The western genre is widely considered a “dead” genre, but the new millennium has shown us this once great leader in entertainment can still pack a punch. This weekend a potentially magnificent film called “Hostiles” is released wide and I personally can’t wait to give it a watch. Before that however I thought about a few standouts in the genre that deserved to be recognized for those looking for a little pre-“Hostiles” viewing to get you into the action. As I’m known to do, I picked out ten of the best western genre movies from the last 17 years. These are my picks for the Top 10 Modern Western Films.
For this list I looked at any film in the western genre, whether they were original works, remakes or reboots, which were released from the year 2000 to today. I graded these films on their success, characters, story, and quality and I also took into consideration films that were original and inventive while still capturing the spirit of the western genre. A western is any film focusing on the American Old West with more traditional westerns staying within the 19th century. These aren’t just gunfights and cowboys you see. In fact many of these films buck the typical image of a western, but still fall within the genre due to their themes, setting and stories.
I did not include any neo-westerns which embrace the same themes and stories but with a more modern touch and setting. I have an entirely different list for neo-westerns on the way so be on the lookout for that.
Whether it’s explorers, heroes, gunfights or train robberies these films continued the traditions of one of cinema’s most legendary genres for a modern audience to enjoy. What is your favorite modern western film? Let me know in the comments below and look for my review of “Hostiles” coming soon.
10. “A Million Ways to Die in the West”
Critics hated this movie, but trust me there’s a reason I put it on this list. Co-written, directed and produced by Seth MacFarlane, who also stars in the film, this serious spoof of western films was the “Blazing Saddles” for a new generation. The story focused on an out-of-place sheep herder whose timid personality and cowardliness lead to a broken heart. When he challenges his ex-girlfriends new lover to a duel he has a week to prepare. With the help of a very attractive stranger he learns the ways of the west while also finding new, and dangerous love. Featuring clever references and in jokes and some very hilarious puns about the realities of the western world that most movies seem to ignore this modern western mixed present day humor and references with all the action, clichés and style fans of westerns have come to expect and enjoy about these movies. It’s good for a laugh and a nice change of pace for a genre that tends to take itself too seriously. It only gets better with age and is certainly worth checking out.
9. “The Magnificent Seven”
This 2016 remake of the classic western, which itself was an American take on the classic “Seven Samurai” story, “The Magnificent Seven” packed an all-star cast of characters as seven heroes joined forces to take on an evil land baron. While it was criticized for its inability to really do anything original with its concept, this film served as a pretty enjoyable remake of the classic western for modern audiences to embrace. The cast was diverse and each of the seven heroes had their own demons, personalities and stories that helped them stand out. The gun fights were great, the tone was consistent and while it wasn’t very original it was a whole lot of fun. For any modern movie fan looking to get a glimpse of what more mainstream westerns are like and why this genre was ever popular in the first place this is the one for you. It might not have been as artistic or subtle as others on this list, but “The Magnificent Seven” made a valiant effort to recapture the magic of its predecessors all the same.
8. “Open Range”
A more classic western, this 2003 film focused on an open range cattleman and his hired hands who come face to face with a ruthless land baron who resents open rangers for the impact they have on his land. The cattlemen engage in different conflicts with the baron leading to standoffs, gunfights and everything we’ve come to love and expect from a classic story of the old west. Like “The Magnificent Seven” this film lacked a bit of creativity, but its embrace of clichés worked well as the story felt fresh and new even though we had seen it all before. The performances stood out and critics praised it as an enjoyable film that captured the spirit of its western roots. I’d have to agree. “Open Range” was a throwback to the westerns of old with a modern feel to its cinematic presentation. What it lacked in creativity it made up for in substance earning it a spot on this list.
7. “Slow West”
A film many have probably never seen due to its limited theatrical run, “Slow West” was a mighty fine modern western from 2015 that told the story of a Scottish man searching for a lost love in the American West with a bounty hunter by his side for protection. Things get complicated when the bounty hunter discovers the man’s love is a wanted person and decides to use the opportunity to collect the bounty. The film evolved from a typical western into a pretty touching love story with a twist and followed traditional western themes while also presenting an original story. Great acting, an engaging script, and a story drenched in suspense and character-driven unpredictability this modern western was simultaneously cliché and unique. It’s an underappreciated western genre gem that deserved a lot more recognition than it actually got.
6. “3:10 to Yuma”
It’s not every day a remake is praised as an improvement on the original, but for the 2007 adaptation of “3:10 to Yuma” that’s exactly what happened. The story focused on a man who takes the job of accompanying a dangerous criminal to custody on the 3:10 train to Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona. Criminally underappreciated upon its release, this fantastic film packed fiery performances and an engaging story that helped it rise above its iconic predecessor for a more modern viewing experience. Pulse pounding and exciting, “3:10 to Yuma” was a classic villain/hero team up western and those two characters, the hero and villain, are truly what drove this film. Some critics called it a “resurrection” of the western genre and in many ways that was true. It came about when westerns were truly unmarketable in the late 2000s but not only did it prove these films can still be fun and fashionable, it showed that in the right hands even the classics can be improved on with fantastic results.
5. “The Hateful Eight”
Quentin Tarantino is a great director who seems to particularly enjoy revisionist history. He also seems to have a thing for westerns, this being one of two of his movies to make this list. “The Hateful Eight” was an intriguing 2015 modern western that saw a group of individuals hauled up inside a stagecoach lounge all distrusting of each other as a mystery unfolds over who the heroes and villains among them are with a wanted woman at the center of it all. This entry is where the western genre got a more creative spin as this film was less about cowboys than it was about clashing personalities and western sensibilities. Every character was given a personality and motive and what we got as a result was a “Clue” style whodunit with western flair. “The Hateful Eight” was a very suspenseful film and one that kept you guessing the entire time. It served as a very unique standout take on the western, bucking many traditional tropes while embracing ones that are usually less appreciated…ones that made for great storytelling underneath all that gunfire and chaos.
4. “The Revenant”
While this amazing movie might not have been the most traditional western on this list, it did take place in the American west and embraced many themes of legendary western films all the same. A dramatized look at the trials of Hugh Glass, a fur trader who is mauled by a bear and left for dead only to survive the elements on his own, this film was brimming with atmosphere and held nothing back in its interpretation of a man’s struggle for survival and revenge despite the odds. Telling the story more through the action and the scenery than through vocal exchanges due to Glass having his throat slashed by the bear, “The Revenant” explored several angles of humanity, both the good and the bad, leading to an epic standoff that asked even the viewers how far they would go to survive and what they would do to avenge the ones they love. The film also touched on issues of inter-racial relations and the personalities of men during its time period which, put together, struck a chord with audiences making it a massive box office hit and a critical success that earned Leonardo DiCaprio his long awaited Oscar.
3. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
There are few names more synonymous with the Wild West than real life train robber Jesse James. This 2007 release focusing on his assassination by his friend Robert Ford might have presented revisionist history, but that didn’t make it any less fascinating. With big names like Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck at the helm this modern classic western was called by many the best western of the new millennium at the time. Fantastic acting and an artistic story and cinematography gave this film the feel of a classic western in a new era of filmmaking, paying homage to the genre while adding new elements to it that are staples today including a delightful choice of color pallet and a specific focus on tone. This was a fascinating story that presented its titular characters with humility and grace bringing to life a version of the death of the most famous outlaw of the old west. The story also heavily focused on the themes of cowardice and the clichés of an honorable kill, which was a nice touch considering that these tropes are among the most popular and celebrated in the western genre overall.
2. “Django Unchained”
“The Assassination of Jesse James” might have been considered the western of the new millennium, but in the 2010s a few films upped the anti. This was one of them. Going back to Quentin Tarantino “Django Unchained” was a pure western-inspired story that challenged contemporary views of classic slavery. A 2012 tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, especially the classic “Django”, this film was heavily praised as a bloody masterpiece winning numerous awards for its acting and writing. The film’s story focused on Django, a slave-turned-bounty hunter who teams with a German to hunt down the most wanted criminals of the south in pre-Civil War America before setting their sights on a plantation owner who still owns Django’s long-lost wife. Containing legendary performances and dialogue while melding classic cinema tropes with western themes and styles “Django Unchained” was not only a tribute to the western genre, it is perhaps one of the genre’s bloodiest and best of the last 30 years. It wasn’t cowboys and Indians, but it is was a classic western tale with a modern spin. It was fun, brutal, and unrelenting trading in the subtlety of the past for a more direct and violent reality we could’t help but enjoy and in the end all the best westerns do serve as eyeopening experiences about the devil within us all right?
1. “True Grit”
The original “True Grit”, itself based on a novel, featured tough guy legend John Wayne and is a classic western of old. It’s extremely impressive then that the 2010 version is infinitely more artistic, gritty and well made. Critics and fans both loved this Coen brothers interpretation of the story which was lauded as a near perfect western and, as you can tell from its placement here, those opinions were completely accurate. Like its predecessor, this film focused on a young teenager who hires a trigger happy lawman to avenge the death of her father. This film took advantage of nearly every trope in the book and made them all feel fresh, new and exciting becoming a quintessential modern western if there ever was one. With amazing characters, brilliant performances, top notch cinematography and Oscar worthy quality “True Grit” was not just the western the new generation of film fans needed, it was the one they deserved that took the genre into a new direction. All the while this movie paying respect to everything it stood for in the first place and made westerns in the most traditional terms absolutely cool once again. Where others were more creative or more modern, this film stood out for making the old feel brand new and reminding everyone that the formula set by the genre’s past was not dead, but alive and well. For that it is my pick and a worthy choice at that for the best modern western film.