I think one of the best things about Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now is the fact that it is appreciated by so many different groups of people.
Some appreciate the connections shared between the novella Heart of Darkness and this story of an army captain (Martin Sheen, in one of his best) tasked with an increasingly unstable mission to take out a U.S. colonel who has gone insane. Others claim this movie makes one appreciate the various facets of war like no other. Others still focus on how this rambling, lengthy (2 ½ hours) story manages to maintain such a blistering focus on dissecting everything possible about the Vietnam War.
Personally? I’m always fascinated by the choices people make in relentlessly perilous situations.
Watch if: You want to see a fever dream that doesn’t let up for even a second. Avoid if: Excess in filmmaking bothers you.
12. Come and See (1985)
There is something ominous about this seemingly simplistic title, which was based on a 1978 book called I Am from the Fiery Village. If you have that suspicion, you won’t have to wait long for this film, directed by Elem Klimov (who cowrote the screenplay), to prove it so. Come and See is to witness a film that captures despair with an attention to natural-seeming detail that is generally reserved for documentaries.
Yet Come and See is very much a stylized narrative film. The story has German forces invading a Byelorussia village, which prompts a young man (Aleksey Kravchenko) to join up with the crumbling resistance. Scenes of the young man meeting a girl (Olga Mironova) eventually give way to the village being absolutely decimated. The film then pulls a cruel focus on Kravchenko, pitting his tragically unprepared youth for some of the very worst of what war has to offer.
It is one of the most haunting war films ever made, particularly its despairing conclusion.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most powerful World War II films ever made. Avoid if: You prefer World War II movies to be a little more glamorous.
Drawn from writer/director Oliver Stone’s own Vietnam experiences, American-made anti-war movies usually don’t have quite this much focused rage at its subject, which simultaneously breaks off into several compelling directions.
This movie has plenty of time and energy to discuss a very specific viewpoint on Vietnam — whether or not you agree with it.
Without blinking, or sacrificing anything, Platoon also highlights the insanity that can befall decent human beings, and the spectacular cruelty that is formed by the hands of men who were evil before they ever set foot in the jungle. Platoon also boasts career-defining performances from Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, and former good actor Charlie Sheen.
Watch if: You want to see a distinct, uncompromising view of Vietnam, and of war in general. Avoid if: You’re still pretty sure America won, or you know you won’t contend with Stone’s opinion on or depiction of the subject.
14. Richard III (1995)
It just makes sense to set a story like Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1930s England. The script itself retains everything meaningful about the original play. It just also emphasizes again and again that these words and characters, most of whom are only loosely based on the actual people, can flourish amid period piece cocktail parties and ravaged 20th century battlefields.
Beyond amazing performances by Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr, Nigel Hawthorne and others, Richard III tells this grand story of evil with as much passion and creativity as you could ever want from a unique approach to an iconic stage play.
As a war film, chaotic scenes of battle, featuring such lines as “My kingdom for a horse!” (while inside a jeep besieged by explosions), are treated with inevitability and spectacle. It’s a curious mix, to be sure.
Watch if: You want to see Ian McKellen playing one of literature’s greatest villains, while the war machines of the early 20th century rage on. Avoid if: You either hate Shakespeare. Or you love him way too much.
Actually, I was wrong. As far as I’m concerned, this might be the most controversial choice for best war movies. Mostly for the fact that after the first 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, it is highly debatable that Steven Spielberg’s World War II marathon is worth watching after that. At 169 minutes, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Performances from Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, and Matt Damon range from good-to-great, but everything pales in comparison to those first 27 minutes. Those are the moments in which Spielberg recreates the landing at Omaha Beach, part of the Normandy Invasion, with such overwhelming attention to detail, you will probably forget to blink.
That might be a good way to describe Spielberg as a director in general. When he’s good, it’s on a level that makes you willing to sit through 142 minutes of hit-or-miss Oscar bait dramatics.
Then again, I know a lot of people who like the entire film. You might be one of them.
Watch if: You want to see the most intense depiction of D-Day at Normandy that anyone will ever commit to a fictional film. Avoid if: You have a low threshold for Steven Spielberg movies.
16. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Ridley Scott has been making viscerally engaging, relentlessly intense movies for a long time now. They don’t always work. Most of them are still at least interesting. A few of them are arguably classics of tension, ensemble cast balancing, pacing, and action. Black Hawk Down hits all of those marks.
Based on a 1999 nonfiction book about a 1993 U.S. military in Mogadishu, Scott’s film definitely takes a wide range of creative liberties, some of which have been interpreted as racist.
Unless you are a true stickler for realism in your war movies, I would strongly suggest at least watching the movie. It is a fascinating attempt to mythologize war, while trying to express it in realistic terms at the same time. The combination of these elements in Black Hawk Down is wholly unique.
If nothing else, the movie is going to get a strong reaction from you.
Watch if: You want to see a pretty exciting war movie, packed with a huge ensemble cast. Avoid if: You’re sick of war movies that take needless liberties with the source material, whether out of arrogance, creativity, racism, or even simple laziness.
Kathryn Bigelow deservedly won an Oscar for directing what I still believe to be one of the best movies about the Iraq War made to date.
Anchored by Jeremy Renner as the leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, The Hurt Locker swirls the politics of the greedy and stupid, crazed violence, and palpable tension and uncertainty around Renner’s character. All the while, exploring the machinations of what creates a person who can seemingly only function under the unforgiving circumstances of a potentially endless conflict.
The Hurt Locker has all of that, while simultaneously being one of the best action movies of the 2000s.
Watch if: You want to see a pretty engaging action movie. Avoid if: You need comprehensive accuracy in your Iraq War movies.
18. Lebanon (2009)
It helps a little to know the basics of the Lebanon War, which occurred in 1982. However, even if you don’t go that far, Lebanon is as riveting as it is unique.
Set inside a tank during the conflict, you can expect that claustrophobia to set in early, building as the movie roars into increasingly dangerous situations. Throughout such an atmosphere, it is inevitable that we learn a great deal about the four Israeli soldiers inside the tank.
While Lebanon is absolutely steeped in the politics of its time, place, and peoples, it is still one of the most stirring anti-war movies made in this decade. It challenges perceptions at a near-constant pace, which is wonderfully exhausting when combined with the nervous energy of the movie itself.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most unique war movies made in recent years. Avoid if: I suppose it depends on your politics.
Set in a West African country (we never learn which) during a civil war, Beasts of No Nation is not the first in a line of movies about child soldiers.
At the same time, few films defy your expectations of such a story as deftly and profoundly as writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga does here. It doesn’t hurt that Beasts of No Nation also spotlights amazing performances from Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.
Beasts of No Nation presents its story in a visually provocative way, but there is nothing glorious about the way this film is laid out.
Watch if: You want to see a strong case for Netflix’s legitimacy with their original releases. Avoid if: You have a weak tolerance for children put through absolute hell.
20. Dunkirk (2017)
Say what you will about Christopher Nolan. As pretentious as his films can sometimes be/seem, he is also one of the leading innovators of the modern-day epic.
Dunkirk isn’t the first movie about the extraordinary evacuation of some 30,000 Allied soldiers during the Second World War, but it is a masterwork of timing, performance, atmosphere, and attention to detail.
It doesn’t glorify war, as far too many war movies have done. It simply compels one to remember that heroism nonetheless still occurs within situations that ideally wouldn’t happen at all.
Watch if: You want to see a truly awe-inspiring historical reenactment. Avoid if: You’re over the whole Christopher Nolan thing.