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21 Essential Westerns of the 21st Century

To coincide with the release of Paul Greengrass' News of the World, we look back at some of this unstoppable genre's recent greats

With every new western lies an opportunity to look back and confront the past. Yet the western has always been crucial for exploring the present, too. This is a genre that frequently transforms our perception of its strengths and its weaknesses, while new westerns seem to be in constant conversation with the old ones: revising, reimagining, reinterpreting.

For at the heart of the western is the story of us, the story of society, of how we build something from nothing, how we come together and fall apart, people at their worst – and best. For that reason, perhaps, the genre remains a stubborn one: despite having been ostensibly laid to rest multiple times, it always seems to come back around.

But enough blabbering. As a long-time enthusiast of this invaluable, malleable genre, I've assembled a list of 21 essential westerns spanning the last 21 years to coincide with the recent release of Paul Greengrass' News of the World. What makes a western essential? In my view, it's a film a true western fan would be distraught to find they'd missed.

A few rules: no movies set in what could be considered the modern era (Sicario, No Country for Old Men) or any stealth westerns (Logan). Elsewhere, I've made calls purely on a feeling alone (There Will Be Blood and The Beguiled, despite meeting much of the criteria, don't feel like proper westerns). I also haven't included Deadwood: The Movie – incredible, but not exactly “standalone.”

There are certainly some omissions, but these 21 – be they drama, action, comedy, or a mix – make for a stunning showcase of modern western viewing…

 

21. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Coen brothers gathered together an all-star cast for this rollicking western anthology, with tales moving between the melancholy and the absurd – though most of the time the tone hovers somewhere in between. Standouts include the bizarre, musical opener, with Tim Blake Nelson as the titular cowboy with a panache for song, and a story of a limbless man who makes up one half of a touring odd couple alongside Liam Neeson. There's an unevenness to the whole affair, and some of the stories work less than others (the final, wagon-set tale is a bore), but for pure western invention from two of the genre's most ardent champions, who's complaining?

 

20. Shanghai Noon (2000)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

It is easy to dismiss this comedy-western out of hand, but Shanghai Noon is – aside from being packed to the hilt with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson's winning chemistry – a giddy evocation of the old west. Part buddy cop film, part kung-fu film, it squares in on an American outlaw and a Chinese Imperial Guard who find themselves caught in a conspiracy involving a kidnapped Princess (Lucy Liu) – not that the plot matters. In amongst the high-wire stunts we've come to expect from Chan (though admittedly they're not quite as inspired as those of his Hong Kong predecessors), is a playful kind of revisionism, and a comic sensibility that harkens back to – and sometimes even equals – Blazing Saddles.

 

19. The Salvation (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Mads Mikkelsen is excellent in this searing revenge western from Kristian Levring, playing a wronged Danish immigrant who is betrayed by his town (hello, High Noon) and who is left with nothing but a burning desire for retribution. The Salvation was called out by many upon release as a mere contemporary repackaging of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns – as though there's something wrong with that. Mikkelsen here channels a kind of Lee Van Cleef type, while the inspired cinematography evokes the quick cuts and wide vistas of Leone's trademark style. Less about the revisionism, but more about the homage. But The Salvation absolutely stands on its own two feet.

 

18. The Furnace (2020)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Australian outback has always made ripe territory for the western, with filmmakers mining the depths of the country's uneasy colonial history – and its oppressive but beautiful landscape – for maximum cinematic impact. The Furnace is a relatively new addition to the genre, but already feels like a keeper. David Wenham plays a wounded bushman who forms an unlikely friendship with an Afghani cameleer (Ahmed Malek) in the 1890s, as they set out through the unforgiving terrain alluded to in the title. This is an action film above all else, but in its harnessing of a historical context few are likely to be aware of, it's one imbued with real authenticity and intelligence.

 

17. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

I'd argue that The Hateful Eight is probably Quentin Tarantino's least successful film, though by western movie standards it's still an absolute blast (though its impact is arguably lessened after the first viewing, once you know all the twists and turns). Basically a blend of Agatha Christie and Reservoir Dogs, it finds a group of cowboys, charlatans, and bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, among other Tarantino regulars) as they converge in a cabin during a relentless winter storm. It all gets very messy (and bloody), and though Tarantino is at his most indulgent, script-wise, there's giddy, genre-smashing fun to be had for all its three-hour runtime. And that Ennio Morricone score…

 

16. The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

No points for guessing what inspired this barmy cartoon of a western from South Korea, helmed by the great, versatile director Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil). The Good, the Bad, and the Weird – set in 1930s Manchuria, a decade I consider just on the borderline of what makes it an acceptable “western” – is a film that more than lives up to the promises of its title, blending high-octane set-pieces, inventive camerawork, and more Sergio Leone references than you shake a poncho at. If its story of treasure hunters who will stop at nothing to get what they want is purposely convoluted and hard to follow, better just to saddle up and enjoy the ride.

 

15. Hostiles (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Christian Bale, in his second western of the 21st century, plays the violent, prejudiced Captain Joseph Blocker in the somewhat overlooked western adventure Hostiles, which seemed to come and go with little fanfare back in 2017. It begins with a briefing scene right out of Apocalypse Now, with Blocker strong-armed into doing “one final mission” before he can retire. His task is to transport a cancer-ridden Native American back home, where he can be buried on sacred land. The result is not entirely free from cliche, but the film is a brutal evocation of the era, cast in a more traditional style, with excellent supporting performances from Ben Foster and Rosamund Pike.

 

14. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale star in this largely forgotten remake from filmmaker James Mangold, whose love of westerns is inherent in every film he's ever made. This is a no-nonsense and simple blockbuster western, free from the revisionism that tends to haunt the majority of 21st century meditations. What we get instead is great performances, great action, a great sense of getting all the bang for your buck – a filmmaker basically living out his childhood fantasies, playing with his cowboy toys. A yarn, and a good one – not to mention the sort of western no studio is going to spend $55 million on these days.

 

13. The Sisters Brothers (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Based on an outstanding, prize-winning novel by Patrick DeWitt that it had no real chance at matching up to, The Sisters Brothers, despite various diversions from the source material, is a worthwhile and curious piece of adaptive filmmaking. The novel's strength was in its first person narration, the story of two different bounty hunter brothers, who set out to kill a man but wind up on a miraculous discovery. The film is an altogether different piece: moodier, with a real indie sensibility, drawing new and interesting connections between the characters. The tone is never quite settled, but maybe that ultimately makes it all the more unique. Plus, what other western has John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Armed and Jake Gyllenhaal?

 

12. Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Meek's Cutoff, in many ways, is a purposeful subversion of everything we tend to associate with the western genre. For starters, its focus is on a female character, here played by Michelle Williams, part of a group of settlers moving their way along the Oregon Trail. It's incredibly slow-going and, until the end, almost completely without incident. Yet in director Kelly Reichardt's hands, the sense of place is so precise, the plight of the characters so deeply felt, that it remains entirely gripping in spite of the lethargy. An exhausting trawl, but one that reframes our understanding of the genre and its archetypes in ways that gradually come to feel enlightening.

11. The Proposition (2005)

Where to watch it: Home video only

Another western that finds its drama in the unforgiving landscapes of Down Under, The Proposition follows in a long line of Aussie westerns dealing with the harsh terrain and colonial history, as Guy Pearce's battered drifter is forced to kill an outlaw – played by Danny Huston – in exchange for his brother's freedom. In the hands of filmmaker John Hillcoat (who would go on to adapt Cormac McCarthy's The Road for film), this is a dirty, uncompromising vision of hell, a fascinating exploration of class and race with a genuine sense of time and place. Huston is excellent as the man Pearce is sent to track down.

 

10. Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Western movie hybrids seem like no-brainers, but efforts to mash-up the genre with that of horror, sci-fi, or fantasy have been mostly deployed to mostly middling effect over the years (lest we forget the tired antics of Cowboys and Aliens, or the sacrilege of Jonah Hex). Bone Tomahawk is one such exception, a strange and disturbing B-movie yarn perhaps best described as “cowboys and cannibals.” Kurt Russell stars as the reluctant sheriff who – along with a ragtag crew that also includes Matthew Fox – is pulled into an occult rescue mission that makes The Searchers look like a breeze. What sets director S. Craig Zahler's film apart is its blunt approach to violence, while events seem dictated less by a script and more by the cruel, randomness of real life.

 

9. The Keeping Room (2014)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Daniel Barber's The Keeping Room is the southern western as home invasion thriller, with a deeply feminist twist. Set at the end of the Civil War, it follows three woman – two sisters, and their African-American slave – left to tend to an estate without any men. What plays out is a deeply brutal game of cat and mouse as two Yankee soldiers turn up with malicious intent, rendered with stunning cinematography and an emphasis on the kinds of characters usually relegated to bit parts. Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld (who was born to be in westerns), and Muna Otaru give great, effective performances, in a slow-burner that builds to a 45-minute showdown. This feels like a very overlooked exercise in the genre – and to my mind, features one of the most beautiful closing shots in all of the canon.

 

8. The Revenant (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant has earned a reputation as something of a pretentious slog: slow, brutal, and punishing to both its characters and audiences. True, this is a film that relies on your patience. And it is not, despite the Oscar that it gifted him, anywhere close to Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance. Yet it's hard to argue with the gorgeous, meticulous production design, the sweeping sense of place, and Emmanuel Lubezki's Oscar-winning cinematography, with its emphasis on long takes, which absolutely immerses you in the elements as DiCaprio's betrayed trapper, Hugh Glass, seeks revenge on Tom Hardy's mumbling villain. The Revenant is never “fun,” but who said it was meant to be?

 

7. Slow West (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There is always a risk of style over substance when the film is as stylised as this one, but Slow West manages to find a gripping, character-driven tale within a somewhat artificial landscape without making any sacrifices. Michael Fassbender is the enigmatic gunman who's hired to protect a young man, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who – heartbroken – has arrived in America to track down his long lost love. Ben Mendelsohn provides excellent support as a sadistic killer, while the film blends music, visuals, and performance to often hallucinogenic results. Best of all, it does all this in just 84 minutes – not a second wasted. The director, John Maclean, has not made another film since this one. He should.

 

6. Django Unchained (2012)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Quentin Tarantino's films had always made a point of incorporating elements of the western long before he set about actually making one: think of the Mexican stand-off in Reservoir Dogs, or a hefty section of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, which is peppered with western set-pieces and Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack. Heck, Inglorious Basterds is essentially western transposed to WWII. His first “official” western, though came in the form of Django Unchained – technically a “southern” about a former slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his wife from an evil plantation owner. Leonardo DiCaprio is deliciously inspired casting as said villain, while the film – a mash-up of western elements, B-movie sensibilities, and genre subversions – makes for dizzyingly cathartic viewing.

 

5. The Nightingale (2018)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Nightingale, surely the most harrowing, punishing western movie of the last decade, earns its place on this list – and then some. In the hands of Babadook filmmaker Jennifer Kent, what begins as a seemingly familiar rape-revenge story soon transforms into something more complex: a film that gives agency to the minorities so often pushed to the sidelines, or in this case brutalised by the colonial machine. Aisling Franciosi is stunning as the former convict in Britain-ruled Tasmania, who sets out to avenge her husband and child in a morality tale that continually upturns the viewer's thirst for violent revenge. You don't know what you want from The Nightingale at any given moment, and that's what gives it such a strange and unique power.

 

4. Open Range (2003)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Kevin Costner's Open Range begins in a way that suggests it is to be a somewhat conventional western drama – open plains, buffaloes grazing, amiable music on the soundtrack. In many ways, it is. Where it swerves from expectation, though (and perhaps realism), is in its depiction of violence: handguns explode with the impact of canons, sending the bad guys soaring through the air as though attached to wires. The plot finds an easy-going man pushed to acts of violence, but Costner – who writes, directors, and stars – takes his time in allowing us to understand the transition. The result is a satisfying, old-fashioned yarn with a familiar conflict, but it's done with such assurance it comes to feel like a classic. And these are some of the most visceral gunfights in western movie memory.

 

3. The Homesman (2014)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

Tommy Lee Jones helmed one of the best modern day westerns with the under-seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (not eligible for this list, but highly recommended), a genre he's long held in high regard. His stunning follow-up, The Homesman, is a strange mix of traditional western fare and tonal adventurousness that sets it well apart from other efforts in the genre. Jones stars – in his best performance? – as claim jumper George Briggs, who agrees to transport three mentally ill women to a church at the behest of Hilary Swank's lowly spinster. Wide vistas, thrilling set-pieces, and odd couple chemistry make for a film that is somehow comic and disturbing at once – at times it even feels like a horror movie. The Homesman has a very strange and unpredictable rhythm, with little consideration for narrative convention, and a knack for constantly flipping your expectations. It never got its due. But there's still time to consider this unsung masterpiece.

 

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A stunningly beautiful, melancholy and wistful meditation on the myth of Jesse James – and myths in general! – Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks better and better with each passing year. Brad Pitt, cast in his most solemn and haunting turn, is more of a bit part. Around him swirls a cast of misfits, loners, and oddballs – among them the obsessive Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), whose rejection inspires an act of infamous violence. There is so much to love here, from Nick Cave's unforgettable score, to Roger Deakin's breathtaking cinematography, to the way the film deconstructs our understanding of the genre's tropes by having guns that can't shoot straight and “heroes” who sit on their sins. A defining cinematic achievement that leaves us with one vital question: where the hell has Andrew Dominik gotten to?

 

1. True Grit (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of drunken Sheriff Rooster Cogburn, a fact that has perhaps imbued True Grit – a good film, with a better Glen Campbell title song – with a reputation it doesn't quite deserve. That movie's fine. This one's a masterpiece. The Coens go back to Charles Portis' unbeaten source material for a faithful adaptation that perfectly captures the brutalness and the humour of the book. Hailee Steinfeld – in her debut role – brilliantly holds her own against a near-incomprehensible Jeff Bridges (a delight), while Matt Damon willingly plays the fool in their unlikely trio. It's a near-perfect western: meticulous dialogue running into Carter Burwell's gorgeous, hymn-inspired score, a tale of revenge that feels both subversive and traditional. And it's deeply felt, too, as the humour eventually wears out and paves the way for a deeper kind of melancholy. On his knees, exhausted and spent, Cogburn finally admits: “I've grown old.” We've all felt that.

News of the World is now streaming on Netflix.

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