The 10 Best Western Movies Of The Past Decade Ranked

Steven Spielberg famously commented that the rise of superhero movies reminded him of the popularity of westerns, which has declined precipitously since the genre's heyday. And yet, ironically, westerns haven't taken a backseat in the past decade. If the mix of subversive and traditional western films over the past 10 years indicates anything, it's that the genre is always changing.

Westerns are intertwined with the history of cinema itself, as exciting adventure stories set in the Old West were popular even during the silent era. As the medium developed, so did westerns. Cowboys, lawmen, and gunslingers often populated stories that mythologized the American frontier. However, even the classic westerns of the '40s and '50s challenged recurring norms, and began incorporating influences from other genres.

What's exciting about the current state of westerns is that the genre has opened up to a broad range of voices. Some filmmakers grew up with the films of John Ford and Anthony Mann, and seek to emulate their old-fashioned approach, while others are pushing the western in a darker, arthouse-friendly direction. Early westerns were largely told from one perspective. Given the growing diversity in Hollywood, underrepresented voices now have space to expand and deconstruct the genre in new and exciting ways. With all of that in mind, here are the 10 greatest western films of the past decade.

10. Bone Tomahawk

Western films often cross over with other types of movies, but "Bone Tomahawk" creates an entirely new subgenre: the cannibal horror western. The premise sounds like it could be nothing more than exploitation, but "Bone Tomahawk" is patient in setting up its characters and only gradually introduces its horror elements. Although shot on a low budget by debut filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, "Bone Tomahawk" has the look and feel of a mainstream western before the gory mayhem begins.

Rumors of a mysterious band of raiders haunt the quiet town of Bright Hope, but Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) has seen enough violence in his lifetime and avoids going out in search of danger. Hunt is nonetheless sympathetic when the injured foreman Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) reports that his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) has been kidnapped by a mysterious group of cave dwellers known as "Troglodytes." Hunt agrees to join O'Dwyer in his investigation, as does the town's doctor Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins). Tension grows when the ruthless lawman John Brooder (Matthew Fox) leaps at the potential to kill more Native Americans, claiming he's taken more lives than all of them.

The Troglodytes are revealed to be cannibals, and their gruesome dismemberment of their unlucky victims may cause even the most hardened viewer to look away. While shocking, the horror is an essential part of the story, and makes things feel personal when the four interesting lead characters are put in danger.

9. The Rider

Chloe Zhao has become one of the most exciting voices in the film industry, leaping right from her wins for best picture and best director for "Nomadland" to the highly anticipated Marvel Cinematic Universe project "Eternals." Zhao finds both emotional authenticity and environmental beauty within her stories, so she's a perfect match for the western genre. Zhao's modern western "The Rider" is about a profession and a lifestyle that has never been depicted on the screen with such stunning realism.

"The Rider" follows former rodeo star Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) as he struggles to take care of his autistic sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). Brady suffered a debilitating injury during a riding accident and struggles with permanent brain damage. He is forced to take odd jobs in order to support Lilly's medical bills, and has been warned against ever going back to the rodeo. He's in a fragile condition and the slightest misstep could result in his death. However, Brady contemplates taking the risk, as his father (Tim Jandreau) simply gambles away what little money they have left.

Zhao spent months learning about the South Dakota rodeo culture and put together a cast made up entirely of nonprofessional actors. Brady Jandreau is terrific in an incredible breakout performance.

8. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest showmen in Hollywood, and with "The Hateful Eight" he took his love of classic cinema to new heights. The distribution of "The Hateful Eight" was virtually unprecedented. Shot on 70mm film and screened in the exclusive format, it debuted in a limited roadshow, complete with a live orchestrated score and an interlude for intermission. This level of dedication required a thrilling film that could live up to the live experience; thankfully, Tarantino delivered with an intimate chamber piece featuring some of his nastiest characters yet.

A devastating blizzard forces eight strangers to stay overnight in a stagecoach resting area during the aftermath of the Civil War. The motley crew includes reclusive bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), loudmouth hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell), ruthless serial killer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), confederate loyalist Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), laidback stranger Senor Bob (Demián Bichir), local law enforcement officer Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), secretive traveler Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Domergue is the target; her fearsome crimes over many years make her a valued bounty.

Tarantino is known for dramatic plot twists, but the surprising ending to the first half of "The Hateful Eight," during which Warren reveals a lurid secret involving Smithers' son, ends in a bloody conclusion that ranks among Tarantino's most shocking. The creeping suspense that builds in the first half sets up an unpredictable second section, justifying Tarantino's epic 187-minute runtime.

7. The Sisters Brothers

"The Sisters Brothers" subverts the archetypes of old-fashioned westerns. Although it depicts a pair of outlaws who are well-versed in their violent profession, the brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) aren't aggressively cruel. Rather than enjoying their work, they're saddened at the state of the world and seek a way to escape. Eli longs for a wife and children, but as a wanted man he knows that he won't be able to settle down.

Eli feels like he must protect his brother; Charlie is headstrong and often bites off more than he can chew, getting the two in trouble. While this is occasionally played for laughs, Charlie is disappointed by his own failures and feels like a burden on his more responsible older brother. Reilly and Phoenix have fantastic chemistry, and although they recount some of their past adventures, the terrific performances hint at a history that isn't explicitly spelled out.

The brothers seek inventor Hermman Kerman Warm (Riz Ahmed), who developed a groundbreaking technique for discovering gold. They suspect that Warm has greedy ambitions, but he's actually idealistic, planning to build a utopian city in Dallas that's far removed from the savagery of the wild west. Warm allies himself with detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who helps him with his plan to create a perfect society. While many westerns are steeped in toxic masculinity, "The Sisters Brothers" refreshingly tells a story of four very different men who work together and respect each other's differences.

6. True Grit

Although it's known as the film that finally won John Wayne his Academy Award, the original 1969 "True Grit" is a classic western that has not aged well. The film's story is rather simple, Wayne's character, Deputy Rooster Cogburn, descends into caricature, and the emotional core is hollow. With the 2010 remake, Joel and Ethan Coen improved nearly every aspect. Not only does the world feel lived-in, but the story is more compelling thanks to the extra depth granted to each character. The Coens bring their signature quirkiness to the film, but when "True Girt" plays things sincerely, the emotions feel authentic.

Teenager Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) watches helplessly as her entire family is slaughtered by the ruthless gang leader Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Although a few local lawmen offer the girl support, they're inactive in their pursuit of Chaney, and the enraged Mattie puts out a bounty on the villainous outlaw. The drunken Marshall Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is initially skeptical, but respects Mattie's ingenuity as she raises the money needed to pay him, and decides to accompany the girl on her journey of vengeance. The two are joined by the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also seeks Chaney for the murder of a senator. Mattie prefers that she and Cogburn travel alone, as she doesn't want to see Chaney brought to justice for a different crime, but Cogburn suspects that, even working together, they will still be outnumbered by Chaney's men.

The dueling motivations and gradual friendship between the three heroes make "True Grit" delightful.

5. Slow West

A comically dark coming-of-age story, "Slow West" embraces a fairy tale-esque absurdity as it explores a doomed romantic exploit. Writer-director John McLean is unafraid to make drastic tonal shifts, wedging tender sincerity in between moments of grim violence. While the non sequiturs initially feel disconnected, "Slow West" concludes with a thought-provoking message about futility in western storytelling. The west was certainly wild — even if the heroes and villains of legend actually existed, few would ever see a happy ending.

Young Scottish immigrant Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is hopelessly smitten with a charming girl from his hometown, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), but fails to earn the respect of her family. As he travels across the western plains in an effort to win her heart, he's saved by the seasoned Irish bounty hunter Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). Although Silas is amused by the meek and naïve Jay, he discovers that there's a bounty on Rose's head and decides to deceive the innocent boy by posing as his protector. As they travel together to find Rose, the pair is hunted by Silas' former ally, the eccentric gang leader Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).

"Slow West" is filled with cruel ironies; Jay sees Silas as a mentor and doesn't suspect his betrayal. Although Jay dreams about the life he and Rose will lead together, she only thinks of him as a "little brother." Fassbender and Smit-McPhee have many humorous conversations, as Silas' world-weary knowledge contrasts Jay's fanciful ideas.

4. Hostiles

A flaw among many early westerns was ignorance of the Native American perspective. Unfortunately, Native Americans were commonly framed as antagonistic and violent, having little depth and almost no humanity, and were brutally slaughtered on screen without any empathy from the filmmakers. Thankfully, some modern westerns have updated these outdated clichés by respecting Native American culture and attempting to portray history in a more accurate manner. "Hostiles" is a thoughtful meditation on the cyclical violence of the American frontier.

Captain James Blocker (Christian Bale) earned a reputation for brutality fighting in the New Mexico government's "Indian Wars." Blocker is reluctantly tasked with transporting the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his tribal lands, and is told that he'll be court marshaled if he doesn't complete the mission. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer and must be buried in his ancestral home. He and Blocker are accompanied by Yellow Hawk's family, who must work with Blocker's soldiers and the traumatized widow Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) to survive their perilous journey.

Blocker and Yellow Hawks' relationship is complex; both men have spent a lifetime killing and have many regrets, yet don't agree with everything their respective parties have done. A respect grows between the two natural enemies; "Hostiles" could have been handled in a way that was cheesy or disrespectful, but the nuanced performances from Bale and Studi, matched with Scott Cooper's sensitive writing, make it powerful.

3. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino has long spoken of his love of the western genre and frequently lists many classic westerns among his all-time favorite movies. One of Tarantino's most beloved films is the spaghetti western classic "Django" starring Franko Nero. When creating his first film in the genre that he adores, Tarantino used that name to create a new iconic hero. "Django Unchained" has many of the hallmarks of spaghetti westerns, but they're filtered through a modern perspective that explores the racism and bigotry that are often ignored by older films.

The slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who despises slavery and offers Django an opportunity to be his new partner. The two team up and capture dangerous fugitives, but Django discovers that his wife Hildi (Kerry Washington) is being held by the sadistic southern plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). After an introduction to Candie's housemaster Stephen Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), Django and Schultz falsely claim to be seeking Calvin's employment and look for a way to break Hildi out.

Every performance in "Django Unchained" is incredible. Foxx captures Django's seething anger while effortlessly matching Nero's charisma. Waltz rightfully won an Oscar for playing the eccentric bounty hunter, whose outgoing nature masks his brutality and desire for justice. DiCaprio and Jackson create two of the most loathsome villains in recent cinematic memory. Although its depiction of slavery is grueling, "Django Unchained" watching the noble heroes dispatch the slavers is immensely satisfying.

2. The Revenant

Westerns often make great revenge sagas, and "The Revenant" is a grizzly epic that explores the transformative search for vengeance a man endures when he knows that it won't bring back what he's lost. Director Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu creates a realistic depiction of the 1820s in which the frontier is brutal, Native Americans are massacred, and survival is never guaranteed. Although its painstakingly authentic, "The Revenant" find some room for metaphor as its lead reflects on the rare beauties of the natural world.

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads a fur-trapping expedition through the dangerous forests of the Dakotas, protecting his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forest Goodluck) from attacks by local war parties. Glass has seen many horrors, but he's still shockingly brutalized when a bear assaults him and leaves him clinging for his life. Glass' men fear for their own survival as they transport his barely functioning body, and assign the deceitful coward Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to protect him on the long trip back to their camp. Glass watches in agony as Fitzgerald slays his son and flees the scene, helpless to intervene. As Glass builds up his strength, he vows to find his son's killer and bring Fitzgerald to justice.

DiCaprio gives a physically transformative performance as Glass endures horrific conditions throughout his quest. His final battle with Fitzgerald is breathtaking, as both actors stretch their physical and emotional range to showcase pure savagery. "The Revenant" is a banal, darkly beautiful revisionist western that contains one of DiCaprio's greatest performances.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers' iconic partnership may have ended. If so, their last film, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," is a beautiful swan song. A thoughtful meditation on death and the fleeting joys of a cruel world, this western anthology tells six unique stories about troubled characters who adapt to changing times on the American frontier.

The titular "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" follows a cheerful gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson) who finally meets his match when he's no longer the fastest hand in the west. The fast-paced "Near Algodones" sees a cocky bank robber (James Franco) endure increasingly uncomfortable odds as a seemingly simple heist goes horribly wrong. The devastating "Meal Tickets" shows a greedy impresario (Liam Neeson) turn against his loyal stage performer (Henry Melling) when he finds a new source of income.

The heartwarming "All Gold Canyon" gives a rare moment of joy to a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits) as he searches for buried treasure. The romantic epic "The Girl Who Got Rattled" explores a young woman's (Zoe Kazan) deadly trek across the violent frontier as she's condemned to a doomed marriage. The metaphorical "The Mortal Remains" follows five eccentric passengers as they travel by carriage to an enigmatic location, presumably Hell itself. These stories are totally unique, but each captures the idiosyncratic dialogue, quirky humor, and melancholy worldview that have made the Coen brothers so famous. With gorgeous picturesque visuals and bleak humor, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is a fitting final masterpiece.