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100 best Westerns of all time

  • 100 best Westerns of all time

    With their stark set pieces like the one-street town set against an expansive horizon, Westerns offer clear dichotomies that are deceptively simple. These films fraught binaries between good and evil, men and women, and whites and “others,” plotted within a wilderness and the desire to tame it. These films play with ideas around the personal moral code of their cowboy heroes that clash with the laws of civility. The western terrain begs for alternate codes untamed by the too-rigid morality of city folk.

    Stacker surveyed all Westerns classified as feature films and TV movies with more than 10,000 user votes on IMDb. Films are ranked by IMDb user scores and ties were broken by the number of votes a film received. The musical score for the film that landed the #1 slot on this list came from Ennio Morricone, the Oscar-winning Italian composer who scored in excess of 500 films throughout his career and died July 6.

    The Western was the most-produced genre in the American film industry up to 1970. It allowed audiences a vision of the American imagination where its myths and legends could be viewed in clear, stark form. Westerns are always set in the “frontier,” a space of rural landscapes untrammeled by civility, modernity, or worst of all, an eastern, city slicker mindset. Westerns often take place during the period of history before urbanization overtook a landscape thought of as “untouched,” despite the Native American settlements already there.

    The genre often rewrites American history so the genocide of Native Americans comes across as rational and practical, as if it was a necessary battle that had to be won. Westerns are notoriously racist and sexist, but simplistically so, propping up racial “others” as simple foes and women as the easy opposites of manly heroes.

    These films and TV movies explore heroes and antiheroes who are bolstered by their flaws as they wander, often alone, through realistic settings that depict highly stylized and abstract themes within panoramic cinematography. Western style seems realistic because it takes place in a natural setting. However, this setting enmeshes with the meanings imposed upon it—ideologies and institutions—that obsess over codes. These codes concern honor, justice, and gender; what it means to be a man. The cowboy figure in Westerns seems a natural persona, not one carefully crafted through symbols, myths, and fantasies. In the Western, the landscape itself is another character teeming with its own mythology, the ideal stage for pageants on American identity.

    Read on to find out if your favorite Western made the top 100.

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  • #100. Slow West (2015)

    - Director: John Maclean
    - IMDb user rating: 6.9
    - Votes: 38,839
    - Metascore: 72
    - Runtime: 84 min

    Michael Fassbender plays the quiet, gritty cowboy in this contemporary neo-Western about a Scottish teenager who tracks a fugitive, the girl he loves, across the American countryside in 1873. Ben Mendelsohn stars as the grizzled bounty hunter also on the trail. The familiar tropes, including a gunfight finale and shots of the dead, offer a contemporary redux of the Western’s austere and inescapable poetics of brutality.

  • #99. Young Guns (1988)

    - Director: Christopher Cain
    - IMDb user rating: 6.9
    - Votes: 50,821
    - Metascore: 50
    - Runtime: 107 min

    Starring Brat Pack alum Emilio Estevez as the mythic Billy the Kid, “Young Guns” follows a gang of vigilante outlaws played by ‘80s “It” boys Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Dermot Mulroney. Estevez captures the impulsive, sophomoric spirit of “the Kid” in a film that depicts adolescent masculinity during the Reagan years far more than Western life in the late 1800s.

  • #98. I'm Not There (2007)

    - Director: Todd Haynes
    - IMDb user rating: 6.9
    - Votes: 54,339
    - Metascore: 73
    - Runtime: 135 min

    Myths around Billy the Kid sync with those around Bob Dylan in Todd Hayne’s avant-garde film about the rock star’s uniquely American and ever-shifting identity. The film features six different actors as Dylan, with Richard Gere portraying an identity fashioned around outlaw tropes and set in the Old West. Dylan wrote the score for 1973’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” in which he also had a small role.

  • #97. The Magnificent Seven (2016)

    - Director: Antoine Fuqua
    - IMDb user rating: 6.9
    - Votes: 170,685
    - Metascore: 54
    - Runtime: 132 min

    This remake of the 1960 classic also draws on Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” with its themes about the violent, immoral threat to a community that requires heroism and sacrifice from a select few. The update features a diverse cast, one representative of the real Old West, with Denzel Washington as the leading man, a cowboy whose sense of law and order is inextricable from racial injustice.

  • #96. Oklahoma! (1955)

    - Director: Fred Zinnemann
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 10,418
    - Metascore: data not available
    - Runtime: 145 min

    Rodgers and Hammerstein score this musical about the pageantry of gendered courtship set in the farmland idyll of old-time Oklahoma. Shirley Jones plays the flirtatious Laurey choosing between the dreamy cowboy, Curly, and the swarthy farmhand, Jud.

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  • #95. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

    - Director: Don Siegel
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 21,634
    - Metascore: 62
    - Runtime: 116 min

    Shirley MacLaine stars as Sister Sara, a seeming nun who embodies two archetypes of Old West womanhood (purity and sin), while embroiled in political rebellion and Mexican insurgency against the French. Clint Eastwood arrives as the mercenary cowboy Hogan who saves her, helps her, and falls in love.

  • #94. Hang 'Em High (1968)

    - Director: Ted Post
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 32,120
    - Metascore: 62
    - Runtime: 114 min

    Another iconic entry in Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre as a man confronting moral codes in a world that lacks them. Cattle rustling, courtrooms, and gallows serve as the backdrops for this story about morality within a justice system so flawed it requires an outsider marshal caught in the fray, yet somehow above it.

  • #93. The Sisters Brothers (2018)

    - Director: Jacques Audiard
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 36,276
    - Metascore: 78
    - Runtime: 122 min

    A quartet of stars plays two brothers (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) trailing an outlaw duo (Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed) with a chemical formula that creates gold. The two pairs get caught in harrowing exploits before teaming up to face a world without redemption.

  • #92. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

    - Director: Don Coscarelli
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 43,535
    - Metascore: 57
    - Runtime: 92 min

    Bruce Campbell plays Elvis Presley in this cult film that offers an alternate history of the celebrity’s life. Now in a retirement home, he fights an ancient mummy with the real John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis), now an elderly black man, as his sidekick.

  • #91. Westworld (1973)

    - Director: Michael Crichton
    - IMDb user rating: 7.0
    - Votes: 47,357
    - Metascore: 77
    - Runtime: 88 min

    Yul Brynner embodies the villainous robot cowboy who veers off-script in this sci-fi Western about the fears of technology. Fusing the primitive frontier with fantasies of the future, “Westworld” uses the Western archetypes of America as the set piece for a campy meditation on the simulation and nihilism inherent within the modern human experience.

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