There's something mysterious and thrilling about the long-lost days of the Wild West. Hollywood has kept this memorable sliver of American history alive on the screen for over a century, and it's easy to see why. Tales of good vs. evil. Cowboys riding off into the sunset. Gunslingers ruling the final days of unsettled American towns, with sheriffs rising up to save the day.
Some of the earliest films ever made were of the western genre, a few even with legendary lawman Wyatt Earp himself consulting on set. The popularity of the genre has had its up and downs over the years, but thanks to popular actors like Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, as well as Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan, westerns are more popular than ever. While the classics definitely deserve to be remembered, some truly excellent modern westerns will most likely also stand the test of time.
Here are the 20 best 21st-century westerns released in the past 20 years.
2003 -- Open Range
Directed by: Kevin Costner
Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon
Kevin Costner has starred in just about as many westerns as he has baseball movies. Dances With Wolves brought home Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in the early '90s and is pretty much responsible for bringing the western back to Hollywood in a big way. Costner has directed a few more films over the years, including this gem from 2003, Open Range. Costner and Duvall star as two cowboys on a cross-country cattle drive. There's an evil land baron, a sweet love story, and all of the charming grit you'd expect from a post-Civil War America.
2005 -- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam
This modern western was inspired by the real death of Texas teenager Esequiel Hernandez Jr by the United States Marines along the Mexico border. Jones stars as a rancher who goes to extreme measures to bury his friend in his hometown in Mexico after the local sheriff ignores his unlawful death at the hands of border patrol agents. He kidnaps the officer who shot his friend, and together, they dig up his body and take him across the border.
2007 -- No Country for Old Men
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, and Josh Brolin
The Coen brothers adapted Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name into a truly astounding western thriller. Based on past films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, the duo had proved that they are masters at telling a crime story, but No Country For Old Men showed that they could also successfully tackle a western. Javier Bardem earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar playing the hitman Anton Chigurh. The movie really has it all -- a bounty hunter, mysterious money found in the desert, a heroic lawman, and one of the most interesting murder weapons you'll ever see. The Coens rightfully earned Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Oscars as well.
2007 -- 3:10 to Yuma
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe and Christian Bale
This is actually a remake of the 1957 film starring Glenn Ford, and it proves to be a successful retelling of Elmore Leonard's short story. Crowe and Bale are perfectly cast as Ben Wade and Dan Evans, the outlaw and Civil War veteran trying to bring him to his hanging. It's got such a good plot it's comparable to some of the iconic western movies of the '50s, full of rich character development and unexpected conflicts between Wade and his captors.
2007 -- There Will Be Blood
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor
Set around the California oil boom of the 1920s, this epic drama from Paul Thomas Anderson is one of Daniel Day-Lewis's best performances, earning him a Best Actor Oscar. The story is centered around Daniel Plainview, a silver miner who finds himself on a dark path as he builds his wealth.
2007 -- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard
Yes, the title technically gives away the ending, but that doesn't ruin a thing. Pitt is perfectly captivating as the legendary outlaw Jesse James in this story that examines his relationship with Robert Ford in the time leading up to his death. Not only is the movie visually stunning, but it also has an amazing supporting cast, including the likes of Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider.
2008 -- Appaloosa
Directed by: Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons
This film does what American westerns have done for years, and as usual, it works. There's a bad guy, two lawmen on the case, and a girl whose love story gets woven into the middle of everything. There are some excellent 'shoot 'em up' scenes and the satisfaction of seeing the good guy ride off into the sunset at the end. This is Ed Harris's second time directing, following Pollock 8 years prior, and he does an excellent job taking viewers out to the Wild West.
2010 -- True Grit
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld
True Grit is best known as the western that gave John Wayne his only Oscar, but in this remake, the Coen brothers really make it their own. Bridges was really the only person who could have played Rooster Cogburn, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld earned herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her captivating portrayal of teenage Mattie Ross, who hires the gruff Cogburn to help her hunt down her father's killer.
2010 -- Meek's Cutoff
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood
This isn't one of the most mainstream choices on this list, but that doesn't make it any less gripping. Inspired (loosely) by events along the Oregon trail in 1845, this film follows frontier guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) as he leads a group of settlers along a tragic route in the Oregon High Desert that would later earn the name Meek Cutoff. The film really showcases some of the terrors in store for travelers on the road when you're at the mercy of the trail and, ultimately, the unknown.
2011 -- Rango
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone
Rango earned Best Animated Film at the Oscars for a reason. It's Verbinski and Depp together again (best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean films) in one of the most expensive westerns ever made. But the sweet story of a pet chameleon lost in the Mojave desert really works. Rango (Depp), lost when his terrarium falls from his owner's car, finds himself in the town of Dirt which needs a new sheriff. It's the classic story of an underdog saving the day, and you'll love Depp's eccentric Rango finding himself throughout the film.
2012 -- Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson
Quentin Tarantino's wild western is really a tribute to the spaghetti westerns that have inspired him over the years. Set in the Old West/Antebellum South, Django Unchained tells the story of a former slave named Django who partners with a German bounty hunter to find his wife. Django proves to be a true hero, fighting the horrors of the racist American South. Waltz earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the wacky Dr. King Schultz, and Tarantino received Best Screenplay.
2013 -- Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star in this modern western as Bob and Ruth, a couple of Texas criminals in the '70s. It's a beautifully dark tale with nods to the legendary story of Bonnie and Clyde. When a pregnant Ruth and Bob get caught in a bank robbery, Bob takes the blame for shooting a cop so that Ruth can raise their child. While he's incarcerated, the cop takes a liking to Ruth, not knowing she was the one who pulled the trigger. Bob breaks out of jail to reunite with his family taking the story in an interesting direction.
2014 -- The Homesman
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hillary Swank, Meryl Streep
Jones is back as star and director of this adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel. Set in the 1850s, Swank shines as Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman living life on her own terms out in the Midwest. She gets tasked with transporting a group of women to a safe haven for the mentally ill. It's typically a man's job so she partners up with an old claim jumper (Jones) who she pays to get some help on the journey.
2015 -- Slow West
Directed by: John Maclean
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn
Slow West is centered around a young Scottish man who hires an Irish bounty hunter to find his long-lost love, Rose, out in the American West. Rose and her father fled Scotland after an accidental death at the father's hands, so local bounty hunters start to join in the search. None of the leads are actually American, kind of an ongoing trend in recent years that pretty much anyone can fit into the Old West.
2015 -- The Revenant
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy
This film is so much more than just the move that finally gave DiCaprio his Oscar. It's a harsh and violent look at what it took to survive in the early 1800s, inspired by the real experiences of frontiersman Hugh Glass. It's equal parts an inspiring tale of survival and an epic tale of what life was like for trappers in the Wild West.
2016 -- Magnificent Seven
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio
It's another remake of a classic old western boasting one of the most iconic casts you'll ever see. While the story itself drew some criticism from critics, the cast, action, and incredible scenery are enough to make this memorable and worth celebrating.
2016 -- Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Written by Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water is the epitome of a nearly perfect modern western. Pine and Foster play two brothers involved in a slew of local robberies to save their struggling farm, with Bridges and Birmingham (future Yellowstone star) as the Texas Rangers on their tail.
2017 -- Wind River
Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Kelsey Asbille
Here's another Taylor Sheridan gem, and it's equally compelling, moving and unique. This time Sheridan is in the director's chair in this story that examines the issues of ignored sexual assaults and murders of indigenous women on and off reservations. In a pre-Monica Dutton role, Kelsey Asbille gives a brief but emotional performance as a young woman who was raped and murdered. Renner and Olsen round out the cast as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker and FBI agent who work together to find her killer.
2017 -- Hostiles
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons
This western largely went under the radar for some reason, probably because it had a limited release. But it's definitely worth watching if you haven't seen it yet. Bale stars as Indian War veteran Joseph Blocker, ordered by the president to escort a dying Cheyenne chief back to his homelands in Montana. Pike gives an emotional performance as the widow, Rosalee, who joins their group after Commanches slaughter her family.
2021 -- Power of the Dog
Directed by: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Director Jane Campion earned herself an Oscar for her beautiful western released on Netflix. Based on Thomas Savage's novel, Campion filmed the epic story in her native New Zealand, despite its setting in Montana. The film explores sexuality, loss, and nearly every emotion on the spectrum in the story of brothers Phil and George Burbank, their ranch, and how their lives change when a widow named Rose and her teenage son come into their lives.
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