American Sniper contiues to generate loads of box office cash and social backlash. Director Clint Eastwood – a figure absolutely synonymous with the badass, the gunman – continues to be fascinated with telling that guy’s story. His most powerful films are always stories of the physical and emotional damage the badass accrues over the course of a lifetime of violence, and American Sniper is another in this potent vein. Debate rages over whether it’s a responsible depiction of Chris Kyle as a man, but as a film American Sniper is a brilliantly acted, well executed thriller, ranking as one of the best of its genre.
Military films have often riled audiences and critics alike. Here’s a non-sequential list of ten of our other favorites.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
This is Stanley Kubrick’s chilly vision of the war in Vietnam and its impact on the American psyche. More intense and yet more controlled than any of the other Vietnam epics of the ’80s, this film is a punch to the gut from boot camp through the Tet Offensive. It’s brilliant.
No Man’s Land (2001)
Two soldiers – one Bosnian, one Serb – are trapped in a trench between the Serbian and Bosnian fronts. Their position is symbolic of the fuzzy barrier dividing compassion and hatred, as well as a symbol of the film itself – balancing and blending the bitter comedy of absurdities and the devastating human issues of war. This often comedic, often punishing look at the idiocy of war, in concept and in particulars, took the best screenplay prize at Cannes 2001.
Yes, a change of pace for Army training, sir, but no doubt the most entertaining film on the list. Every list should have a Bill Murray film on it, and if you can pull from the exceptional bank of Harol Ramis-penned comedies, all the better. Plus, it’s a history lesson about all kinds of Eastern European nations that no longer exist.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1959)
A timeless examination of the madness of war and the bone-deep respectability of the British upper class, The Bridge on the River Kwai hauled in 7 Oscars. Director David Lean knows what he’s doing with a camera. The film looks amazing, and the choices made by every major character continues to surprise and confound almost 60 years later.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Far and away the best of the Iraq War films, this unflinching and politics-free look at a U.S. bomb squad operating inside Baghdad is a triumph for director Katheryn Bigelow. It won 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and the historic Best Director nod. Four years later Bigelow upped the ante with the even more gripping Zero Dark Thirty (not an outright “military” film for our purposes here but we can have that debate another time). The Hurt Locker gets to you with the quiet intelligence of a film benefitting from years of history and hindsight. The fact it had neither makes the achievement all the more startling.
Das Boot (1981)
Wolfgang Peterson’s study in claustrophobia is the most tense and terrifying look at WWII you are likely to find.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Great performances and an excellent story follow what is one of the most devastating and visceral action sequences in war movie cinema. Steven Spielberg was robbed a best picture Oscar for this one, but he can rest assured that his WWII effort is holding up a little better than some fluffy Shakespeare tale.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Trippy, violent and hypnotic, Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is hard to watch and harder to turn away from. The film stinks of death and insanity thanks to Coppola’s bizarre vision and equally unsettling performances from Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen and Dennis Hopper.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Twelve criminals execute a suicide mission in WWII. Here’s a throwback thriller where the guy who has your back in your top secret mission is very likely insane. Never trust a guy named Maggot.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Robin Williams’s best performance comes in the form of an obnoxious radio DJ sentenced to a station in Vietnam during the war. Funny and tragic, boasting an endlessly quotable screenplay and excellent performances all around, it’s one of the decade’s best films.