10 Best World War II Movies in the Modern Era

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The film Dunkirk opened in theaters this weekend to praise from critics and audiences alike. Director Christopher Nolan’s World War II film tells one of the most incredible tales of the war; over a 10-day period in 1940, almost 340,000 Allied troops were evacuated from the French coast after being surrounded by a massive German invasion. Some critics are hailing Dunkirk as one of the best war movies ever. It’s certainly one of the best WWII pics in recent years, and it got us wondering: just what are the best World War II movies in the modern era? Some of the below films are obvious, some not so much, but they’re all worth a look.

 

10. Memphis Belle (1990)

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Critics didn’t much care for this movie, giving it average reviews. And to be fair, we debated leaving this off the list to include the Brad Pitt film Fury, or the Matthew McConaughey/Bill Paxton submarine movie U-571 (2000). But Memphis Belle, about a U.S. bomber squadron, has a cast full of familiar faces — including Harry Connick Jr. in his film debut — and is very watchable.

 

9. Unbroken (2014)

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Based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympic runner who survived 47 days in the Pacific after his bomber crashed during WWII. After being “rescued” by the Japanese, he endured terrible abuse at the hands of a Japanese officer. Angelina Jolie produced and directed the film. While many critics panned Unbroken, the American Film Institute honored it as one of the Top 11 Films of 2014.

 

8. Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

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Clint Eastwood’s tale of the Battle of Iwo Jima focuses on the men who raised the American flag in that iconic scene at battle’s end. These war heroes struggled with everyday problems in post-war life.

 

7. The Pianist (2002)

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A disclaimer: This is the only movie on this list we have not seen. We prefer the more militaristic war flicks. But this true story about a Polish-Jewish musician who survives the Nazi occupation and a death camp picked up Oscars for Best Actor (Adrien Brody) and Director (Roman Polanski). It rates a high 96 Critics/95 Audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

 

6. Tuskegee Airmen (1995)

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After compiling this list, we made a surprising realization — almost all of these movies are based on real characters. Of course, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the greatest conflict in human history spawned so many heroes and memorable figures. The Tuskegee Airmen follows the challenges faced by the first African-American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Stars Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. headline the group of pilots.

 

5. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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Even by war movie standards, this is incredibly violent and gory — but really, what else did you expect from director Quentin Tarantino? It’s also very funny. Eight Academy Award nominations and one of the finest performances of Brad Pitt’s career make this a good watch.

 

4. Dunkirk (2017)

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You’ll be hearing plenty more about this film early next year when it rakes in the awards at the Academy Awards. It’s also an historic event many Americans are unfamiliar with, given it happened before the U.S. got involved in that conflict.

 

3. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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The film tells the true story of a conscientious objector — played by Andrew Garfield — who enlists in the Army to serve as a combat medic. Somehow, he becomes a war hero despite refusing to handle any weapons. Six Oscar nominations included nods for Best Picture and Best Actor.

 

2. Schindler’s List (1993)

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This movie is at turns disturbing, depressing and uplifting. That many critics consider it to be director’s Steven Spielberg’s finest work says all you need to know about the film.

 

1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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The movie’s intense, lengthy opening where young soldiers storm the beach on D-Day is the most graphic battle scene ever filmed. Based loosely on a true story, the lead characters, (led by Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore) risk their lives behind enemy lines to evacuate a private (Matt Damon) who is the last surviving male in his family. The question they’re all wondering, along with the audience: Why is that unknown soldier’s life worth more than their life? A surprise twist at the end makes an already great film even better.

 

One More: The English Patient (1996)

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Yes, it won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and while the movie is set against World War II, it’s more a love story than a war movie. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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