Westerns are a genre of the past. Not just the post-Civil War era in which the genre flourished, when dime novels spun tales of Calamity Jane and Billy the Kid, but also the classic Gene Autry and John Wayne movies of the 1950s or even the revisionist Westerns of the 60s and 70s. All have fallen out of style.
However, the Western movie did not stay in the past. Filmmakers of the past two decades have revisited the genre to find new ways of exploring cinema’s most important themes, including revenge, civilization, and individualism. Whether set in the present day or looking back at the 19th century, these best Western movies ensure that the genre remains a vital part of the cinematic arts.
1. True Grit (2010)
John Wayne made no effort to turn off his swagger and charisma for the 1969 version of True Grit, which made his Marshall Rooster Cogburn more a traditional hero than the character in the Charles Portis novel. Working with Joel and Ethan Cohen, Jeff Bridges gives viewers a surly, unpleasant Cogburn, more in line with Portis’s original. This change moves Mattie Ross to the foreground, retaining the story’s skewed look at frontier justice. Hailee Steinfeld brings an unusual maturity to Ross, making the Coen’s signature dialogue even wittier.
2. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
It might be tempting to label Brokeback Mountain a straightforward romance movie, and with good reason. Ang Lee’s quiet, sensitive portrait of the love affair between cowboys Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) has all the passion and longing of the great romance stories. But Brokeback Mountain also adheres to the Western genre, complete with a screenplay by the great Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Lee fills the screen with clouds rambling across open skies and rugged mountain landscapes, as seen in the classic John Wayne movies.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Viewers sometimes forget why many people set out to the West: to get rich by looking for gold and then oil. The latter drives the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece There Will Be Blood.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview, a ruthless capitalist who becomes an immediate millionaire after finding oil. Anderson shoots the oil sequence as twenty minutes of thrilling, dialogue-free cinema, but then moves away from the plains and prairies. However, There Will Be Blood then explores the building of a society, one of the Western genre’s key themes.
4. The Power of the Dog (2021)
Known for playing intellectuals such as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange, English actor Benedict Cumberbatch makes for an unusual Western star. However, those qualities inspired director Jane Campion to cast Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, the braggart ranch owner of The Power of the Dog. Committed to a masculinity that he cannot embody, Phil buries his Ivy League education and high-society upbringing under a destructive cruelty that separates him from everyone, including his doting brother George (Jesse Plemons).
5. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The second Coen Brothers entry among the best Western movies of the 21st century, No Country for Old Men adapts the nihilistic novel by Cormac McCarthy. Set in 1980s Texas, No Country for Old Men depicts the chaos that follows laborer Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) after he steals a bag of money left from a drug deal gone wrong. Pursued by both the unstoppable cartel assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and experienced sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Moss does not realize the consequences of his actions until it’s far too late.
In addition to staging tense thriller sequences, the Coens also use the desert setting to underscore the story’s bleak worldview.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Few names belong to Westerns more than Jesse James, the legendary outlaw whose exploits built the genre. Based on the historical novel by Ron Hansen, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford unpacks the mythology of the titular outlaw, played by Brad Pitt. Packed with first-class character actors such as Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, and Sam Rockwell, the film shows Jesse James in all of his cruelty and complexity, revealing the human being behind the legend.
7. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Few movies capture the emptiness of the Old West like Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Jonathan Raymond. Bruce Greenwood stars as Stephen Meek, a guide hired to bring a group of settlers through the Oregon High Desert. Despite Meek’s bold talk, the settlers, led by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), soon realize he has no idea where he’s going. Reichardt’s gentle filmmaking captures the vastness of the frontier, providing a subtle critique of the self-aggrandizement of the Westward expansion.
8. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
The best Western movies tend to avoid the level of violence in revisionist Westerns such as The Wild Bunch or For a Few Dollars More, preferring more intellectual or spiritual pursuits. For most of its runtime, Bone Tomahawk seems to follow that model. As Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) leads a rescue party, including his deputy (Patrick Wilson) and a heartless gunslinger (Matthew Fox), to find kidnapped townspeople, they fill the space with long, philosophical conversations. Writer and director S. Craig Zahler gives each of the characters florid speeches as they cross the plain, interrupting them only with one of the most horrifying scenes of violence ever committed to film.
9. The Rider (2017)
Brady Blackburn, the main character of The Rider, once had a promising future as a rodeo rider, cut short when he suffered a debilitating accident. Like the rest of the characters in the movie, Brady is played by a non-professional actor from the Lakota Sioux, grounding the film in reality. Written and directed by Oscar winner Chloe Zhou, The Rider has no interest in the mythologies and violence of the West. Instead, it makes use of its modern South Dakota setting to examine the real people who live there.
10. Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained may take the name of its title character from Italian cheapies from the 1970s, but it hits like a modern thriller. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino crafts a revenge tale featuring Jamie Foxx as Django, an enslaved man who escapes his captors and fights to free his love Hildi (Kerry Washington) from the cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino plays with stock characters from the history of the genre, but he also finds ways to explode those stereotypes, either through propulsive action or through outstanding acting, such as Samuel L. Jackson’s amazing take on a submissive servant.
11. The Proposition (2005)
As the Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s and 70s demonstrated, the United States has no special hold on the genre. Australian director John Hillcoat reminds viewers of that point with The Proposition, a rugged tale set in the Outback.
Written by musician Nick Cave, The Proposition stars Guy Pierce as a criminal forced to find and kill his murderous older brother (Danny Huston), in exchange for his life and that of his younger brother (Richard Wilson). Hillcoat uses the setting to great effect, positioning the empty spaces of the Outback as a reflection of the character’s barren souls.
12. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2005)
While most modern films take a bleak and serious look at the West, Korean director Kim Jee-woon has nothing but fun in mind for The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. Director Kim plays with the iconography of American and Italian Westerns, setting his camera alongside bandits robbing a train and whipping around masked gunmen. He gathers an all-star cast that includes Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Ma Dong-seok, and other faces familiar to American audiences. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird breaks the genre free from its self-seriousness, reminding viewers just how fun cowboys can be.
13. First Cow (2019)
For their second visit to the West in First Cow, director Kelly Reichart and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond choose a more conventional narrative, adapting Raymond’s book The Half-Life. The movie follows chef Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and fugitive immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) through the Orgean Country. At first, Cookie and Lu struggle to fit among the rugged settlers who flock to the territory. But when a cow arrives at a nearby outpost, the duo uses the milk to make Oily-Cakes, a dish that launches them to immediate popularity. Funny and sweet without sacrificing the contemplative air of Reichart’s best work, First Cow offers a hopeful look at the genre.
14. The Nightingale (2018)
Many of the best Western movies on this list use genre tropes to explore the brutality humans can inflict on one another, but none match the unblinking sobriety of The Nightingale, written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Aisling Franciosi stars as Claire Carroll, an Irish convict sent by the crown to colonial Australia, where her singing earns her the nickname “Nightingale.” When English soldiers assault Claire and murder her family, she seeks revenge with the help of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Kent uses the partnership between the two to uncover layers of oppression enacted by colonial powers, revealing the dark heart underneath claims of civilization.
15. Bacurau (2019)
Portuguese filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles blend together a multitude of genres in their mesmerizing feature Bacurau. Science fiction, comedy, and Western come together for a dyspeptic look at colonial expansion, as the diverse citizens of the titular fictional Brazilian town fight against tourists who come to hunt the locals. Led by genre great Udo Kier, the tourists think their technology and privilege give them the upper hand, but they soon find themselves outmatched by matriarch Domingas (Sônia Braga) and gunslinger Lunga (Silvero Pereira). The mix of genres strengthens the film’s themes of strength through heterodoxy.
16. The Forever Purge (2021)
The fifth entry in the popular Purge horror franchise takes things to the Southern U.S. border. The Forever Purge takes place on the Tucker family ranch, run by Dylan (Josh Lucas) and his father Caleb (Will Patton). Although not blatant in his racism, Dylan supports the Purge, the 24-hour cessation of laws that tends to harm minorities and lower classes. But when a disgruntled worker uses the Purge to exact vengeance against the Tuckers, Dylan and his family must rely on the kindness of undocumented immigrants Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta).
Director Everardo Valerio Gout fills The Forever Purge, written by franchise creator James DeMonaco, with Western iconography, giving a new twist to the politically charged horror story.
17. Slow West (2015)
Despite what its name might suggest, Slow West wastes no time telling its story of Scottish immigrant Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who hires bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to help him find his beloved Rose (Caren Pistorius). Writer and director John Maclean has fun playing with established tropes, in particular those involving Ben Mendelson’s villainous hunter Payne. Slow West breaks no new ground but tells a satisfying cowboy tale nonetheless.
18. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Texas-born actor Tommy Lee Jones has a face made for Westerns, so it surprises no one to learn that Jones chose that genre for his directorial debut. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada stars Jones as Pete, a ranch hand who seeks to fulfill the wish of his murdered friend Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) and take his body back to his Mexican town. To help him complete the task, Pete captures the Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who killed Melquiades, forcing him to atone for his sin. As a director, Jones sometimes fumbles the tone and storytelling with poor pacing and unsuccessful humor. But as an actor, Jones turns in one of his most sensitive performances.
19. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Where Tarantino’s first Western Django Unchained invited viewers to participate in the vengeful fun, The Hateful Eight wallows in misery. On their way to bring Crazy Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice, bounty hunters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) stop in a cabin to wait out the storm. Tensions rise as five others join the trio, including Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern) and English Pete Hicox (Tim Roth). The Hateful Eight reimagines John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing through a Western gaze, allowing Tarantino to craft a paranoid story where everyone hates one another as much as they distrust each other.
20. The Revenant (2015)
On the one hand, The Revenant strives for realism, stripping away every hint of romance in fur trapper Hugh Glass’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) fight to survive the Dakota territory after his comrades leave him for dead. On the other, DiCaprio and director Alejandro González Iñárritu want the audience to know about the difficulty involved in making the story so that viewers cannot help but be pulled out of the 19th-century setting. Despite the inevitable loss of verisimilitude, that bravado does make for some thrilling sequences and draws attention to some exciting performances, including Tom Hardy’s turn as a rival tracker.
21. The Harder They Fall (2021)
The Old West produced legends that loom large in the American imagination, which makes The Harder They Fall feel more like a superhero movie than the average Western. Directed by Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the script with Boaz Yakin, The Harder They Fall brings together some of the greatest Black heroes and villains of the day, played by an all-star cast. Jonathan Majors stars as Nat Love, a gunslinger looking for revenge against criminal Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and his right-hand woman, Trudy Smith (Regina King). Samuel covers it all with a slick music video sheen, which just amplifies the movie’s heightened stakes.
22. The Sisters Brothers (2018)
As its name suggests, The Sisters Brothers gets its power from unusual combinations, starting with its stars, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly. The two must overcome a run of bad luck and their personal failings to complete a job for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) and assassinate miner Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), also a target of private detective Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). While that might sound like the set-up for a wacky screwball adventure, director Jacques Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain, adapting the novel by Patrick deWitt, have something more contemplative in mind. Those competing tones make The Sisters Brothers a unique, if sometimes frustrating, watch.
23. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Director James Mangold has little interest in the philosophical discussions that marked the first adaptation of the Elmore Leonard story “Three-Ten to Yuma,” released in 1957. But for what it lacks in contemplation, the 2007 3:10 to Yuma makes up with slick action. An emaciated Christian Bale plays a desperate rancher who accepts a job escorting outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the titular train, where he’ll taken to prison. But Wade’s gang will do anything to get him back, especially his cruel associate Charlie Prince (Ben Foster).
24. The Salvation (2014)
With its harsh landscapes and life-or-death stakes, Westerns lend themselves to apocalyptic stories. Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen use that setting for his gothic revenge story, The Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green. The Salvation follows Mikkelsen’s Jon, who comes with his brother and family to the U.S. after serving in the Second Schleswig War of 1864. When bandits kill Jon’s family, he slays them in revenge, drawing the attention of the bandit’s powerful brother (Henry Dean Morgan). The cycle of retribution and retribution rises to dizzying degrees, building to a memorable climax featuring Eva Green as a mute, fierce warrior.
25. Open Range (2003)
Most of the movies on this list adhere to revisionist Western tropes, blurring the line between white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains. Kevin Costner does echo some of those films in Open Range, in which he and Robert Duvall play ranchers who lead their cattle to graze across lands claimed by a powerful baron. But more often than not, Costner crafts a simple throwback to movies from days gone by. The slow-moving film luxuriates in the beautiful prairie scenery, the ideal background for Costner and Duvall’s cowboys to consider the weight of their pasts.