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The 10 Best Modern World War II Movies

The films made in recent years that continue to illuminate specific corners of one of history's darkest chapters.

Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy in Anthropoid

“Anthropoid”

Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Bleecker Street’s release of “Anthropoid,” directed by Sean Ellis and starring Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy. “Anthropoid” is now playing in theaters.

This week, “Anthropoid” looks to join the ranks of a rich and complex cinematic history: films about World War II. A global conflict that has yielded global stories, World War II continues to be the basis for films that challenge our perceptions. “Anthropoid” uncovers an episode from before the fighting stopped, focusing on the attempt to assassinate high-ranking SS General Reinhard Heydrich. Writer/Director Sean Ellis uses the true-life mission as a backdrop for a talented ensemble, including Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan and Toby Jones.

The best of these modern WWII films never lose sight of the idea that this was a conflict fought by individuals. Their weapons and their ideologies were varied, but this was history guided by people not easily categorized in simple moral columns. Some of their personal struggles came to represent the conflict that enveloped so many, but these specific tales left indelible marks in our conception of a war that ended over seven decades ago.

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

There are war movies before “Saving Private Ryan,” and war movies after “Saving Private Ryan.” No other film on this list did more to fundamentally alter how we envision the greatest armed conflict of the 20th Century, and no other film on this list did more to fundamentally alter how we represent it onscreen. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 masterpiece changed the game by bringing us closer to the action than ever before, beginning with the peerlessly visceral Normandy Beach sequence that captured the grotesque horror show of an invasion and showed them to us as though we were there on the sands of France. Focusing on the value of a single human life across a series of battles in which brave men dropped like flies, “Saving Private Ryan” rekindled our love of World War II movies by stripping the genre of its romantic veneer. — David Ehrlich

The Pianist

The Pianist - Adrian Brody

Roman Polanski’s Best Director victory was one of the most surprising in Oscar history. For Polanski, who as a child survived the Krakow Ghetto after losing his mother, the film about a Polish Jewish musician’s (played by Adrien Brody) struggle to stay alive after the Nazis invade Poland is clearly and deeply personal. While the filmmaking craft behind the film is pure Polanski, it stands out as one of the director’s most straightforward and unironic narratives. The film is a remarkably simple story — devoid of plot devices constructed to milk emotions from the audience — about survival amid destruction. Nonetheless, its quiet, unassuming examination of life, art and evil is one of the most moving films ever made. — Chris O’Falt

Black Book

Black Book

Director Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book film is three movies wrapped up into one. On one level it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller about a young Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who escapes the Nazis and then joins an aggressive, risk-taking Resistance movement. It’s also a spy, quasi-love story, as the heroine becomes an undercover agent infiltrating the Third Reich and develops feelings for her mark. Masked below the life-and-death danger, the fun and often sexy asides, and some tremendous plot twists, the always subversive Verhoeven cannot bring himself to make a simple film about good versus evil, even against the backdrop of World War II. — CO

Atonement

Atonement - James McAvoy

Every World War II movie is sad in some way, but few (if any) are as profoundly devastating as Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” which captured every dollop of devastation that Ian McEwan wrote into his novel of the same name, and served them up with a new degree of wrenching intensity. Split into three separate parts (each one compounding the tragedy of the one before it), the film tells the story of a wealthy British woman (Keira Knightley), the servant’s son with whom she shares a fateful tryst (James McAvoy), and the little girl whose lack of discretion disrupts their chance of happiness and sends the couple spiraling away from each other. Threading a delicately personal narrative through from the days before Dunkirk to the distant future that it shaped, “Atonement” is a heartbreaking example of how every world war is the sum of a million intimately personal odysseys. — DE

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds - Melanie Laurent

Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name — but not the spelling — of a late ‘70s war film for his 2009 movie “Inglourious Basterds,” an alternate history of WWII about a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers on a mission to assassinate Nazi leaders. The film is not a remake, but there are similarities between Tarantino’s bloodthirsty hooligans led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and the ragtag soldier-criminals in the original “Bastards.” Despite its fictionalized premise, “Inglorious Basterds” is a vivid depiction of Nazi-occupied France that doubles as the perfect canvas for Tarantino’s trademark graphic violence. Among other things, the film will be remembered for the breakout performance of Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Nazi SS officer Col. Hans Landa, one of the most persuasively wicked characters in recent cinematic history. — Graham Winfrey

Stalingrad

Stalingrad

It was only appropriate that Russia make its first foray into the wild world of IMAX 3D filmmaking with Fedor Bondarchuk’s massive-scale take on the Battle of Stalingrad. Somewhat awkwardly framed by a modern day tragedy — the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami — the film hits its stride when it takes its audience inside the unadulterated misery of the 1942 campaign which resulted in nearly 2,000,000 casualties on both sides of the battle. Despite the film’s Russian background and bona fides, Bondarchuk’s feature endeavors to show both sides of the fight, switching between German soldiers and a Russian contingent. Despite the bombastic nature of the film — IMAX 3D, hello — the film is at its best when digging into the deep emotional bond between pretty orphan Katya and the band of Russian soldiers who come to be her protectors (and one who comes to be much more). The massive-scale filmmaking is impressive enough, but the film’s attempts to balance war with love, German with Russian, pain with hope are what really set it apart. — Kate Erbland

Fury

Fury - Brad Pitt, David Ayer

David Ayer proved his directing chops with “Fury,” a visceral WWII tank drama. Starring Logan Lerman and Brad Pitt, and featuring some incredible supporting turns from the likes of Michael Peña and Shia LaBeouf, “Fury” follows a five-man tank crew as they embark on a harrowing mission to break a Nazi offensive. Ayer has always been a director obsessed with both extreme violence and the bonds of brotherhood/family, and “Fury” represents the most powerful synthesis of his two passions. His cast effortlessly creates a shared history among their characters, while the violence both inflicted and received paints the shock and awe of war with nauseating spontaneity. Examining the loss of innocence in wartime isn’t necessarily a new idea, but Ayer’s bleak and brutal recreation of battles (and the claustrophobic intensity of being inside a tank during them) creates a war film that feels bracingly new. — Zack Sharf

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises

Studio Ghibli is no stranger to rich, devastating portraits of World War II Japan, following Isao Takahata’s 1988 classic “Grave of the Fireflies.” Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s 2013 directorial swan song is more about the lead-up to the conflict than its aftermath, but the emotional power is still there in its finely-drawn glory. This animated biopic of Japanese aeronautical designer Jiro Hirokoshi never loses sight of the power of his creations, making a villain not of the man, but the manipulation of the Mitsubishi fighters he designed. One of Miyazaki’s less fanciful efforts (despite weaving in visions and dreams of Jiro’s idols), the film is still a bittersweet tribute to the power of invention and discovery. As the final statement from one of animation’s titanic talents, Jiro’s story reflects the twin wonders and consequences of artistic pursuits amidst uncertain times. — Steve Greene

Unbroken

Unbroken - Jack O'Connell

Harrowing World War II survival adventure ”Unbroken” would not have been produced without a powerful star behind it. For her second directing gig, Angelina Jolie made the Louis Zamperini story immortalized by Laura Hillenbrand with a $65-million budget from Universal: modest for a period war film with scenes in the air, on the water, and in a Japanese prison camp. Jolie cast the film creatively, tracking down tough Brit actor Jack O’Connell for the lead and elegant Japanese rock star Miyavi as the sadistic Japanese officer who singles out Zamperini for chronic abuse. From the first, Jolie wanted to use the dramatic prison-camp confrontation between “The Bird” and Zamperini shouldering a heavy beam as the film’s climactic moment. The director saw it as two gunslingers trying to figure out who was going to draw first and who was going to survive. Jolie delivered a handsome, well-acted, straightforward narrative with a high degree of difficulty which was never an easy sell. — Anne Thompson

Son of Saul

Son of Saul - Geza Rohrig

As soon as “Son of Saul” played in competition to raves and prizes at Cannes 2015, it was inevitable that it would win the foreign-language Oscar. The unique World War II thriller was made by two Holocaust scholars. Rookie director László Nemes worked as an assistant director in France and Hungary (with Béla Tarr) before meeting poet Géza Röhrig in New York when Nemes was studying film directing at NYU. Röhrig makes his feature debut as Saul, a Jewish prisoner-of-war at Auschwitz in 1944. Nemes’ tightly-focused 35 mm camera follows the Sonderkommando’s blinkered point-of-view in close-up as he does the Nazis’ dirty work in the crematoria, moving through the camp, seeking to bury an unidentified young boy. The movie’s immersive action and intricately layered sound design reveal the hideous scale of the mass slaughter of Jews. Inspired by the book “Voices from Beneath the Ashes,” featuring eyewitness accounts by Sonderkommando who buried their testimonies, Nemes grounds his narrative in the authentic, tangible everyday functioning of a death factory. It is not soon forgotten. — AT

Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with Bleecker Street’s release of “Anthropoid,” based on the extraordinary true story of Czechoslovakian operatives’ mission to assassinate SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. Directed by Sean Ellis and starring Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy, “Anthropoid” is now playing in theaters.

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