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The Best War Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘Dunkirk’ to ‘The Hurt Locker’

War never changes...or maybe it does.

5. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

“I think this just might be my masterpiece.” So says Brad Pitt’s nat-see killing Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s alternate-history take on World War II, which introduced the world at large to Christoph Waltz and showed us that, in this one-of-a-kind auteur’s world, movies are so powerful that they can literally kill Hitler. There’s something endearing about that even if you can’t abide by the graphic violence and quest for vengeance that fuels “Inglourious Basterds,” whose bloody ensemble more than earns its allusive moniker. The chilling opening sequence would make this a classic on its own; that the rest of the film somehow lives up to that knockout of an opener makes it an all-timer. —MN

4. “Dunkirk” (2017)

Rather than wind his way through another tortuous twisty genre plot bedazzled with visual effects, Christopher Nolan keeps spectacular World War II action epic “Dunkirk” deceptively simple. He immerses the audience in the action by placing them close to the subjective points-of-view of his characters’ experiences on land, sea, and air (within varying timeframes) throughout the 1940 evacuation of 400,000 British and Allied soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, France, surrounded by enemy forces. We experience the Germans’ pitiless attacks on the exposed, vulnerable soldiers as they try to survive relentless strafing from Luftwaffe guns, artillery explosions, bombs, and torpedoes. Most of the propulsive action is without dialogue. We spend the most time with British private Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), ducking and bobbing and running and swimming and hiding in order to come out alive. We also root for Nolan veteran Tom Hardy (in yet another enclosing mask) as the pilot in the cockpit of an RAF Spitfire, aggressively attacking enemy Messerschmitts as he anxiously checks his fuel levels. Mark Rylance plays a British civilian whose yacht is requisitioned to cross the English Channel to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk 26 miles away. Kenneth Branagh as the British Navy Commander overseeing Operation Dynamo provides a running perspective on the chaotic events and does the most talking. Finally, Nolan has a good shot at landing his first Oscar nomination for directing, because “Dunkirk” is nothing if not impeccably directed, in both IMAX and 65 mm. —AT

3. “The Hurt Locker” (2008)

Who could have known that Jeremy Renner staring at an aisle full of cereal boxes would come to be Hollywood’s most indelible image of the Iraq War? “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” reads the quotation that opens the film, and Kathryn Bigelow spends the next two hours underscoring both the lethality and addictiveness of combat. She, too, is a kind of dealer, one whose dose of cinematic adrenaline was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Director (making her the first, and so far only, woman to be so honored). We’ll be returning to “The Hurt Locker” more often than Renner’s addicted soldier returns to battle. —MN

2. “The White Ribbon” (2009)

Made in 2009 and set on the eve of World War I, Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is actually most concerned with World War II. That it takes place in a small German village in which rigid adherence to law, tradition, and ritual is privileged above all else suggests what becomes of the impressionable children who are in the process of becoming their full selves. This is an intense war movie by implication; the film is, in its own way, one of the most chilling origin stories ever crafted. Filmed in black and white as stark as Haneke’s sensibilities, it’s unsettling throughout — but, unlike some of his other work, not overly clinical. There isn’t much amour in the severe auteur’s first Palme d’Or winner, but Haneke doesn’t make things easy for us in simply dismissing his characters as hateful, either; they’re much too complex (and, as a result, more unsettling) for that. —MN

1. “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013)


With ripped-from-the-headlines $52-million indie “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal set out to dramatize what really happened in the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. Chameleon Jessica Chastain earned her second Oscar nomination as Maya, a tough-as-nails CIA agent based on the real undercover operative who doggedly pursued the Al-Qaeda leader. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op,” Maya declares after one vicious terrorist attack. “And then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.” It’s a chilling moment in an intense movie. Rangy blue-eyed Australian Jason Clarke costars as a wily CIA operative who is adept at extracting information. Bigelow’s disjunctive cutting style and Boal’s on-the-fly observational journalism do not follow narrative conventions; the movie generated political controversy for representing waterboarding as a means to extricate information vital to bin Laden’s capture. Brainy and deliberate, the CIA procedural hews closer to “Carlos” and “All the President’s Men” than “Act of Valor.” And yes, Maya gets her man. —AT

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