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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.

10. “Son of Saul” (2015)


The two Holocaust experts behind this unique World War II foreign-language Oscar-winner, rookie Hungarian director László Nemes and poet Géza Röhrig, met in New York when Nemes was studying film directing at NYU. Röhrig made his feature debut as Saul, a Jewish prisoner-of-war at Auschwitz in 1944. Inspired by the book “Voices from Beneath the Ashes,” featuring eyewitness accounts by Sonderkommando who buried their testimonies, Nemes was able to ground his narrative (shot in 35 mm), in the authentic, tangible everyday functioning of what he calls a “death factory.” Nemes’ tightly-focused camera follows the Sonderkommando’s blinkered close-up point-of-view as he does the Nazis’ dirty work in the crematoria and moves through the camp seeking to bury a young boy. Who is he? The movie’s immersive action and intricately layered sound design, which reveal the hideous scale of the mass slaughter of Jews, is not soon forgotten. —AT

9. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)


A Hollywood studio threw out the hit-formula playbook with $135-million Napoleonic war film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” That’s because Twentieth Century Fox’s Tom Rothman bet on veteran Australian Peter Weir, who held out for what he wanted. He drew from two Patrick O’Brian books, insisted on Russell Crowe (in his prime) being available when he needed him, and demanded enough post-production time to make the computer-graphic effects look as real as possible, forcing the studio to give up a peak summer slot and release in November. And he retained control of the final cut. Finally, ”Master and Commander” throws out more Hollywood conventions than most megabudget spectaculars, from skipping a romance to chasing a shadowy French captain who is not turned into a standard villain. And the results were spectacular, yielding ten Oscar nominations including Director and Picture, and two wins for Cinematography and Sound Editing. The movie didn’t turn enough profit to generate a sequel, but it certainly deserved one. —AT

8. “City of Life and Death” (2009)

The Nanking Massacre is far from the most famous atrocity committed during World War II, but it is one of the most horrific. As many as 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were killed by the Imperial Japanese Army, which plays out onscreen in much the way you’d expect it to: as a dizzying descent into the horrors of a war we’ve still yet to fully understand more than 70 years later. Which isn’t to say that there are no surprises in “City of Life and Death” — Lu Chuan, who most recently directed the considerably more lighthearted Disneynature documentary “Born in China,” offers moments of dignity and grace amid the brutality. —MN

7. “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006)

Clint Eastwood’s two-film cycle on the Battle of Iwo Jima might be the most ambitious undertaking of his entire career: “Flags of Our Fathers” shows the American side of that tide-turning skirmish, with “Letters from Iwo Jima” depicting the Japanese perspective. Filmed back-to-back with its companion piece and released two months after it, “Letters” ranks among Eastwood’s finest work. A scene in which an entire group of Japanese soldiers are ordered to commit suicide via grenade and only one disobeys has long been the film’s most famous, but it’s when Eastwood slows the action down and allows us to absorb the quieter, more contemplative moments that his achievement comes into sharpest relief. —MN

6. “The Pianist” (2002)

Whither the Adrien Brody of yore? His Oscar celebration was a moment unto itself — hello, Halle Berry — but it’s his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s intimate epic that reverberates loudest all these years later. It might be thought of as karmic recompense for the actor, who thought he was the lead in another World War II drama (Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”) until attending the premiere and realizing his role had been drastically reduced; not so here, where Brody leads almost every heartbreaking scene. Polanski wasn’t on hand to accept his own Oscar for obvious (and deserved) reasons, but his work as maestro has rarely been more worthy of applause. —MN

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