We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
The penultimate list of top tens is devoted to one of the longest-running genres of film history: the western. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a genre that popped in the 2010s, and you can argue it hasn’t popped since the end of the Spaghetti Westerns in the early 1970s. Occasionally, a few great ones spring up, but then it’s a few years’ wait until the next great one.
That was more or less the case with the 2010s as well, but that’s not to say that the ten films that make this list are not of bad quality. The lack of a breadth of work is also a sign of just how specific an audience is brought in by this genre, and how movie audiences have changed over time. As someone who has always loved this genre, I hope this list gives the folks who skipped a few of these films this decade an opportunity to seek them out, because a lot of them are great.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Director: Jon Favreau
I realize this is more a sci-fi film than a western, but I always think back to Alan Arkin’s line in Argo: “If it’s got horses in it, it’s a western.” I actually didn’t find the film too terrible. Oh, it’s definitely not good enough to make the list, but it’s an old-fashioned, passable work that does have fun moments, and Harrison Ford feels right at home in his role as Colonel Dolarhyde.
Best Western Movies of the 2010s
10. Hostiles (2017)
Director: Scott Cooper
I’ve never really outright loved a Scott Cooper film, not even Crazy Heart, so it makes sense that Hostiles ends up on the low end of this list. Hostiles has a lot of elements going for it: strong performances from Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, a decent storyline, and a few well-staged shoot-outs, but I have to say there’s an element of been-there, done-that that keeps it from being higher on the list.
The film has quite a rousing start as we see Pike’s character and her family come under attack by a Comanche clan, and then our introduction to Bale’s Captain Joe Blocker sets up an equal distaste for Native Americans on the frontier circa 1890s. The film then goes on to competently tell the story of how these two characters came to peace with Yellow Hawk, an aging Cheyenne chief, and his travelers as they escorted them to Montana. That element works, and it would have been nice to see a bit more of it, frankly.
However, I found that as nice of a set-up as this is, the film takes a lot of detours to extend the running time, and it does fall into the trap of some western cliches. Take Jesse Plemons’ character, whose fate is decided by a crucial mistake no seasoned officer of his stature would make. And the Ben Foster character feels a bit like filler. Overall the film is good, and I like it a lot, but it does have a few faults.
9. True Grit (2010)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
I have to say I’m in a very small minority that prefers the original 1969, Duke-starring version of this story. Even I, who had seen the original first, was a little shocked at how much “copy-paste” was done in the script by the unflappably fresh Coen Brothers. One could argue half of the Oscar-nominated script was lifted from the original screenplay by Marguerite Roberts.
Add to that, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon do a fine job in the roles of Rooster Cogburn and LaBeouf, respectively, but they can’t top the dynamic duo of John Wayne (in one of his best performances) and Glen Campbell, whose acting career peaked at that time.
However, where I give the film all the credit in the world is the fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins, and the performance by Hailee Steinfeld, who rose to stardom virtually overnight with this winning performance. Yeah, it’s hard to beat Melissa Leo in The Fighter, but Steinfeld was magnificent, and stands out one of the few qualities that outshine the original.
8. The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Director: Jacques Audiard
I have to admit, I was a little stunned the first time I saw this film. Like Cowboys vs Aliens, you could make the argument this is more a comedy than a western (or just call it a western comedy), but either way The Sisters Brothers is a more intimate western, about the civility of a bond of brothers in one of the more uncivilized time periods in American history.
Joaquin Phoenix, as always, brings himself 100% into the role of Charlie Sisters, and does a great job. John C. Reilly, however, as Eli Sisters, steals the show from under him in a brilliant, funny, charming, sometimes pathetic character who doesn’t feel like he belongs in a western. That aspect is what makes us root for him even more, and hopes he makes it out alive.
I also enjoyed the chemistry that develops between Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed’s characters, unlikely as it may be. I won’t give too much away, but at the point when Gyllenhaal and Ahmed meet the Sisters brothers, I was blown away by how much happened, what happened, and how it happened. I wasn’t in love with the ending of this film, but Sisters Brothers makes for a more fun western than a few others on the list, and it’s worth checking out.
7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers tried again later on in the decade with Netflix’s Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and I found myself more entertained by this anthology western than their by-the-numbers remake of True Grit. Scruggs is certainly more of a Coen Brothers movie in feel with irreverence, humor, great monologues, and some off-the-wall imagery.
Of the six short stories that play out in the film, I liked bits and pieces of all of them, but my favorite is the opener with the titular outlaw. Tim Blake Nelson leaves an indelible impression on you as the film starts, and while we know we can’t spend the whole 133 minutes with him, we cherish what time we do get and are saddened when it’s over.
I think one aspect that I didn’t care for is how predictable all the stories become. After the first story ends in a certain way, then the second story also ends in a similar way, we can guess that all the endings are going to go down the same way. For the most part, that remains true, but Buster Scruggs still is entertaining throughout and a fun romp of a western.
6. The Revenant (2015)
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu
Arguably the biggest western of the decade was The Revenant, and it’s earned that title for a reason: big stars, big director, big running time, big budget, big effects, big scope. It’s kind of funny how it’s a very small, simplistic revenge tale with all of the hoopla going on, but that plays to one of the film’s biggest strengths: feeling small when the canvas is so big.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fine performance as Hugh Glass, but I was more enthralled with his trapper enemy Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. Glass isn’t much of a character; he shows some authority to his son, stands up for him, and travels hundreds of miles for him, but we never really get a sense of who he is when he isn’t working or being a dad. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is a conniving, twisted, dark man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Hardy is all-in with his performance, and it’s a shame his work was a little underappreciated next to an Oscar-winning role from Leo.
But we can’t mince words here, the true stars of the film are Innaritu and his cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki. The cinematography, using almost all natural light, is so breathtaking that it steals the focus of the story, almost to the detriment of the film. Also, Inarritu’s direction is so well done with all the effects and landscapes. Especially when you consider the elements of how the film was made, it gives me a headache that someone managed to direct all this. I’m sure it’s a headache Inarritu wanted, one way or another, because he pulled it off beautifully.
5. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Director: S. Craig Zahler
It’s nothing short of ironic how a gigantic $135 million western like The Revenant was outdone, in my mind, by a tiny $1.8 million passion project from writer/director S. Craig Zahler, but here we are. A darker, violent, at times horror-esque western, Bone Tomahawk is still nothing short of a big surprise for how wonderfully entertaining it is, despite the fact that its low budget sometimes gets in the way.
That isn’t to say the film looks cheap and is worse off for it. In fact, I’d say it adds to the charm of the film. It gives off the vibe of a film from the late 1970s or early 1980s, only featuring actors from today. Speaking of those actors, I have to say that Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox do a great job as the trio of men going after Wilson’s wife after she is kidnapped by troglodytes.
But the heart and soul of the movie is with the Richard Jenkins character, an elderly deputy who sticks by Russell’s sheriff through thick and thin and never loses sight of what his job is and how he looks. I also give a great deal of credit to the sound department. All of the sounds from the savage troglodytes is extremely effective and the long silences add to the tension. Bone Tomahawk may not have been the biggest hit of 2015, but perhaps being a precious gem to uncover years later is not such a bad fate.
4. Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
There was a lot of hype around Tarantino’s first entry in the western genre, and Django did not disappoint. A beautifully well-made film that features a fresh story and even fresher characters, Django is a revenge tale, a comedy, action shoot-em-up, and a romance film all under the setting and scope of a western. It’s also very Tarantino-esque in all the best ways.
Of course one of Tarantino’s greatest skills is assembling a blockbuster cast, featuring excellent leading performances from Jamie Foxx and an Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz, and the scene-stealing work of Leonardo DiCaprio. I also love Samuel L. Jackson’s work as the elderly house slave Stephen. It never ceases to amaze me how much he is the true villain of the piece.
There are so many highlights to mention: the first meeting of the KKK scene (one of the funnier scenes in any movie this decade), the dinner monologue about Old Ben, and the big shoot-out are all iconic scenes that will be remembered for many decades.
But for whatever reason, my favorite scenes are just between Dr. Schultz and Django small talking. Whether it be the bar scene that starts all the trouble, or Schultz’ telling of the tale of Broomhilda, or the first time Django shoots an outlaw from a hillside, I think it’s the best interpersonal relationship in a Tarantino film since Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction.
3. Hell or High Water (2016)
Director: David Mackenzie
I think it’s a general consensus that this is a modern day western, and as such, it’s also one of the best westerns of the decade, period. I remember when I first described this film to my friends and family, I basically boiled it down to a story about getting even, and that’s what a lot of westerns on this list are also about.
The four main characters are all given their moments to shine here. Chris Pine is the sympathetic bank robber we root for, Ben Foster is his asshole brother we can’t help but love. Then you have Jeff Bridges as the experienced Texas Ranger nearing retirement and his partner, Gil Birmingham, who we know we’re supposed to root for, but we can’t help but feel more sympathy for the bank robbing brothers, especially as we get into the second act of the film.
I love how the film is able to play with those expectations in the last act, when our sympathies change quite frequently between who want to live and who we want to die. The pendulum swings in the last half hour are some of the strongest elements I’ve seen in any film this decade, and a few powerful moments that I won’t spoil here leave a huge impact.
On top of being a wonderful story that builds as it goes, the film starts solid, and gets better and better as it goes along. The final conversation between Pine and Bridges, who don’t share any screen time together save this last battle, is excellent, and a wonderful summation of everything that has come before. Credit goes out to director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan for crafting the best modern western in recent memory.
2. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
I’m in that very rare camp that feels that Tarantino mastered the western the second time around. Django was a brilliant start, but Hateful Eight improved on the few spots where Django lacked and made for a better film.
The reasons I appreciate Hateful Eight more than the other westerns on this list is how it bucks the big trend: it’s not an adventure story. Every western seems to be about one or multiple characters making a journey from one side of the map to the other. However, this western is all about staying put in one place: Minnie’s Haberdashery on a cold mountain in the middle of an 1870s Wyoming winter.
I genuinely enjoy the ensemble here, from the Tarantino regulars to the Oscar-nominated work by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Kurt Russell manages to craft one of his best characters ever in John Ruth “The Hangman”, and the odd chemistry he shares with Leigh’s character, Daisy Domergue (you gotta love these names) is fascinating to watch. They need each other, yet hate each other’s guts.
All of that being said, the MVP here is Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, the new sheriff of Red Rock, the town that Domergue and Ruth are traveling to. Goggins charms the socks off of every scene he’s in, and makes the character feel so lived-in that he jumps right off the screen. I remember the scene where he finds out who poisoned the coffee, and his reaction, and I think I almost fell out of my seat with pure joy in the theater.
Sure, it borrows heavily from Agatha Christie, and definitely feels like it could have been cut down from its massive 168 minute runtime, but I still love how everything flows in the film. As in all great murder mysteries, every detail means something. Every line of dialogue is another spark going down the wick of the bomb before it explodes. Tarantino’s screenplay for Hateful Eight is one of his best in years, and with that goes a lot of respect for doing a non-traditional western and making it work better than almost every other traditional western this decade.
1. Slow West (2015)
Director: John Maclean
2015 turned out to be the year of the western this decade, and again with all the hype and publicity around the higher budgeted Hateful Eight and Revenant, it’s another low-budget gem that outshines them all. Another big find for me, Slow West is a charming film that is about as simple as it gets, and that’s a big compliment.
For those who missed it, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay, a Scottish teenager who travels to America to find the love of his life, Rose, played by Caren Pistorius. Along the way, Jay is saved by an Irish bounty hunter, Silas (Michael Fassbender), and the two agree to travel together to the town where Rose supposedly is living.
However, Silas learns that Rose has a bounty on her head of $2000, meaning he has a choice: let Jay lead him to a handsome payday, or let the bounty go and reunite Jay with his beloved. The film doesn’t make it clear what choice Silas will make, though it does lead you to think he will use Jay, but Maclean doesn’t make it abundantly clear, which was a brilliant writing decision. Usually there’s a shot that would show Silas smiling after thinking about the reward or turning to Jay, who would look offscreen at something, then cut back to Silas with a frown on his face or a look of hurt. That’s not the case here.
There’s also a couple of great highlights to talk about. First, a scene where Jay and Silas re-up their supplies as a trading post, right as someone tries to rob it. It’s a genuine edge-of-your-seat scene. There’s also a great campfire story later on that Jay hears of an outlaw who wants nothing more than to have a wanted poster. Just thinking about the story makes me smile.
As for the ending, it’s not just the best ending to any western this decade, it’s so tense it feels like someone has you caught in a vise grip. I won’t give it away for the uninitiated, but I will say it’s full of jaw-dropping surprises, is cathartic one moment then melancholic the next, and is not a finale you will soon forget. It’s been four years since the film was released, and we haven’t seen anything new from Maclean yet. Here’s hoping sometime soon in the next decade we get a long-awaited follow-up that’s worthy of being mentioned alongside Slow West.
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