This weekend I got a chance to see Sam Mendes’ Academy Award-nominated 1917 and it was nothing short of phenomenal. For a more in-depth look into the film in all of its glorious minutiae, be sure to check out our resident film critic’s review. As we move ever farther away from the romance of martial honour and the charging line, I find modern depictions of war to be quite fascinating in the 2010s. While the early 2000s spoke of the trauma and devastation of war, there was always this perspective of the event as a refining fire. Something that made heroes of men and forged powerful bonds amongst brothers in battle. Films like Valkyrie, Pearl Harbour, Rescue Dawn and Atonement tend to come to mind. This sentiment is most likely residual from 1990’s American exceptionalism.
The 2010s does not suffer this naivete. The hallmark of the genre in this era is the sins and terrible price that must be paid for war and out of this cynicism, it has produced some of the greatest war films of all time. So with 1917’s still in mind, we’re taking the time to salute some of the very best of the genre from the last decade.
5. Fury (2014)
Before the abysmal disaster that was 2016’s Suicide Squad, David Ayer blew us all away with Fury. A film that follows a tank crew during the final days of World War II, particularly Logan Lerman’s Norman, a pencil pusher who suddenly finds himself in the company of hard men. As the plot progresses on we see more and more of Norman’s compassion and humanity stripped away by both foe and ally. Jon Bernthal’s Grady being the one to taunt his beliefs the most. In 2012’s End of Watch, Ayer showed that he knows how to create organic and genuinely compelling team dynamics and Fury speaks to his ability. In spite of the team’s unforgiving exterior, there is a lot of hurt and damage in them and they find the strength to carry on through hell with the bonds of collective trauma.
The manner in which the dialogue flows from joking banter to hostile confrontations to heart-to-hearts feels seamlessly natural. Then, there are the tank battles and they are truly the highlight of the film. Scenes of battle cut between the manic energy of the crew coordinating the attack to the actual damage of each shot make for a heart-pounding experience. It’s easy to become disengaged from the stress of combat when we see just a mass of nameless soldiers running and gunning on-screen while bulks of CGI-rendered vehicles smash into one another. Not here, Fury demands your attention, for you never know when our beloved crew’s next battle will be their last.
4. Dunkirk (2017)
It is no secret that Nolan is a visionary, constantly looking to make his mark on the cinematic landscape and break new ground. Whether it be in the realm of comic-book films or with exploration into high concept sci-fiction. In 2017, the man gave us Dunkirk, a war film, unlike anything we’ve seen before. There is no plucky band of rag-tag soldiers. There is no hard-as-nails corporal with a heart of gold. There is only the creeping dread of the Nazi war machines as British forces find themselves completely blocked off from aid and reinforcements. Trapped on the titular island with little time. The entire film is a ticking timebomb waiting to explode and in the space between the coming death, there is madness, desperation and the very worst of man.
Christopher Nolan went above and beyond to reconstruct a horrific period of World War II with impressive accuracy and stunning authenticity. Veterans at the Battle of Dunkirk watched the film and they felt like they were reliving the horror of it all over again. Some of them left the theatre in tears! So many times, I’ve seen war films attempt to dress up the ugliness of the events surrounding the film with rousing speeches, cheap dollar store nationalism and some schpeel about the power of the human spirit. Sometimes we need to realize that war is a really, really shitty and scary experience and Dunkirk is a sobering reminder of that fact.
3. Beasts of No Nation (2015)
True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga shows the ravages of an African civil war through the eyes of a child and till this day is one of the most haunting films I’ve seen in a long time. Abraham Attah’s Agu was a happy, go-lucky child living with his family. He loved to play pranks, run small grifts to earn some pocket money and had a peaceful home. All that was shattered when a local militia comes running into his village, murdering everyone he’s ever known and loved. After fleeing from the scene, he ends up being recruited by a rival faction ran by Idris Alba’s Commandant, a charismatic and exploitative warlord. Agu will embark on a harrowing journey through a darkness far blacker than the African night sky.
Beasts of No Nation delivers a powerful and poignant story of innocence lost using an extremely unpleasant reality that most of us refuse to confront. To further accentuate the surreality of Agu’s experiences, the director brilliantly incorporates elements of magical realism in the film. Barring the gorgeous aesthetics, Beasts addresses aspects of war that are not for the faint of heart and the fact that some of the most heinous things here are perpetrated by children at times made my stomach turn. The film offers no easy answers to the issue of child soldiers in Africa but perhaps through the medium of cinema, it may provide some catharsis. Perhaps one day, it will help exorcise the demons of a war-torn nation till then it remains as a captivating piece of art.
2. Zero Dark Thirty
Sometimes however war isn’t about charging calvaries and prolonged gunfights. Sometimes the biggest decisions that can change the tide of battle can be made in war rooms and over conference calls. In 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, we witness the days and months that went before the assassination of one of the most dangerous men on the planet, Osama Bin Laden. Director Katheryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark is a film that doesn’t shy away from showing us the dark side of the American War on Terror. There are no “good guys” here pe say, merely soldiers and operatives doing everything in their power to defend their country. Their patriotism will take them to some very dark places and morally grey areas.
Believe or not, the Obama administration didn’t exactly come with change for the better in terms of the way the military operated. Bigelow shows us first hands the lines that organizations like the C.I.A crossed in their pursuit of American interest. Scenes involving “advanced interrogation” can be downright unnerving to watch. Bigelow also takes the time to zero in on the emotional and mental weight of the Bin Laden manhunt had on those who put their lives on hold for the sake of the mission. So when the raid finally happens near the end of the film, the build-up and tension leading to it reaches a fever pitch to the point you’ll forget that you already know the outcome. Zero Dark Thirty is a brilliant piece of thriller cinema and a significant entry in the war film genre canon.
1. Hacksaw Ridge
Needless to say, the 2010s hasn’t exactly painted those involved in war in the prettiest of lights but for our final pick, we want to talk about a film that legitimately restored our hope in humanity. Yes ladies and gentlemen, even amidst the bleak era of yesteryear we couldn’t quite stamp out a good ole inspirational war film made by the likes of Jesus-lover Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge. The film is based on the true story of a Seventh-day Adventist Christian named Desmond Doss who wishes to serve his country during World War II but refuses to take up arms. A heartwarming tale of how one man’s faith inspires those around him to greater heights of courage and compassion. A man who chose to heal and save lives instead of taking them.
Don’t get it wrong, by no means is Hacksaw Ridge a bland run-of-the-mill celluloid sermon. There are some pretty gruesome scenes of battle that takes place in the film. Imagine the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan but longer and more intense. The intensity and ferocity of the war on the Pacific theatre is wonderfully juxtaposed by Andrew Garfield’s Doss’ gentle spirit and his fierce love for his fellow men. Regardless of your beliefs, you cannot help but root for Doss as he puts his life on the line in service to mankind. Hacksaw is a film that refuses to cover up the brutality and savagery of war nor does it compromise in its stunning truth of peace and love. It’s near impossible to believe that in an age of so much division and cynicism, a film like this can still captivate us. It’s a miracle.
Do check out the rest of our best of the 2010s lists: