Cinema thrives when it comes to war films. These are events that many regular civilians would never understand on any level other than statistics and classroom lessons. So, that’s where cinema’s job comes in — to transport us, to help us understand. And recently, war films have gone beyond that. But we don’t like to confine the genre to just those of generals, political machinations and battlefields involving some form of Western force. Those are outstanding, but war is more than that. War drags children into conflict in countries that can’t defend them. War is the deeply human and deeply empathetic look at those not necessarily fighting, but suffering — either those subject to enemies and without the ability to fight back, like Holocaust victims, or those struggling in the aftermath of what they’ve had to do, like PTSD victims. Even genre films, superhero or otherwise, have utilized war and wartime settings to comment, in immensely effective ways, on violence. So, let’s extend the perceived boundaries of the war film. Releasing this Friday, Oct. 27, Thank You For Your Service looks to do just that, mostly leaving the battlefield to extend Jason Hall’s investigation into PTSD that started with American Sniper. Who’s to say that that’s not as much of a war film as any? Here are our top ten war films, both traditional and subversive, since 2010:
10. First They Killed My Father (2017)
While Beasts of No Nation and First They Killed My Father confront the topic of the child soldiers whose lives are consumed by the wars surrounding them, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is unique in how it paints a portrait of a country’s history, and how it derives such a portrait from following its young lead (Sareum Srey Moch). Beyond being an affecting historicization of Cambodian history, it is a deeply beautiful film despite the horrors that it depicts — some of the dream sequences and the film’s multiple overhead shots transcend the vileness of war, suggesting that Cambodia’s own beauty as a country triumphs against the Khmer Rouge regime.
— Harrison Tunggal
9. ‘71 (2015)
Yann Demange’s directorial debut is a breathtakingly intense look at more of a guerrilla war than a typical war, following the “Troubles,” a conflict which centered around Northern Ireland’s status as either a part of the UK or part of a united Ireland. And that’s what’s so special about this film — that you can feel that distinction from the opening scene. Demange’s construction of tone through editing and cinematography that build tension in the streets of Ireland is masterful. Similar to Dunkirk, ‘71 is almost a silent film, a chase film filled with frightening stakes. It’s one of the better war films of recent times because it succeeds in spades in portraying a region under duress, not from enemies outside, but from fellow people within.
— Kyle Kizu
8. Lincoln (2012)
With a little bit of make-up, a sizeable amount of screentime and a lot of method acting, is there really any role Sir Daniel Day-Lewis can’t play? In Lincoln, the prolific actor practically becomes Abraham Lincoln as the renowned and revered president navigates a unique time period within the context of the American Civil War — its final few months and the repercussions of its aftermath on American slavery. Helmed by Steven Spielberg in, arguably, one of his best films in the past decade, Lincoln takes an incisive look at the intricacies behind not only Lincoln himself, but the president’s impact on shaping the United States’ perception of race-based politics into the modern era. Not only does Spielberg’s direction manage to entertain through a sheer cinematographic fixation on the enigmatic and truly revolutionary mind of Abraham Lincoln, but the film’s incredibly talented supporting cast, including a possibly show-stealing performance by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, ensures that the film goes down as one of the most compelling and meticulously recreated historical war dramas to ever appear on screen. There’s a sense of artistic passion that oozes from Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the strong-willed yet holistically perceptive Lincoln, one that envelops every scene he’s in (spoiler: with a name like Lincoln, it’s a lot of ‘em) but that never grows stagnant. Leave it to Day-Lewis and Spielberg to make a high school reading requirement into war cinema royalty.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
7. Wonder Woman (2017)
Sure, on an instinctual level, Wonder Woman is a superhero film, but it uses its wartime setting as effectively as any other film on this list. The film posits that war is a product of man’s own destructive ways, and that it’s up to a woman to bring the compassion (and kickassery) that precipitates peace. If nothing else, the film’s argument makes it a unique entry in this list of war films, but the level of craft that director Patty Jenkins brings to Wonder Woman lends the film an edge that its peers lack — Jenkins does Zack Snyder action better than Zack Snyder, the production design alone is worth the price of admission and the “No Man’s Land” scene will go down in cinema history as one of the most inspiring moments ever filmed. Truly, where most war films claim to depict heroism, Wonder Woman defines the standard to which such heroism should be held. As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot channels Christopher Reeves’ Superman to give audiences a figure of hope they can aspire to — she is the hero the world needs and the one it deserves. But in Wonder Woman’s words, “It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”
— Harrison Tunggal
6. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
20th Century Fox/Courtesy
There may be less physical conflict shown in War for the Planet of the Apes than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the third Apes film is the first to truly be about war. Not every moment in war is physical conflict. Exemplified by Game of Thrones, war is often about the aura in the air and the disposition of every single person across vast regions, which, in War’s case, genuinely feels to be the entire planet. There is often silence in barren and broken landscapes that are strangely beautiful, and moments of harrowing communal strength in stake out locations. There are factions with warring ideologies, embodied by their leaders, and, most importantly, there’s a sense of history of what’s gotten us to this point. War for the Planet of the Apes holds all of that, and more, and is it arguable the most stunningly crafted of the trilogy. When it does come to physical conflict, it features some of the more viscerally abrasive battles of recent memory, especially the film’s opening. And it’s also host to some searing, haunting imagery akin to the Holocaust, as well as to any other conflict that involves mass imprisonment, such as the Japanese internment camps. War is one of the few war films, in general, to truly understand what “war” means, the implications of it, the often ignored visual and emotional impacts on both the small and wide scale, the ideological divide, the characters that perpetrate it and the characters that uphold the best of humanity — which, in this case, are the apes.
— Kyle Kizu
5. American Sniper (2014)
American Sniper is a rorschach test of sorts. Some people see this film as a jingoistic piece of propaganda. Others see it as a sobering investigation into post traumatic stress disorder. It lands so high on our list as we mainly fall into the latter. While the film may not have a typical progression of narrative, we follow Chris Kyle, portrayed with unbelievable vulnerability by Bradley Cooper, through this growing sensory and emotional overload. Rather than use a typically inspirational score like Lone Survivor, American Sniper makes use of horrifying sound design that enhances the sounds of bullets and explosions. The film crafts this entrapment, most directly on his tours as gunfire rains down from all over and even hiding places are not so safe, but also in brief moments back in the U.S. as Kyle becomes entrapped in his own head. The brevity of his raw emotional moments shows just how much pressure and silence these soldiers dealing with PTSD feel like they have to put on themselves, making them all the more powerful — exemplified by the bar scene when Kyle arrives back to the U.S. without telling his wife and, when she calls, he breaks down and can only say “I guess I just needed a minute.” American Sniper is a war film that digs into you without you really noticing, so when you get to those points, you still feel all of what Kyle feels. It’s a necessary look at what war does to human beings.
— Kyle Kizu
4. Son of Saul (2015)
Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy
The Holocaust is a subject that is often focused on in World War II films. There have been a multitude of movies exploring the horrors and atrocities committed during this moment of history, with notable examples being the eight-hour documentary Shoah or the Best Picture winning Schindler’s List. The topic has been explored by filmmakers like George Stevens, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer, Vittorio de Sica, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Verhoeven. With all of these major filmmakers being vital and their films classics, it may be hard for anyone to feel that cinema needs to retouch one of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed. Yet, László Nemes’ directing debut Son of Saul might just be the most stunning from both a filmmaking and pathos standpoint. The film follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), who is a Jewish Sonderkommando, as he goes by his day-to-day activities, which includes the truly demoralizing jobs of being both the person who leads fellow Jewish people into the gas chambers, and then being the one who disposes their bodies afterward. One day, Saul sees a child — after the fact — that resembles what his son would have looked like. From here, the film plunges into the wearied psyche of Saul as he tries to find answers to where his son is, and if that boy was his son. Filming in mostly tight close-ups, Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely create an extremely subjective view on the Holocaust, forcing the audience to rarely see the violence, but instead to hear it, to be surrounded by it, to be as closely immersed in this devastatingly tragic time as any film before it. It may be a grim film, but it’s about as important and courageous as film can get — showing that sometimes in the most dire of circumstances, we can regain our own humanity.
— Levi Hill
3. Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Beasts of No Nation represents not just one country, but the many that suffer from the type of atrocities and conflict of war present in this film. And this is where writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off a stunning feat of storytelling — we understand that this is the tragedy of many, but we get to know our characters so deeply and so vividly. We become so connected to this idea of a larger devastation because we get such intimacy with the singular devastation we see. Much of that comes from violence. The trauma that Agu (Abraham Attah) encounters is overwhelming in every way, something that we immediately recognize as far too much for a young child. And as Agu falls into his own head, we see the potential for what he can become in the film’s juxtaposition of him next to the Commandant (Idris Elba) — a broken man forced into fighting, addicted to fighting, but only for any semblance of individuality and not for the war’s cause. That’s what makes Beasts of No Nation such a vital war film. Not only is it gorgeously rendered with some arresting cinematography and some viscerally intense filmmaking, and not only is it a film that shows conflict outside of the Western world, but it’s so invested in its humanity, in the brutality that gets us to a point like that and in the psychology of the most psychologically vulnerable during wartime: children.
— Kyle Kizu
2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director Kathryn Bigelow has never been one to shy away from war in cinema. Whether it be her first foray into the genre with 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker or 2009’s Oscar darling, The Hurt Locker, (which reminded Hollywood, yet again, directing isn’t just a boys’ club) Bigelow has proven time and time again that she is the female authority on war on the silver screen. Combine her directorial prowess in capturing the governmental manipulation behind contemporary conflict along with the moral ambiguity of modern politics and a tour de force performance from Jessica Chastain, and you have Zero Dark Thirty. How does one portray the relentless hunt for the leader of the militant organization that orchestrated the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor? With an unwavering realism that produces a profound sense of patriotism that is simultaneously overpowered by a sense of conscientious repugnancy, Zero Dark Thirty earns its spot on this list not solely for the gripping fashion in which it fashions an intimate look at the minds integral behind the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but the staunch stance it takes in revealing how war affects those that aren’t on the front line, and what they, and we as a nation, are willing to sacrifice to win.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
1. Dunkirk (2017)
Statistically speaking, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is, hands down, the film MovieMinis has written most about, by a margin wider than the English channel itself. And for good reason — beyond simply being a great war film, easily one of the best of all time, it is still the best film of 2017 (the ball is in your court, Guillermo del Toro).
You can read all about Dunkirk’s merits as a film here, but as a war film specifically, Dunkirk’s brilliance comes from its comprehensive, thorough subversion of every war movie trope ever put on screen. No character in this film pulls out a photo of his girlfriend back home, we hardly ever see enemy soldiers firing away at our heroes and, quite remarkably, the film maintains its thrills without spilling a drop of blood. In terms of war films, Dunkirk is the anti-Hacksaw Ridge — a film about evacuation rather battle, the empirical engineering of tension over mere spectacle. In this sense, where most war films are happy to indulge in hyper-masculine violence or cliched patriotism, Dunkirk intends to achieve none of it, preferring to blaze a new trail for what a war movie could be. Unlike any other film in the genre, Dunkirk is a purely experiential film, aiming to put viewers on Dunkirk’s beaches, in the skies above it and in the waters of the English Channel. The film’s IMAX format, expert editing, earth-shattering sound design and reliance on practical effects remind us how the language of cinema is a mimetic one. Speaking of Dunkirk, one feels the compulsion to pontificate about how audio and visual immersion is a quality unique to cinema, but let’s face it, such immersion is unique to Dunkirk.
— Harrison Tunggal
Featured image via Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.