Throughout the 2010s, some have referred to superhero films as the new westerns when it comes to their popular culture dominance, and although it’s impossible to deny the success of caped crusaders, the western genre has not gotten stale at all. Over the past decade, there’s been many wonderful western films that have intersected with other genres, including neo-noirs, comedies, fantasies, and even superhero films.
What makes a film beautiful is often subjective; is it formal brilliance, symmetrical framing, a specific tone, or a particularly griping character or event? Indeed, a beautiful film can be all of those things. This list includes both films with stunning visuals and deeply emotional stories.
Western films can often be reflective in nature, and these films represent the westerns that have lingered within the memory of the viewers for the longest. Here are the top ten most beautiful westerns of the 2010s.
10. The Sisters Brothers
Often the thing that makes a western film standout is its commitment to process; a film with an exciting action storyline risks not taking enough time to focus on the characters and setting, and The Sisters Brothers avoids this issue by showing the exploratory nature of its two lead characters. Although they are veteran gunslingers, brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) spend much of the film admiring the new technology and iconography they experience over the course of their adventure.
The Sisters Brothers is a film that is genuinely empathetic and unafraid to explore tender male relationships; as they chase new profits and avoid villains, the brothers encounter inventor Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the four men bond over their pursuit of gold and a utopian society. There’s a sensitivity these characters share as they reflect upon their experiences and travel on this quest together, and the open performances from the extraordinary cast gives this exciting film a mythic quality.
Logan is a superhero film like no other; comic book films tend to always be pushing their universes forward and creating more crossovers, but Logan is a stripped back approach that focuses on the decline of a hero who is forced to reckon with his own mortality. Director James Mangold creates a post-apocalyptic world where the world of the X-Men has all but declined, and takes Wolverine on a spiritual mission as he takes an innocent child on an exodus journey. It’s impossible not to compare it to such classic westerns as Unforgiven or Shane.
The starkness of the environments and patience of the filmmaking give Logan much of its inherent beauty, but it also a richly emotional story of finding hope again. The physical and mental decline of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is often difficult to watch due to Stewart’s emotional performance, and seeing both Xavier and Logan find a purpose again is enthralling. Logan isn’t just the best superhero movie of the decade, but one of the most beautiful westerns as well.
8. Slow West
Few were able to catch John Maclean’s wondrous debut film Slow West, which is a shame because it’s a gleefully odd take on the fairy tale qualities of western stories. Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an innocent Scottish boy who employs the Irish bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) as he pursues his one true love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), and the boy’s naive nature quickly comes into contrast with the world weary cynicism of the veteran gunslinger. Fassbender finds a playful giddiness in helping this hapless hero come of age in a dark and mysterious world.
The film leans heavily into its surrealist qualities, featuring exaggerated characters, lush landscapes, and shocking plot developments, all of which stem from the central framing device of Jay’s search for Rose. Often, the film plays out like its adapting this story in the form of a fantastical narrative, and the more overtly storybook elements come into play in the film’s touching final moments. Both visceral and wondrous, Slow West is a sorely underrated modern western classic.
7. The Rider
Chloe Zhao’s gorgeous film was unprecedented in how accurately and considerately it depicts America’s heartland and the culture of rodeo riders. The story is of rider Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), who is trying to get back into the circuit after a traumatic accident left him permanently scarred. Brady sees the tragedy that envelops the impoverished area, and while he considers the danger of the practice, he’s also unable to give up a tradition that is so integral to his cultural identity.
The brilliance of The Rider is that it shows how deeply important the rodeo culture is to these people, and shows the joy that it brings to people looking to escape their circumstances. It isn’t without its consequences, however, and one of the strongest scenes in the film revolves around Brady’s visit to his friend Lane, who was permanently injured in a bull riding accident. The sequences of Brady isolated in the fields are stunningly vivid, like a western portrait come to life.
There is an inherent violence in most western stories, and it’s impossible to look back at the era that inspired most westerns and not look at the cyclical nature of vengeance and conflict. Hostiles is a film that examines this cycle directly, as it explores the veteran southern Commander Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he transports Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland to die. Both men have spent generations killing, and their band of travelers are forced to reckon with their history as they venture on their quest.
Bale is without a doubt one of the best actors working today, and he brings a steely compassion to a character who yearns for peace after a lifetime of inflicting harm upon others; this comes to fruition as he encounters a young widow (Rosamund Pike) and considers a life beyond the uniform. The depiction of Cheyenne traditions are respectful and meditative, and the emotional score from Max Richter strengthens the characters’ search for enlightenment. Hostiles doesn’t have any easy answers, but it’s a fascinating and deeply moving watch.