These 25 films represent the advancements of the genre in the last two decades. Find out how to watch them now.
When artistic director Cressandra Thibodeaux asked me to serve as ramrod for Contemporary Westerns, an informal film studies class at her 14 Pews performance space in Houston, we agreed to cast our net wide while preparing the syllabus of works to be screened and studied.
Read about the five movies we settled on that are are each important and crucial to the western genre; they’ve helped to take it in new and exciting directions. And then you'll find 20 more worth adding to your collection.
Tommy Lee Jones pulled double duty on this critically acclaimed neo-western drama, making his directorial debut while offering a precise, subtly detailed performance that earned him the Best Actor award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Written by Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams) and filmed in various locations in Texas, the film details the fateful journey of Texas cattle rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) after Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), an undocumented laborer in his employ, is killed by a reckless Border Patrol agent (Barry Pepper). “Pete takes justice into his own hands,” critic Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review. “And not simple justice, which might involve killing the agent, but poetic justice, which elevates the movie into the realms of parable.” (available on DVD and online)
The Proposition (2005)
After an outlaw gang led by his notorious older brother slaughters a family in the Australian outback of the 1880s, desperado Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce of Memento) is offered a hard bargain by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the closest thing to a law enforcer in the area. He must either track down and kill his bad brother Arthur (Danny Huston) within nine days or Mikey (Richard Wilson), his feeble-minded younger sibling, will be hanged on Christmas Day. The Proposition sparked many favorable comparisons to the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone when it reached U.S. screens a year after its Australian premiere. Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal hailed it as “a visionary tale of a fragile civilizing impulse crushed by family loyalty and a lust for revenge,” and Chris Barsanti of Film Journal International raved: “Very simply, this is the finest, strangest and most uncompromising western to hit screens since Unforgiven.” (available on DVD and online)
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Director Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) immerses her audience in the ordeal endured by frontier settlers seemingly on the road to nowhere in this demanding drama loosely based on real-life events. In 1845, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a cocksure mountain scout, is contracted to lead three families by wagon train on a journey westward through the high desert of eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, Meek seriously miscalculates when he takes the group on what he claims will be a time-saving shortcut. Even as provisions run low and water becomes scarce, Meek adamantly refuses to admit his mistake — leading to a clash of wills between him and Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams of All the Money in the World), a member of the party whose growing mistrust of Meek drives her to defiance. “Imagine a collaboration between John Ford and Wallace Stevens,” wrote Chicago Reader critic Ben Sachs, “and you might get a sense of what [Reichardt] pulls off here: a sincere re-creation of the pioneer experience, brought to life through careful, often unexpected detail.” (streaming on Netflix and Hulu, available on DVD)
Django Unchained (2012)
A rousingly melodramatic and furiously violent mash-up of ’60s spaghetti westerns and ’70s blaxploitation flicks, Quentin Tarantino’s love-it-or-hate-it pre-Civil War pastiche follows the vengeance trail of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who gains his freedom by becoming the protégé of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a cunning and grandiloquent bounty hunter. The two men forge such a strong bond while going about their bloody business, Schultz agrees to help Django locate his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) — who’s currently the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the gleefully decadent owner of a lavish plantation named, of course, Candyland. Look closely and you’ll spot a cameo appearance by a clearly bemused Franco Nero, who portrayed the title character in Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), one of the many spaghetti westerns that Tarantino drew upon for inspiration while concocting this box-office hit. (available on DVD and online)
Hell or High Water (2016)
As we said back when we placed this extraordinary modern-day western atop our list of 2016’s top 10 movies: Hell or High Water fully deserves to be ranked among all-time classics of the genre. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who made his directorial debut last year with the equally impressive, C&I Movie Award-winning Wind River) and director David Mackenzie evenly divide our sympathies between two desperate brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) methodically robbing small-town branches of the bank that may foreclose on their family land, and two Texas Rangers — a grizzled veteran (Jeff Bridges) on the verge of retirement and his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner (Gil Birmingham) — relentlessly following their trail. The final face-off is all the more powerful, and memorable, for what doesn’t happen between the last men standing. (available on DVD and online)
20 MORE WORTH VIEWING
C&I is your consistent source of info on all new western movies, from the low-budget gems to the big blockbuster shoot ’em ups. Once you’ve checked out the five above, dig into the rest of these to create your own modern western marathon. Note on streaming: Since the popular platforms change their content periodically, the best place to find out where films are currently streaming online is justwatch.com.
APPALOOSA: Ed Harris directed and starred in the 2008 western based on Robert B. Parker's novel.
THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN: Bill Pullman stars as a longtime sidekick turned improbable hero in the western drama.
BORROWED TIME: Pixar animators’ side project is a stunning western tale.
BRIMSTONE: Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning co-star in the violent revenge western.
DIABLO: Like father like son, Scott Eastwood stars in a gritty western drama.
FORSAKEN: The western stars Brian Cox, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland and Donald Sutherland.
GONE ARE THE DAYS: Lance Henricksen plays an aged outlaw and co-stars with Tom Berenger and Danny Trejo.
THE HERO: Sam Elliott is cast as Lee Hayden, a former western movie icon who, while waiting in vain for new roles, divides his time between doing voiceover gigs and hanging out with his best buddy (Nick Offerman).
HICKOK: Luke Hemsworth makes the move from Westworld to the Wild West.
HOSTILES: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, and Rosamund Pike star in Scott Cooper’s treacherous, soul-searching, life-changing journey through the American West.
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE: Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a wandering ex-solider who’s psychologically scarred by his experiences in the Indian Wars.
JANE GOT A GUN: Natalie Portman stars as Jane Hammond, a woman whose outlaw husband returns home riddled with bullets and barely alive.
LUCKY: The late Harry Dean Stanton stars to perfection in the title role as a doggedly self-sufficient eccentric in an off-the-grid desert town.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: A star-studded cast led by Denzel Washington helps director Antoine Fuqua put a new spin on a western classic.
MOHAWK: Director Ted Geoghegan’s violent drama details a clash between Native Americans and vengeful militiamen.
THE REVENANT: Leonardo DiCaprio takes the lead as true-to-life stuff-of-legend Hugh Glass.
JUSTICE: Nathan Parsons, Stephen Lang appear in director Richard Gabai’s western.
STAGECOACH: THE TEXAS JACK STORY: Trace Adkins, Kim Coates, and Judd Nelson co-star in the western.
THE TIMBER: James Ransone and Josh Peck head the cast of director Anthony O’Brien’s drama about survival in the wilderness.
WIND RIVER: Taylor Sheridan’s acclaimed drama starring Jeremy Renner claimed five of the seven inaugural C&I Movie Awards chosen by online balloting.