Das Boot

Three German soldiers standing in front of a u-boat salute the camera

“They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.”

War movies often comment on the nature of war, showing how horrible it can be, but there are always things that undermine or prevent a truly negative comment, such as patriotism and exciting depictions of war. Even films that showed us true horrors, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, also gave us heroes and camaraderie. Das Boot is different. For one, it’s a German movie about World War II—a time that Germany fully admits was a terrible time in their history, so there is no patriotism or need to give us heroes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Neverending Story) and starring an all-German cast, this film gives us horror on top of nihilism, with some characters even making negative comments on the propaganda the German government was pumping into young men’s heads at the time. This is also probably the most tense war film I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot considering how hard-hitting other war films have been. But even in a genre full of powerful movies, Das Boot hits hard and shows us, perhaps more than any other film, that war is hell.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales looks stoic with two pistols in The Outlaw Josey Wales

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.

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The Great Dictator

Hynkel is The Great Dictator

“Heil Hynkel!”

When I first heard that Charlie Chaplin made a movie that poked fun at Adolf Hitler, I didn’t quite believe it. Chaplin started work on The Great Dictator well before World War II broke out, and the film was released before the United States entered the war, so, rather unintentionally, this became one of the first American propaganda films. Chaplin later said that had he known what was going on in Germany, he never would have made the film. But the film was made, and it is quite funny even today. Chaplin held onto his silent film style for a long time after sound became the norm, and this is his first foray into the world of recorded dialogue. But this is a Chaplin film, so wacky physical humor still takes center stage. This film is a bit of a relic, but it is interesting to see something I learned about mostly in history books lampooned in such a spectacular way, and also to learn more about the pop culture that contributed to America joining the war. And, like I said, it is surprisingly funny even today.

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Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

“Actually, Werner, we’re all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies. Donny!”

There are a lot of revenge films out there, but I can’t think of any that try to take revenge retroactively for a historical act of genocide—except for, of course, Inglourious Basterds. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and starring Brad Pitt and Cristoph Waltz, this film is basically a revenge fantasy enacted by the Jews against Nazi Germany in World War II, and it even goes as far as to change some pretty major historical events for the sake of the story. Given that and the fact that it’s a Tarantino film (typically bloody and brutal) I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—but I did. Quite a bit. The revenge is sweet, and the film is a perfect concoction of suspense, action, humor, and wit. While intelligently written, this isn’t really a thinking film—but it’s extremely entertaining, and there are some very memorable characters and scenes. I was initially hesitant to consider this film for my list, but after watching it, I can honestly say that I loved it and it absolutely deserves to be here.

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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

“You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

The mark of a philosophical film is that it poses tough questions about life without good or easy answers. In that sense, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall, is very much a philosophical film, as you’ll probably finish the film with more questions than answers. It’s complex and thought-provoking, dealing with the nature of war and what it does to a man, and it refuses to answer for us what’s truly right or wrong. It’s left entirely up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the movie—there’s a good case for (and against) both sides of the argument presented here. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking movie to cover the Vietnam War, and that’s saying a lot, as there have been some great movies to cover that era.

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The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter

“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.”

(This review has some spoiler-free discussion of the ending.)

Every once in awhile, there’s a movie that has a strong and profound emotional impact on me, and I can’t articulate exactly why. Lost in Translation and Stand By Me are on that list—and, now, The Deer Hunter is also on that list. Directed by Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon) and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, this is a deeply emotional drama set during the Vietnam War. While most war movies, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, focus on the war, less than 40 minutes of this 182-minute movie are set in the war. Most of the rest of the movie takes place before and after the soldiers go to war and shows the devastating changes it makes on them. It’s personal in a way that no other war movie is, and it’s a fantastic drama in its own right.

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Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

“Why must fireflies die so young?”

I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.

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Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket

“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day, you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human beings.”

There are a lot of good movies about war. Full Metal Jacket is a movie about soldiers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, 2001) and starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey, this movie shows how war affects soldiers, but each soldier responds a little differently. In true Kubrick fashion, the message is not neatly wrapped and handed to the viewer, and it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide what he or she feels afterward. Also in true Kubrick fashion, the movie is absolutely brilliant and masterfully executed. It stands out as a deeply personal war film with excellent art direction that’s worth seeing today.

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“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.”

There’s an old Native American parable about two wolves which fought for control of a man’s soul, one good and one evil, and it’s the one that was nurtured and fed that won the battle. Platoon, written and directed by Oliver Stone (Snowden, Natural Born Killers) and starring a host of actors, including Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Forest Whitaker, plays out similarly, but with the two wolves manifested in the protagonist’s two commanding officers. It’s about war just as much as it’s about what war does to soldiers, and civilians. And as Chris, our protagonist, grows to admire both of his commanding officers for different reasons, the question of what kind of man he will become burns brighter still.

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