Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection; Andrew Cooper/Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s been a good half-century since the heyday of the Hollywood western, but the genre has seen a surprise resurgence in the past 20 years, as directors of all kinds have begun to put their unique spins on the horse opera — like this month’s Netflix release The Harder They Fall, a bold new revenge western about a Black outlaw (Jonathan Majors) who assembles a posse to take down the man (Idris Elba) who killed his parents. With a hip-hop-tinged soundtrack and an ensemble cast that includes Oscar winner Regina King (50) and Delroy Lindo (68), this swaggering shoot-’em-up promises to breathe new life into the genre. But how will it rank among some of the best westerns of the past two decades? Here, our picks for the top 10 cowboy films released since the year 2000, from quirky cartoons and comedies to revisionist revenge tales and remakes that pay homage to a century of westerns past.
10: News of the World (2020)
The plot: It took Tom Hanks 40 years to star in his first western, and this film by director Paul Greengrass, 66, perfectly utilizes his everyman persona. Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, 65) makes a living by traveling around the West and reading newspapers to townsfolk. One day he stumbles on a young settler girl (newcomer Helena Zengel) who is wearing Native American garb and speaking Kiowa, and he grudgingly agrees to help return her to her surviving family.
The best part: Composer James Newton Howard, 70, earned his ninth Oscar nomination for his mournful, string-heavy original score.
9: Rango (2011)
The plot: Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, 57, helmed this oddball computer-animated film about a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pet chameleon (Johnny Depp, 58) who gets lost in the Nevada desert and finds himself as the unwitting new sheriff in a town called Dirt. Once there, he helps his fellow animals contend with outlaws, bank robbers and a water shortage. Rango is one of only six non-Disney/non-Pixar movies to win best animated feature at the Oscars.
The best part: Keep an eye out for fun visual references to western tropes and characters, such as the Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant, 53), who is clearly inspired by Clint Eastwood, 91.
8: The Sisters Brothers (2018)
The plot: Despite its all-star cast, chances are you haven’t heard of this western crime drama by French director Jacques Audiard, 69. Very few people went to see it — which is a shame, because it’s weird and witty in ways that few westerns allow themselves to be. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly (56) star as the titular hitmen, who are hired to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who may have figured out a way to extract gold from rivers. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a private detective with shifting allegiances.
The best part: Beyond the core four actors, the ensemble includes such standouts as Carol Kane, 69, as the Sisters brothers’ mother, and Rutger Hauer (in one of his final film roles) as the wealthy businessman who sends them out on their mission.
7: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
The plot: Known for her quietly minimalist movies, indie director Kelly Reichardt, 57, might be the last person you’d expect to make a sweeping film about the Oregon Trail, but her atmospheric approach works beautifully in this tale of hardship and hunger in the high desert. A small group of settlers — including Michelle Williams, in her second of four Reichardt collaborations — heads westward in the 1840s, and when the journey takes longer than advertised and supplies run low, they begin to question whether their know-it-all guide (Bruce Greenwood, 65) might know much less than he lets on. The female pioneers are widely left out of the decision-making process until Emily Tetherow (Williams) begins to assert herself and question the dynamics at play.
The best part: Williams’ turn as a proto-feminist pioneer heroine is one of her finest roles yet.
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6: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The plot: In this stylistically audacious anthology film, directors Joel (66) and Ethan Coen (64) tell six very different tales of the Old West, with a sprawling cast that includes James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits (71) and Tyne Daly (75). The short films range tonally from the title musical about a trigger-happy singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson, 57) to the haunting “Meal Ticket” about an impresario (Liam Neeson, 69) who travels around the West with a gifted orator (Harry Melling), who has no arms or legs.
The best part: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” by David Rawlings (51) and Gillian Welch (54) earned an Oscar nod for best original song.
Watch it: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, on Netflix
5: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The plot: Starstruck by the legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt, 57), the young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) ingratiates his way into James’ gang of train robbers, whose members include his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell, 52). As the title gives away rather bluntly, things don’t end well for the most famous outlaw in the Wild West. Slow-paced and meditative, the film was a box-office flop, but it was a big hit with critics, many of whom included it on their year-end best-of lists.
The best part: The cinematography by 15-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner Roger Deakins, 72, is so gorgeous that IndieWire recently named Assassination the most beautiful film of the 21st century.
4: Django Unchained (2012)
The plot: Quentin Tarantino, 58, had previously paid homage to cinematic genres like blaxploitation and kung fu films before he turned his attention to the spaghetti western with this raucous, violent epic. The formerly enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx, 53) teams up with German dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, 65, who won an Oscar for the role) to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from the cruel Mississippi plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino would return to the western with 2015’s The Hateful Eight, in which eight strangers wait out a blizzard in a stagecoach stopover where the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The best part: Samuel L. Jackson, 72, shocked audiences as the evil Stephen, an enslaved man with undying loyalty to Candie. Jackson’s called it one of his favorite roles of all time.
3: The Revenant (2015)
The plot: Based on a true story, this brutal revenge flick follows 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he fights for survival and seeks vengeance against those who left him for dead in the wintry landscape of what is now the Dakotas. DiCaprio, who got his first Oscar nomination in 1994, finally won one. The team behind the camera achieved even more impressive feats: Alejandro González Iñárritu, 58, won his second consecutive best director Oscar (the first was for Birdman), while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, 56, won his third Academy Award in three years.
The best part: The much-talked-about bear mauling scene is a bone-crunching, blood-spattered sight to behold — even if you’re watching it through your fingers.
2: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
The plot: The 1953 Elmore Leonard short story “Three-Ten to Yuma” already yielded a film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, but this new cinematic adaptation is such a taut thriller that you won’t mind that it’s a remake. Christian Bale stars as down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher Dan Evans, who is hired by the railroad to escort captured outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, 57) to the title train that will take him to the territorial prison. With the help of a team that includes stagecoach guard Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), Evans must contend with Apache ambushes and Wade’s murderous gang.
The best part: Ben Foster is terrifying as Wade’s loyal right-hand man.
1: True Grit (2010)
The plot: John Wayne won a best actor Oscar for his cinematic adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel, but this 2010 remake was far from a pale imitation. Leave it to the Coen brothers to come up with a fresh spin on the story while still remaining respectful to the genre. When her father is murdered, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) enlists one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, 71) to help nab the killer (Josh Brolin, 53). Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, 51) joins them on their hunt. Some critics went so far as to say the remake bested the original, and it went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Awards.
The best part: One of those nominations was for the remarkably assured Steinfeld, who more than held her own opposite icons who had been acting for decades before she was even born.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.