Special Report

The Best Westerns of the 21st Century

Most of the Westerns widely acclaimed by audiences and critics were made between John Wayne’s breakout film “Stagecoach” in 1939, directed by John Ford who made many of the most widely regarded Westerns of the 20th Century, and “The Unforgiven”, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning masterpiece, released in 1992. Few Westerns made in the 21st century would rank with these.

24/7 Tempo reviewed the Westerns made in the last two decades to find those which would measure up to those made in the 20th century. We  reviewed critics ratings, American Film Institute rankings, and Academy Award nominations to find the 25 that have pleased both audiences and critics. 

Interestingly, some of the best Westerns of the 21st century are remakes of those made decades before. “True Grit”, released in 2010, is virtually the same as the only movie for which John Wayne won a Best Actor Oscar — ”True Grit” made in 1969. 

“3:10 to Yuma” was released in 2007, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It is a remake of the 1957 version that starred Glenn Ford. 

“The Magnificent Seven,” which starred Denzel Washington, is a remake of a 1960 film. The 1960 version was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese film “Seven Samurai.” “The Alamo,” which starred John Wayne in 1960, was remade in 2004.

Click here to see the best Westerns of the 21st century

1.”True Grit” (2010)

Generally considered among the top Westerns to be released after 2000, this remake of the John Wayne classic stars Jeff Bridges as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn who tracks the murderer of a young girl’s father. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin co-starred with Brolin as the villain and Damon as Bridge’s Texas Ranger sidekick. Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, it was nominated for the Oscar in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor in Leading Role categories.

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2.”Deadwood: The Movie” (2019)

This film was an extension of the HBO series “Deadwood” which ran on the cable channel from March 2004 until August 2006. The series was set in Deadwood, South Dakota. The movie version takes place several years after the period covered by the TV series. HBO actually produced the movie, and all of the major characters are carried over. Similar to the TV version, the film is highly violent, and more than one important character is killed.

3.”Sweetgrass” (2009)

The movie is a rarity on this list. It is a documentary. The film follows a group of shepherds who take their sheep to Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth region. The film was directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who has a degree in anthropology. The producer is his wife Ilisa Barbash. The film is named for one of the counties in which the documentary takes place. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote of it as the “…the first essential movie of this young year.” (2010)

4.”Django Unchained” (2012)

Few films change the face of the Western genre recently as much as this film about a freed Black slave who learns the bounty hunting business from a German immigrant. Jamie Foxx plays the title character. Christoph Waltz, of “Inglorious Bastards” fame plays the German bounty hunter. As Foxx attempts to free his wife, who still lives in slavery, the action culminates on a plantation owned by Leonardo Di Caprio. The Quentin Tarantino-directed film won two Oscars–Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Waltz and Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Tarantino.

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5.”3:10 To Yuma” (2007)

This remake of the original from 1957 tells the story of a poor rancher who hopes to turnaround his financial fortunes with a reward for delivering an outlaw to a train that will take him back to prison. The new version stars Russell Crowe as the outlaw and Christina Bale as the rancher. Tom Cruise was director James Mangold’s first choice for Crowe’s role.

6.”Bone Tomahawk” (2015)

Mark this down as by far the most improbable storyline on the list. Among Westerns made in the last 20 years, only “Cowboys & Aliens” may outshine it in the strangeness category. In “Bone Tomahawk”, an outsider brings a horde of local cannibals into the small town of Bright Hope. The cannibals capture several townspeople. A posse led by the local sheriff gives chase and then battle. The film stars Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt. Spoiler alert: There were no cannibals in the West during the 19th Century.

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7.” The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2006)

Melquiades Estrada, an undocumented worker in Texas is killed by a member of the Border Patrol. Local rancher Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, promises to bury Estrada in Mexico. Jones also directed the film. Estrada is actually buried three times–twice in the United States, and once in Mexico. Country singing great Dwight Yoakam has a small part in the movie as an amoral sheriff.

8.” Meek’s Cutoff “(2011)

In the film, a group of settlers movies across a desert in Oregon, The year is 1845. Stephen Meek, who knows the part of Oregon, offers to be their guide. However, he proves less than reliable, and the settlers run low on both food and water. Part of their doubt comes from Meek’s decision to kill a lone Indian the group comes across. Instead, the Indian takes Meek’s place as a guide. Part of the interest in the film is that it is based, to some extent, on actual events. Unlike many of the films on this list, no one in the cast is a well-known actor or actress.

9.” The Proposition” (2005)

Based in Australia, this Western, this film is based on a proposition found in a number of non-Westerns. It is, as a matter of fact, close to the plot of that of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classics “Strangers On A Train”. A sheriff arrests a notorious outlaw (Guy Pearce). He offers the outlaw a deal. Kill my older brother, or I will kill your younger brother. Pearce heads into the outback in search of the older brother, burdened by his morals. Film critic Chris Barsanti compared the movie to Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning classic “Unforgiven”.

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10.” The Hateful Eight” (2015)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino, this has to be among the bloodiest, if not the bloodiest mainstream Western of the 21st Century. It also has to be among the most star-studded. At one point or another, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern cross the screen. The group meets at a stagecoach way station, in a blizzard. And, stuck in a small space, they find they don’t like one another.

11.” The Homesman” (2014)

Tommy Lee Jones shows up in another of the top 21st Century Western films. No wonder, the Harvard graduate has been in 63 films across a number of genres since he entered the industry in “Love Story” in 1970. He also directed this film and co-wrote the screenplay. Jones plays George Briggs, a down-and-out character, who helps three women travel across the country. His partner in this shepherding is Hillary Swank. One of the aspects of the film that makes it particularly interesting is that the three women, as one critic put it “have gone mad.”

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12.” Open Range” (2003)

This movie is considered the best Western Kevin Costner has starred in since his Academy Award-winning appearance in Dances with Wolves (1990). Costner’s character, Charley Waite, is a cowhand who works for rancher Boss Spearman, who is played by Robert Duval. Costner’s love interest in the film is played by Annette Bening. The plot involves revenge by Waite after one of his fellow cowhands is killed by an evil rancher who controls both the town and its sheriff. The end does not turn out well for either the town, or the rancher.

13.”The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2010)

This movie is a knock-off of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, one of the most famous Westerns of all time, which was among Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns, released in 1967. The movie was made by South Korean producers and actors. The movie is based in Manchuria during the 1940s, as two bandits and a bounty hunter compete to get a treasure map. The setting may be different from the 1967 version, but the plot is similar.

14.” Appaloosa” (2008)

Appaloosa, New Mexico is being terrorized by a tyrannical local rancher, a fairly regular theme for Westerns. To save the town, the townspeople hire former lawman Virgil Cole, played by Ed Harris, and his colleague Everett Hitch played by Viggo Mortensen. The side plot is Cole’s relationship with a widow played by Renée Zellweger. The rancher is bested by the two heroes, and even the love story ends well–sort of.

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

There have been at least four dozen movies and television shows about the life of Jesse James, the earliest of which is “The James Boys of Missouri” made in 1908. This film, which centers around the characters who spent time with James just before his death stars Brad Pitt as James. Robert Ford, who actually killed James on April 3, 1882, is played by Casey Affleck. The script is an adaptation of a novel by Ron Hanson.

16.” Red Hill” (2010)

Another Western based in Australia stars homegrown actor Ryan Kwanten. A police officer, he gets into trouble in a small town. On his first day on the job, the officer has to deal with an escaped murderer. To add to the pressure, the policeman’s pregnant wife has health problems. Notably, media reports are that the movie was made in less than four weeks, a fraction of the production time of most films..

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17.” Hostiles” (2018)

This film stars Christian Bale and upcoming film superstar Rosamund Pike, who recently appeared in “Radioactive”, a movie about Marie Curie. Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale’s character), a vicious Indian fighter, is ordered to take a revered and dying chief to his ancestral home. Early in the film, he meets Rosalee Quaid (Pike’s character), whose entire family has just been tortured and slaughtered by Indians. Spoiler alert: By the end of the movie, almost the entire cast has been violently killed.

18.” In a Valley of Violence” (2016)

Ethan Hawke stars along with John Travolta, who is a stranger to Westerns. As Hawke heads to Mexico, he takes a shortcut, which turns out to be an error in judgment. The road takes him to an abandoned mining town. Some critics have downplayed the movie because there is some humor mixed in with a large dose of violence. Patrick Hughes, a well-respected Australian director wrote and produced the film as well.

19.” Blackthorn” (2011)

The primary premise of this film is that Butch Cassidy was not killed when he was in an ambush by soldiers 1908. He has lived to old age in Bolivia, under the assumed name of James Blackthorn. Blackthorn is played by the American playwright and actor Sam Shepard. As he tries to make a final trip back to the U.S., Blackthorn runs across The Pinkerton detectives and a posse each of which prefers he does not make it.

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20.” The Keeping Room” (2015)

This may not be a Western at all, or at least not by a standard definition. Three Southern women find themselves alone near the end of the American Civil War. They are being menaced by Union soldiers, who basically lay siege to their home. The balance of the film includes rape, more than one killing, and the house in which the women live is burned down. Critics loved the film, but the question of why it is called a “Western” is still a mystery.

21.” The Magnificent Seven” (2016)

An adaptation of a 1960 film by the same name which in turn is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese film “Seven Samurai”, in this version, the lead character Sam Chisholm is played by Denzel Washington. Washington has evolved into an action star in the last decade, after decades as a serious actor. Yul Brynner played Chisholm in the 1960 version. Washington leads a small group of gunfighters, among them actors Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke, who come to the aid of a small town which has been terrorized by a local robber baron. The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who also directed Washington is “Training Day” (2001) for which the actor won the Oscar for Best Actor.

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22.” The Salvation” (2015)

A novelty for the list. A Danish Western. The background for this film begins with the Second Schleswig War fought in 1864. After the hostilities, brothers Jon and Peter flee to the United States. Their early stay in America does not go well. Jon’s wife is raped and killed and his son is also killed by career criminals. Jon is able to get revenge by, in turn, killing the killers. He finds out shortly thereafter, that the criminals have violent friends. Peter loses his life later in the film. At least, for Jon’s sake, all of the villains are dead before the closing credits.

23.” The Claim” (2000)

This film is the only one on the list that falls into the rare British-Candian Western romance category. It is yet another Western where an unscrupulous villain controls a small town. In this case, the plot is based on whether he can get a newly built railroad close enough to the town to improve local commerce. The character, Daniel Dillon, played by Peter Mullan gained his wealth in the California goldfields. In the end, he has lost the woman he loves, the town, and most of the gold. And, the railroad builds elsewhere.

24.” The Missing” (2003)

Yet another Tommy Lee Jones vehicle, this one is directed by prominent American director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) and co-stars Cate Blanchett. Blanchett plays Jones’s alienated daughter who turns to him when her child is kidnapped by Apache Indians. After a long search, the daughter is located. A violent struggle ensues. She is freed, but Jones does not live to make the final frame.

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25.” The Sisters Brothers” (2018)

The film has as close to an all-star cast as any Western made in the 21st Century. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the evil brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters. Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed play two gold-hungry prospectors. All join forces to become rich in the belief there is gold in a local river. No one gets rich, and not everyone lives.

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