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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.

15. “Atonement” (2007)

This wartime romance, directed by Joe Wright and adapted by Christopher Hampton from the Ian McEwen novel, starts out as a bucolic summertime frolic as a little girl (Saoirse Ronan) runs through the grass, and a stunning woman (Keira Knightley) takes a half-clothed plunge into a cool fountain on a hot day. Wright makes us feel the loss of something that will never be again as the film’s stymied romance is played out against the backdrop of war. Knightley and James McAvoy, in his first full-on leading man role, are well-matched. The movie is about love and loss and disastrous mistakes on all fronts. And Wright’s complex five-minute tracking shot across an enormous military encampment after the retreat from Dunkirk is one of the most breathtaking single takes ever. The movie scored seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and won for Original Score. —AT

14. “Black Book” (2006)

For this taut World War II suspense thriller, Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”) returned to Holland, reunited with screenwriter Gerard Souteman to advance the work they did on “Soldier of Orange,” and took advantage of his considerable Hollywood moviemaking chops. His goal: to shine a light on Holland’s dark side during the war. His strong leading woman is a composite of several real war spies. Jewish singer Rachel (“Game of Thrones” star Carice van Houten) has lost everything in German-occupied Holland and joins the resistance. As usual, sex plays a role in this Verhoeven movie as Rachel willingly beds the Gestapo commander (Sebastian Koch), dying her pubic hair to match her blond locks — but falls in love. Nobody is happy. When the war ends, the Dutch go after suspected collaborators, including Rachel, who needs to figure out who really did what to whom in order to survive. Parallels to the war in Iraq were intentional. —AT

13. “Downfall” (2004)

Don’t let its status as the source of all those “Hitler reacts to ____” memes we all know and love distract you from the fact that “Downfall” is a bracing portrait of the 20th century’s most infamous monster in his last few days. Bruno Ganz — previously best known for playing an angel in “Wings of Desire” — goes decidedly unholy in portraying Hitler; it doesn’t inspire warm feelings for the the man who ruined Chaplin mustaches forever, but it does breed understanding. Neither his inner circle nor the audience escape unscathed either, as anyone familiar with the scene in which Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda force their six children to ingest cyanide before ending their own lives can attest. An Academy Award nominee in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film makes a disturbing companion to Alexander Sokurov’s “Moloch.” —MN

12. “Red Cliff” (2008)

Hong Kong auteur John Woo’s lush historic epic starring Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and a pan-Asian cast is exhilarating, eye-popping fun. It took five Asian countries to finance the original two-part $80-million five-hour war film (then the most expensive movie ever produced in China), which was a huge hit in Asia. But the two-and-a half-hour western cut was released stateside without much fanfare. One of the greatest action directors working today, Woo (“A Better Tomorrow,” “Hard Boiled,” “Mission: Impossible 2”) was aiming for cinematic grandeur in the mold of the sumptuous period war films of Akira Kurosawa, Ang Lee, or Zhang Yimou. Filmed for 13 months with eight months of post, “Red Cliff” is BIG: massive battles on foot and horseback, sea battles with flaming arrows and fleets of blazing ships, elegant sets and costumes, gorgeous landscapes, swooping, sophisticated digital FX shots, and thousands of extras, both real and digital. The Chinese government supplied 700 to 1,500 Army solders as needed to help build roads as well as act. And the VFX team delivered an expensive two-minute shot of a camera following Woo’s signature dove flying miles across rough terrain between two enemy camps. Woo kept four units running at once and used six cameras running at different speeds; he shot 2 million feet of film.  —AT

11. “Phoenix” (2014)

A Holocaust story by way of “Vertigo” or “Eyes without a Face,” this moody Hitchcockian German post-World War II drama is directed by leading German auteur Christian Petzold. His longtime muse Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who no longer looks like herself after facial reconstruction surgery. She returns to postwar Berlin to seek out the husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may have sold her out to the Nazis. He doesn’t recognize her, which allows her to investigate his possible betrayal in the guise of another woman. The movie concludes with one of the most devastating denouements of al time. —AT

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