30 Best War Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

This French-Canadian slow-burner, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, will pull you in with one of the best movie beginnings of all time – and its outstanding ending will leave you shaken. To fulfill their mother’s last wish after her sudden death in Montreal, the two twins Jeanne and Simon must travel separately to an unnamed Middle-Eastern country (with strong resemblances to civil-war-torn Lebanon) to deliver letters to close relatives they never knew they had.

The twins’ quest into a dark and staggering family history makes them experience themselves and the violence of war like they had never imagined. Their ordeal is interrupted by a series of flashbacks telling the story of their mother, Nawal Marwan, before leading them to uncover a deeply disturbing secret. Based on Wajdi Mouawad's 2003 play of the same name, this melodramatic war thriller takes a poetic and poignant look at how families are shaped by atrocities – even long the after wars that produced them have ended.

While barely 90 minutes long, Cold War is epic in scope and a modern testament to what cinema can be. Whether we are feasting our eyes on the decaying post-war landscape of Poland, the patinated streets of East Berlin, or the delicate magic of a historic Paris, Cold War offers its viewers meticulously staged black-and-white beauty, conceived by Polish wunderkind director Paweł Pawlikowski and his trusted cinematographer Łukasz Ża. Winner of a slew of prestigious awards, this is a film made for the silver screen, so we recommend leaving your iPhone on the table and getting your hands on the biggest screen you can muster for watching this. The plot is essentially about the obsessive attraction between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and the young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is recruited as the newest member of the former's state-sponsored folk music band. Cold War follows their impossible love for fourteen years and across many European countries on each side of the Iron Curtain. It is a statement on how far artists go for their art, especially when they become constrained not only by dictatorship but also love. A poetic, sexy, and gorgeous movie without a wasted moment. A work of art.
Orlando von Einsiedel's epic documentary is at once a stunning natural film, an intimate human drama, and an intense political thriller slash investigative report. The titular Virunga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site in Eastern Congo, serves as the magnifying glass through which we witness the natural, human, and political crisis of this embattled and volatile region. There are poachers killing endangered gorillas, the bloody business of Big Oil companies, government forces fighting a myriad of militias, and, lastly, the three individuals struggling to protect Virunga and its mountain gorillas from death and destruction. The result is a snap-crackle-pop-type situation, like sitting on a powder keg. The film captures all this superbly with great editing, compelling real-life material, and gripping action. Virunga's intensity can rival a well-made fictional thriller any day of the week.

Persepolis is the true story of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator whose graphic novels of the same name the film is adapted from. It details in vivid animation the trials of growing up in war-torn Iran, but also, crucially, the joys of being raised by a loving family and the significance of forming one’s own ideals and identity. In between revolving dictatorships and tightening restrictions, Marjane comes into her own and discovers what it means to live a meaningful life.

It’s a testament to Satrapi’s many talents that Persepolis never feels too flat or cynical given its 2D style and bleak backdrop. The drawings impressively morph with Marjane’s every thought, as if the ink itself were alive, and her wit persistently comes through in sharp observations and dialogues. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to portraying war and conflict in a nuanced manner. In an autobiographical tale that is about Marjane’s coming of age as much as it is about her country’s survival, it’s never been more true that the personal is political.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

This story of a filmmaker who stayed in Aleppo, Syria during the war, got married then had a child called Sama, is a mix of difficult and inspiring.

There are stories of unsurmountable loss, as the filmmaker’s husband is one of the 30 remaining doctors in Aleppo (a city of almost 5 million), and she films many of the victims that come to his hospital. But while this is happening, there are also uplifting stories of resilience and rare but profound moments of laughter and joy.

We’re growing too sensitized to violence in Syria, and this movie, possibly the most intimate account of the war, can stir back a much-needed awareness of the injustices that take place.

When things get really bad in the documentary, it’s hard not to wonder where the humanity is in all of this. You quickly realize that it’s right there, behind the camera, in Sama and her mother’s will to live.

You've probably watched and heard about enough Holocaust films to expect a formula, but you might want to put all that aside going into The Boy in Striped Pajamas. Bruno, the son of a WWII Nazi commandant forms an unlikely friendship with a Jewish kid his age in his father's concentration camp. The film is World War II told through Bruno's eyes, and while you might not get why this movie is so highly praised in its first scenes, the twisting and profound second half will have you recommending it to everyone in need of a moving story well executed, or quite simply a good cry.

This Oscar-nominated drama tells the story of the events leading up to the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8372 Bosnian Muslims were killed. It focuses on one U.N. worker who was caught between trying to protect her family, herself, and helping people in need.

The film is as horrific as it is relevant: up until the actual killing starts, people are constantly being assured that everything is under control and that there is no reason to panic. This gives an eerie feeling of resemblance to the tone many minorities in distress receive nowadays.

Still, Quo Vadis, Aida? stops at depicting any of the acts that were committed that day. Instead, it focuses on Aida’s unrelenting race against the clock to save whatever she can.

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is back in full form with this three-hour movie based on a true story. His creation has one of the most beautiful depictions of happiness ever seen in film, portraying the simple yet joyous life of a farmer in the Austrian mountains. You'd have to see it for yourself to understand, but how Malick depicts this character's love for his wife (and her love for him), their children, and even their farming rituals are nothing short of cinematic wizardry. 

This peaceful existence changes when World War 2 intensifies and this farmer is called to serve for the Nazis. He refuses to enroll out of principle and puts himself and his family at great danger and alienation from their village. The question at the center of the film is one that other villagers and the church ask him a lot: what good can his actions do? And the title of the movie is taken from A George Eliot quote: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

David O. Russel (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) is one of those directors who the more you dig into his past, the more you are rewarded. I Heart Huckabees is a great example of this, as is The Fighter (both are must-watch if you haven't seen them). But it is Three Kings that truly presented him as someone who can give great substance to big-budget movies. It stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and even director Spike Jonze (Her, Adaptation), in other words, a festival of talent at its peak. And it follows three soldiers who want use the end of the Gulf War as an opportunity to get rich. Their journey through a devastated and uncertain Iraq is a thrilling one, as Three Kings is action-packed. But the purpose of this movie lies somewhere between political satire around American interventionism and social criticism of the main characters. However, none of that stands in the way of this movie being an entertaining and exhilarating movie.

The Siege of Jadotville is a different kind of war movie. It doesn’t recount famous battles or portray renowned heroes - instead, it’s about heroes and events that went completely unnoticed. Namely, the Irish 35 Battalion ‘A’ Company - a group of youngsters who are sent out on a U.N mission to the Congo. What was supposed to be a simple positioning quickly becomes one of the most sought-after locations and the battalion of 150 ‘war-virgins” find themselves up against 3000 mercenaries led by experienced French commandants. And what a tribute this film is: it’s well-paced, powerfully shot, and the acting, led by Jamie Dornan on one side and Guillaume Canet on the other, is absolutely perfect.

This crazy adventure thriller was Colombia's nomination for the 2020 Oscars. "Monos" translates to monkeys, the nom de guerre of a group of teenagers holding an American hostage in an isolated bunker. Other than the occasional visit from their supervisor, they're left to their devices, forming relationships, smoking weed, drinking, and eating psychedelic mushrooms. One day, on top of the hostage, they're also trusted with a milk cow, named Shakira. A party goes wrong and one of the Monos accidentally kills Shakira, triggering a series of events that sends them deep into the jungle, and deep into despair. 

Monos is not an action movie, it's more of a character study. It was loosely based on The Lord of the Flies.

It’s always fun to watch something that makes you second guess each move, that shifts seamlessly from one thing to another. Frantz is that kind of film, and as the deceptively simple premise unfolds—a widow befriends her late husband’s friend—you’re never really sure if what you’re watching is a romance, a mystery, or a sly combination of both. 

It helps that Frantz is also more than just a period piece, packed as it is with tiny but thoughtful details. When it is filled with color, for example, it does so in the muted palette of 1900s portraits, making each shot look like a picture come to life. When it talks about love, it goes beyond heterosexual norms and hints at something more potent and, at times, political. And when it takes a swing at melodrama, its actors ground the moment with enough restraint and reserve so that it never teeters on excess. All this results in a well-executed, gripping, and overall lovely film to watch.

 

In what was originally intended to be his final film, Hayao Miyazaki is at his most lucid with The Wind Rises. Fluid and luminous, it cleanly moves between a grounded, historical reality and an intuitive, imaginative dreamscape. Here Miyazaki reflects on the process of creation and what it means to be an artist, drawing parallels between his own meticulousness as a filmmaker with Horikoshi’s immutable passion for flight and efficient design.

But questions of responsibility and duty arise, as Horikoshi—and by extension, Miyazaki—must reckon with the reality that even things as beautiful as aeroplanes can be destructive, and that even dreams can be violent. This meditative film does not offer any easy answers but it provides solace in its prevailing sentiment: The wind is rising, we must try to live.