War has been a part of the movie-going experience since its inception. From silent epics like “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) and “Wings” (1927) to modern triumphs like “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) and “The Hurt Locker” (2008), war films have served as a microcosm for the various political and social upheavals of their given setting. As with all genres, however, the war film hinges on the human condition, and how combat can reinforce (or break) a soldier’s spirit.
The 2010s have seen the war film take on many different forms. There have been patriotic pastiches, harrowing true stories, and hybrids that fuse the chaos of war to the horror and thriller genres. So with the decade coming to a close, and the excellent “1917” now in theaters, we decided to pull out the dossiers and present our ranking for the 10 Best War Films of the 2010s.
10. “Overlord” (2018)
We decided to start the list with the little-seen but surprisingly good “Overlord” from 2018. The film follows a group of American soldiers who are dropped behind enemy lines during WWII, only to discover that Nazis have been conducting secret experiments on corpses. It has all the makings of bland schlock, but the script is well-paced and self-aware enough to sell the notion of Nazi zombies to the audience.
The horror elements in the film are effectively woven into the wartime setting, as they rely less on jump scares and more on the grotesque nature of the experiments. Ultimately, though, “Overlord” succeeds on the strength of its actors. Jovan Adepo is strikingly intense as the lead, and Wyatt Russell is stellar as the no-nonsense corporal whose bravado gives way to undying (pun intended) loyalty.
It could very well develop a cult following in the future.
9. “War Horse” (2011)
“War Horse” isn’t what most fans think of when they hear Steven Spielberg, and yet, the 2011 drama features many of the director’s trademark themes: heroism, loss of innocence, and the friendship between a boy and an outsider. The boy is a British teen named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and the outsider is Joey, a Thoroughbred horse who’s purchased by the British Army and used in combat during WWI.
“War Horse” focuses on hope, and man’s ability to maintain it in the worst of conditions. It’s less concerned with carnage, and as such, it stands in contrast to Spielberg’s grittier, more celebrated “Saving Private Ryan.” There are shots in the film, sequences involving the titular horse, that rank among the most romantic and sweeping of the director’s entire career. It may be too sentimental for some, but you could do a lot worse when it comes to John Ford pastiches.
8. “Lone Survivor” (2013)
Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have tackled real-life stories to varying degrees of success, but we’d argue their first collaboration, “Lone Survivor,” remains their best. The film recounts the harrowing experience of Navy SEAL, Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), who gets deployed on a mission to take out a Taliban leader and finds himself ambushed with the rest of his team.
While the title of the film does spoil the outcome, there’s little denying the tension that Berg’s direction brings to the table. Each scene pulses with the threat of violence and the jarring, blink-and-you-miss-it ways in which the SEALs get killed only heightens the emotional stakes. Equal parts thrilling and heartbreaking, “Lone Survivor” is an old-school war film done right.
7. “American Sniper” (2014)
Clint Eastwood has dedicated his career to telling stories about troubled, stoic men. “American Sniper” is a prime example of this preoccupation, as it focuses on Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history. As a Navy SEAL, and a man, Kyle is split between the isolation of his sniper nest and the alienation he feels at home.
Eastwood stages a handful of masterfully tense scenes where Kyle is faced with a difficult tactical decision, but it’s the emphasis on character that distinguishes “American Sniper” from its peers. Cooper gives one of his finest performances to date, fleshing out Kyle beyond the script’s pages and providing a warmth that comes through no matter how pained he may be.
The film was criticized for its simplification of the conflict in Iraq, but as a character piece, and a panel in Eastwood’s ongoing dialogue with troubled men, it’s a success.
6. “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016)
“Hacksaw Ridge” flips the dilemma of “American Sniper” on its head. The film tells the real-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a WWII soldier who refused to carry or use a weapon and was subject to intense scrutiny by his peers. Doss’s unwavering stance eventually led to him becoming the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.
Mel Gibson is a maestro when it comes to screen violence, and “Hacksaw Ridge” boasts some of his most ambitious directorial flourishes to date. The combat scenes are harrowing and kinetic, the best of their kind since the Gibson-starring “We Were Soldiers” (2002). And yet, it’s the resistance of Doss, brilliantly played by Garfield, that gives the combat its dramatic weight.
As an examination of violence, and a testament to the strength of moral conviction, “Hacksaw Ridge” is an unmitigated triumph.
5. “Fury” (2014)
A theme that most war films carry is the loss of innocence, and few convey it with as much graveness as 2014’s “Fury.” It’s a bleak, haunting look at the lives of a tank crew during WWII, and how they start to come apart when faced with extended combat.
“Fury” has its fair share of grotesque imagery – a tank pancakes the body of a young boy, a woman hacks meat off a dead horse – but director David Ayer calibrates that imagery to reflect the desensitized mindset of the characters. He pinpoints moments of moral repugnancy and lets them sink in, while the stellar ensemble cast (Brad Pitt, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal) sells it to chilling effect.
4. “Beasts Of No Nation” (2015)
“Beasts of No Nation” stands out from the rest of the films on this list because it doesn’t deal with either of the World Wars or the Iraq conflict. Instead, it presents a fictionalized account based on the Sierra Leone Civil War and the harrowing journey that a young child soldier named Agu (Abraham Attah) was forced to endure.
“Beasts” details Agu’s transformation from an innocent to an efficient killing machine, and the strained, father-son bond he develops with his boss Comandante (Idris Elba). The film is at once sobering and hopeful, and writer-director Cary Joji Fukanaga reaffirms that he is a master when it comes to extracting great performances.
3. “Dunkirk” (2017)
Christopher Nolan has taken his stylistic ambitions and applied them to nearly every mainstream genre (superhero, sci-fi, noir), but “Dunkirk” represented a unique challenge. It was the first time he had attempted a real-life story and the first of his films to rely on an ensemble cast. To the director’s credit, he nailed both and delivered one of his most acclaimed films to date.
“Dunkirk” retells the titular WWII conflict from three perspectives: land, air and sea. The soldiers who drive each segment are not fighting the enemy so much as they are fighting for survival, and this core change in motive gives the film a thriller-like tension. The ensemble (Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh) is brilliant, but it’s Nolan’s inventive approach to both theme and structure that makes “Dunkirk” one of the decade’s best.
2. “1917” (2019)
“1917” chronicles the story of two British soldiers (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay) who are forced to deliver a message that will warn their fellow soldiers of an ambush by the German side. The two soldiers must then press through a WWI landscape overrun with brutality, freak accidents, and the emotional weight of having sixteen hundred of lives dependent on their success.
Director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049“) shoot the film as though it were a single take, and the sheer technical mastery that goes into each sequence is staggering. We feel for the main characters and share in their disorientation, but Mendes ensures the single-take never gets in the way of the performances or the emotional threads. A flat-out triumph for all involved.
1. “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)
“Zero Dark Thirty” is another unconventional war film. There are several combat sequences, which allow Kathryn Bigelow to affirm that she’s one of our finest action directors, but the crux of the story plays out in boardrooms and interrogation rooms. It’s a film about procedure, about false leads, and how CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is willing to compromise to capture and kill Osama bin Laden.
While the film was criticized for its depiction of torture, and for smoothing over elements of the real story, there’s no denying the breadth of Bigelow’s vision. She charts the emotional toll the manhunt takes on Maya and her associates, and by way of her pointedly non-triumphant finale, she forces us to question the entire conflict. Was killing bin Laden ultimately worth the price we paid?
“Zero Dark Thirty” has aged like wine and will continue to challenge audiences for decades to come.
Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite war films of the 2010’s? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Also be sure to vote on the polls for the best that this decade had to offer.
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