I recently caught up with Taylor Sheridan’s fantastic neo-western drama, Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner. The series (streaming on Peacock and Paramount Network) tells the story of John Dutton (Costner), his ranching family of Montana, and the challenges they face protecting the most important thing to them – their land. It is a fierce and intense show that portrays a modern-day Old West. This year, the series was SAG-nominated for its incredible Ensemble, PGA-nominated for Production of an Episodic Television Drama, and has been nominated by several other guilds including Set Directors, Cinema Audio Society, and the American Society of Cinematographers.
Yellowstone’s spin-off series, 1883 (Paramount+), is a prequel to the Dutton family ranching dynasty. We follow John’s great-grandparents (played by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill) on their expedition west through the uncolonized Great Plains. It is a brutal journey filled with savagery, murder, and betrayal, reminding me why I love the Western film genre so damn much. There is something beautiful in the American expansion west and the endeavor of navigating the new frontier. It portrays both the best and the worst of America.
The genre dates to silent films made in the late 1800s, often starring members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The Great Train Robbery (1903) is one of the first narrative films to capture this era of America on film. Three traditional Westerns have won Best Picture at the Oscars – Cimarron (1930/31), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Unforgiven (1992).
The characters of the Western genre are often flawed, gritty people with problematic pasts who are either maintaining law and order or finding ways to corrupt it. I was always enthralled by the dualism of the lawless man in the black Stetson hat vs the courageous man in the white one. The land is vast and hostile, with expressive backdrops that cinematographer’s dream about. Since 2000, Academy Award-winners for Cinematography in any of the subgenres of the American Western include The Revenant (2015) and There Will Be Blood (2007), while additional nominees include Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit (2010), Django Unchained (2012), The Hateful Eight (2015), News of the World (2020), and The Power of the Dog (2021).
Cinematography is not the only category that a Western typically does well in. A sweeping score often accompanies the lush visuals, adding to the mystique and enchantment of the romanticized, revisionist past. Original Score winners in the genre this century includes The Hateful Eight and Brokeback Mountain, with 3:10 to Yuma (2007), News of the World, and The Power of the Dog being nominated as well.
The gun fights are clamorous and cold-blooded and are often the climax we anticipate breathlessly. Horses stomping, rifles blasting, and the harmonies of cast-iron trains chugging and whistling have added to the Western’s lore with the Academy. Since 2000, nominees for Sound include No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, Django Unchained, The Revenant, News of the World, and The Power of the Dog.
While we have had a smattering of subgenre Westerns – including Contemporary and Neo-Westerns (Brokeback Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water) – the purpose of this list is to rank the best films of the traditional genre – set in pre-1900, with Cowboys, Native Americans, the unsettled frontier, showdowns, shootouts… you get the picture. My list is below, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about the genre, the sub-genres, and the films that would make your list.
The Ten Best Westerns of the 21st Century
Honorable Mentions: The Homesman (2014) and Open Range (2003)
10. The Hateful Eight (2015)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, and Channing Tatum
Synopsis: In the dead of a Wyoming winter, a bounty hunter and his prisoner find shelter in a cabin currently inhabited by a collection of nefarious characters.
9. Slow West (2015)
Director: John Maclean
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, and Caren Pistorius
Synopsis: A young Scottish man travels across America in pursuit of the woman he loves, attracting the attention of an outlaw who is willing to serve as a guide.
8. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson
Synopsis: Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.
7. News of the World (2020)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Ray McKinnon, and Mare Winningham
Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
6. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, David Arquette, Fred Melamed, and Sean Young
Synopsis: In the dying days of the old west, an elderly sheriff and his posse set out to rescue their town’s doctor from cannibalistic cave dwellers.
5. Django Unchained (2012)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, James Remar, and Don Johnson
Synopsis: With the help of a German bounty-hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal plantation-owner in Mississippi.
4. True Grit (2010)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Domhnall Gleeson, and Elizabeth Marvel
Synopsis: A stubborn teenager enlists the help of a tough U.S. Marshal to track down her father’s murderer.
3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol, Dallas Roberts, and Kevin Durand
Synopsis: A small-time rancher agrees to hold a captured outlaw who’s awaiting a train to go to court in Yuma. A battle of wills ensues as the outlaw tries to psych out the rancher.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garrett Dillahunt, and Paul Schneider
Synopsis: Robert Ford, who’s idolized Jesse James since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.
1. Hostiles (2017)
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Wes Studi, Jonathan Majors, Bill Camp, Stephen Lang, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, and Adam Beach
Synopsis: In 1892, a legendary Army Captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.