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5.31.10 My Top Ten RIGHT NOW

1. Paths of Glory (1957)

This is a truly stellar film from a very young Stanley Kubrick with my hands down favorite performance from Kirk Douglas. Filled with inventive camera angles and fantastic analogies to chess, there’s no other war film quite like it in all its existential No Exit ennui and fascinating questioning of the cost of innocence.

2.Black Hawk Down (2001)

I have to admit that I hated this film when I saw it, so much so that I went into an epic rant directly after the screening that likely didn’t end until I got home. It was only in confronting why I had such a negative reaction to this narrative-less piece that I realized its true power. Nothing is as viscerally repugnant as this depiction of the cruelties of war, specifically here the Battle of Mogadishu, but equally applicable to any modern warfare. There’s also the added bonus of one of the best movie soundtracks ever compiled.

3. Tigerland (2000)

Arguably less a war film and more an anti-war film, this training camp based Vietnam War flick is extremely powerful in its utter simplicity. Joel Schumacher has rarely shown so much restraint before or after and it’s only been in recent years that Colin Farrell has once again shown the promise he displayed in this moving piece of work.

4. Triumph of the Will (1935)

Arguably not a war film at all, rather this is a piece of expertly crafted Nazi propaganda, but all the more reason to include it in this list for its amazing ability to show the other side. No amount of documentaries, textbooks, first person narratives or psych tests could show so clearly how a nation was swept up in unity and common hatred than watching Leni Riefenstahl’s masterwork. It becomes as much an indictment on the country that created it as on its creator, constantly begging the question of how much did any one person know or understand the results of taking commands without asking questions first.

5. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

This film is seared into my mind for its fantasy on Jewish revenge against Germany. Tarantino was so direct and commanding in his vision, from the opening segment that made my skin crawl to such excellent effect to the final paean on the power of the cinema, this film is a genre destroyer, making anyone think twice before approaching the topic of World War II.

6. Stalag 17 (1953)

Two of my favorite things come together in this film, the comic directorial genius of Billy Wilder and one of his best muses, the devilishly dashing William Holden. This film is an excellent example of how to adapt a stage work and make it vibrant and relevant on screen, set in a POW camp and filled with intrigue as each character is presented and destroyed, not as much by the surroundings, but by the fear that is generated from human interaction in forced circumstance. A special note should be made for the fantastic casting of larger than life director Otto Preminger as the camp commander.

7. The Thin Red Line (1998)

War films don’t get much more epic than this, and also strangely more quiet. This was Terrance Malick’s glorious return after disappearing from filmmaking for 20 years. And what a return it was, casting a bunch of relative unknowns in a sea of celeb cameos all set in a quiet studied hush that I imagine gets closer to what war really is like the majority of the time, a lot of waiting around. It’s a subtle and beautiful film that ended about four times before it actually did, but I have vivid memories of sitting captivated at the tender age of 14 knowing that filmmaking genius was being presented to me.

8. Hair (1979)

Again, not really a war film, more about the war at home, and this might not even be a good movie at all, really, but thanks to the excellent source material I can forgive the majority of its Milos Forman created sins. In comparison to the amorphous stage piece, this has a surprisingly linear narrative and finds an equally compelling way to weave songs that are at once so very of the Vietnam War era but also such a sunshiny wash of the reality of the era and now so seeped into popular culture that it’s hard to believe they can still retain such power in their original setting.

9. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

I have fond memories of watching this film as a child and am actually hard pressed to think of it as a war film at all… ah, the beauty of youth. This was Barry Levinson at his best in directing and Robin Williams at the height of his hilarity, riffing on the radio for the troops and getting into all sorts of trouble with his lieutenant and his sergeant. The narrative itself is nothing to scream about, but for the performances it captured, nothing could be better.

10. The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I will not even begin to say how much I hate this film on a multitude of levels. But I shall save that and admit that the war scene that opens this film is among the most harrowing and gorgeously shot of any of the films that grace this list. Spielberg puts the camera unforgivingly in the middle of the action and does not let up. It isn’t the amount of blood splatter, exploding body parts or men falling that captivate and frustrate, but the way in which the camera keeps moving, never thinking twice about the people falling all around it. It is a stunning piece of filmmaking that in light of the rest of the two hours that follow is an absolute waste.

Honorable Mentions:

The Great Dictator

Rescue Dawn

Apocalypse Now


Full Metal Jacket


Letters from Iwo Jima

Three Kings

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