Top 3 War Movies: We're Not "Dunkirk" Yet

Welcome to our new feature at CinemATL. Each week(ish), CinemATL Podcast hosts Martin Kelley and Michael D Friedman will be naming our Top 3 movies based on the weekend’s big movie release. For those of you that watch the CinemATL Podcast (and why wouldn’t you? - yes, we realize we're on hiatus at the moment), this is our new weekly extension of the regular Top 3 segment. Keep in mind, these lists are totally based on our opinion, and aren’t supposed to be a definitive list of the “best” movies. If you disagree with our selections, please let us know in the comments section below!

With the release of the new Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk arriving on Friday, we’re taking a look at our Top 3 War Movies.



1. Saving Private Ryan

The movie’s first thirty minutes is still amazing all these years later. Capturing D-Day at the Normandy beaches is going to stay an iconic achievement in war movies. Yet, that’s not the only thing to love about the movie. Despite the epic scale we still get to know the characters and come to care about them immediately. It’s got a great cast, perhaps not ironically inhabited by not just actors but several filmmakers who wanted to work with Spielberg on this ambitious project. It’s at once awe-inspiring filmmaking with the heart of the greatest generation flowing throughout. There are things I think would make it even better, but hard to quibble about a masterpiece. Still don’t see how Shakespeare In Love (as good as that movie is) was able to best it that year at the Oscars.

2. Platoon

Everyone recalls the iconic image of Willem Dafoe with his hands to the sky as he’s being gunned down as his platoon can merely look on as they ride off in the helicopter. Platoon is brutal but it also treats, well some of its characters at least, the soldiers as humans just trying to make their way in the worst of times. In that regard, it has moments of genuine humanity that often doesn’t creep into accounts of the inhumanity of warfare. Thus, as much as it wants to perhaps vilify war and maybe even the U.S. at war, it doesn’t succeed to its own credit. Obviously, another good cast elevates the material and Oliver Stone had a run of very powerful films and Platoon is certainly one of his best.

3. Apocalypse Now!

Francis Ford Coppola at the height of his Hollywood power decides to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the subsequent attempt nearly kills him, not to mention Martin Sheen. However, what comes of that trial is certainly a masterful film and one that helped set the tone for generations of war movie makers that followed. The hypothesis that war transforms man into a monster is explored to great and chilling effect in this film. Upon reflection, the movie comes to a horrific conclusion drawn from a wondrous cinematic triumph.

Honorable Mentions: Black Hawk Down, Braveheart, The Deer Hunter



1. Full Metal Jacket

I will admit, my first instinct was to put Edge of Tomorrow as my #1 pick, but I decided to remain true to the category and focus on “real” war movies and not Sci-Fi. At any rate, Stanley Kubrick’s classic film is really two movies in one. We get to follow a group of new Marine recruits as they go through hell in basic training during the Vietnam War. This was the movie that introduced most of America to the real-life drill sergeant R. Lee Emery and kick-started his acting career. The tale of Private “Pyle’s” (Vincent D’Onofrio) mental breakdown in this harsh reality is actually more powerful than the second half of the movie, which sees Matthew Modine’s journey to Vietnam and the war itself.

2. Three Kings

Maybe not truly a “war” movie, as Three Kings actually takes place AFTER Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, but this is the film that first introduced me to David O. Russell.  The film has a very saturated color palette and interesting visuals that make it stand out. Three Kings stars George Clooney (always great) along with Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube (in possibly their best roles ever) as three U.S. soldiers that get in over their heads when they head out into the Iraqi desert in search of Saddam Hussein's gold. It's an often humorous, yet at times deadly serious, satirical look at the U.S.’s involvement in the Persian Gulf. Spike Jonze, better known for his directorial prowess, is also hilarious in a supporting role.

3. Saving Private Ryan

Much like Full Metal Jacket, this really feels like two separate films. The opening sequence of Normandy is masterful filmmaking. It’s as intense a battle scene as you will ever see in a war film (tough maybe Dunkirk can top it?). Spielberg really makes it feel as if you are there on the beach as the bloodshed unfolds around you. It’s truly frightening stuff and shows the terror of war. The second half of the film, again, feels less powerful, but it it is still engaging. It’s perhaps Tom Hank’s best, most understated performance, even if it’s not one he won an Oscar for. Janusz Kaminiski did win the Oscar for Best Cinematography, though, and it was fully deserved. Despite the subject matter, this is a beautiful film, masterfully shot.

Honorable Mentions: Edge of Tomorrow (see above), Enemy at the Gates, Tigerland