War is a constant throughout human history, but very little of the population actually participates. For most, silver screen depictions are as close as they will ever get to the horrors of battle. It is no wonder, then, that people discuss war movies with words and phrases such as, “raw” and “like being there.”
War movies are a vehicle for experiencing the almost indescribable. And 40 years ago this week, one of the very best ever was released into theaters. “Apocalypse Now” and the countless others before and after it, make up one of the most fruitful sub-genres in cinema. In honor of its 40th Anniversary, we would like to highlight ten of the very best.
“Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)
dir: Isao Takahata
Most of the films on this list deal with the grip of the battle and the tolls that come with it. What sets “Grave of the Fireflies” apart, beyond the Japanese language and its animation, is that it grapples with more collateral impacts. The film follows a pair of siblings facing a desperate struggle to survive during World War II. Studio Ghibli manages to ground the realities of war in the perspective of a child and the result is remarkable. It is an anti-war balm every bit as powerful as the rest of the films on this list, but with a spirit uniquely its own.
dir: Christopher Nolan
The lead-up to “Dunkirk” was shrouded in secrecy. Christopher Nolan is well-known for his sci-fi meditations on existence and memory. In the end, “Dunkirk” represents something very different, while still maintaining the technical prowess that makes Nolan’s films special. The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II and is about as close as one can come to the physical experience of being on the battlefield.
What is most brilliant about the movie, however, is the way it blends and compresses timelines until they build to a crescendo that is as satisfying as any on-screen moment can be. The film also relies on a certain anonymity among its cast members to represent the indiscriminate nature of war. This, plus the cinematography, production and sound design lead to a chaos that is best experienced on the big screen. There is no better way to feel like you are in battle while still ensconced in a plush seat surrounded by one-hundred hushed moviegoers.
“The Hurt Locker” (2008)
dir: Kathryn Bigelow
PTSD had already started to make headlines by the time “The Hurt Locker” arrived, but the film helped put the condition in sharp relief. Kathryn Bigelow‘s directorial effort was also one of the first truly great pieces of cinema based on the Iraq War. Seeing modern warfare, and the struggles that come with adjusting to everyday life afterward, was an eye-opening experience for many. Bigelow’s high stakes filming style and Jeremy Renner‘s frazzled performance ultimately won Best Picture and earned its place on this list.
“Inglorious Basterds” (2009)
dir: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino is one of the most distinctive filmmakers of all-time. His blend of dialogue rich drama and tightly choreographed action sequences is legendary. In “Inglorious Basterds,” a comedic alternate history, the best of Tarantino’s brand is on full display. The vengeful violence that turns the tables on the Nazis offers a wholly satisfying narrative. Unlike many of the entries on this list, this is a fun ride.
“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)
dir: David Lean
If you turned to the word “Epic” in the film encyclopedia, Peter O’toole‘s steely blue eyes would be staring back at you from this 1962 masterpiece. The film is sweeping in scale and dripping with ambition, but more than anything, it is a flawless thrill ride. Everything about “Lawrence of Arabia” has drawn praise by now, but it can never be too much.
“The Deer Hunter” (1979)
dir: Michael Cimino
De Niro, Streep, and Walken are each at the peak of their powers. That alone would be enough to make a movie great. But “The Deer Hunter” is so much more. It is a withering look at the madness of the Vietnam War. The film was awarded five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Cimino. If you want to understand why, you don’t need to look much farther than the famed Russian Roulette scene.
“Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006)
dir: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood had an idea to tell the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima using two films; one from the American perspective and one from the Japanese perspective. Those two films, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” were released two months apart. And while “Flags of Our Fathers” is respectable, “Letters From Iwo Jima” is astounding. The perspective offered and the humanity displayed is unlike anything else you are likely to come across. This is Eastwood’s very best work and deserves to be viewed for generations to.
dir: Michael Curtiz
While “Casablanca” does not take place on the battlefield, its events are shaped by war and the love two people cannot share because of it. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman play the star-crossed lovers who must decide between love and safety in one of the most quintessentially classic pieces of American cinema. The film features six entries on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes list, won Best Picture, and can consistently be found at or near the top of any list of the greatest movies of all time. The smoky black and white images remain as captivating as ever and offer a more intimate look at the price of war.
“Schindler’s List” (1993)
dir: Steven Spielberg
There are few films as universally lauded as “Schindler’s List.” The holocaust narrative is hard to enjoy, but easy to admire. Many would say this is the most complete masterpiece on this list. Even in the storied career of Steven Spielberg, “Schindler’s List” shines through as a standout. Everything from its well-composed black and white images, to its heartbreaking plot leads to a film that is impossible to forget and an absolute necessary watch.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
dir: Francis Ford Coppola
“Apocalypse Now” finds itself at the top of this list because, quite simply, it is the very best. The film stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and a young Laurence Fishburne and forty years later, “Apocalypse Now” still has the same visceral appeal it did upon release. Set during the Vietnam War, much of the film’s power comes from its focus on the universal horrors of war. The film looks at the corrosive impact violence can have on an individual’s mind. As an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola‘s film tried to show what men become when they are sent to war. The human spirit is frail and war is relentless, no movie has ever captured those sentiments better.