Spending time with the family soon? Here’s an article to show your dad so you can have something to talk about, and for the heavy readers among you, check out our list of the best war novels of all time.
War: Some countries have been built on it, and others destroyed by it. Without educating ourselves on our global history of military conflict, we will never learn from our past mistakes, and those conflicts are recounted both beautifully and explicitly by the films we have selected for this list. Ranging from purely violent to introspectively profound, these films stay in the time frame of the wars of the 20th century, which formed the modern geopolitical world as we know it. We’re trying to stay historically accurate (for the most part), which is why we didn’t include movies like Wonder Woman, Captain America, Troy, or for that matter the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy which all have awesome battle scenes, but didn’t quite fit the bill for our list today. If you are looking for a more fantastical list of films, check out our list of best action movies on Netflix.
Looking to delve into the deepest emotions you thought possible? You’ve come to the right place. While watching these films we’ve selected, you’ll feel confliction, brotherhood, and mortality in all-new ways. For the film lovers out there: you’ll get to experience all that you crave and more from this list of the 10 best war movies of all time, so let’s get started from the bottom.
10. Platoon (1986)
In one of the bleaker films on this list and one of the best movies on Netflix, Platoon is a proper adaptation of the many things that can go wrong in the human mind when pushed to its limit. A young man (Charlie Sheen) with a longing for glory enlists in the Vietnam war but quickly realizes the many costs, as his cohort begins to turn on each other over how they respectively treat the locals. As this film progresses, it reveals itself as more of a psychological thriller than a war movie, blurring the lines between good and bad in a scarring way. Looking for more in the thriller genre? Here’s a list we’ve compiled of the 10 best thriller movies that stand the test of time.
Director: Oliver Stone
Main Cast: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 120 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.1
9. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Unique to this list, The Thin Red Line explores the particular fighting styles and strategies used by the Japanese infantry during their island warfare, where the line between morality and victory was compromised. A reluctant U.S. private (Jim Caviezel) who has chosen to go AWOL is spending time with the locals of a small South Pacific island, is soon caught and forced to re-join the ranks to fight the Imperial Japanese Army in WWII. Backed by a cast full of rising stars (including a heroic appearance from John Cusack), this movie exemplifies the emotions felt by American soldiers when faced with an unfamiliar opponent.
Director: Terrence Malick
Main Cast: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
Runtime: 170 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.6
8. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
A beautifully filmed and darkly hilarious satire of WWII, one of the best Quentin Tarantino movies follows his usual path in which he alters history to his liking, pleasing the audience in ways history could not. When a squad of Jewish-Americans voluntarily enlists under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they take on the hardened battle tactics of the Apache warriors, showing no mercy and taking scalps as trophies of war. This movie is driven by an unbeatable script and the ways the actors adapt to it, most notably Christoph Waltz, who portrays a terrifyingly charming SS commander who goes by the name “The Jew Hunter” for his horrifying exploits.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth
Runtime: 153 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.3
7. 1917 (2019)
One of the more cinematically creative pieces on this list, 1917 takes a unique view on WWI, following two unlucky soldiers tasked with a seemingly impossible mission. When intelligence surfaces that an impending assault on the German front lines will be heavily defended, likely resulting in as many as 1,600 deaths, our two protagonists must race against the clock to save their allies, one of their brothers among them. Besides the visually gripping camera angles and continuous shots, this film’s eerie silences perfectly encapsulate the terror of war, contrasting moments of perceived comfort with immediate life-or-death haste.
Director: Sam Mendes
Main Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays
Runtime: 119 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.3
6. Dunkirk (2017)
Carrying the bulk of suspense for this list, Dunkirk is one of the best Christopher Nolan films that details the real-life events of one of the most harrowing events of WWII. A conglomerate of soldiers from Belgium, France, and Britain are fleeing a battle they badly lost to the Axis powers, forcing them onto the beach to await rescue whilst German soldiers barrage their helpless ranks. With its evocative sound design and scoring, this film takes you straight into the action, resulting in real-time stress and empathy for the on-screen characters.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Main Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance
Runtime: 106 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8
5. Schindler’s List (1993)
In our next film on the list, we take the darkest of turns, detailing the strife and desolation of the Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film focuses on an Industrialist (Liam Neeson) who moves to Krakow to pursue a promising career, and who begins to witness the extermination of the Jewish people in the city, prompting him to shelter his employees who are targets of the Nazi forces. Produced entirely in black and white (save some selective, symbolic red coloring throughout the film), this historic tragedy is emphasized by the absolute hopelessness communicated through cinematography artistry.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Main Cast: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Runtime: 195 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.9
4. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Focusing almost entirely on the brutalities faced by young American soldiers in boot camp, Full Metal Jacket is a poetic commentary on the intensity of the Vietnam war from the perspective of a generally reasonable soldier. From the visionary mind of Stanley Kubrick, this film embodies the full spectrum of emotion faced by the average and unwilling recruit in the Vietnam War. With heavy themes of mental instability and verbal mercilessness enforced by the incredible R. Lee Ermey (a past real-life boot camp sergeant), this poignant war film will remain in the top ranks of war film classics.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Main Cast: Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio
Runtime: 116 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.3
3. The Hurt Locker (2008)
From Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Point Break, comes a 6-time Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, the only film on this list to comment on the harshness of the Iraq war. When a replacement sergeant gets assigned to a bomb squad, tensions are predictably high, but raised further by his risky yet highly successful methods, resulting in the spread of doubt within the squad in his ability to overcome the many obstacles that lay before them. Jeremy Renner stars, before he got his big break (Marvel Universe), and he beautifully showcases an unfortunately common side effect of war: addiction to the lifestyle.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Main Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Runtime: 131 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Featuring the most jarring opening scene on this list, Saving Private Ryan begins the story on the bloody beaches of Normandy, immediately informing the audience what they are in for. When Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is given a mission to relieve a certain Private Ryan (whose 3 brothers had been killed in combat) from duty, he must take his soldiers behind enemy lines and brave the bulk of German forces. Loosely based on a true story, this movie takes us on multiple separate storylines that bring us into the distress experienced by the young men who served for us.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Main Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Runtime: 169 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.6
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
From unforgettable and historic director/writer Francis Ford Coppola comes a visionary tale of the Vietnam War, told through descriptive scenes of allegorical allure and irresistible imagery. When a Vietnam officer is given an unlikely mission, he must locate and assassinate a rogue Special Forces Colonel who has convinced himself and some locals that he is a god. Starring rising star Martin Sheen and the legendary Marlon Brando, the creative and award-winning cinematography is the vessel that this film travels by, cementing it in history as one of the most visually imaginative pieces of film to date.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Main Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Runtime: 147 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.4
However, if you are looking for other genres, check out our list of the best movies on Amazon Prime to stream right now.
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