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5 best war movies you should watch on Memorial Day

The girl in the red coat in Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

War remains an inescapable part of the human experience, and filmmakers have sought to capture, represent, and interpret its many facets through a cinematic lens for as long as the art form has existed. As a result, there’s no shortage of war movies that offer a diverse array of perspectives on and depictions of the realities of war and its devastating effects on societies and individuals.

From widely acclaimed classics like Schindler’s List to recent thought-provoking Oscar winners like The Zone of Interest, there are several great war films available to stream today. These movies range from emotional and intimate character studies to overwhelming portrayals of the chaos on the front lines, with each film delivering its own powerful story and crucial reminders of the human cost of war.

Incendies (2010)

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin in front of something burning in the background in Incendies (2010).
Entertainment One

Before creating spectacular sci-fi hits like Arrival and Dune, director Denis Villeneuve crafted the underrated war drama Incendies. It’s centered on the grueling journey of twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), who travel to their mother’s homeland following her death to fulfill her last wishes. They also hope to understand her cryptic letters and learn more about their family, but soon stumble upon a startling truth about their history.

Set against the backdrop of civil war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Incendies explores how conflict and even war crimes are inextricably linked with the twins’ unknown past. The film greatly benefits from Villeneuve’s direction, with the filmmaker’s now familiar trademarks infusing Incendies with suspense and emotion. The film also showcases an excellent use of flashbacks to weave the characters’ past and present together, underscoring the inevitability of their trip and all their mother’s actions and experiences that have led up to it.

Incendies is streaming on Mubi.

The Zone of Interest (2023)

A family in a yard with a pool in The Zone of Interest.

The Zone of Interest is a recent Oscar-winning war movie based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, which told a partially true story. Set in 1943, the film is centered on a family living near the “Zone of Interest,” with buildings from a concentration camp standing right behind the walls of their home. In this lavish house, Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), raise their kids, entertain guests, and maintain the grounds with the help of some Jewish servants.

Director Jonathan Glazer’s war film is a genuine standout in the genre, as it shatters ideas of what perpetrators of injustice and brutal acts look and sound like. Its depiction of the banality of evil through the Höss family is shockingly simple, yet deeply unsettling, with mundane scenes like Hedwig trying on a coat and comments about plants covering the wall becoming sources of horror. The 2023 film is an essential display of the kind of people who can commit horrific acts and a reminder that they can be astoundingly normal.

The Zone of Interest is streaming on Max.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove", directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Columbia Pictures

Dr. Strangelove is a genre classic and a terrifyingly relevant and darkly comedic war movie. It satirizes Cold War anxieties through the story of a paranoid U.S. Air Force general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union without proper authorization. As the President of the United States (Peter Sellers) and his advisers scramble to deal with the crisis, chaos and bizarre hilarity fill the War Room. Meanwhile, RAF officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers) attempts to foil Ripper’s plans.

Often cited as one of director Stanley Kubrick’s best movies, Dr. Strangelove uses its unique brand of comedy to highlight the absurdity of total annihilation via nuclear warfare. The satirical gem expertly laid bare the public’s real fears through clever jokes and plot points that clearly parallel actual events and policies. The 1964 film also features a wonderfully over-the-top comedic showcase by Peter Sellers, who masterfully plays his three roles, including the title character.

Dr. Strangelove is streaming on Max.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Felix Kammerer as Paul Bäumer in Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front.

The third film adaptation of the eponymous 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a contemporary triumph for the war genre. Set during World War I, it follows the spine-chilling journey of an initially young and idealistic German soldier, 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), who is eager to enlist in the army alongside his friends after hearing a patriotic speech. Wearing uniforms they don’t know are from dead soldiers, they go straight to the frontlines and experience inconceivable horrors, with only Paul surviving for a few more unforgiving and violent years.

With a memorable score, detailed costumes and makeup, and incredible set pieces and cinematography, All Quiet on the Western Front is a must-see modern war movie. The 2022 film primarily focuses on how Paul’s terrible and often gruesome experiences transform the protagonist from a victim of propaganda to just another disillusioned soldier with imminent death on his mind. Although its deviations from the source material have been divisive, most can agree that director Edward Berger’s adaptation is an impressive adaptation that can stand its own.

All Quiet on the Western Front is streaming on Netflix.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Not just one of the best war movies ever, but also hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, Schindler’s List is an iconic masterpiece by director Steven Spielberg. Based on the heroic, yet heartbreaking true story of the German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), it depicts how, after arriving in Krakow in 1939, he saves the lives of over 1,000Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories during World War II.

The renowned adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel is a genre-defining work that brought Schindler’s story to life on the big screen in stunning black-and-white. Spielberg maximizes every moment of the film’s three-hour runtime, using suspense, heartache, and shock to show the stark reality of the unimaginable evil that dominated that period. It’s a haunting and unflinching portrayal of one of humanity’s darkest chapters and a testament to the difference just one person can make when they decide to do the right thing.

Schindler’s List is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Editors' Recommendations

Hannah Saab
Saab whips up SEO-optimized articles as a writer for Digital Trends and updates top-performing articles on Collider.
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