Ranked: The Best and Worst Westerns of the Past 25 Years

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Dances with Wolves (1990) $347M
Unforgiven (1992) $194M
Maverick (1994) $193M
Wild Wild West (1999) $178M
Back to the Future Part III (1990) $165M
Highest Grossing Western Movies Since 1985 *

* U.S. grosses only; adjusted for inflation. Source: Box Office Mojo

As long as there have been movies, there have been westerns. Although the genre was common during the silent film era, the period from 1939 through the '60s brought classics from John Ford such as Stagecoach and The Searchers as well as Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and epic Once Upon a Time in the West. In the decades that followed, Clint Eastwood replaced John Wayne as the face of the Western hero. Acting as well as directing, Eastwood delivered powerful stories with High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales. During the '90s, Kevin Costner seemed poised to revive the western, winning multiple Oscars for Dances with Wolves 72. However, his subsequent westerns, including Wyatt Earp 47, failed to reach such critical and commercial heights.

Filmmakers have used the western both to entertain audiences as well as to comment on society and current events. The story of people struggling to live in an untamed and lawless land is timeless, and while the western may not be as popular today as it was 50 years ago, it's rare when a year goes by without one. This week brings the latest example of the genre: the DC Comics adaptation Jonah Hex, which seems to fall firmly into the entertainment category. Josh Brolin plays a scarred bounty hunter alongside Megan Fox as the requisite prostitute (most likely with a heart of gold). Rumors of reshoots and a lukewarm reaction to the film's trailer don't exactly bode well for Hex, but with a script from the writers of Crank, it's hard to imagine it won't be a wild ride.

Below, we take a look at the best and worst westerns of the last 25 years. Note that we have used a liberal definition of "western," including any film that adheres to traditional western story tropes even if the setting may be outside the American West during the frontier period.

The 10 Best Film Westerns, 1985-2010
Movie Year Netflix Metascore Users
1 No Country for Old Men 2007 91 6.8
Setting: U.S.-Mexican Border, 1980
The classic western showdown pitting a sheriff against an unspeakable evil gets the Cormac McCarthy (The Road) treatment and is transformed into a harrowing story of how quickly a life can unravel due to random events. The Coen Brothers' take remains fiercely close to the novel, earning them Oscars for best picture, best direction and best adapted screenplay. Javier Bardem's performance as Anton Chigurh is unflinching and terrifying.
  Budget: $25M U.S. Gross: $74M
2 Brokeback Mountain 2005 87 8.2
Setting: Wyoming, 1963-83
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as two cowboys in a forbidden romance spanning more than 20 years. Ang Lee's solid and understated direction (for which he won an Oscar) compliments the tragic performances from the two leads. In many ways just as much a romance as a western, Brokeback Mountain overcame its art house roots, becoming a commercial hit and multi-award-winner (although it lost the best picture Oscar to Crash in a surprising upset).
  Budget: $14M U.S. Gross: $83M
3 Unforgiven 1992 82 9.3
Setting: Big Whiskey, Wyoming, 1880
Working from David Webb Peoples' (Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys) brilliant script, Clint Eastwood crafted perhaps his finest western. A critique of the traditional western hero, Unforgiven also acts as a celebration and examination of Eastwood's many different western roles. A critical and commercial smash, Unforgiven shows Eastwood at the top of his game both as a director and an actor.
  Budget: n/a U.S. Gross: $101M
4 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 2005 77 7.8
Setting: West Texas and Mexico, present day
A rancher (Tommy Lee Jones) kidnaps a border patrolman (Barry Pepper) who's killed Melquiades Estrada, a local immigrant. Together, the men take an epic journey through the U.S. and Mexican border to bury Estrada in his original home. Inspired by true events, Jones directed as well as starred in this story of forced redemption, working from a script by Guillermo Arriaga (Babel).
  Budget: $15M U.S. Gross: $5M
5 Pale Rider 1985 n/a n/a
Setting: California, late 1800s
Clint Eastwood returns to his role as a mysterious man who comes to a town's aid, only this time he's also a preacher and his weapon of choice is an axe handle. Another critical hit for Eastwood, Pale Rider plays out as an homage to Shane, and was in contention for the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
  Budget: n/a U.S. Gross: $41M
6 Shanghai Noon 2000 77 7.5
Setting: Nevada, 1880s
Not every western has to be laced with deep themes or a social commentary on America. Sometimes, they can just be about kicking ass and having fun. Full of Jackie Chan's amazing stunt work and Owen Wilson's signature wit, Shanghai Noon was a surprise hit, followed by a sequel (Shanghai Knights 58) in 2003.
  Budget: $55M U.S. Gross: $57M
7 3:10 to Yuma 2007 76 6.5
Setting: Arizona, 1870s
An action-packed story of the unlikely friendship that develops between a criminal and a man desperate to be a hero, 3:10 to Yuma features solid performances from Christian Bale, Russell Crowe and Ben Foster (Pandorum). A modest success, Yuma is an effective remake of the 1957 adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel.
  Budget: $55M U.S. Gross: $54M
8 Tombstone 1993 n/a n/a
Setting: Arizona, 1881-82
The story of the Earps and Doc Holliday versus the Clantons gets the full ensemble treatment with a cast including Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Powers Booth. Even with such a crowd, Kilmer steals the entire movie with his engrossing, humorous, and lethal take on Doc Holliday. Released the same year as Kevin Costner's bloated Wyatt Earp, Tombstone became an under the radar success and remains a cult classic.
  Budget: $25M U.S. Gross: $57M
9 Serenity 2005 74 9.2
Setting: Outer space, early 2500s
The setting is outer space and the heroes have space ships rather than horses, but just about everything else in Serenity is a western, down to the dialogue, the clothing and even a (futuristic) post-civil war setting. A hit with the fans of the short-lived TV show Firefly (to which this film was a sequel of sorts), Serenity garnered critical acclaim and demonstrated how many western themes are timeless.
  Budget: $39M U.S. Gross: $26M
10 The Proposition 2005 73 8.4
Setting: Australian Outback, 1880s
One of the best examples of an unromanticized western, The Proposition has no clear hero or villain, just real people living, fighting and dying in a lawless time. John Hillcoat (The Road) directs rocker Nick Cave's script with unflinching bluntness, showing just how unforgiving and raw the west could be (even if this west is in Australia).
  Budget: n/a U.S. Gross: $2M
The 5 Worst Film Westerns, 1985-2010
  Movie Year Netflix Metascore Users
1 City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold 1994 n/a n/a
Setting: American Southwest, 1990s
Another example of a sequel that exists solely to make money rather than adding to the original, City Slickers II sees Billy Crystal return to the West, this time to find treasure belonging to Curly (Jack Palance). Employing the tired cliché of a twin brother to bring Palance back from the first City Slickers film (a box office hit in 1991), this sequel did little more than retread familiar ground.
  Budget: n/a U.S. Gross: $44M
2 Wagons East! 1994 n/a n/a
Setting: Western U.S. and territories, 1860s
With a tagline of "They came. They saw. They changed their minds," Wagons East's marketing campaign predicted the movie-going public's reaction at theaters. A group of frontier settlers decide the West isn't for them after all, so they hire John Candy to take them back east. Naturally, wackiness ensues. Tragically, Wagons East! was Candy's last film, as he died of heart attack during filming.
  Budget: n/a U.S. Gross: $4M
3 American Outlaws 2001 25 8.5
Setting: American Midwest, 1860s
Casting then up-and-coming Colin Farrell as Jesse James was the first of many missteps in American Outlaws, a lazy retelling of the James legacy. Coming across as little more than a Young Guns clone, the film quickly came and went without making a mark.
  Budget: $35M U.S. Gross: $13M
4 September Dawn 2007 25 4.0
Setting: Utah, 1857
Jon Voight and Terence Stamp star in this overly dramatized retelling of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where a wagon train of 120 people was brutally slaughtered. Barely noteworthy for the small amount of controversy it created, September Dawn was trashed by the critics and rejected by the movie going public.
  Budget: $11M U.S. Gross: $1M
5 The Postman 1997 29 5.3
Setting: Northwestern U.S., 2013
Using a future post-apocalyptic setting as a stand-in for the untamed West, Kevin Costner's The Postman once again tells the story of a flawed hero protecting the innocent from a power-hungry mad man. A self-congratulatory exercise in ego, The Postman is three hours of cliche topped off with a sappy ending. A notorious critical and commercial disaster, The Postman showed that Costner could make something even worse than Waterworld. He fared far better with his more conventional 2003 western Open Range.
  Budget: $80M U.S. Gross: $18M

What do you think?

What is your favorite recent western? Are you looking forward to Jonah Hex? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (76)

  • Thecopla88  

    Open Range should be on here instead of "Brokeback Mountain" and Tombstone should be #1 in my opinion.

  • Emma  

    I realise the list's based on actual ratings but really - Shanghai Noon?! Seriously? And Brokeback Mountain - it doesn't fit any definition of 'western' I've ever heard so I really question it's place on the list - it's at best a cowboy movie. I'm assuming the strange selection comes from the decline in the number of westerns being made in recent years, but surely there were better options than this?

  • Ryan  

    The 3:10 Yuma remake was horrible! It's more a comedy or satire than it is an actual western. It's laughable that it's even on this list.

    And please, Shanghai Noon? What sort of amateur put this together?

    Western is a sacred genre and does not need any more dilluting!

  • Ben  

    Agree with Roy above, Dead Man with Johnny Depp should be on there somewheres, although I remember the critics despising the Neil Young guitar score.

  • Dante  

    In what ways is No Country for Old Men a western? It's just an evil guy chasing another guy until he kills him with some pressure weapon. The end. Where are the cowboys, the shootouts and so on? 3:10 to Yuma, that's a western. And the same about Brokeback Mountain, it's not a western it's a drama about a gay couple.

  • Bailey  

    Just because a movie tries to capture the feel of a Western doesn't put it in the Genre. Serenity and No country for old men don't belong on this list. the first City Slickers or Blazing Saddles should be here somewhere. Then I remembered that this was Metacritic, the list is mostly made up of averaged numbers, not a bunch of opinions of the movies in the context of the list.

  • fung0  

    This is your most annoying list yet. The two best westerns of the past decade, Appaloosa and Open Range, don't rate a space, while Eastwood's idiotic Pale Rider makes #5? Gak. And what are No Country for Old Men, Serenity and The Postman doing in this list?? If you couldn't think of enough actual westerns, you're working on the wrong site.

  • Megadautilus  

    Django is the best western. Period.

  • John  

    I agree with Nate. "Blazing Saddles" should be up there. It's a classic c'mon. Don't forget "City Slickers"...HELLO!!! "Wild Wild West" was a mild mild mess...enuff said.

  • Jim McBride  

    How does THIS 3.10 to Yuma make the cut as a best for cripes sake ...an inferior remake of what was a great movie....the remake is mediocre the original is a great.

    Dancing with Bikers...I mean Wolves was not a good movie it just made a profit.

    get your facts in order

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