There is no form of escapism quite like the western. Their sweeping desert landscapes whisk us away from the bustle of everyday life, or simply give us a sense of wanderlust without ever leaving our couches. In some westerns you root for the heroes, and in others you cheer on the bandits, but either way the story lines are meant to excite. And the style — we’ll wear vintage dungarees, western bow ties, and Boss of the Plains brimmed hats any day of the week. If you’ve been wanting to dive into the film category but don’t know where to start, these are the 13 best western movies to watch right now, listed from oldest to newest.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Based on the Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, director John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven was a huge hit in 1960, thanks to its star-studded cast of Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, and Charles Bronson, to name a few. When a Mexican village is terrorized by bandit Calvera and his gun-slinging cronies, seven American mercenaries are hired to protect the townspeople and teach them how to fight back. It’s an ultimate hero story with plenty of shootouts to please fans of the genre’s more violent scenes. But it’s also a moving tale of friendship that stretches beyond borders. It’s also a film that depicts non-white characters in a positive light, something that many westerns around this time miserably failed to do.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
When diving into the western genre for the first time, most people gravitate towards The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But you’d be remiss not to start with A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It introduced Americans to low-budget Italian-made westerns — later dubbed spaghetti westerns — and was a breakout role for a young Clint Eastwood. In the film, Eastwood plays a double-crossing gunfighter who outwits two rival gangs by offering his services to both. His scruffy cowboy persona is only enhanced by the evocative soundtrack, composed by the late, great Ennio Morricone.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third and final film in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name series, and it’s arguably the masterpiece of the trilogy. When people think of a quintessential spaghetti western, people think of this movie, thanks to a collection of iconic shots that have inspired American filmmakers throughout the subsequent decades. In the 1966 film, Clint Eastwood’s character unenthusiastically teams up with two other men (played by Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef) to search for gold during the crux of the Civil War. The film’s infamous standoff between the three men is a study in flawless film editing that proves storytelling isn’t just about what happens, but how it actually transpires. Ennio Morricone’s iconic soundtrack is often seen as one of the best characters of the movie.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
This movie has everything for everybody — sweeping desert landscapes, dramatic gunfights, train robberies, and a villainous Henry Fonda. Director Serio Leone took learnings from some of his smaller films and decided to write a masterpiece that captivates with a solid story and great characters. You’re sucked in from the very first scene when Charles Bronson’s mysterious Harmonica character faces off against three cowboys across the railroad tracks while playing a tune on his namesake instrument, which creates a thread through the remainder of the film. To get his hands on prime land in Sweetwater, railroad baron Morton hires killers (led by Fonda’s character Frank) to off property owner Brett McBain and his family. But when McBain’s new wife arrives to find them all dead, she inherits the land. Outlaws Cheyenne and Harmonica take it upon themselves to look after her, but it’s soon clear that some ulterior motives against Frank are involved in the do-good task.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Name a better duo than Robert Redford and Paul Newman — we’ll wait. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is hands-down the most entertaining western of its time, and save for a few scenes, has the type of comedic value that still holds up more than 50 years later. Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) are dripping in style, but their good looks and easygoing swagger don’t detract from the excitement of their hair-raising gunslinging adventures. It was also a feel-good distraction for Americans in 1969, a year when the news was rife with the struggles of the Vietnam War, and the Manson murders. Some films are ultimately about escape, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is still one of those movies that delivers comedic relief when we need it most.
If you look at this list, there’s a big gap between Butch Cassidy and Unforgiven. And that’s not a mistake, as the American western experienced somewhat of a drought in the 70s and 80s. But then Unforgiven came along and reinvigorated the genre. Clint Eastwood returned to the wild west as the star and director of the film, which he dedicated to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, who he considered mentors who helped catapult his career. Unforgiven is a classic story for modern times, a tale that, like many other westerns, obscures the oftentimes thin line between justice and revenge. It was a seamless transition for Eastwood to dive head first back into the genre, and it paid off when he picked up Oscars for best picture and best director that year.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
In 3:10 to Yuma, modern cinematic visuals tell an authentic western tale of the moral struggle between doing what is right versus maintaining the status quo. Both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale deliver engaging portrayals of their characters — a bandit and the local sheriff who takes him into custody, respectively — and the distinctive relationship that ultimately develops between them. The prisoner train, aptly named Yuma, is a nod to the railroad industry that is an ever-present character in the westerns of yore, and one that reminds us of the business on which the United States was built. 3:10 to Yuma is just a damn exciting movie that is deserving of your time and attention.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Once you’ve gotten acquainted with some of the faster-paced movies on this list, watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. While this isn’t an entry-level western, it delivers deep, psychological character development and arthouse film elements that actually appeal to a wider audience. Casey Affleck delivers an amazing performance and shows a whole different side of an outlaw’s struggles. It’s a classic depiction of how idolizing your hero will ultimately lead to disappointment and, occasionally, deleterious consequences.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
There’s no villain quite like Anton Chigurh, the psychopathic serial killer who takes great pleasure in murdering his victims in the Coen brother’s No Country for Old Men. Javiar Bardem’s bone-chilling portrayal of the character is reason enough to watch this neo-western, especially if you can stomach the kind of gore that comes along with his killings. In the film he’s after Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a Vietnam vet who stumbled upon two million dollars in cash and a large heroin stash that was left behind after a drug deal went wrong. As Chigurh tears through a small Texas town in search of Moss, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries desperately to quell the violence left in his wake. While this film isn’t a traditional western, the stunning cinematography and impeccable acting is reason enough to tune in.
True Grit (2010)
If you don’t watch this movie for any other reason, watch it for Haillee Steinfeld’s flawless portrayal of Mattie Ross, the badass 14-year-old girl who goes in search of her father’s killers with U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and lawman LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). We think the 2010 Cohen brother adaptation is truer to the spirit of the novel than the film made in 1969 because it’s told from Ross’ perspective. It introduces a strong, matter-of-fact female character to the western, something that isn’t nonexistent but is indeed rare in the genre. Ross is the catalyst for justice rather than just a young girl who needs to be saved. Jeff Bridges’ gravelly voice is indeed entertaining, but you might want to watch with subtitles to truly understand what his character is saying.
Sometimes you need a break from all the gore and seriousness of the western, but you still want to watch a good movie that pays deep respect to the genre. Rango delivers tenfold with a fun and exciting story that will captivate audiences of all ages with its sense of humor and brilliant animation. The fake it ‘till you make it tale follows domesticated chameleon Rango, who loses his way and ends up becoming the sheriff of the small western town of Dirt. With the support of desert iguana Beans, he helps the townspeople find something they have lost. Its many great references — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Chinatown, to name a few — allow the viewer to sink into something familiar while getting acquainted with the story’s unique characters and oddly beautiful landscapes.
Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino movies have a knack for devising violence toward people in history that had it coming. Just as we couldn’t get enough of Brad Pitt killing Nazis in Inglorious Basterds, we took great pleasure in watching Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) take out slave owners in Django Unchained. Set in the South two years before the Civil War, the film follows bounty hunter Dr. Schultz and freed slave Django on a quest to find Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was separated from him in the slave trade years before. Their journey leads them to Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation “Candyland,” which sets the scene for the bloodbath to come. True to Tarantino’s style, the gory film delivers with a satisfying climax that’s almost as gratifying as seeing a plantation’s walls splattered with the blood of those who benefited from the slave trade. When you punctuate the story with Ennio Morricone’s score, Django Unchained is a masterpiece in every way.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Not a lot of great westerns came out between Django Unchained and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, save for the honorable mention of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. So when this movie dropped on Netflix in 2018, we were excited to dive in and see what the western looked like six years later. With its short-story format, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a tale for everyone to enjoy, whether you’re new to the category or have watched westerns for decades. The vibrant cinematography is captivating from the first story until the very last, with each delivering a plot twist that will keep you energized and ready for the next. It’s the most snackable way to watch a modern western and is a wonderful introduction to the genre if you’re not ready to commit two-plus hours to the classics.
This article was co-written by Max Schwartz.
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