The western genre has kind of died off in the past few decades. In the 1950s, they were the biggest thing around. They were the superhero movies of their day. But long gone are the days of Gary Cooper and John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Westerns just aren’t as popular as they used to be. It’s probably because we have more knowledge of history these days, so we don’t really see the Native Americans as the bad guys anymore. But they’re still the movies that inspired a generation of filmmakers, so the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers will continue to make them. Here are the 10 greatest westerns of the 21st century so far!
10. Slow West
John Maclean’s feature film debut as a writer and director is framed as an action western movie, but it’s a lot more artsy and contemplative than that. Maclean was inspired to make a western while he worked as a car delivery guy after graduating from college. His job was basically to drive cars across America to their owners, so he saw a lot of the country and decided to make a movie about its history. This meant that although he’s Scottish, he knew America better than most filmmakers. He captures the vistas beautifully and doesn’t rush his plot. It’s a slow burn, building up to an epic showdown at the end. Maclean knows that you don’t bring out the gunfight at the very beginning. You keep it quiet and develop your characters before throwing them into a shootout, so that the audience cares for them. Kodi Smit-McPhee is technically the star of the movie, as a young kid in the Old West who is searching for the love of his life, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as his bounty hunter companion. The Guardian has described the Maclean/Fassbender relationship as “not quite up there with Scorsese/De Niro yet, but a good start.”
9. Bone Tomahawk
This movie stops being a western about 45 minutes in and then just turns into an all out body horror gorefest about a cannibal tribe eating a bunch of people in a cave, but still, it counts among the best westerns of the 21st century, because it’s an awful lot of modern B-movie fun. Like all great horror movies, it doesn’t just step up the ante immediately with all the gore and the terror – it makes you wait for it. It’s a slow burner. It starts off with a teaser that this is going to be a spooky movie about a savage Native American tribe that likes to kill if you go near their burial site, and then it goes back to being a straight western for half the movie. But because we’ve seen the kind of brutal territory that it’s heading into, it’s not boring – it keeps us on the edge of our seats. Plus, the cast of Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins all give fantastic performances. The writing and direction by S. Craig Zahler in his frightful debut is on point. The guy had a very clear vision of what he wanted his first movie to be, and he realized it.
8. A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth MacFarlane’s follow up to his wildly successful feature film debut, Ted, was not as well received by the critics and it didn’t make as much of a splash at the box office, but this is probably because he decided to make a western and no one goes to see westerns anymore. It’s their loss, though, because A Million Ways to Die in the West is a surprisingly brilliant movie. All the silly jokes and sight gags work hilariously well and it’s also beautifully shot – some of the desert vistas are truly breathtaking. There’s also a raft of random celebrity cameos from Ewan McGregor to Ryan Reynolds. MacFarlane even managed to get Jamie Foxx to reprise his role as Django and Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role as Doc Brown for gags in this movie. It’s not really a parody of western movies, but rather a satirical take on the Old West itself. In all the old John Wayne and Gary Cooper movies, the Old West was used simply as a backdrop to tell the stories of heroes and villains and romance and gunfights. This movie covers all the things that those movies ignored, like the realities of going to the bathroom in the Old West or how doctors used to treat diseases back then.
7. True Grit
The last kind of movie you’d expect the Coen brothers to make is a remake. They have such a singular vision for their movies that the last thing you’d expect them to do is agree to tell someone else’s story. They mix different things that you wouldn’t normally see together. No one else could mix a stoner comedy with a Raymond Chandler mystery story. No one else could mix 1960s-set dark family drama with Yiddish folklore. So, it was unusual that they decided to remake a John Wayne western – but then True Grit was a very different kind of western for John Wayne. He usually played heroic straight arrows, but boozing lawman Rooster Cogburn was much more grizzled and morally questionable. If the Coens were going to remake any John Wayne western, it would be this one. Jeff Bridges takes on Wayne’s iconic role of Cogburn and just rolls with it. It’s the kind of role that won him an Oscar and it’s the kind of role he plays best. Pre-pop fame Hailee Steinfeld provides terrific support as the more optimistic 14-year-old girl who hires him to track down her father’s killer. Together, they make a very watchable screen duo.
6. The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to the role of Hugh Glass was so incredible that the Academy voters were convinced to finally give him his long deserved Oscar for it. The guy ate raw liver and got naked in the middle of the snowy forest and cut open a dead horse and climbed into it, still naked, to spend the night. If that’s not worthy of awards recognition, then what is? The movie makes fantastic use of long takes and subtle reveals. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu adopted a very experimental style with the film, which big movie studios don’t generally let you do with their tens of millions of dollars. Most of the time, those studios would make you cover the Native American tribe on horseback that they paid for with a bunch of different cameras and show them from all of those angles to show off the production value. Instead, Iñárritu shows us what Hugh Glass sees. If he wakes up to the roar of horses’ hooves, then that’s all we hear. If he looks back from atop his own horse and only gets a glimpse of the impending doom, then that’s all we see. It was incredibly risky for the studio to spend a whopping $135 million on what was essentially an arthouse western epic with a two and a half hour running time, but it ended up paying off with a global box office gross of over $500 million.
5. The Hateful Eight
This movie felt a lot like a career retrospective for Quentin Tarantino. It was like he reconciled his last movie, which was the epic western Django Unchained, with his very first movie, the intimate and tense thriller Reservoir Dogs, in that it’s a western that is set mostly in one room where no one can trust each other. He also brought in a bunch of other elements that have made his movies iconic: it has the chapter structure of Kill Bill and the nonlinear narrative of Pulp Fiction. Plus, he brought in a ton of actors that he had worked with previously: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, and some others. He had found his feet in the western genre with his aforementioned slavery spaghetti western comedy, where he had played around with the tropes and the camera angles and the music. So, now, he could really get to grips with it and figure out what a Quentin Tarantino western really was. We could’ve guessed what it was, to be honest – funny, violent, heavy with dialogue, and full of homages to earlier films – but it’s a movie with a feel and identity entirely of its own. Okay, it might drag on a little and feel gratuitous in some parts, but on the whole, this is a fantastic and brilliantly shot revisionist western.
4. There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson has made some truly brilliant movies in his day. He picks a setting or a theme or an idea and then he just explores it for two and a half hours or so of pure epic cinema. That’s what he did with cults and the porno industry and the casino world and the ‘50s post-war London fashion world. In 2007, he struck oil – both literally and figuratively – with what is arguably his finest film. There Will Be Blood is an epic drama about the rise and fall of an oil tycoon in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It’s not a western movie in the traditional sense, but its cinematic style and tone are inspired by the very best revisionist westerns and the motifs and the tropes are all there. In most western movies, the lead character is a hero who triumphs over a villain. In There Will Be Blood, the lead character is sort of both. He’s a hero who gradually turns into a villain as he is corrupted by wealth. In 2017, the New York Times officially declared it the “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far.” Daniel Day Lewis deservingly won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his fantastic performance in the movie.
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford might have one of the most infuriatingly long titles ever thought of, but it is also a tense and atmospheric modern western masterpiece. It’s not a western in the style of the classical John Ford westerns. It’s been directed skilfully by Andrew Dominik with a dark revisionist style, and the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is simply breathtaking. The train robbery scenes are grim and gloomy and they play around with light and the robbers themselves look like terrifying, dangerous criminals and not just movie stars in cowboy hats with ascots over their faces. The true success of the movie comes from its sharp narrative focus. While the assassination is the subject of the title, it’s not really a movie about killing. It’s a movie about the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford and how it becomes so troubled and conflicted that it ends with the latter murdering the former. And movies about the relationship between two people are only as good as the actors playing them and the on screen chemistry that they share – luckily, in this case, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck have that in spades!
2. No Country For Old Men
The bleak literary visions of Cormac McCarthy are the perfect template for the Coen brothers to turn into cinematic masterpieces. His best known novel became arguably their best received film as the western genre was combined with the film noir style to create a visually striking, deeply involving movie that was named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review. Javier Bardem’s portrayal of his hitman character Anton Chigurh now ranks among the most iconic movie villains of all time. He also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which is one of the four Oscars won by the movie, the other three being Best Picture, Best Director (the name of which wasn’t altered to accommodate the fact that there were two directors involved in the film), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Rolling Stone magazine called this movie “a new career peak for the Coen brothers,” while a BBC poll of various film critics found it to be not only one of the greatest western movies of the 21st century, but one of the greatest movies of the 21st century, period. Not bad for a western that was made fifty years after the genre had its heyday.
1. Django Unchained
On paper, it sounds like an insane idea to give Quentin Tarantino a budget of $100 million to make a nearly three hour spaghetti western with a lot of profanity and graphic violence and dark humor set during the grisly times of American slavery. But it clearly paid off, since it went on to become one of the director’s finest films, winning him his second Oscar be grossing over $400 million at the worldwide box office. The story of a bounty hunter who frees a slave and then trains him up to eventually free his wife from the plantation where she is being held is an engaging one, and the cast of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson make up a terrific ensemble of powerhouse performances. Combining the spaghetti western style with the historical backdrop of slavery sounds incredibly distasteful, and in a way, it is, but the movie is just as brutal as it needs to be to portray that terrible time, and it’s also a rollicking good time at the movies. Just look at the KKK scene or the final shootout for an example of what this movie is as a whole – it’s bloody, it’s darkly comic, it’s in poor taste, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun!