The 100 Greatest War Movies of All Time

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25. Cross of Iron (1977)
Director: Sam Peckinpah


What pity that Sam Peckinpah made just one war movie proper in his lifetime. This explorer of masculinity, fascinated by male camaraderie and by gunplay, obsessed with mortality and the concept of heroism, always seemed a perfect fit for the genre. And so it proved with Cross of Iron, Bloody Sam’s anarchic and blackly comic traipse through Russian territory during the long German retreat of 1943. Grimy and cold, there’s not much of the pretty lyricism of Peckinpah’s westerns in Cross of Iron—here, death is not glorious but wasteful, while the mud-brown/stone-gray color scheme is interrupted only by liberal splashes of thick red blood. Orson Welles thought it one of the best anti-war films he’d ever seen, and with good reason. The film closes on a freezeframe of James Coburn’s Sgt. Steiner cackling, as Maximilian Schell’s hopeless officer and soon-to-be Iron Cross recipient in the middle of combat asks Steiner how to reload his own weapon, Russian forces swarming all around them. The crushing absurdity of war has hardly been better summarized on film. —Brogan Morris

24. Three Kings (1999)
Director: David O. Russell


Three Kings is a war movie which, as it goes along, attempts to figure out what a war movie even is anymore. Set at the butt-end of the Gulf War, the film begins as an odd bacchanalia of boredom, contorting through a handful of genres and Desert Storm misadventures to arrive, inevitably, at the conclusion that Oh, Yeah, Actually Turns Out War Is Never Boring. Director David O. Russell has his faults—and even a cursory reading into this movie will give you plenty of anecdotes about how much of a heel he is—but he’s not too naïve to claim he can sum up that conflict and the U.S.’s role by portraying its participants as hedonists and potential career criminals, partying and plundering their way through a passive desert land with nothing better to do. So, as four soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze and Ice Cube) embark on a Kuwaiti gold heist based on information found within an ass map, Russell explores what the responsibilities of these men could be when their only responsibilities—occupying, defending and killing—are no longer all that urgent. Camaraderie, brotherhood, moral fortitude: all of it gone from Russell’s wonky post-war flick, replaced with a refreshing sense of surprise all but extinct from most movies dealing with the same moral gray of modern warfare. —Dom Sinacola

23. Patton (1970)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner


Watching Patton, Franklin J. Schaffner’s colossal biographical ode to one of World War II’s most renowned and most controversial military figures, you get the sense that George S. Patton would likely dig Schaffner’s work; the film doesn’t apologize for itself or for its subject’s actions and attitudes, much as Patton didn’t make a habit of apologizing for either unless directly ordered to by his superiors. There may be no more appropriate way to honor the man’s memory than that, to the extent that Patton can be described as an “honor.” The film doesn’t exactly flatter the general, per se, but straddles a line between hero worship and sober representation, letting Patton, and by extension George C. Scott’s commanding and iconic portrait of him, speak for himself without fear of condemnation or reprisal. As Patton is about Patton, so, too, is it about Scott, which makes sense: If you make a movie and name it after its central character, you’re also making it about its central performance, and so it’s good that Scott was up to the task of reincarnating the late general in all his egotistical, violent, callous and shockingly vulnerable glory.Patton is a war movie, make no mistake, but it uses the war movie blueprint for housing a character study of its protagonist. The results, almost half a century later, remain completely singular in the genre. —Andy Crump

22. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
Director: Henry King


Regarding the punishing lengths that some American airmen went to in the early days of WWII, Twelve O’Clock High is a disarmingly frank examination of combat shock. Scenes set up in the sky are realized through a smart, seamless combination of claustrophobic studio work and archive footage, but most of the drama takes place on the ground, where, short on planes and men, the aim at Archbury airbase is to “take nice kids and fly em till they can’t take anymore.” The film conveys all the strangeness and anxiety of flying a winged steel tube into enemy territory to drop explosives, and praying to get lucky enough not to be blown out of the sky. It’s the strict General Savage’s (Gregory Peck) job to restore morale and get the men of 918th squadron fighting operational again, but even he has a limit in these conditions. Keep a close eye on Peck’s performance: at first it may seem one-note, but somewhere around the final act the mask of all-American resoluteness begins to slip, before the actor makes an astounding left-turn in the closing moments that still ranks among cinema’s most heartbreaking depictions of combat fatigue. —Brogan Morris

21. Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
Director: J. Lee Thompson


J. Lee Thompson’s Ice Cold in Alex, which situates us in Libya in 1941, might be the hottest black-and-white picture ever made. Overcoming the natural coolness of the monochrome image, the fierce heat of the desert is felt in its every frame, of bright sand-paved landscapes and sweating bodies. The palpable prickliness is an ideal set-up for the relief John Mills’ motley ambulance crew long for, as they pass minefields and German military patrols on the no-man’s land from Tobruk to British-held Alexandria, where the frosty beer anticipated even by the very title awaits. A small-scale film, Thompson’s focus on universally relatable sentiments—the soldier here longs not for action or glory, but simple home comforts after a job well done—makes the film feel huge. In its final minutes, this thriller reveals itself as a touching ode to friendship, as our unremarkable heroes sink their ice cold lagers in a long-awaited moment of release, and one of their number is forgiven in a rebuke to military protocol—another minor, humanist gesture which Thompson somehow manages to make massive. —Brogan Morris

20. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir


The pilot for one of the greatest movie franchises that never was, Peter Weir’s Napoleonic War adventure plays a long game of cat-and-mouse over two oceans, between a French vessel and the British HMS Surprise. The film takes great pleasure in old ways: it luxuriates in the myths and salty humor of Georgian mariners, gets swept up in the pre-WWI mentality of war as a flag-waving lark and, in a brief excursion to the Galapagos Islands, pines for the days of analog exploration. This is a feel-good film with a high body count—Weir and his cast of character actors take great pains to ensure the dozens of seamen are keenly and affectionately drawn to a man, so that each limb-endangering injury, each fatality is felt—thanks in large part to the squabbling chemistry between Russell Crowe as the ship’s driven Captain Aubrey, and Paul Bettany as its stern doctor. Through them it very nearly becomes a buddy movie, with the pair constantly nit-picking and bantering, but at the end of the day always reaffirming their friendship with a violin/cello jam. A match this good deserved a sequel, but the one movie we got is good enough to savor. —Brogan Morris

19. Fires on the Plain (1959)
Director: Kon Ichikawa


In Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), a Japanese infantryman with consumption, makes a directionless pilgrimage through the Philippine jungle, looking for means to survive following the Japanese army’s defeat by U.S. forces in the region. Forced into an ascetic life, Tamura’s journey becomes a kind of religious experience—retaining his soul means sharing with others and not resorting to cannibalism as his fellow soldiers do, his body wasting while he clings onto his humanity as though that alone will keep him alive. A platoon of Japanese soldiers clamber over each other in the night like bugs, lit up by the enemy tanks about to decimate them; a dying soldier hungrily eats a handful of mud. Almost everything, from the dread-heavy score to the frighteningly dazed performance by Funakoshi (the actor reportedly ate so little in preparation that filming halted for two months while he recovered), tells us to abandon this savage epic. Yet its perverse beauty is hard to turn away from. —Brogan Morris

18. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean


A frequent contender for the “greatest film of all time” crown, this adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel Le Pont Sue La Riviere Kwai is directed by the magnificent David Lean and stars William Holden, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa. Though fictional, the work is based on the construction of the Burma Railway in 1943, and was filmed on location in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (and in an interesting side-note, a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Boulle, who didn’t write the script, but had to be credited because the actual writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were on the Black List at the time). The film chronicles the convergence of British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp led by Colonel Saito (Hayakawa), an intense and often sadistic officer. The ranking British officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) is so by-the-book that he philosophizes about whether his men have a duty to try to escape, and nearly starves to death in a stand-down with Saito over adherence to the Geneva Convention. Complicating the mix is American Navy Commander Shears (Holden), a cynic who thinks Nicholson is insane for his dogged dedication to the rules in a clearly lawless situation. Saito is desperate to complete construction of the bridge (he’ll be forced to commit ritual suicide if he doesn’t), and of course, his war prisoner workforce are more interested in sabotaging the project than complying. Shears escapes, only to find himself recruited by a British commando unit charged with detonating the bridge. Except Nicholson has gone kind of Stockholm Syndrome and become obsessed with making a Great British Work of Engineering for the Japanese army. It ends in a tragic collision that’s been referenced, parodied and studied for generations. The production ruffled a lot of feathers—the British resented their depiction in the film and many deemed it anti-British (Alec Guinness included). Japanese critics resented the implication that they were incompetent engineers. David Lean frequently clashed with his British cast members, especially Guinness. At one point Lean fell into the river and narrowly escaped drowning. Decades before Apocalypse Now, this was a war film that was beset with onion-layers of internal battle. But Lean’s technical perspicacity is unwavering, the performances of the principal characters nuanced and multi-dimensional. No one’s a hero; no one’s a villain. Also: everyone’s a hero and everyone’s a villain. The film remains one of the most enduring WWII films largely because it takes a layered and sympathetic look at what constitutes courage, duty and the human survival instinct, which can take a multitude of forms. —Amy Glynn

17. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino


Ah, The Deer Hunter, a movie of grand ambition and messy politics, one that critics exalt for its thoughtful depiction of working class Pennsylvanians while in the same breath condemning it for its racist one-sidedness and ponderous ambiguity. But despite Michael Cimino’s shortcomings, with The Deer Hunter he created a film truly unlike any other, an episodic saga that captures what Pauline Kael eloquently called “poetry of the commonplace” while also boiling over with anti-war sentiment and palpable rage regarding American troops’ experiences in Vietnam. The film’s first hour alone is a work of art, a fly-on-the-wall documentation of life in a Pennsylvania steel town (with eastern Ohio mostly standing in), as a group of friends including Nick (Christopher Walken), Michael (Robert De Niro) and Julie (Meryl Streep) prepare for two key events: a large, raucous Russian Orthodox wedding and the imminent departure of the men for Vietnam, where they realize their lives will forever be changed. The film’s shocking second act, with its POW Russian Roulette games and Nick’s torturous break with reality, is of course its most memorable. But the scenes that bookend that horror are the ones that earn it a place on this list, and ground its most ghoulish and surreal sequences in the real sense of despondency that threatened to drown many communities in the wake of the war. —Maura McAndrew

16. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone


Such was the impact of Lewis Milestone’s pacifistic WWI drama: when the film was first released, Variety wrote that the League of Nations should show it around the world “until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.” Not surprisingly, the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy banned the movie—they feared the influence of its anti-war message, and, almost 90 years on, the pulverizing power of the film is obvious. All Quiet on the Western Front is ferocious, a Pre-Code deglamorization of war that, some nine decades ago, arguably made the final point on the profound horror of the trenches. The heroes of this tale start out as schoolboys, young Germans urged to the front by their professor, but—without the film ever sparing much time to contemplate just what’s happening—before long the class of ’14 are whittled down to just one veteran boy soldier, a witness in his teens to all the myriad ways men can die. Just out of the silent age, Milestone made a noise that can still be heard loud and clear. —Brogan Morris

15. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Director:   Steven Spielberg  


Despite its overwhelming scale, the economy of Saving Private Ryan is an astounding accomplishment of storytelling. Barely a year into founding Dreamworks—the studio he built with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, essentially allowing him free rein over his creative output—and cuffed by the relative disappointment of Amistad, Steven Spielberg created a nearly three-hour imagistic portrait of Europe in the waning weeks of World War II, all without once allowing the nightmarish breadth of the conflict to overtake the characters at its heart. Twenty years later, and the film’s opening 30-minute salvo, detailing in documentary-like grit the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, still stands as iconic war filmmaking, unflinching but so pristinely focused on the sheer weight of lives lost that it’s a stymying watch even if you know exactly what you’re getting into—even if you’ve seen it before. Within that initial stretch, brutal and breathless, we learn all we’ll ever need to know about the people who inhabit this literally foreign landscape, each character (played by such folks as Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi) presented with the precision of a master who’s discovered how best to balance all that historic weight. For us Millennials who first began to understand the extent of what our grandparents endured as we came of age (as we became the age our grandfather was when he left for war), Saving Private Ryan was an earth-shaking film from a director who’d already reared us on big, blown-out entertainment. For us and anyone else, the film is a near-perfect, heart-wrenching feat that must have been given, as was the film’s titular mission to Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), to Spielberg by fate itself. —Dom Sinacola

14. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Director:   Stanley Kubrick  


It’s a non-controversial opinion that Full Metal Jacket’s worth extends as far as its first half and declines from there as the film nosedives into conventionality. But the second chapter of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam horror story is responsible for creating the conventions by which we’re able to judge the picture in retrospect, and even conventional material as delivered by an artist like Kubrick is worth watching: Full Metal Jacket’s back half is, all told, pleasingly gripping and dark, a naked portrait of how war changes people in contrast to how the military culture depicted in the front half changes people. Being subject to debasement on a routine basis will break a person’s mind in twain. Being forced to kill another human will collapse their soul. Really, there’s nothing about Full Metal Jacket that doesn’t work or get Kubrick’s point across, but there’s also no denying just how indelible its pre-war sequence is, in particular due to R. Lee Ermey’s immortal performance as the world’s most terrifying Gunnery Sergeant. —Andy Crump

13. Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky


Tarkovsky fan Jean-Paul Sartre observed that, for the prepubescent veteran of Ivan’s Childhood, the world has become “a hallucination.” It’s why we view the film through an oneiric lens: it’s the only way our boy hero can interpret his Russia in the midst of war. An orphan whose family was executed by the Germans, a former Partisan and now a scout for the Soviet army, Ivan is coddled by the other soldiers in his unit, but they hope to nurture innocence in a child already made preternaturally old by war. This minimal story of Ivan’s Childhood’s is just the canvas on which Andrei Tarkovsky can arrange his luminous photography, around which the director can wrap his cosmic musings on existence. Beguiling long takes force us to ponder the trees, the water, the swamps between the German and Soviet outposts, always rained on by flares in the night. Tarkovsky’s compositions are magic, so perfectly calibrated and dense with thought they each carry the weight of an essay. No other war film looks and feels like this. No other war film ever will. —Brogan Morris

12. Das Boot (1981)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen


You can watch it as a feature, either the 150-minute theatrical iteration or the 208-minute director’s cut. Or, if you have the time, you can see it in its original uncut form, or as a five-hour miniseries. But in any version, Das Boot is the finest submarine movie in all of cinema. Only “movie” seems an inadequate description. Wolfgang Peterson’s breakout is an experience, a thing to endure alongside the solemn, silly, cynical men of the U-96. We the audience spend the days down there in the depths with the crew, stalking enemy vessels and tensing up under hull-busting pressure, petrified at the sound of approaching depth charges, elated at successfully escaping through into safe waters. Author Lothar-Gunther Buchheim considered his novel butchered, with Petersen’s film an unrealistic “re-glorification” of the German combatant in WWII, but there seems nothing glorious or inauthentic about Peterson’s adaptation. To the viewer, the U-96 crew’s excursions into fear and madness seem like perfectly reasonable responses to an unimaginable situation. —Brogan Morris

11. Army of Shadows (1969)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville


A story of those French citizens who for five long years resisted Nazi occupation, Army of Shadows is a black-and-white film made in color, Jean-Pierre Melville’s predominantly gray-blue color palette lending a chilly air to a decidedly bleak and minimalist saga less about the heroism of defiance and more about surviving the consequences of resistance. The film is as subdued as the phantom-like men and women fighting for reclamation of their land, visually as murky as the actions perpetrated by either side of the fight. Melville’s tenth was virtually unknown until 2006, when his film—widely derided at home in a divided France on initial release—finally opened in the United States to critical acclaim. In the wake of its relatively recent re-evaluation, Army of Shadows stands, along with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien as one of the defining films about the French resistance. —Brogan Morris

10. Platoon (1986)
Director:   Oliver Stone  


You can boil down Platoon to a single iconic image: Willem Dafoe, hands and arms held aloft as Vietnamese soldiers gun him down, his fellow infantrymen the sole audience to his grim and lonesome demise on the ground. Is he making an act of supplication in his final moments? Is he submitting to death itself? Or is his gesture meant to be interpreted as an acknowledgment of his helplessness, a pantomime outcry at his betrayal and abandonment? No matter how many times this scene plays out, its subtexts remain open to interpretation. What remains the same is our horror at Dafoe’s exit from the film, and what it means in context within the narrative. Platoon, like any Vietnam war movie, is unforgivingly brutal, a picture show of relentless barbarity that recreates one of America’s greatest self-made martial, political, and international debacles. Also like any Vietnam war movie, or any war movie general, really, it repurposes a host of atrocities as tense entertainment, folding the cathartic release of seeing the bad guy get what’s coming to him within the bloody details of America’s intervention in Vietnam. —Andy Crump

9. The Grand Illusion (1937)
Director: Jean Renoir


Made in the build-up to an even greater war, Jean Renoir’s WWI POW drama is a sincere call for unity between nations. The call would go unheeded of course, but 80 years filled with clashes and violent disagreements later, Renoir’s message prevails: class, nationality and creed are meaningless before our shared humanity. Just a decade on from the first talkie, Renoir made what today appears a strikingly modern film: naturalistic performances and dialogue, smooth camera movements and, most importantly, complex character dynamics. Every character in the film, through desperate circumstance, becomes allied with another from a walk of life they otherwise would never traverse. Most interesting is the relationship between the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim): they are French and German, prisoner and warden, but, as if two rare creatures forced to occupy the same cage, a friendship forms through mutual recognition that they may be among the last of their kind. Renoir’s depiction of an entire society through allegory is genius, his empathy almost superhuman. The Grand Illusion kills with kindness—it fulfills its duty as an anti-war flick not by showing battlefield horrors, but simply by asking: how can we be enemies when we have so much in common? —Brogan Morris

8. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo


A perfect meeting of story and style, Gillo Pontecorvo’s guerrilla warfare drama The Battle of Algiers reflects in its grainy docu-style the scrappy tactics of the combatants: the revolutionary Algerian National Liberation Front, executing police and civilians in cafes and in the streets, and the French governors and counter-insurgents, struggling to combat a threat to their existence in a land they rule but don’t fully understand. Like a great documentary would, The Battle of Algiers takes a coolly balanced and non-judgmental view of its subjects, coming down neither on the side of the radicals nor the colonialists, but in another way Pontecorvo’s raw newsreel design is deceptive: what appears improvisational is actually meticulously arranged. The director’s great achievement is that not a second of his film is without purpose, yet it unfolds as a constant surprise, almost as though the footage was not shot but discovered. —Brogan Morris

7. Paths of Glory (1957)
Director:   Stanley Kubrick  


François Truffaut is famously (and maybe erroneously) credited as having said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war movie.” He did say that he couldn’t make a war movie about Algiers on the basis that, “to show something is to ennoble it”; he also said that “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” If this is true then maybe Paths of Glory is the closest the movies will ever get to producing an anti-war statement, though Stanley Kubrick’s trim World War I opus is better qualified as being disdainful of war: You can sense Kubrick’s contempt for his antagonists seething from behind the camera, his righteous indignation at the unapologetic cowardice of the craven old men who send others off to die on the field of battle at their behest. Maybe Paths of Glory isn’t anti-war, but it is pro-human, a film that celebrates true dignity and honor by recognizing that one need not rush forth to meet their inevitable death to be brave. —Andy Crump

6. The Red and the White (1967)
Director: Miklós Jancsó


One of the most gorgeously fluid films ever made, Miklós Jancsó’s Russian Civil War snapshot is a Soviet production by way of a fiercely independent Hungarian auteur—all the opulent production and Herculean skill with the camera that characterized the best of the Communist Bloc’s filmmaking, minus the didacticism of its worst. Mosfilm for some reason agreed to finance it (before later re-editing, then banning it); it’s hard to see how the film’s fatalistic conceit, the narrative baton constantly passing from one faction and one character to the next as soldiers die at the hands of their “red” or “white” enemy, could ever have been viewed as anything other than explicitly anti-war. It’s a gallery of horrors—officers jumping to their deaths rather than being taken prisoner, captive soldiers used as moving target practice, civilian women forced to dance for their captors—made hypnotic by Jancsó’s sheer technique. Better than perhaps any other, Jancsó’s film makes the case for the utter wastefulness of war. All this death, and after 90 minutes, not a lesson learned. —Brogan Morris

5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger


Surely the most remarkable film ever to take inspiration from a tabloid comic strip, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a war movie that spans three wars yet never actually shows any combat, about two career military men on opposite sides who somehow remain lifelong friends. For the most part the film remains in Blighty, where the British Clive Wynne-Candy and Prussian Theo (the ever-transforming Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, both astonishing) return from the Boer War, see out the end of the Great War and find themselves respectively an old soldier out of time and an alien fleeing the Nazis at the outset of WWII. Colonel Blimp is many things. It gloriously satirizes its plummy, proper milieu and mournfully charts that period’s passing into history. It’s about how war in the first half of the 20th century lost its jingoistic appeal and brought about great political change, how conflict is cyclical and too often born out of stubborn pride, about growing out of dashing idealism into cynical old age, about obsessive love (there’s a Vertigo-esque role for Deborah Kerr, who plays a different object of affection for Candy in each timeline). Above all, it’s a WWII-era film by an Englishman and an Austro-Hungarian that emphasizes humanism over nationalism, powered by said pair’s ahead-of-their-time inventiveness. Few films have ever tried to say and be so much, and succeeded in saying and doing it all with such panache, lightness and wit. —Brogan Morris

4. Come and See (1985)
Director: Elem Klimov


If the purpose of a war movie is to make war appear absolutely and totally unappealing, then Come and See might be the greatest ever made. Elem Klimov’s film is the war movie as expressionist horror, a diorama of violence and dreadful symbolism that’s also a cruel coming-of-age spectacle. Perhaps Klimov could only comprehend the genocidal reality of the Nazi war machine storming Belorussia through this hallucination of sound and imagery: corpse-piles attracting clouds of flies, dairy cows machine-gunned by tracers at dusk, forest bombing raids that leave the lead character’s (and the film’s) aural faculties muffled. Though we’re witness to atrocities, including a climactic annihilation of a Belorussian village that may be the single most effective anti-war scene in all cinema, the damage done to young hero Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) is what’s most unforgettable, as he enters the picture fresh-faced and idealistic and leaves it withered and hollow. The title is taken from a line in the Book of Revelation; the epic terror implied in the biblical quotation is absolutely fitting for this most harrowing of war movies. —Brogan Morris

3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Director:   Terrence Malick  


It seems unbelievable now that even an auteur as legendary as Terrence Malick actually secured financing to make poetry on the scale of The Thin Red Line. Pitched up on lush location in Australia and armed with a cast bursting with talent, Malick returned from moviemaking hibernation in 1998 with author James Jones’ story of a company of GIs battling Japanese forces in the paradise of Guadalcanal refracted through his own glorious lens. The result was an abstract and relentlessly contemplative epic, awash with gorgeous cutaways to jungle and beast, and—atypically for a filmmaker whose main fixation has always been the environment his characters reside in—chock-full of great acting. (The performances are faultless to a man, but a terrifically zen Jim Caviezel and a perpetually enraged Nick Nolte take the prize.) Hardly ever can a film sustain that aching feeling of raw emotion across its entire running time; this almost three-hour masterpiece does. —Brogan Morris

2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Director: David Lean


“And introducing Peter O’Toole.” Talk about a debut. Look up the word “epic” and you just might find David Lean’s marathon masterpiece about T.E. Lawrence in the Arabian Peninsula in WWI. Its run time is 222 minutes, so if you’ve somehow managed to get to this point without having seen it, plan accordingly but do see it, because there are really good reasons why this film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (of which it won seven). Though somewhat romanticized and with some conflated or added or subtracted characters, this is a fairly nonfictional account of Lawrence’s story, in which he finds his loyalties divided between the Arab tribes and the British Army (Clashing cultures was a noteworthy preoccupation in Lean’s films, and opinion is somewhat divided on how successful he is at depicting them). A kooky maverick as far as the British are concerned and an untrustworthy outsider to the Arabs, he wins the favor of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), and leads a dangerous and daring attack on the Turkish military Aqaba with a multitribal Arab force led by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). And that’s all before the intermission. Lean was a director’s director with a fascinating visual sensibility, and the brutal, lethal Arabian desert is not only captured brilliantly by cinematographer F. A. Young, but in large part by composer Maurice Jarre’s brilliant score. There’s not a bad performance from the powerhouse cast, but what one has to wonder is what would have happened if the studio’s first choice had accepted, And Lawrence had been played by Albert Finney? O’Toole was an unknown when he was thrust into a demanding and intense lead role, and he is so riveting it’s hard to imagine anyone else under those robes. By turns bold and shattered, insouciant and wild, refined and desperate, he remains above all believable and deeply human-an unapologetically flawed hero (and wow, not too hard on the eyes, either). Yes, Lawrence of Arabia is an important, canonical film for its scale, its score, its technical achievements. But what really matters about it in the end is pure, and utterly masterful, storytelling. —Amy Glynn

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola


Let’s invoke Truffaut one more time, because his spirit feels as relevant to discussion of Francis Ford Coppola’s baleful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as to discussion of Paths of Glory. Maybe, if we take Truffaut at his word, Apocalypse Now can’t help but endorse war merely through the act of recreating it as art. But maybe that doesn’t stop the film from conveying Coppola’s driving theses: That war turns men into monsters, leads them on a descent into a primal, lawless state of mind, and that war is itself hell, an ominous phrase now made into cliché by dint of gross overuse between 1979 and today. If the film innately sanctions war by depiction, it does not sanction war’s impact on the humanity of its participants. In fact, Apocalypse Now remains one of the most profound illustrations of the corrosive effect nation-sanctioned violence has on a person’s spirit and psyche. It’s cute that in 2017, we’re okay with quoting this movie in gratingly awful AT&T commercials, or repurposing its period backdrop for the sake of making King Kong happen for contemporary audiences for a second time, but there’s nothing cute, or even all that quotable, about it. Apocalypse Now sears, sickens and scars; it’s a film that brands itself in our memories as only the grimmest displays of human depravity truly can. —Andy Crump

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