A New Frontier: The 12 Best Modern Western Films

By: Charles Rogers
A cowboy on horseback at the edge of a cliff.
Western movies are becoming more popular. YinYang / Getty Images

Hollywood was built upon the foundation laid down by the Western film genre and after fading in popularity during the late twentieth century, Westerns have quietly seen a resurgence. The golden era of 50s/60s Western films produced some of the greatest films of all time, many of which made our list of The 10 Greatest Westerns of All-Time. As it turns out, Westerns have never been as profitable as they have been in recent years, with four of the top five highest-grossing Western films of all-time being released in the past decade. With the genre now back in the spotlight, it’s time we honor The 12 Best Modern Western Films.


12. No Country For Old Men (2007)

Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, No Country For Old Men is a neo-western thriller starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film follows Brolin’s character, a welder and Vietnam Veteran named Llewelyn Moss, as he discovers drug deal money in the desert while out hunting. Unable to resist taking the money, Llewelyn is subsequently hunted by a terrifying assassin (Javier Bardem) with a bowl cut and a cattle gun through the West Texas desert landscape of 1980.

Moviegoers were moved by Javier Bardem’s terrifying portrayal of hitman Anton Chigurh it was good enough to land the character on our list of The 25 Greatest Movie Villains In Movie History. No Country For Old Men was universally praised by critics and many people regard it as the Coen brothers’ best film to date.


Via Dulwich Picture Gallery

11. Tombstone (1993)

This fun action-adventure Western is based more on legend rather than historical fact finds Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) seeking a life free from law enforcement. Released in 1993, the film features a fantastic cast of characters that include Earp’s brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as they arrive in Tombstone, Arizona intending to settle into retirement. He soon discovers that long-time friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) is there and that the town is run by a group of brutal outlaws called the Cowboys. Earp quickly realizes that he’s unable to escape his past and he’s thrown right back into action. With the help of his newly formed band of deputies, he adorns the badge of a U.S. Marshall.

Tombstone is an interesting portrayal of the Wyatt Earp story and the film is elevated by the performances of the supporting cast of sidekicks, highlighted by one of Val Kilmer’s greatest roles as the alcoholic, degenerate gambler/sharpshooter, Doc Holiday. Critical reception for Tombstone was generally positive and while the film performed well at the box office, it has become a bit of a cult classic due to its repeated airings on cable television.


Via cowgirlmagazine.com

10. Young Guns (1988)

Partially inspired by the Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, Young Guns is an over-the-top, action-heavy Western that follows the life of  William H. Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid and his gang of outlaws turned lawmen. Historians have called Young Guns the most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films and Emilio Estevez was fantastic in his role as the infamous gunman. Billy and his deputies set out to avenge the murder of the rancher who became their benefactor but when Billy takes their authority too far, they become the hunted.

Young Guns features an ensemble cast of Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, Terence Stamp, Terry O’Quinn, Brian Keith, and Jack Palance. The film benefits from some wonderful performances that have helped to elevate it to 80s cult classic status. As with the case of Tombstone, Young Guns’ repeated airings on cable networks have kept the film relevant in the decades since its release. That being said, the film was still well-received, opening at no. 1 at the box office and eventually earning $45 million from a modest $11 million budget.


Via espritcine.fr

9. The Homesman (2014)

Based on the 1988 novel of the same name, the 2014 film The Homesman is a historical period drama set in the 1850s Midwest directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Featuring a star-studded ensemble cast that includes Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow and James Spader, the film’s plot revolves around three women living on the edge of the American frontier struggling to survive the harsh pioneer life. The task of saving them falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a low-life drifter, George Briggs (Jones), to aid her journey. Together, they traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories surrounded by stark beauty and constant danger.

Despite receiving a limited release in North America, the film was mostly well received by critics and owns an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The performances from Academy Award winners Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep are unsurprisingly the highlight of the film, but critics also enjoyed The Homesman’s complex plot and unexpected twists and turns.


Via Saban Films

8. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

A remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford and Van Heflin film, which was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story of the same name, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma sees director James Mangold creating a grand Western. The film stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles, with supporting performances by Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Ben Foster, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk, Vinessa Shaw, and Logan Lerman. 3:10 to Yuma revolves around Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the owner of a drought-stricken ranch, who volunteers to escort outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) on a train bound for justice. Along the journey, a grudging respect forms between the men, but danger looms at every turn, with Wade’s gang in pursuit.

It’s rare that a film is remade and actually surpasses the quality of the previous adaptation, but that’s indeed the case with Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma. The standout here is the complex relationship between the two central characters, with excellent performances from both Crowe and Bale. Despite being an excellent Western, 3:10 to Yuma was only a modest box office success, earning just $70 million on a $55 million budget.


Via Amazon.com

7. Dances with Wolves (1990)

Dances with Wolves is a 1990 epic Western film starring, directed, and produced by Kevin Costner. After Union army Lieutenant John Dunbar (Costner) is transferred to the army’s most distant outpost, Fort Sedgewick, he arrives to find the post deserted and in disrepair, but chooses to stay nonetheless. Dunbar sets about restoring the fort, and he keeps a journal of his experiences and activities, which involve him befriending a tribe of Lakota Indians and the local wildlife. The film was applauded for its authenticity, as much of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota with English subtitles. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Dances With Wolves won widespread admiration as well as seven Academy Awards, including that for Best Picture in 1990. The film was a massive financial success for Orion Pictures earning over $400 million on a $22 million budget, making it one of the highest grossing Western films of all time.


Via Variety

6. The Proposition (2005)

Set against the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the 1880s Australian outback, The Proposition is a visually stunning tale of loyalty, revenge and the quest for justice in a lawless land. The film sees renegade Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) along with his two brothers, Arthur (Danny Huston) and Mikey (Richard Wilson), evading the law and a murder charge. After the group is apprehended by Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) Charlie is offered a proposition. In order to gain pardon and, more importantly, save his beloved younger brother Mike from the gallows, he must track down and kill Arthur, his psychotic older brother. An impossible moral dilemma leads to a murderous climax.

The Proposition received a limited release in North America but the film was well received by critics, with a rating of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. In particular, the film’s cinematography, acting performances, compelling narrative, as well as the unique Australian outback setting received high praise.


5. Open Range (2003)

Open Range is a 2003 western film directed and co-produced by Kevin Costner, starring Robert Duvall and Costner, alongside an ensemble cast of Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, and Michael Jeter. The film follows four “freegrazers” – cattle herders with no specific property – as they team up against a ruthless man who has created his own little state in the old west, establishing his own laws. When they finally catch up with the villain, the film reaches a climax with a massive gunfight.

Open Range was well received; a critical and financial success that earned nearly $70 million on a $20 million budget. It features the final on-screen appearance of Michael Jeter, who died before it was released, and the film was dedicated to Jeter’s memory, as well as to Costner’s parents, Bill and Sharon. Open Range has a rating of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics citing the chemistry between Duval and Costner’s characters as its biggest draw.


Via True West Magazine

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

This 2007 revisionist western film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. A dramatization of the relationship between Western legends Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the film focuses on the events that lead up to their eventual killing. Haunting, visually stunning and with one of the best scores in recent memory, James’ downfall at the hands of his jealous bank robbing accomplice only serves to fuel the legend of his exploits.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a classic case of a longwinded title killing public interest in a what is actually a very good film. It has been more than a decade since the film’s release and it’s just now gaining the appreciation it deserves as a fine piece of slow-burning cinema, featuring one of Brad Pitt’s all-time greatest performances. This fantastic film flew under the radar during its initial release, but word of mouth has spread and The Assassination of Jesse James is a film that shouldn’t be missed by fans of Western films.


Via WallpaperJam

3. Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a highly stylized tribute to Spaghetti Westerns; in particular, the 1966 Italian film Django by Sergio Corbucci, whose star Franco Nero makes a cameo appearance. The film, which is set in the Old West and Antebellum South, stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson, with Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, and Don Johnson in supporting roles. The revisionist Western sees Foxx’s character Django Freeman, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django enlists the aid of a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz) and the two form an unlikely friendship.

This fantastic film was wildly successful, with universal critical acclaim and a highly profitable run at the box office. It was nominated for several industry awards including five Academy Awards with Christoph Walz winning for Best Supporting Actor and Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay. We also get a great performance from DiCaprio as the film’s central villain.

Via MSNBC.com

2. Unforgiven (1992)

The film that many critics credit for breathing life back into the genre, 1992’s Unforgiven is a revisionist Western film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples. The film follows the story of William Munny, an aging outlaw, who takes on one more job years after retiring to life of farming and raising his children. The film stars Eastwood in one of the greatest roles of his illustrious career, as well as an ensemble cast of Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris. Eastwood, who was well known for his role in the Man with No Name Trilogy released three decades earlier, stated that the film would be his last Western for fear of repeating himself or imitating someone else’s work.

While Unforgiven would be Eastwood’s last foray into the Western genre, it’s arguably his best. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Clint Eastwood, as well as Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing for editor Joel Cox. The film was the third Western to win the Oscar for Best Picture, following Cimarron (1931) and Dances with Wolves (1990), and would be followed by No Country for Old Men fifteen years later.

Via Warner Bros

1. True Grit (2010)

The second Coen Brothers film to make this list, 2010’s True Grit is the second adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, which was previously released in 1969 and starred John Wayne and Glen Campbell. This revisionist Western film directed, written, produced, and edited by the Coen brothers and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. The 2010 adaptation of True Grit features a breakout performance from Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross and a masterful effort from Jeff Bridges as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. The film also has an impressive ensemble cast with the likes of  Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper.

True Grit features an engaging story that follows 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross as she sets out to capture her father’s killer, hired hand Tom Chaney (Brolin). She hires the toughest U.S. marshal she can find, a man with “true grit,” Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges) reluctantly answers the call.  They are joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants Chaney for his own purposes and the unlikely trio finds danger and surprises on the journey, each with his or her “grit” tested. True Grit was well received by critics, garnering a 96% Rotten Tomatoes score. It was nominated for a total of ten Academy Awards, yet somehow failed to take home a single win.

Via Hollywood Reporter