There’s nothing entertaining about war, but war is often a source of entertainment. This oxymoronic quote speaks volumes when you consider how tragic these violent world events can be but how brilliantly many of them have been adapted for the big screen. In some cases films have offered tremendous insight into the horrific realities of major world conflicts while others focus more on one or a few specific examples of perseverance or tragic loss resulting from these events. As with decades prior, the 2010s provided numerous successful quality films meant to capture the essence of war examining the best and worst of humanity in the process. I found it fitting that on Memorial Day 2020 I’d take the time to explore the best movies of the last ten years that helped bring both the tragedy and heroism of war to the big screen. Continuing my examination of the best films of the decade by genre, these are my picks for the Top 10 War Movies of the 2010s.
For this list I examined movies that were all based on wars, secret military missions, specific soldiers or servicemen and so on. Whether grounded in fact or presenting a fictional or fantastical perspective of world conflicts these movies, for me at least, represented both the highs and lows of armed conflict and brought us right into the action. The one exception I’m making for this list is biopics of political figures such as “Darkest Hour” and “Lincoln” which aren’t so much war movies as much as they are biographical pictures that just happens to take place during war time. I’ll be taking closer look at biopics like that with a later list. Biographical pictures of soldiers however were fail game as long as it explores their experience in war.
One major note here: I will be giving a special honorable mention for this list to “1917”. While released in a very limited number of theaters in December of 2019, “1917” was actually truly a 2020 wide release in January making it the first great film of the new decade in my eyes. So consider it an honorable mention for this list destined to be one of the great war movies of not just this new decade, but of all time. It would have easily topped this list if I decided to include it.
Before I continue, I want to take a moment to thank all the men and women who have fought for the United States military and lost their lives in battle. On this Memorial Day we remember their sacrifices especially in a time where many of those simple freedoms and luxuries they fight to preserve are put on hold for a very different war against an unseen enemy. Thank you to them and their families for everything they have done to help preserve our way of life.
What is your favorite war movie from the 2010s? Let me know in the comments below. Let’s get to it.
Let’s start with a foreign film from 2013, one that I was only recently introduced to while researching for this list. “Tangerines” is an Estonian-Georgian film that earned an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film after gaining critical praise for its exploration of a moral conundrum during war time when a man cares for two soldiers different sides of the 1992 War in Abkhozia. As he tries to keep the soldiers from killing each other a powerful narrative about pacifism and the humanity unfolds exploring the hidden human conflict beneath the surface of war for both the warriors and bystanders. While imperfect, “Tangerines” is a must watch if only for its ability to shine a light on a simple dilemma that challenges both the soldiers and a citizen just trying to do what’s right.
Released in 2014 and directed by Angelina Jolie, this based-on-true-events story focuses on US Olympian and army officer Louie Zamperini who became a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II after surviving 47 days adrift on a raft. His will to survive in spite of the torture he receives from the enemy is the main crux of the story as he bounces from camp to camp but maintains his will to live. While released to mixed reviews the film is an inspiring tale of perseverance in the face of relentless challenges and a harsh reminder of the conditions and horrors faced by POWs during World War II. While it was marred by controversy prior to release, including a petition against its release in Japan, the final product is a worthy real-life story worth experiencing.
The 2014 film “Fury” brought together an all-star cast and capable leadership from director and writer David Ayer to explore a unique group of individuals from the European theater of World War II, the tank crews. Taking place during the final weeks of the Second World War, “Fury” sees an inexperienced soldier join a hardened crew as they venture behind enemy lines. While the characters are fictional, “Fury” was complimented for its attention to detail and Ayers’ ability to put viewers right into the action resulting in an intense, often uncomfortable look at the realities of war. “Fury” never forgets the humanity of its characters or its purpose of providing insight into a kind of warfare often underrepresented in modern war features.
7. “War Horse”
This 2011 Steven Spielberg film based on a 1982 novel and 2007 play tells the story of war from a unique perspective, that of an animal. The film focuses on Joey, a thoroughbred who is sold by his loving owner Albert to the British Army just before World War I. The story allows us to see different angles of the First World War through Joey’s eyes as he is passed from owner to owner witnessing the horrors of the conflict first hand. Nominated for two Golden Globes and six Academy Awards including Best Picture, “War Horse” is an underrated and underappreciated wartime epic that shows the terrors of World War I through a truly unique perspective and serving as one of the first in a line of films in the 2010s that gave some much needed insight into the First World War on the big screen.
6. “Lone Survivor”
Based on the 2007 book of the same name, “Lone Survivor” is a dramatized look at a doomed Navy SEAL mission during the war in Afghanistan. The mission, Operation Red Wings, saw a four-man team attempt to track Taliban leader Ahmad Shah until they fell victim to an enemy ambush. Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg in one of his best roles, “Lone Survivor” provides an exhilarating, pulse-pounding and heartbreaking look at a failed mission rather than the often-glorified successes of the military reminding us of the tragic realities that can occur when something goes wrong in the field. While the title spoils the outcome, it’s the journey that drives things home giving us a war film unafraid of reminding us of just how difficult and dangerous a soldier’s life can often be.
5. “American Sniper”
Directed by Clint Eastwood (one of his best films) and starring Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper” explores the life of Chris Kyle, a marksman responsible for 255 kills while serving in the Iraq War which earned him the title of America’s deadliest sniper. Controversial for it’s alleged glorification violence and celebration of a “killer”, “American Sniper” is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of a real soldier’s exploits and the mental tole war took on him and his family. Earning six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, “American Sniper” captivated American audiences in early 2015 to the tune of over $547 million in box office returns making it the highest grossing war film of all time which is a testament to American audience’s and how much they appreciate stories about military heroes.
4. “Hacksaw Ridge”
The Mel Gibson-directed “Hacksaw Ridge” is a truly unique entry on this list because it focuses on a soldier who served as a conscientious objector, meaning he entered the military with no intent on killing or carrying a weapon. Based on the story of Desmond Doss, a real-life combat medic and Seventh-day Adventist who because the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor, “Hacksaw Ridge” focuses mostly on his attempt to save lives after a battle on the titular ridge rather than killing the enemy with an awesome performance of Andrew Garfield helping capture the nuances of Doss’s personal struggle to serve without compromising his morals. Nominated for numerous awards, “Hacksaw Ridge” is rightfully considered not only one of the best war movies of the 2010s, but one of the decades best representations of the human spirit in war time.
3. “Zero Dark Thirty”
It’s debatable whether or not “Zero Dark Thirty” is a true war film or just a thriller with war elements, but for the purposes of this list it’s the former. Directed by Katherine Bigelow who led and won several Oscars for her 2009 war film “The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty” presents a dramatized look at the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 terrorist attacks. While it doesn’t take place on a huge battlefield or explore the nuances of a soldier’s life, it does examine the behind the scenes drama of hunting down the infamous dictator leading to an on-screen adaptation of the raid by Seal Team Six that resulted in his capture. Even though its depictions of torture caused debate and controversy, “Zero Dark Thirty” still received endless praise and remains a quintessential war film of the 2010s that stands out from the crowd.
2. “Beasts of No Nation”
One of the first great movies from Netflix, “Beasts of No Nation”, inspired by the Sierra Leone Civil War, focuses on a child soldier named Agu drawn into a conflict in a West African country. Child indoctrination in war is an all-too-common reality worldwide and Agu’s disturbing evolution into a efficient killer is enough to send chills down your spine, but what sets “Beasts of No Nation” apart is its ability to also inject a sense of hope into its narrative in spite of the horrors it presents. Filled with compelling performances and providing an engaging and sobering examination of innocence lost, “Beasts of No Nation” is one of the most honest and brutal depiction of the price of war and the long term impact it can have on those drawn into the battle against their will.
I didn’t give “Dunkirk” enough love when it first came out in 2017. In fact I gave it a four-out-of-five grade but in the years since I’ve come to respect it as the best war movie of the last decade. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk” focuses on the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II and tells the story through three different fronts and timelines: a week-long exploration of the soldiers on land, the day-long evacuation from the sea, and an hour long dogfight in the air. This narrative structure, while confusing upon first viewing, makes “Dunkirk” one of the most fascinating and unique examinations of a wartime conflict ever put to film. Its use of cinematography and music over dialogue to drive its story forward only help add to its fantastic execution. Inventive, inspired, and insightful, “Dunkirk” isn’t just one of the best war movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies of its decade and beyond.