-and-a-half months to get the House to pass it. For reasons that still baffle many historians, Lincoln suddenly became interested in getting the amendment passed before his second inauguration – something that would have been unnecessary if he had waited for a Republican controlled Congress two months later.

Many had complained about the film’s oversimplification of African-Americans’ roles in the abolition of slavery. I would have agreed if the film’s focus on abolition had been a little more broad and had began during the war’s first year; or if it had been about the role of blacks in the abolition of slavery during the war. Actually, I am still looking forward to a Hollywood production on Frederick Douglass, but something tells me I will be holding my breath. But with the movie mainly focused on the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, I suspect this would not have been possible. Some claimed that the African-American merely hung around and waited for the amendment’s passage. I would have agreed if it were not for Lincoln’s encounter with the Union soldiers at the beginning of the film; Lincoln valet William Slade’s day-to-day dealings with the First Family, and the film’s focus on Elizabeth Keckley’s attention to the political wrangling surrounding the amendment. One scene focused on Mrs. Keckley’s conversation with Lincoln on the consequences of the amendment and another featured a tense moment in which she walked out on the proceedings after Thaddeus Stevens was forced to refute his earlier claims about equality between the races in order to win further Democratic support.

Aside from my complaints about the movie’s drab photography, I can honestly say that from a visual point of view, “LINCOLN” did an excellent job in re-creating Washington D.C. during the last year of the Civil War. Production designer Rick Carter really had his work cut out and as far as I am concerned, he did a superb job. He was ably assisted by the art direction team of Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, who still helped to make 1865 Washington D.C. rather colorful, despite the drab photography; along with Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank’s set decorations. And I found Joanna Johnston’s costumes absolutely exquisite. The scene featuring the Lincolns’ reception at the White House was a perfect opportunity to admire Johnston’s re-creation of mid 19th century fashion. I can honestly say that I did not find John Williams’ score for the movie particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it blended very well with the story and not a note seemed out of place.

“LINCOLN” not only featured a very large cast, but also a great number of first-rate performances. It would take me forever to point out the good performances one-by one, so I will focus on those that really caught my attention. The man of the hour is Daniel Day-Lewis, who has deservedly won accolades for his portrayal of the 16th President. I could go into rapture over his performance, but what is the point? It is easy to see that Abraham Lincoln could be viewed as one of his best roles and that he is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. If Day-Lewis is the man of the hour, then I can honestly say that Sally Field came out of this film as “the woman of the hour. She did a beautiful job in recapturing not only Mary Todd Lincoln’s volatile nature, but political shrewdness. Like Day-Lewis, she seemed to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens has been featured as a character in at least three Hollywood productions. In pro-conservative movies like 1915’s “BIRTH OF A NATION” (upon which the Austin Stoneman character is based) and the 1942 movie on Andrew Johnson called“TENNESSEE JOHNSON”, he has been portrayed as a villain. But in “LINCOLN”, he is portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist by the always wonderful Tommy Lee Jones. The actor did a superb job in capturing the Pennsylvania congressman’s well-known sarcastic wit and determination to end slavery in the U.S. for all time. I would be very surprised if he does not early an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.

But there were other first-rate performances that also caught my attention. David Strathairn did an excellent and subtle job in capturing the politically savy Secretary of State William H. Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to impress me for the third time this year, in his tense and emotional portrayal of the oldest Lincoln sibling, Robert Lincoln, who resented his father’s cool behavior toward him and his mother’s determination to keep him out of the Army. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Lincoln in two television productions) gave a colorful performance as Lincoln crony, Francis Blair. Gloria Reuben gave a subtle performance as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and companion, Elizabeth Keckley, who displayed an intense interest in the amendment’s passage. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson gave hilarious performances as the three lobbyists hired by Lincoln and Seward to recruit support of the amendment from lame duck Democrats. Stephen Henderson was deliciously sarcastic as Lincoln’s long suffering valet, William Slade. Lee Pace gave a surprisingly effective performance as long-time abolition opponent, Fernando Wood. And I was also impressed by Jackie Earle Haley’s cool portrayal of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.

As I had stated earlier, I was not really prepared to enjoy “LINCOLN”, despite its Civil War setting. To be honest, the last Spielberg movie I had really enjoyed was 2005’s “MUNICH”. And after the 2011 movie, “WAR HORSE”, I wondered if he had lost his touch. I am happy to say that with “LINCOLN”, he has not. Spielberg could have easily laden this film with over-the-top sentimentality and pretentious rhetoric. Thankfully, his portrayal of pre-20th century American politics proved to be not only exciting, but also colorful. And he had great support from a first-rate production team, Tony Kutchner’s superb screenplay, and excellent performances from a cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War had not been this interesting in quite a while.

“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

I have never read Charles Portis’ 1968 novel called ”TRUE GRIT”. And my only glimpse of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation was of John Wayne charging horseback toward a band of outlaws, while armed with a weapon in both hands. So it was with great curiosity that I went to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent film adaptation of the novel. 

”TRUE GRIT” told the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross’s efforts to seek justice and retribution for the murder of her father in post-Civil War western Arkansas. Due to the local law’s failure to arrest her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, Mattie travels to Fort Smith and recruits a U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to hunt down and arrest Chaney in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Unbeknownst to Mattie, Cogburn teams up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for the murder of a state senator and his dog. The two men depart Fort Smith and cross into Indian Territory without Mattie. However, she refuses to be left behind and quickly catches up with the two men.

I must admit that I had no idea how I would accept ”TRUE GRIT”. First of all, it was a remake of a successful that led to an Academy Award for its star. Many remakes tend to be inferior to the original movie. However, there have been remakes that are just as good as the original – like James Mangold’s ”3:10 TO YUMA”. There have also been remakes that turned out to be superior to the original – like 1941’s ”THE MALTESE FALCON” and 1988’s”DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS”. Since I have never seen the 1969 version of ”TRUE GRIT” in its entirety, I do not see how I could compare it to this new version. I will admit that it turned out to be a very entertaining and intelligent adaptation of Portis’ novel.

In short, I enjoyed ”TRUE GRIT” very much. Thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen’s writing and direction, the movie struck me as a well-balanced combination of a character study, action film and coming-of-age tale. The movie’s first half, which featured Mattie Ross’s attempts to settle her father’s affairs and recruit Cogburn or anyone else willing to hunt down Chaney. A good deal of the movie’s midway point featured interactions between the three protagonists – Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf – during their journey through the Indian Territory. But once Mattie and Cogburn come across outlaws associated with a fugitive gang leader named “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the movie’s action kicks into high gear. More importantly, the movie’s shift into action did not impede its strong characterizations and drama one bit. Another aspect of ”TRUE GRIT” that I had enjoyed was the dark humor – a trademark of the Coens’ work – that permeated the movie. It certainly befitted the movie’s dark coming-of-age tale and its characters.

I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production designer, Jess Goncher. He did a superb job in re-creating Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory during the late 1860s. One of the best things he ever did was choose or suggest the production film the movie in New Mexico and Texas – states that bordered Oklahoma (formerly the Indian Territory). In doing so, he allowed the movie’s setting to adhere closer to Portis’ setting in the novel. Goncher was ably assisted by costume designer Mary Zophres, whose costumes perfectly captured the movie’s setting and character; and cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose photography strongly reminded me of the old daguerreotype images of the mid-to-late 19th century.

Matt Damon found himself following in the footsteps of singer Glen Campbell, in his portrayal of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. I have seen some of the 1969 film and I must admit that Campbell gave a pretty solid performance. But Damon’s portrayal of the character struck me as more detailed and skillful. In fact, the actor did an excellent job in portraying the competent, yet egotistical lawman. Not only did Damon made me forget that he had very little experience with Westerns, he is one of two actors I have ever seen convey the correct method (breathing included) in long distance shooting. Josh Brolin had more experience with Westerns – including a co-starring role in the ABC series, ”THE YOUNG RIDERS” and the Coens’ award-winning film, ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. He portrayed the heroes’ main target, hired hand/outlaw Tom Chaney. The actor did not appear in many scenes of ”TRUE GRIT”, but his character permeated the movie’s first half like a malevolent spirit. Once he made his appearance, Brolin’s Chaney seemed insignificant and dimwitted. Yet, as the movie continued on, Brolin revealed more of Chaney’s cunning and stealth with great skill and subtlety. The movie also benefitted from a solid performance by supporting actor Barry Pepper, who portrayed “Lucky” Ned Pepper, an outlaw leader who is sought by Cogburn. The actor’s Ned Pepper struck me as a curious mixture of ruthlessness, pragmatism and honor. He seemed to have no qualms in killing the 14 year-old Mattie over her evasions regarding Cogburn’s whereabouts. And yet, after she honestly answered his questions, his character seemed very willing to keep his word about sparing her life. I have always been an admirer of Pepper’s talents. This role certainly confirmed my opinion.

When I had discovered that Jeff Bridges would end up reprising the role that led to an Academy Award for John Wayne, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I eventually realized that my sympathy would be wasted on him. Bridges was talented and charismatic enough to put his own stamp on the role of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Sure enough, Bridges did exactly just that. His portrayal as Cogburn seemed so thorough that I found it difficult to see the actor within the character. His darker portrayal of the character also made me forget about Wayne’s friendlier spin on the role. The main character of ”TRUE GRIT”, in my opinion, turned out to be one Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old daughter of the murdered man. Her desire and determination to seek retribution for her father’s death turned out to be story’s catalyst. Hailee Steinfeld beautifully captured every aspect of Mattie’s complex nature. In fact, there were times I had felt as if I was watching a strong-willed and ruthless woman inside an adolescent’s body. However, Steinfeld’s performance also reminded me that behind the strong will and ruthlessness lurked an innocent and inexperienced young girl. Steinfeld’s chemistry with her co-stars seemed so strong that I found myself wondering how Cogburn, LeBouef or both would regard Mattie if she had been an adult. I have heard speculations of a possible Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Steinfeld. In my opinion, she deserved a nomination for Best Actress. After all, she was not only the leading female character, but the story’smain character.

Although ”TRUE GRIT” failed to earn any Golden Globe nominations – major or minor, last year, it did earned a well deserved ten Academy Award nominations.  Not only did I enjoy it very much, I consider it to be one of the best movies I have seen in 2010.  It is a rare occurrence to find a remake that is just as good or perhaps even slightly better than the original.  And thanks to Ethan and Joel Coen, ”TRUE GRIT turned out to be one of those rare gems.