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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.

20. “Allied” (2016)

We know what you’re thinking — if you haven’t seen “Allied,” you probably wrote it off a long time ago — but hear us out. Can a movie be a double agent? Is all really fair in love and war when both conflicts are happening at the same time? Such questions are at the heart of “Allied,” Robert Zemeckis’ old-fashioned espionage drama starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as married spies who may or may not be fighting for the same team. Though light on the kind of effects the “Forrest Gump” and “Contact” director is usually known for, it’s rich in the sort of heartfelt moments that make Zemeckis’ best work sing. Whether Allied or Axis, the battle lines are always being redrawn — and there’s no guarantee that we’ll end up on the winning side. —MN

19. “U-571” (2000)

This utterly fictional World War II submarine actioner is another nailbiter that puts us at eye-level with the anxiety of war. In this case, the film pits a skeleton American submarine crew against the Nazis on the Atlantic front as they try to steal the German Command’s communication device Enigma. (The British were horrified by this version of their story.) Director Jonathan Mostow made his name reminding audiences that every submarine is a death-trap, ratcheting up the tension through the film’s pulse-pounding 116 minutes. Bill Paxton plays a tough and exacting commander who doesn’t think his young executive officer (Matthew McConaughey) is ready to take over his own ship. The movie shows how ready he turns out to be, with help from his canny Chief Petty Officer (Harvey Keitel). The Americans grab the Enigma from scuttled German unterseeboot U-571, only to look back and see their own torpedoed out of the water. Forced to reboard the leaky sub where everything is labeled in German, they dive for safety and await their fate as depth charges explode around them — one scene that won the movie the Sound Editing Oscar. —AT

18. “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

Secretly one of Ridley Scott’s best movies, “Kingdom of Heaven” is an epic of unusual thoughtfulness. Much of its poignancy is owed to a scene-stealing Edward Norton, hidden under a mask as the leper King Baldwin IV, whose soft speaking voice cuts through the din of battle. (Norton wanted his role to be uncredited, a wise request that was denied.) It turns out that much of what transpired during the Crusades wasn’t holy so much as horrible (who would have guessed?), and though Scott has always reveled in slick bloodshed he also infuses it with meaning and purpose here. Eva Green, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and even Orlando Bloom (in a rare non-pirate or -elf role) are worthy soldiers in that effort, and “Kingdom of Heaven” more than earns its conquest. —MN

17. “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017)

Amid all the superheroes and toys, one unlikely franchise has managed to distinguish itself these last several years. Much of the credit for the three “Apes” movies’ success falls on the simian shoulders of Andy Serkis, whose Caesar espouses the “ape not kill ape” philosophy while becoming ever more human himself — not that that’s always a good thing. This trilogy-concluding chapter takes things to their (un)natural conclusion: an all-out conflict in which sides must be chosen and a victor must be declared. To the victor go the spoils, which for those of us watching meant three movies that continually exceeded expectations. —MN

16. “American Sniper” (2014)

Veteran Clint Eastwood touched a nerve ($547 million worldwide) with this tense Iraq War portrait of late Texas sharpshooter Chris Kyle. Bradley Cooper bulked up, adding 35 pounds of muscle, to play the Navy SEAL who saved countless lives — and killed with pinpoint accuracy. While Eastwood aimed to explore the psychological impact of war on this complex real-life character, the movie drew fire from right and left alike. Does the film promote flag-flying jingoism or morally ambiguous, PTSD-sufferer sympathy? In any case “American Sniper” is riveting moviemaking, and secured six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and a win for Sound Editing. —AT

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