The Western was once one of Hollywood’s most important and bankable staple genres, but come the 1960s and the various changes that brought for the industry its popularity waned, never to recover save a few smaller-scale, cult outliers – the brief surge in Spaghetti Westerns, for instance, and the midnight-circuit success of Jodorowsky’s El Topo. By the 1980s and ’90s, the blockbusting, up-to-date action hero had taken over; for the last several decades, only a handful of Westerns have really troubled mainstream audiences.
Thankfully, the genre is far from dead, with Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake soon to hit cinemas with a blockbuster sheen. In fact, the 21st Century has seen some of the best contemporary auteurs take on Westerns, with some wonderful results. From more traditional shoot-’em-up examples of the genre like 3:10 to Yuma and The Salvation, to man-vs.-nature arthouse epics like The Revenant and Alaska-set The Grey, the classic Western and its visual language has provided modern cinemagoers with great variety and often very high quality. Here are our 10 favourites.
10. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Probably the most ‘conventional’ western on the list, Yuma’s classic plot – Christian Bale’s lawman transports Russell Crowe’s outlaw to prison, trouble ensues for the both of them, they gain a grudging respect for one another – might not break out of traditional genre trappings, but is all the better for it. Remaking a ‘50s original, and markedly improving on the writing, acting, and shootouts from its predecessor, Yuma is a constantly entertaining action film with two subtly great lead performances and one of the first major showcases for the magnetic talent of Ben Foster.
9. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
An astonishingly assured film debut from novelist S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk premiered in 2015 to unexpectedly rapturous reviews. Combining the prestige of the Western genre with the grubbiness of cannibal B-movies, Zahler crafted a slow-burn horror that is genuinely frightening, with one of the most brutal death scenes you could see in a cinema last year. On top of all that, the character work here is exceptional; relationships evolve believably as four townsmen head into the wilderness to retrieve the captives of cave-dwelling Troglodytes. As we grow to care about these people the scares become ever more powerful, and the final showdown between Patrick Wilson’s crippled doctor and the cannibal tribe is utterly thrilling.
8. Django Unchained (2012)
Earning Christoph Waltz his second Oscar, and starting the eventually unstoppable train towards DiCaprio’s Academy Award glory, Django Unchained may have been labelled a ‘Southern’ by Tarantino, but it absolutely belongs on this list. An unflinching and deeply controversial look at the brutality of slavery in America, Django not only dealt with its subject matter more directly and boldly than plenty of more ‘worthy’ films to take on slavery, but also brought Tarantino’s trademark flare to the Western genre. Jamie Foxx is impossibly cool in the title role, and his chemistry with Waltz makes their time together a total blast; DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, meanwhile, is one of the iconic villains of the last decade. Watching Django gun down sadistic ranchers one scene and sit down like an attentive child to listen to German fairytales the next never creates an uncomfortable switch of tone – a testament to Tarantino’s writing and the lead performances.
7. True Grit (2010)
Bearing very little resemblance to 1969’s John Wayne-starring adaptation of True Grit, the Coen brothers’ take on Charles Portis’ novel has a fabulous lead trio delivering typically impeccable dialogue as they hunt for Josh Brolin’s cowardly outlaw. Steinfeld was an amazing find for the lead role of Mattie Ross, holding her own against a never-more-gruff Jeff Bridges and a possible career-best Matt Damon performance. As we expect from the Coens, humour in all shades of black mingles with genuine pathos, Damon’s LaBoeuf perfectly illustrating the mix. Self-aggrandising and often dim, he also has an honest desire for justice, which gets him very badly hurt on multiple occasions. Mattie Ross, though, is one of the best tween heroes ever put to screen: funny, capable, and irrepressibly tenacious, with perpetually pissed-off lawman Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a perfect foil.
6. Slow West (2015)
Another incredible debut from 2015, Slow West saw John Maclean bring the Acid Western back with fantastic vigour. A true outsider’s look at the creation myths of the US – Maclean is Scottish and none of the core cast are American – Slow West is touching, surreal, and absurdly funny. As Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) seeks his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius) through the heartlands of the still rather wild west, he has the fortune, good or bad, to run into skilled bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Fassbender). Watching this pair develop a father-son bond is an absolute joy, never more so than when the pair of them get blind drunk on absinthe. With Ben Mendelsohn as the villain and a painfully funny-yet-tragic final shootout, Slow West barely puts a foot wrong.
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Only the second film from Andrew Dominik, Jesse James is the sort of epic that far more experienced directors could only ever dream of helming. With extraordinary performances across the board, and disorienting and dreamlike cinematography, Dominik builds a world of constant mistrust and paranoia, punctuated by bouts of thrilling but distressing violence. At its core, Jesse James is a desperately sad story of the dangers of meeting your heroes, as Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) tries again and again to force his way into Jesse James’ (Pitt) inner circle before finding himself disillusioned and alone. Pitt is magisterial as James, and Affleck and Sam Rockwell (playing Robert Ford’s brother) match him every step of the way. A career highlight for all involved, Jesse James kicks off the top half of this list as the first of five genuine masterpieces, all of which could contend for not only the best Western of the millennium, but the best films of any genre.
4. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Tarantino and Russell make their second appearances on this list, this time working together on a film both intimate and epic in scope, neatly telling the story of post-Civil War America from inside one haberdashery, into which eight of Wyoming’s most ruthless inhabitants are forced by a blizzard. As good as Django is, next to The Hateful Eight, it looks like Tarantino’s trial run at the genre. Brimming with confidence, Tarantino pretty much packs three films into one – a traditional Western, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, and the sort of hectic, flawlessly written Tarantino bloodbath that we haven’t seen since the halcyon days of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Possibly Tarantino’s second-best film, and certainly the highlight of his post-2000 output, Hateful Eight gives Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh opportunities for career-best performances. Jackson’s now-infamous ‘big black dingus’ speech is a truly magnificent monologue, the centrepiece of a richly rewarding role as former cavalry officer Major Marquis Warren. Combining these stars (including the best use yet of the fantastic Walton Goggins) with a Tarantino script, an Ennio Morricone score, and sublime 70mm photography made Hateful Eight, at the very least, one of 2015’s more impressive films.
3. The Revenant (2015)
The other snowy western of 2015, The Revenant might be a slightly controversial choice, given its lack of saloons and revolver-based gunfights. But Westerns are more than just what John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies made them. At their core, they’re the American ideal of Manifest Destiny put into celluloid. Thus, there aren’t many better Western stories than that of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who survived everything the American frontier could throw at him and then some. Yet, despite its genre, Iñárritu makes sure this isn’t just a white man’s journey, giving plenty of screen time to Native American actors and refusing to caricature the various indigenous peoples as all one big tribe as so many films have done before. At the time of release, talk about the film was dominated by DiCaprio’s Oscar chances – though while his win was deserved for a phenomenally intense performance, it’s Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki who own the film. Nature’s raw and terrifying power has never been conveyed better on film than it is here, Lubezki proving himself the current king of cinematography within the very first scene. Playing with perspective and natural light, he immerses us in pristine wilderness, just as Iñárritu and a superb sound design teams assault our senses with terrifying battle scenes. Iñárritu mythologises the already rather apocryphal story of this mountain man’s battle against both mankind and the elements just to stay alive, and creates pure cinema as a result.
2. No Country For Old Men (2007)
The only film on this list to be set within living memory, No Country For Old Men is one of the very best films by two of the greatest living filmmakers. Spare in plotting and dialogue, but thematically dense, No Country manages to translate the textual depth of Cormac McCarthy’s novel to the screen. Javier Bardem is chilling as Anton Chigurh, a hitman who comes across more like an angel of death than a conventional mob enforcer. Hunting down Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), Chigurh’s ostensible aim is to retrieve a suitcase containing millions of dollars, but the money never seems to motivate him, more the idea that he’s righting some sort of cosmic wrong. Moss got too lucky finding the money after a drug deal gone bad, so the universe sends Chigurh to redress the balance. He’s a force of nature, but delights too much in killing to be dismissed as a Terminator figure, instead a paragon of pure human malevolence. His strangling of a prison guard is a scene that immediately burns itself into your brain, as is the iconic coin toss exchange. Some found No Country frustrating; major plot points happen off screen and plenty of loose threads are left hanging as the credits roll, but this all fits into a perfect examination of chaos and the patterns that may or may not exist within that chaos. 2007 was a banner year for Westerns, and No Country sealing a Best Picture win for the genre was very exciting and thoroughly deserved as, along with The Big Lebowski, it’s the Coens on the top of their game, crafting a film almost as near to faultless as is possible.
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
And yet, despite the obvious and immense quality of No Country, an even better film missed out on the glory of that year’s awards season. A very strong contender for the best film ever made, There Will Be Blood is the magnum opus of both the Western genre and the illustrious career of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like The Revenant, TWBB is not a Western that embraces the traditional trappings of the genre, instead focusing on the idealised masculine individualism of man vs frontier that so defines the feel of a Western. In this case, the man is Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), an oil prospector seeking to expand his business out west. Day-Lewis gives a monumental performance as Plainview, a man whose dreams will not be denied, even when faced with suspicious locals riled up by local preacher Eli (Dano). Described by Anderson as a horror story about the birth of America, TWBB is a profoundly unsettling film, from the fanatical zealotry of its lead characters to Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score. Anderson’s script explores families and legacies, arrogance and ambition, providing a soul-scouring analysis of each theme over a luxurious 160-minute run time. Whereas plenty of the other films on this list make America’s wilderness look gorgeous despite its dangers, TWBB, like No Country, makes the vastness of the landscapes utterly isolating and dehumanising, leaving behind nothing but the will to survive and dominate. It’s a stunningly intelligent deconstruction of the American legend of great pioneers building a nation, with two lead performances that will be studied for decades to come. It’s the kind of work of art that the word ‘masterpiece’ was invented for.