The Western genre is one of the most iconic in the history of cinema, and over the last two decades, the genre has undergone something of a renaissance.
The beloved genre has been reborn, finding a new place in popular culture and once again leaving its mark on the film industry. Gone are the simple days of John Wayne riding into a village to save the distressed locals, and in its place are more morally complex, often more violent and visceral tales of men seeking, among other things, revenge and redemption.
The birth of the ‘neo-western’, which sees western tropes adopted into more modern day environments, has breathed new life into the genre, helping it find a place in 21st century cinema, with actors as esteemed as Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender and many others all making their stamp on the western canon in recent years.
Narrowing down a list of essential modern westerns to just ten is an extremely difficult task. The genre has been constantly evolving over the past decade, and several directors have produced some excellent, genre-changing pieces of work. That being said, somebody has to do it, so let’s take a look at 10 of the best modern western movies.
The Best Modern Westerns
1. Unforgiven (1992)
The measuring stick by which all modern Westerns are measured, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Academy Award-winning Unforgiven is one of the finest westerns in cinema history and the film that dragged one of cinema’s most beloved genre into the modern age.
Eastwood’s performance as William Munny, a former outlaw who returns for one last job after becoming a farmer, was instantly iconic and the movie furthered helped establish Eastwood as the undisputed king of the western genre.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Western genre is one littered with a history of iconic figures, and there are few characters as iconic in the modern western genre as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh.
Sporting a bowl haircut and carrying a loaded cattle gun, Chigurth is one of the most menacing villains in 21st century cinema, and Bardem’s depiction of the character instantly earned itself a place among the greats of the western genre.
The movie itself, adapted from the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, is considered by many to be The Coen Brothers’ finest work and saw the pair pick up their first, and to this date, only Best Picture prize at The Academy Awards.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Clocking in at just over 150 minutes, director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow-burner of a movie, one that doesn’t so much as keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next (the title kinda gives that away) but rather, how exactly those events are going to play out.
Brad Pitt is excellent as the titular outlaw, but it is Casey Affleck’s nuanced performance as Robert Ford that really helps propel this movie. The film is an expertly based character study that slowly builds tension and then expertly delivers on its promise in the film’s final third.
It is also one of the most beautifully realised takes on the Wild West, with cinematographer Roger Deakins earning one of his 14 Academy Award nominations for his work on the movie.
4. True Grit (2010)
For most directors, remaking one of the most iconic western movies of all time for a modern audience would prove to be a difficult task, but the Coen brothers made it look easy back in 2010 when not only did they do justice to the John Wayne classic, True Grit, but they arguably improved upon it.
The tale of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl teaming up with Rooster Cogburn to seek revenge on the man who murdered her father, is one of the most beloved in the western genre and The Coens made it their own by injecting their unique brand of storytelling and some excellent performances into the mix.
Unlike their previous foray into the western genre, the aforementioned No Country for Old Men, True Grit is much more of an out-and-out genre piece and was an excellent example of just how versatile the two directors can be.
5. Django Unchained (2013)
Django Unchained was arguably the movie that brought the western back into the mainstream. While there is no denying the quality of some of the other Westerns on this list, none of them came close to achieving the kind of box office success achieved by Django Unchained.
The movie was Tarantino’s most financially successful to date, taking over $400 million at the box-office and earning itself five Academy Award nominations, including victories for Christoph Waltz as Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino himself.
The film did open to some controversy, though, with many claiming that its depiction of slavery was exploitative, and others also arguing that the film’s use of violence was excessive and often unnecessary, though why audiences expected anything else from the man who gave the world Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds is a mystery.
Regardless of this, the film has gone on to become a modern classic, with all the trademarks of a Tarantino work: a whip-smart script, cartoonish violence, and an array of larger than life characters all being present and correct.
Tarrantino’s stylised direction and visuals also helped re-establish the western as one of the coolest genres in cinema once again.
6. Slow West (2015)
One of the most criminally underseen movies of the last five years is director John McClane’s debut feature, Slow West.
Starring Michael Fassbender in the lead role, the film is one of the quirkier entries on this list, painting the Wild West with vivid colours and filling it with weird and wonderful characters.
Fassbender himself is perfectly cast in the lead role, with Kodi Smith McPhee and the ever dependable Ben Mendhleson also both turning in excellent performances.
The film’s plot is western 101, a young boy travels across the Wild West to find the girl he loves aided by a mysterious outlaw and tackling various villains along the way. What makes the movie stand out though is McClane’s whip-smart script and his distinctive directorial approach.
7. The Revenant (2015)
Those who champion Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s award-winning neo-western, The Revenant, argue that it is a breath-taking lyrical ode to man’s quest for revenge, whereas its detractors argue that is an overstuffed and self-indulgent movie strung together by a thin thread of a plot. Needless to say, I fall into the former category.
While it is undeniably long, Innaritu’s direction, partnered with the stunning cinematography of his long-time collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki, makes for a breath-taking cinematic experience.
Of course, the film is also famous for being the one that finally helped Leonardo DiCaprio win his first Best Actor award at the Academy Awards. DiCaprio’s performance in the lead role is an uncompromising and brutal take on a man determined to seek revenge on those who have wronged him. Tom Hardy’s performance as the movie’s antagonist, often forgotten about due to DiCaprio’s stunning lead performance, is also one of the actor’s all-time best.
8. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Another western that has gone under the radar in recent years is S. Craig Zeher’s genre-mashing Bone Tomahawk.
Mixing the western and horror genres to surprisingly strong results, Bone Tomahawk is a slow burner of a movie that feels destined to earn itself cult status in the future.
Featuring excellent performances from the likes of Kurt Russell, David Arquette, Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins, the film shouldn’t really work as well as it does, but the end result is one of the best and most innovative western movies in recent memory.
One of the best neo-western movies in recent years, Scottish director David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water earned itself a Best Picture nomination back in 2016 and there is an argument to be made that the movie should have taken home that prize.
The tale of two brothers robbing a series of banks to pay off debts that they owe to the same bank is a tense and morally complex affair and is anchored by exceptional performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster in the two lead roles.
The real stand-out here though is Jeff Bridges as the grizzled police vet hot on their tales. Bridges’ performance earned him an Academy Award nomination back in 2017, with the former Dude losing out to Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali in what was one of the tightest races in recent memory.
10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
As we’ve already seen on this list, The Coen Brothers have played a significant role in the rebirth of the western genre in recent years, and their latest offering, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, released on Netflix at the end of 2018, is perhaps their most daring yet.
The collection of six short stories has the Coen Brothers fingerprints all over it: quirky characters, zany musical numbers and weird and often wonderful narratives.
As with any anthology movie, there are some stories that are stronger than others, with the tales featuring Liam Neeson, James Franco, and Tim Blake Nelson being particular highlights.
The film’s inclusion on this list will no doubt cause a little controversy, but there is no denying that, as they so often do, The Coens managed to push the boundaries once again here.