54 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.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War

Actor: Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Ahmad Massad, Allen Altman, Baraka Rahmani, Baya Belal, Dominique Briand, Hamed Najem, Hussein Sami, Jackie Sawiris, John Dunn-Hill, Karim Babin, Lara Atalla, Lobna Azabal, Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Majida Hussein, Maxim Gaudette, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Mohamed Majd, Mustafa Kamel, Nabil Sawalha, Nadia Essadiqi, Rémy Girard, Rémy Girard

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rating: R

How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Imogen Kogge, Jakub Sierenberg, Johann Karthaus, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Luis Noah Witte, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Maximilian Beck, Medusa Knopf, Nele Ahrensmeier, Rainer Haustein, Ralph Herforth, Sandra Hüller, Sascha Maaz, Shenja Lacher, Thomas Neumann

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: PG-13

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.

Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, War

Actor: Adam Ferency, Adam Szyszkowski, Adam Woronowicz, Agata Kulesza, Aloïse Sauvage, Borys Szyc, Cedric Kahn, Dražen Šivak, Jeanne Balibar, Joanna Kulig, Slavko Sobin, Tomasz Kot

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: André Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Mélanie Gouby, Orlando von Einsiedel, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Rating: Not Rated

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.

Genre: Animation, Drama, History, War

Actor: Arié Elmaleh, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux, François Jerosme, Gabrielle Lopes Benites, Mathias Mlekuz, Simon Abkarian, Sophie Arthuys, Tilly Mandelbrot

Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Rating: PG-13

In 2005, Palestinian olive farmer Emad Burnat bought a camera to document the birth of his new son, Jibreel. But what was intended as an act of celebration quickly grew into something else, as Burnat inadvertently became a documentarian of the oppression his West Bank village faced when a wall was erected through it and Palestinian farmland illegally appropriated by Israeli settlers. As we come to witness, this reluctant pivot is just another example of everyday life in Bil’in being forcibly reoriented by the occupation, as Burnat captures the daily struggles of life in the village and charts the innocence-shattering effect the occupation has on young Jibreel’s burgeoning consciousness. 

Over his footage of encroaching illegal settlements, the arrests of Palestinian children in the middle of the night, the point-blank shootings of blindfolded and handcuffed peaceful protestors — plus tender snapshots of nature and joyful events in the village — Burnat delivers a poetic, reflective narration that miraculously ties these horrible and hopeful images together. It's this intimacy of perspective that makes 5 Broken Cameras profoundly harrowing and unexpectedly transcendent — a personal document of oppression that is also a testament to the miraculous persistence of the human spirit, the resilience of life and the urge to seek beauty even under truly awful circumstances.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama, War

Actor: Emad Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Soraya Burnat

Director: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Rating: NR

One of Shakespeare’s most indelible works is brought roaring to life in this explosive adaptation. The action is transposed from the 1400s to brutalist 1930s England, with the bloody civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York being waged by tanks and planes instead of cavalry. The switch isn’t merely cosmetic, though: in an inspired move, usurper Richard is reimagined here as the fascist head of an army of Nazi-esque Blackshirts (an analog of real militant far-right leader Oswald Mosley). Ian McKellen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives an odious but brilliant performance as the titular Machiavellian schemer who will stop at nothing to seize the crown, even betraying his own blood.

McKellen is joined by a gluttony of acting talent: Maggie Smith plays the King's despairing mother, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. are the unfortunate American queen and her brother, while the likes of Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jim Carter fill up the royal court. All the richness of Shakespeare’s original writing is retained, charging the performances and the film around them with a grand sense of drama. Peter Biziou’s ostentatious cinematography is a perfect frame for it all, and helps cement this as much, much more than a piece of filmed theater.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Adrian Dunbar, Andy Rashleigh, Annette Bening, Bill Paterson, Christopher Bowen, Denis Lill, Derek Lyons, Dominic West, Donald Sumpter, Edward Hardwicke, Edward Jewesbury, Ian McKellen, James Dreyfus, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, John Wood, Kate Steavenson-Payne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Michael Elphick, Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr., Roger Hammond, Tim McInnerny, Tres Hanley

Director: Richard Loncraine

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, War

Actor: Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Albrecht Schuch, André Marcon, Andreas Döhler, Anthony Paliotti, Anton von Lucke, Cyril Dobrý, Daniel Brühl, Daniel-Frantisek Kamen, Devid Striesow, Edin Hasanović, Felix Kammerer, Felix von Bredow, Gregory Gudgeon, Hendrik Heutmann, Jakob Diehl, Joe Weintraub, Luc Feit, Marek Simbersky, Markus Tomczyk, Michael Pitthan, Michael Wittenborn, Moritz Klaus, Nico Ehrenteit, Peter Sikorski, Sascha Nathan, Sebastian Hülk, Thibault de Montalembert, Tobias Langhoff

Director: Edward Berger

Rating: R

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

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. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Tsutomu Tatsumi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Director: Isao Takahata

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.

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Director: Edward Watts, Waad Al-Kateab, Waad Al-Khateab

Rating: TV-PG

Named for all the connections that form a functioning society, Threads is a harrowing look at what might happen when those ties are rent apart by nuclear war. This British TV movie — released during the Cold War — so violently seized on the nuclear anxieties of the time that its premiere was dubbed “the night the country didn’t sleep.” Depressingly, it hasn’t lost that initial resonance, and so it remains a panic attack-inducing watch.

Threads begins in the kitchen-sink vein of a Ken Loach movie. In the northern industrial town of Sheffield, a young couple from different social classes (Reece Dinsdale and Karen Meagher) discover they’re about to be parents — but looming above their small-scale drama are the clouds of war, as televisions and radios blare out the details of escalating tensions between the US and the USSR. And then, it happens: the town is strategically bombed, and Threads unfurls into an unrelenting nightmare. In the documentary-like approach that follows, it spares no graphic or emotional detail, charting both the personal devastation caused by the bomb and the annihilating impact of the nuclear holocaust on all the vital infrastructure we take for granted. In short, one of the bleakest, most terrifying movies ever made.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction, War

Actor: Ashley Barker, Brian Grellis, David Brierly, Dean Williamson, Ed Bishop, Harry Beety, Henry Moxon, Jane Hazlegrove, Joe Belcher, Karen Meagher, Lesley Judd, Maggie Ford, Michael O'Hagan, Nat Jackley, Patrick Allen, Peter Faulkner, Phil Rose, Reece Dinsdale, Richard Albrecht, Rita May, Ruth Holden, Steve Halliwell, Ted Beyer

Director: Mick Jackson

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.

Genre: Drama, Family, History, War

Actor: Amber Beattie, Asa Butterfield, Béla Fesztbaum, Cara Horgan, Charlie Baker, David Hayman, David Thewlis, Domonkos Nemeth, Gábor Harsai, Henry Kingsmill, Iván Verebély, Jack Scanlon, Jim Norton, Julia Papp, László Áron, Mihály Szabados, Richard Johnson, Rupert Friend, Sheila Hancock, Vera Farmiga, Zac Mattoon O'Brien, Zsolt Sáfár Kovács, Zsuzsa Holl

Director: Mark Herman

Rating: PG-13

You might expect a movie about the Irish struggle for independence from the British Empire during the 1920s to be a sweeping historical epic a la Braveheart, but The Wind That Shakes The Barley is instead a heartbreaking miniature portrait of the human impact that the brutal occupation has on the residents of a small County Cork village. Cillian Murphy is superb as Damien O’Donovan, a young medical student who is about to up sticks for London when he witnesses first-hand the savagery of British forces on his neighbors. Galvanized into action, he joins the local branch of the IRA, which is led by his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney).

What makes The Wind That Shakes The Barley so potent isn’t just its depiction of the fierce local rebellion that Damien and his comrades wage against the British forces — it’s also its gutting exploration of the cyclical war that began to rage amongst the freedom fighters once the British left. As Damien puts it, “It's easy to know what you're against, quite another to know what you're for” — a dilemma that wedges the two brothers apart to bitter ends.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Aidan O'Hare, Alex Dee, Anthony Mark Streeter, Antony Byrne, Bill Hurst, Cillian Murphy, Damien Kearney, Denis Conway, Frank O'Sullivan, Gerard Kearney, Keith Dunphy, Liam Cunningham, Mark Wakeling, Martin Lucey, Mary Murphy, Myles Horgan, Neil Alan Taylor, Noel O'Donovan, Orla Fitzgerald, Pádraic Delaney, Roger Allam, Sabrina Barry, Scott Peden, Sean McGinley, Shane Casey, Siobhan McSweeney, Tom Charnock, William Ruane

Director: Ken Loach

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.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alban Ukaj, Boris Isaković, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrović, Dražen Pavlović, Emina Muftić, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Ermin Bravo, Ermin Sijamija, Izudin Bajrović, Jasna Đuričić, Job Raaijmakers, Joes Brauers, Johan Heldenbergh, Juda Goslinga, Micha Hulshof, Raymond Thiry, Reinout Bussemaker, Rijad Gvozden, Sanne den Hartogh, Sol Vinken, Teun Luijkx

Director: Jasmila Žbanić