Films

The 13 Greatest Modern Westerns

With wonderful new Kurt Russell western Bone Tomahawk out now in cinemas, it's clear the old west lives on.

Blood, crime and bad hair: we pick a dirty baker’s dozen of the definitive cowboy flicks from the past quarter century.

  • The 13 Greatest Modern Westerns

    Unforgiven (1992)

    Clint Eastwood, not content with being one of the iconic western actors, directs one of the genre’s greatest films. Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris all play retired gunfighters, so it could’ve resembled an Old West Expendables. Instead, it’s a delicious blend of the revenge and ‘one last job’ tropes, plus great actors at their grizzly best.

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    Brokeback Mountain (2005)

    More classic western elements: evil landowner, revenge, latent homosexuality. OK, just one of those. Ang Lee’s wonderful film about a couple of sheep-herding good ol’ boys who fancy each other must’ve had a few rednecks weeping into their checked shirts. And not in a good way.

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    No Country For Old Men (2007)

    It’s a Coen brothers film, so of course there’s a quirky villain sporting an unusual haircut. But what a villain. John Ford, Sergio Leone or any of the great western directors would have killed – maybe even with a cattle gun – for a character as menacing as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, who pursues a luckless Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) across Eighties Texan turf.

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    Dances With Wolves (1990)

    Before he started making films about the postal service, this bagged Kevin Costner a couple of Oscars, including one for best picture, which means, according to the Academy, it’s a better film than GoodFellas. And that’s no mean feat for a story about cross-cultural understanding and how best to wear fur. 

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    The Proposition (2005)

    Co-written by the man behind The Birthday Party and Murder Ballads, Nick Cave’s inevitably grisly tale of criminally violent brother set upon criminally violent brother is based in the Australian outback. Yes, that counts as a western. In fact, the Aussies have coined their own genre: the meat-pie western (an antipodean play on spaghetti western).

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    Rango (2011)

    Another Oscar-winner. Who cares if it’s a cartoon? And let’s be honest here; voicing the eponymous Wild West chameleon sheriff is probably Johnny Depp’s greatest performance in a decade.

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    El Mariachi (1992)

    A low-budget box-office hit set in a Mexican border town, the first of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy features Carlos Gallardo as the put-upon musician and victim of mistaken identity, who would later transform into a) a vengeful killer, and b) Antonio Banderas in the subsequent Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico.  

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    Django Unchained (2012)

    Crime, guns and a perfect excuse for some elaborate speeches; not to mention a catalogue of films featuring western-style elements; it’s a miracle that Quentin Tarantino didn’t go ‘trad’ sooner. Anyway, he enjoyed it so much, he’s doing it all again with The Hateful Eight, set to be released later this year.

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    Open Range (2003)

    What’s that? Kevin Costner made another western? Hell yeah, as Ed Miliband would say. Costner stars as a former soldier-turned-cattle hand who, along with his boss and fellow hands, crosses an evil Irish land baron. Some might even argue it’s better than his lupine award-magnet. It certainly has more traditional western ingredients: revenge; repentant man with violent past; town controlled by ruthless landowner; conveniently single woman roughly the same age as our troubled hero. 

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    The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

    Brad Pitt plays Jesse James, one of America’s most infamous and beloved criminals – hence the description of the man who shot him in the back to claim a reward.

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    The Homesman (2014)

    Tommy Lee Jones has a face that looks as if it’s been carved from red Texan rock – making him ideal for westerns. The fact that this face rejects Hilary Swank’s face on the grounds of its looks is one weak point in an otherwise excellent tale – directed by Jones – of two people transporting mentally ill women across the Midwest.

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    Machete (2010)

    Robert Rodriguez deserves a second mention for making the finest B-movie western of modern times. Danny Trejo as a machete-wielding former Federale hitman is one thing, but adding the enigmatic talents of Steven Seagal, Don Johnson and Lindsay Lohan is cojones-out genius. And Bob De Niro pops up, too.

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    The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

    We know Jones has a face for westerns, and he has an eye for them, too, which is why he directed not only The Homesman, but also this excellent contemporary Tex-Mex drama about a Mexican immigrant shot by border guard.