Traditionally, the Hollywood Western was one of the most preeminent and stirring of genres. Set in the late 19th century, attentive to Old West myth-making, folk heroes, and morality tales, it was an altogether American invention.
In Hollywood’s Golden Age the Western was exceedingly popular, nothing else was as rootin’, tootin’, and crowd pleasin’. Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks made some of the finest horse operas of the day, and turned stars like Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and John Wayne into household names.
Perhaps no other film genre has fallen so in and out of style over the years as the Western, but as the legendary country singer Willie Nelson has so famously espoused; “My heroes have always been cowboys.”
The 21st century has seen a resurgence in the Western, as the following list will attest, and while this list appears shortly before the Coen brothers unveil their latest ode, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (most likely a revised list that includes that anticipated title will emerge very soon), the movies included herein make up some of the best kind of entertainment, the kind that unsettles, enlightens, persists, and improves with age.
One final note: The following films represent more traditional Westerns with 19th century setting, and does not include revisionist Westerns in more modern settings (and the 21st Century has seen many great ones, like 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and 2016’s Hell or High Water, to name just a few).
So saddle up, and have your six-shooter ready, a storm’s a-comin’.
15. Hostiles (2017)
Set in Fort Berringer, New Mexico in 1892 where veteran US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a Native-American hating war hero is charged with escorting dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana homelands.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) elevates some rather predictable plot elements and genre tropes by having superlative performers (joining Bale and Studi are such powerhouse players as Rosamund Pike, Timothée Chalamet, and Adam Beach) and sterling cinematography from director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior, The Grey).
The film’s many action scenes are captured with vivid power, and the overall epic scope (Takayanagi can’t get enough praise for his mastery of capturing the feel of the classic era Western) make this an unforgettable visual experience, even though the very white, colonial perspective does a disservice to the Native perspective (not to mention considerably excellent native talent in the cast). It’s not The Searchers, but it dares to aspire to be, and that’s worth some consideration.
14. Open Range (2003)
Kevin Costner crested a wave of a 1990s Western renaissance with films like Dances with Wolves (1990) and Wyatt Earp (1994), so his 2003 return to the gunslinger duster was cause for considerable excitement.
Set in 1822 Montana, Open Range finds cattleman “Boss” Spearman (Robert Duvall) and his hired hands Charley (Kevin Costner, who also directed and produced), Mose (Abraham Benrubi), and Button (Diego Luna) driving cattle across a large expanse of open country.
After Mose is met with violent hostility from landowner Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon), an and his right-hand man, Poole (James Russo) in the town of Harmonville, from which he does not return, Boss and Charley smell trouble, plot to get him back and get bloody retribution if need be.
Based on Lauran Paine’s 1990 novel “The Open Range Men”, is an elegantly lush period film, not only is it suitably gritty and tough, it packs one hell of wallop. The film’s concluding shootout is marvellously staged and breathlessly exciting. Don’t miss it.
13. Slow West (2015)
John Maclean of the now defunct experimental folktronic Scottish group The Beta Band makes an inventive and artful directorial debut with Slow West. Ostensibly a coming-of-age on the frontier tale, Slow West is a slow burn acid Western, not at all as over-the-top as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) or as bleak as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), it still presents a Wild West of eccentric characters, poetic dialogue, and explosions of startling violence.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) stars as wet-behind-the-ears Jay Cavendish, lovesick as can be, he’s travelled from Scotland to the American West, dogging the trail of his beloved, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rory McCann also figure prominently in this absurdist fable-like film that is in turns hilarious, heartrending, menacing, and adrenalizing. A murderous movie where love makes fools of everyone, be quick not to miss Slow West.
12. In a Valley of Violence (2016)
In a Valley of Violence begins like many oaters we’ve seen in the past and the easy to spot archetypal characters; there’s Paul (Ethan Hawke), a self-effacing drifter who appears more like a peacenik than the dangerous army deserter we suspect him to be; Gilly (James Ransone) the murderous intimidator; Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) the virginal ingenue; Marshal Clyde Martin (John Travolta) the conflicted reprobate law man; and so on. But once writer/director Ti West’s story gains speed these stock characters begin to be affected in new, astonishing, and often unpredictable ways.
West takes pains to make this Western more than a stylish throwback. There’s generous doses of dark humor, a strong and impressive cast, and an idiosyncratic charisma that makes the film fascinating and a lot of fun.
And what may be the best part of the film is Paul’s scene-swiping loyal companion, an adorable and discerning canine named Abbie, played by Jumpy the dog. Not only does Abbie chew the scenery (see what I did there?), her expressive face and wide-range of impressive maneuver, many done in impressive long takes, all but steals the show.
11. The Proposition (2005)
This Australian Western, set in the vivid, volatile outback, comes from excellent pedigree: a cultivated, adjy script by seminal rock star Nick Cave, stunning cinematography from Benoît Delhomme, the assured direction of John Hillcoat, and an A-list cast, led by Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, and Guy Pearce.
Set in the late 1880s as Captain Morris Stanley (Winstone) makes the titular proffer with Charlie Burns (Pearce), the younger brother in a familial gang of bloodthirsty outlaws that only he can reign in. The Proposition is a violent, uncompromising, and challenging film. More than just an allegory about revenge, Cave’s imperious script disparages colonialism, racism, chauvinism, authority, and virtue, all with equal parts pathos and swagger.
10. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
First off it must be said that the 1957 original by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin is a true classic of the genre that, over 60 years later still hold edge-of-your-seat action and suspense. That said, James Mangold’s remake with big A-listers like Russell Crowe and Christian Bale makes not just a worthy tribute, but also manages to be its own impressive objet d’art.
Set in the simmering badlands of Arizona during a drought, a war of wills unfurls between cold-blooded killer Ben Wade (Crowe) and ill-fated rancher Dan Evans (Bale) in a tough-as-nails tour de force, 3:10 to Yuma. Based off the short story by Elmore Leonard, this subjectively labyrinthine film eschews many clichés of the genre for a rarefied and analytical treatise on heroism, cowardice, and restitution.
If Ingmar Bergman had visited the Wild West (why didn’t he?), Yuma would have been the deep-seated consequence, with action scenes that might just sprain your wrist with all the fist-pumping.
9. Sweet Country (2018)
Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah ) continues his run of outstanding Australian cinema with a much needed, and all too rare indigenous perspective, with his prize-winning “counter western”, Sweet Country.
Having taken home the Special Jury Prize at Venice as well as the Platform Prize at TIFF 2017, this outstanding, heart-rending drama is inspired by actual events that unfolded in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1920s. Here a grievous miscarriage of justice exposed the deep-seated racism underlying Australia’s foundational myth.
Hamilton Morris is magnetic as Sam Kelly, a middle-aged Aboriginal farmer who’s self-defence murder of a white man gives Sweet Country a story seared with anger, pain, and sorrow. Buttressed by Thornton’s own generous and gorgeous cinematography, which calls to mind the mystery and almost supernatural presence of other great artistic Aussie masterworks like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) –– particularly given some of Sweet Country’s inspired and spooky editing experiments.