Westerns, a genre of film that has been around since the 1930s, is often used as a label for films set in the American West. What does it mean to be modern western?
With this guide to the best modern western movies, we will explore what constitutes a modern western and how they differ from other genres.
BEST MODERN WESTERN MOVIES
What Are Modern Western Movies?
The term Modern Western is a fairly new one, coined by the film industry to describe western films that have been made during or since the late 1960s.
Most of these movies are set on either an isolated ranch or in a small town, and they often feature all the elements of the classic western and cowboy genre.
These features give them their distinctive feel which has led to such titles as The Wild Bunch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Open Range referred to as modern westerns.
What Are Modern Westerns?
One way to define Westerns is by their setting – many are set in the American west or feature cowboys, lawmen, or outlaws who live there.
Themes can include revenge plots, cattle drives (where cowboys bring cows over long distances), and ranches where livestock are raised on large farms with great expanses of land. Violence is common in these stories because people have to defend
The western genre has a long and storied history. In the late 1800s, when the Wild West was still wild, cowboys were seen as heroic figures to many Americans.
As time went on, westerns became more gritty and violent with films like “The Wild Bunch” in 1969 portraying a more realistic depiction of lawless frontier life.
Today’s modern Westerns are often set in contemporary times or in outer space instead of being confined to just one era in history.
Since there are so many different types of Western films today, it can be difficult for newcomers to know where they should start watching from.
Here’s our introduction to spaghetti westerns covering the history and evolution of the genre:
Best Modern Western Movies
With a genre that is constantly evolving, it can be hard to know which modern western movies are worth watching.
We will list some of the most popular and critically acclaimed films of the modern western movie genre.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into our list of the best modern western movies.
Open Range (2003)
Open Range is a 2003 American Western film that stars Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall.
The movie follows the story of an aging cowboy, Charley Waite (Costner), who sets out to find his cattle on open range land in Montana.
Along the way he meets up with another old timer named Mac McLeod (Duvall) and together they face off against a ruthless rancher who wants to fence-in all of the free land for himself. It’s an epic tale about two men whose livelihood depends on maintaining their way of life – one that respects both man and nature alike.
The movie was filmed in Alberta, Canada where it received favorable reviews from critics at Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 79%.
Open Range was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Score for composer Hans Zimmer’s work.
The Proposition (2005)
In the 2005 film, The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat and starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Emily Watson, a gang of outlaws are chasing one of their own across the dangerous Australian outback.
They finally catch up with him at a lonely farmhouse in this suspenseful Western which is set during 1900s.
The protagonist Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) agrees to go on his brother’s behalf to see what he can get for the house from a wealthy landowner who wants to buy it.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) is a film that tells the story of a Mexican man who crosses illegally into America to work and then dies in an accident, yet he still manages to be buried three times.
The story follows his family as they try to get him back home for burial. This movie was directed by Tommy Lee Jones and filmed in Mexico with some scenes being shot in Texas and California.
The movie won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 78th Academy Awards.
It was filmed on location in West Texas and Southwestern Chihuahua Desert along the Rio Grande River which forms part of the US-Mexico border region.
Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)
Tears of the Black Tiger (2000) is a movie written and directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. The film was banned in Thailand due to violent content, but it went on to become one of the most popular films in Thai history.
Tears of the Black Tiger tells a story about two friends who are members of rival gangs, Songwit and Mingkum.
This rivalry turns into an all-out war between their respective gang members when Mingkum’s girlfriend is kidnapped by Songwit’s men.
He soon finds himself entangled in their world of violence and revenge until he meets Chaiyasit—a tough cop who refuses to take bribes from criminals but suffers tragedy because of it.
Tears of the Black Tiger is considered a cult classic among modern western enthusiasts due to its fast-paced stunts, innovative camera work.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
The Devil’s Rejects is a 2005 horror film directed by Rob Zombie. The movie was inspired by the real-life crimes of the Manson family and tells the story of a group of people who are terrorized in their home by three members of an outlaw motorcycle club.
The film stars Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook, Karen Black, and William Forsythe as members of this biker gang.
The film has been met with mixed reviews from critics but has earned praise for its soundtrack (including one song that won “Best Song at Screamfest”), use of dark humor (especially in scenes involving violence) and stylization.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two cowboys who fall in love during one summer on their sheepherding job and then try to find each other for years afterward.”
The movie explores themes such as isolation, repression, homophobia, sexism, and masculinity while also highlighting real-life struggles like poverty.”
The film stars Heath Ledger as Jack Twist, Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar, Michelle Williams as Alma Beers, Anne Hathaway as Lureen Newsome, and Randy Quaid as Joe Aguirre.
It was directed by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee from an adapted screenplay written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
This tragic story takes place in 1963 during the time of generational change when it seemed like everyone had everything but they didn’t know what they wanted out of life or at least how to find what they were looking for.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
The 2007 film 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 Western starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.
The story follows two men, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and Dan Evans (Christian Bale), as they travel together from Bisbee to Contention City.
Along their journey, they must face off against one another in an intense battle for survival and redemption.
3:10 to Yuma is set in Arizona Territory at the end of the 19th century. It tells the story of Dan Evans, a rancher drawn into service as deputy U.S. Marshal when his boss’s son is killed by outlaw Ben Wade who has been captured after a stagecoach robbery gone wrong near Cochise County, Arizona Territory.
The film is based on an Elmore Leonard story about a rancher who hires two outlaws to take his cattle to market in time for a deadline set by mortgage bankers.
The movie got mostly favorable reviews with Roger Ebert writing “the director, James Mangold, has made a good Western”.
BEST MODERN WESTERN MOVIES
What Are Neo-Westerns?
Neo-westerns are a genre of film that is deeply rooted in America’s history. They typically depict the Western era with modern themes and contemporary sensibilities, often exploring American ideals like freedom and democracy.
The genre has been around for over 50 years, originating from films such as “The Magnificent Seven” and “True Grit”.
These movies usually have more complex characters than those seen in traditional westerns, focusing on their social backgrounds and motivations to create a stronger narrative.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is a Western-style movie about the last days of outlaw Jesse James.
The story follows Robert Ford as he becomes friends with Jesse and then eventually shoots him in the back.”
Filmed on location in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
This film stars Brad Pitt as “Jesse James”, Casey Affleck as “Robert Ford”, Sam Shepard as “Wood Hite” and Mary Louise Parker as “Zerelda Samuel”. Directed by Andrew Dominik from a screenplay written by Ron Hansen.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
In the Coen brothers’ 2007 film “No Country for Old Men,” a ruthless criminal (played by Javier Bardem) stalks a decent, law-abiding citizen and his family in Texas.
The Coens use cinematography to create suspenseful tension throughout this gripping thriller. Their 2007 film No Country For Old Men is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.
The tone in this film is one of bleakness; it portrays a world that has lost hope and where violence rules over humanity.
The story follows an ordinary man as he stumbles upon some strange men who are in possession of two million dollars cash, set to be transported across the US-Mexico border.
When they find out about his discovery, they target him for death.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
There Will Be Blood (2007) is a period drama film about the ruthless rise of an oil tycoon in early 20th century American West.
The film is based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the ambitious, hardworking man who builds his fortune from drilling for oil and aspires to become wealthy beyond belief but encounters many obstacles along the way.
The movie has been praised for its acting, screenplay, direction, cinematography, music score, sound mixing and editing.
It received eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and won two: Best Actor for Day-Lewis and Best Cinematography for Robert Elswit.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
“The Good, The Bad, and the Weird” is a 2008 South Korean film directed by Jee-woon Kim.
It stars Lee Byung-hun as Nameless (the “good”), Choi Min-sik as Taejoong (“the bad”), and Song Kang-ho as Yanggoo (“the weird”).
This movie tells the story of three bounty hunters in Manchuria during World War II who each are on their own personal mission when they come together to protect a village from bandits. There’s violence and humor for everyone!
In the midst of Japanese occupation in Korea during the 1930s, three men are on a quest for a map that leads to buried treasure.
This action-comedy features Park Won-sang as an explosives expert who joins forces with two other misfits played by Byung-hun Lee and Jung Woo-sung.
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Red Hill (2010)
Red Hill is a 2010 Australian film written and directed by Patrick Hughes. The film stars Ryan Kwanten and Steve Bisley.
It is based on the 2003 novel Red Hill by Jamie Nash, who also wrote the screenplay. Toby (Ryan Kwanten) is a convict recently released from prison after serving eight years of a twelve-year sentence for manslaughter.
He returns to Red Hill, a small town in outback Australia to find his brother, Sam (Damien Richardson) owner of the local pub, and their father, Jack (Steve Bisley), a legendary figure in the town. Jack’s other son, Clay (Matt Nable), lives with his mother in Melbourne.
Before Toby’s release Sam had told him that he should avoid coming back to Red Hill as it would be better for everyone if he didn’t return. As Toby settles into life at home he finds that there have been changes during his time in jail.
True Grit (2010)
The Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 John Wayne film is a far more violent and darkly comic affair.
The performances are excellent, with Jeff Bridges particularly standing out as Rooster Cogburn.
Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as Mattie Ross also deserves praise for her assured performance in what can be seen as one of the strongest roles for a young actor in recent memory.
Set during the Civil War, this Western classic tells the story of one man’s quest for justice over a killer while also providing an examination of how people can be tough but still have an emotional core.
The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Original Score (Carter Burwell), Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing.
The 2011 film Rango tells the story of a domesticated pet chameleon who finds himself in the middle of an epic Western adventure.
The animated feature by Gore Verbinski and John Logan features voice work from Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty and Alfred Molina.
The movie is very family-friendly with no profanity or nudity to worry about. It has been rated PG for some intense sequences involving menacing characters as well as brief smoking images.
It stars Johnny Depp as Rango, an outcast chameleon with a knack for survival in a harsh desert environment.
After an incident involving his family’s cacti crop he finds himself stranded in the town of Dirt which has been overtaken by some nasty creatures called Rattlesnakes.
His adventures lead him on to becoming friends with Benny (a frog) and Beans (a lady lizard).
Django Unchained (2012)
Django Unchained is a 2012 American western film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
The story follows Django, a freed slave who sets out to rescue his wife from the plantation owner that sold her to him.
It features an ensemble cast with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson among the many actors on screen at one time or another.
With its heavy use of violence in both action sequences and dialogue scenes as well as adult-oriented content such as nudity and swearing throughout the entire movie it has been given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong graphic violence.”
This movie is about a black slave in the 1800s that goes on a journey to free his wife from an evil plantation owner with help from a German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz played by Christoph Waltz.
The Revenant (2015)
The Revenant (2015) is a fictionalized account of the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823.
The film explores the brutality of early 19th century America and how it shaped its people.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu creates a dark tone with his cinematography, sound design, and music to match this world’s unforgiving landscape.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Glass as he struggles to survive for over 200 miles in order to kill the man who abandoned him.
Along the way he faces many obstacles such as hunger, thirst, and injury that threaten to end him before he can complete his task. This movie does not disappoint with its stunning visuals and
The Revenant is a dark, atmospheric survival film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the protagonist Hugh Glass.
Damsel is a 2018 American western comedy-drama film written and directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner. The film stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska.
It was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it premiered on September 5, 2018. It was released on June 22, 2018 by Magnolia Pictures.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 88% based on 73 reviews, and an average rating of 7.4/10.
The website’s critical consensus reads, “Damsel’s uneven elements are often captivating in their own right – especially as embodied by Robert Pattinson’s compelling performance – even if they never quite add up to a cohesive whole.”
On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 74 out of 100, based on 20 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs features six different stories about the American frontier from 1849-1890.
Each story is introduced by an actor telling a series of cowboy ballads before it transitions into the next tale.
It’s like each episode in your favorite TV show with each one opening up with some catchy tunes sung by everyone’s favorite western singing cowboy: Tim Blake Nelson as Buster
Buster Scruggs is a cowboy who has the ability to see ghosts. He wants to live his life as he pleases, but these spirits just won’t stop haunting him!
The show features an all-star cast including Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits & Brendan Gleeson.
The Nightingale (2019)
The Nightingale is a 2019 Australian period thriller film written and directed by Jennifer Kent.
Set in 1825, Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness and is brutalized by him.
On her quest to track him down, she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
The film is Kent’s sophomore feature and stars Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, and Michael Sheasby.
It premiered at the Venice Film Festival on 3 September 2018, where it won two awards. The film also screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it won the Platform Prize.
Common Characteristics Of Modern Cowboy Films
The modern cowboy film is a subgenre of the Western genre. In these films, cowboys are typically portrayed as tough men who live in rural or semi-rural areas and engage in bull-riding competitions on weekends.
Cowboys also have to deal with their families and lovers which might include children from previous relationships.
A few examples of modern cowboy films would be “The Wild Bunch” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Every cowboy film has the same characteristics. The protagonist is usually a rancher, lawman, or outlaw who spends his time riding horses and herding cattle.
He also saves the day in some way by fighting off bandits or rustlers. There’s always a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from something nefarious, like being kidnapped by Indians or having her ranch taken over by thieves.
A hero with a heart of gold will eventually save the day and get the girl while guns blaze on either side of him as he faces down his enemies head-on.
It’s these common thread that make up modern cowboy films that are so popular today among movie goers around the world. It’s no wonder why Hollywood keeps churning out new movies
In the past, cowboys were seen as heroes of the west. They would ride around on horses and live simple lives with their families. But now, many cowboy films have been influenced by gritty urban tales.
These stories often involve a protagonist who is dealing with some form of loss or tragedy in his or her life before they find redemption through violence or revenge.
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