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

War never changes...or maybe it does.
The Best War Movies of the 21st Century, Including 'Dunkirk'
The Best War Movies of the 21st Century, Including 'Dunkirk'

Ron Perlman would have us believe that war never changes, but the movies about it certainly have. The last 15 years have brought no shortage of films about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (for obvious reasons), but World War II continues to fascinate filmmakers most of all. That includes Christopher Nolan, whose recent hit “Dunkirk” manages to bring something new to a genre that constantly feels at risk of becoming old hat.

And while those two conflicts have dominated the genre of late, everything from the Civil War to the Battle of Red Cliffs has found powerful expression onscreen. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” tells us that “war is a drug,” and the films below suggest that movies about war are just as addictive — maybe even more so. We hope this list provides your fix.

25. “Jarhead” (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead

There’s something in the way in this timely look at the Iraq War, which appeared endless even in 2005. Made when the fog of war was still thick, Sam Mendes’ drama provides clarity on a conflict that, more than a decade later, we’re still trying to make sense of. Jake Gyllenhaal, in one of his first serious roles following “Donnie Darko,” is a Marine struggling to understand not only what he’s doing on the other side of the world but why he’s there; answers are in short supply, but insight is not. Mendes’ post–“American Beauty,” pre-“Skyfall” phase tends to be thought of as his worst, but “Jarhead” deserves a closer look. —MN

24. “Black Hawk Down” (2001)

“Dunkirk” didn’t come out of the ether. Back in 2001, director Ridley Scott, with a script from writers Ken Nolan, Steve Gaghan, Steve Zaillian, and Mark Bowden adapting the author’s 1999 non-fiction bestseller, re-enacted the U.S. military’s disastrous 1993 raid in Mogadishu in horrifying, noisy, immersive close-up. Scott tracks the off-site commanders (including the late great Sam Shepard) who sent Special Operations soldiers into the city to capture two top warlord lieutenants. There, the soldiers were attacked by Somali militia RPGs, who felled two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters (plunging one man overboard), and damaged two others, which led to a rescue mission for survivors. A sturdy cast of veteran and rising stars are on the ground, in the air and watching with horror from afar: Eric Bana, Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Jason Isaacs, Orlando Bloom, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Jeremy Piven, and debuting Tom Hardy. “Black Hawk Down” won deserved Best Editing and Sound Mixing Oscars. —AT

23. “The Keeping Room” (2014)

Brainy actress Brit Marling stars in this Civil War drama that mixes a character study with the home invasion genre. A friend sent Marling a script from schoolteacher-turned-screenwriter Julia Hart and her producer husband Jordan Horowitz, which Marling instantly wanted to do, because “it’s a story of a woman who is strong in an inherently feminine way,” Marling told me. Rising UK director Daniel Barber took on this 1865 story about Augusta (Marling) running a farm with her younger sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and her house slave (Muna Otaru) while the men are away at war. Augusta knows how to use a gun for game and protection; the trio have reason to be wary of strangers, especially wayward soldiers. When Augusta rides to a store seeking medicine for a gash in her sister’s leg, she manages to escape on horseback from two threatening soldiers, but one (Sam Worthington) is not willing to let her go and tracks her down. It’s in the kitchen hearth, the keeping room, that this fierce woman warrior makes her last stand. —AT

22. “Defiance” (2008)

Ed Zwick specializes in war dramas that are more nuanced than they’re usually given credit for — likely a result of the tension between his bleeding-heart sensibilities and his just-plain-bloody set pieces, which occasionally make him look more battle-hungry than he probably intends. Daniel Craig leads one of his best, a based-on-fact World War II story of four Jewish brothers who retreated into the woods of Belarus and brought any and all fellow survivors they could find with them as they eked out a humble (and, yes, defiant) existence among the trees. “Defiance” is alive with the energy of both its ruggedly beautiful setting and the individuals who live within it — not because they want to, but because they must. —MN

21. “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016)

Mel Gibson mounted a major comeback with his fifth feature, a viscerally powerful, emotionally satisfying action drama about the horrors of war. Not unlike Sam Peckinpah or Ken Russell, Gibson is a superb director who knows how to make things vivid and real, so much so that his most violent action scenes can be too intense for some viewers. Garfield is perfect casting for the earnest Boy Scout pacifist trying to escape a domineering father (Hugo Weaving) to join his brother in the Army to fight the Japanese in World War II. In boot camp, he is hazed and abused and put on trial for refusing to carry a weapon. On the horrific clifftop battlefield, he heroically rescues 75 men without ever lifting a gun. Garfield landed his first Oscar nomination among a total of six, including Best Picture and Gibson for Best Director. The movie took home two statuettes, for Best Editing and Sound Editing, and scored $158.7 million worldwide. —AT

This list continues on the next page.

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