Westerns have been around nearly as long as movies themselves. One of the most revered early feature films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western and, for a long time, the genre remained the most popular. From the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone to the frontier films of John Ford, Westerns were long the bread and butter of the movie industry. After a lull in the 1980s that followed Michael Cimino’s 1980 disaster Heaven’s Gate, when most critics and audiences agreed that the classic American Western was all but dead, Kevin Costner breathed new life into the genre with his Oscar-Winning film Dances with Wolves. It now happens that every so often, just as moviegoers are writing off the genre as outmoded or irrelevant, an inspired moviemaker will deliver a new, thought-provoking take on the category, restoring the public’s faith in the classic American genre. Join MM as we take a look back at 10 of the best modern Westerns—and five runners up—from the past 20 years.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
In Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning epic, the actor-director-producer plays John Dunbar, a Civil War lieutenant, who, while positioned on the western frontier, befriends a Sioux tribe, gradually earning their respect and shedding his white man’s ways in the process. The film swept the 1991 Oscars, winning statues for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Dances with Wolves also broke new ground in the genre by being morally ambiguous in its portrayal of “Cowboys and Indians;” in the film, the Native Americans are viewed more sympathetically than the soldiers.
City Slickers (1991)
This Billy Crystal hit comedy effectively utilized the Western genre in telling the story of a group of friends going through mid-life crises who become transformed after going on a cattle driving vacation. Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby play Crystal’s adventure-seeking friends who help take on the birthing of a calf, drunken cowboys and “Ben & Jerry.” Jack Palance, a Western veteran in films like Shane, won an Oscar for playing Curly, the group’s cranky yet likable guide.
Following the success of Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven was the second Western in just three years to be named Best Picture at the Oscars. Clint Eastwood directed and acts in this grim, violent drama about a retired Old West gunslinger who reluctantly accepts one last assignment after the brutal murder of a prostitute. Co-starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven is a groundbreaking modern Western which, like Dances with Wolves, breaks from the typical genre conventions. Unlike classic Westerns, the supposedly noble sheriff in Unforgiven (Hackman) is actually the villain and the traditional bad guy, a deadly assassin (Eastwood), turns out to be the sympathetic protagonist.
Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer lead an impressive cast in this rollicking Western adventure. The two men play infamous gunslingers Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday respectively, who plan to retire in Tombstone, Arizona. Their dreams of rest and relaxation are thwarted when they enter into a conflict with “The Cowboys,” a band of vicious outlaws. Unlike the previous Oscar-winning Westerns, Tombstone had a more action-oriented tone reminiscent of the genre’s classic films.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Before he became known for the Spider-Man franchise, Sam Raimi (then known as the mastermind behind the Evil Dead trilogy) took a stab at Westerns with this bloody, action-packed tale of a lady avenger (Sharon Stone) who participates in an elimination tournament hosted by a ruthless gunslinger (Hackman in another solid supporting role). Previous Westerns portrayed women as damsels in distress, homemakers worried over their dear loves’ safety or Native American beauties. The Quick and the Dead allowed the fairer sex an equal part in the adventure. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, both relative unknowns at the time, also star.
Richard Donner directed this affectionate, light-hearted Western homage starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner (star of the 1950s television series on which the film is based). Gibson plays the title character, a cocky gambler in desperate need of money for a poker tournament, who faces various comic mishaps and challenges along the way, including the wiles of a charming thief (Foster). Scripted by veteran screenwriter William Goldman (responsible for one of the greatest Westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the film also features cameo appearances by legendary Western stars such as Denver Pyle and Dub Taylor. Unlike most other, usually grim, modern Westerns, Maverick was a refreshing reprieve that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Open Range (2003)
Thirteen years after Dances with Wolves, Costner returned to the director’s chair for another Western tale. The actor-director stars as a former soldier forced to take up arms when a corrupt town marshal threatens him and his cattle crew. Co-starring Robert Duvall and Annette Bening, the film received mostly positive notices from fans and critics for its gritty approach to the genre. At 139 minutes, the movie runs under Costner’s previous directorial effort’s 181 minutes, making Open Range that much more enjoyable.
The Missing (2003)
The eclectic Ron Howard directed this gritty movie, loosely based on The Searchers. Set in 1885 Mexico, the film concerns an estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) visiting his adult daughter, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), a frontier medicine woman, in an attempt at reconciliation. He discovers that Maggie’s daughter has been kidnapped and the once distant pair is forced to work together to rescue her. With its thriller-tinged atmosphere and supernatural overtones, The Missing isn’t your typical Western.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story (which also inspired a 1957 film of the same name), 3:10 to Yuma is arguably one of the best modern Westerns on this list. Christian Bale stars as small-time rancher Dan Evans who agrees to escort dangerous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the 3:10 train to the town of Yuma, where Wade will await trial for murder. Along the perilous journey to the station, the two men engage in a battle of wits in which both transcend the obvious “good versus evil” battle that concerns them—creating psychologically complex characters that the audience cares about. But, make no mistake, the film isn’t solely character-driven. There are old-fashioned shootouts galore and an uber-creepy supporting performance from Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic right-hand man.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Everything you need to know about this leisurely paced character study is pretty much summed up in that mouthful of a title. Based on the book by Ron Hansen, the film delves into the final years of the life of infamous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), who was shot in the head by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who idolized and, in some respects, wanted to be James. Despite the movie-star presence of Pitt, the real heart of the film is Affleck, who gives a creepily intense yet sympathetic performance as lifelong loser Ford, whose only claim to fame is killing James. With its emphasis on character rather than action and dreamy cinematography by Roger Deakins, the film brought an unconventional twist to the Western.
And the runners up…
Dead Man (1995)
Deadpan, idiosyncratic moviemaker Jim Jarmusch directed this oddball black-and-white answer to the Western. Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, an accountant on the run after murdering a man. Blake’s journey leads to an encounter with a strange Native American named “Nobody” who prepares the accountant for his journey into the spiritual world. With its slow pace, minimalist dialogue and symbolism-heavy plot, the film never caught on with mainstream audiences, but developed an enthusiastic cult following over the years.
Lone Star (1996)
Independent auteur John Sayles helmed this critically acclaimed modern day Western-mystery in which Chris Cooper plays Sheriff Sam Deeds who, after the skeleton of his murdered predecessor is found, unearths many other long-buried secrets in his Texas border town. Lone Star, which co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Frances McDormand, garnered much attention during awards season, including a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for Sayles’ taut script.
Down in the Valley (2005)
Though far from a typical Western, this film is a fascinating deconstruction of the genre. Edward Norton stars as Harlan, a delusional, possibly dangerous man who believes he’s a cowboy and seems to live his life according to the Old West mythos. After arriving in San Fernando Valley, Harlan strikes up an intimate relationship with a rebellious teenager (Evan Rachel Wood). This ambitious, at times surreal, film depicts modern-day San Fernando Valley as the new American West, one in which quaint small towns are revealed to be Western movie sets.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
It’s hard to imagine this Oscar-winning tearjerker being made in the golden age of Westerns. Based on an Annie Proulx short story and co-scripted by Lonesome Dove novelist Larry McMurtry, the tragic film revolves around the forbidden and secretive romantic relationship between two cowboys (Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger) over their years as cattle herders. The unconventional Western was a surprise success with both audiences and critics, earning an Oscar win for Ang Lee’s direction and a Best Picture nomination.
The latest modern Western to hit theaters stars writer-director Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen (reuniting after playing enemies in A History of Violence) as two friends hired to patrol a small town that is suffering under the rule of a tyrannical rancher (Jeremy Irons). The men find their job further complicated by the arrival of a young widow (Renée Zellweger) who catches their eye. Though audience reception has yet to be determined, anticipation and critical praise are high, making this movie a future contender for a Top 10 spot.