It is time for my annual list of best movies that I reviewed this past year. At this stage in my blog, I would have thought that I would have seen every war movie of consequence, but that is far from being true. I still have many movies on my to-be-watched list for this year, so I think I’ll be able to do one of these lists next January. This particular list is a combination of movies I have never seen before, movies I saw in the theater, and some older favorites that I was reviewing for the first time.
10. Son of Saul (2015) Just when you think you have seen every good Holocaust movie, you run into another one. This movie is a Hungarian film based on an incident where a child was found alive in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. A sonderkommando takes it upon himself to give the boy a decent burial. The cinematography is the highlight as the lens focuses on Saul throughout. The sound effects also stand out. This is a movie for anyone who is interested in the Holocaust and who enjoys outside the box filmmaking.
9. The Ascent (1977) This is a black and white Soviet film set in WWII. Two partisans go off on a foraging expedition and are captured by the Germans. They both face the dilemma of collaborating and living or being patriotic and dying. This is another movie with eye-popping cinematography. The acting is great and the dialogue, although sparse, is thought-provoking.
8. Sharpe’s Rifles (1993) I am a huge fan of the Sharpe series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars. I recently rewatched the movie based on the first novel. Although made for TV, it is an excellent recreation of the novel and introduces Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe. Because of the low budget, it does not have a sweep to it, but it is excellent at character development and the story has several well-meshing arcs. It includes a strong female character, which is rare for a war movie.
7. Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) This is a South Korean film based on a naval battle in the late 16th Century. The Korean navy took on a Japanese fleet, but the movie is not so much a history lesson as an excuse for some of that gonzo Korean action. Your ass will be sore from the kicking the battle scene delivers. It lasts 61 minutes! There is an outstanding main character and a loathsome villain. The music is epic and the cinematography matches it.
6. Wooden Crosses (1932) This is the French answer to “All Quiet on the Western Front”. A replacement joins a seasoned unit and witnesses the horrors of war and the comradeship that makes it tolerable. The movie is a realistic depiction of trench warfare. There is a quantity and quality to the combat scenes. It’s real strength is in its portrayal of soldier behavior.
5. The Grey Zone (2001) A second movie about the same incident – the discovery of a living soul in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Before you say “what an amazing coincidence!”, I watched “Son of Saul” as a companion to this. This movie is less micro as it also covers the rebellion by the sonderkommandoes. It is an excellent history lesson and very well-presented. The acting is excellent, even by David Arquette. It has a blend of cinematography. Most importantly, it gives you a lot to think about. What would you do? This is one of the best Holocaust movies.
4. The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) It took me a long time to find this gem. I had seen it when it first appeared on TV. It tells the story of the only American soldier in WWII to be executed for desertion. In that respect, it tells a story that needed to be told and it does it quite well for a low budget effort. It helps that the lead is Martin Sheen who is outstanding in the role. The nonlinear flash backs to Slovik’s past work well in setting up his “crime”. The movie does not preach, but it is excellent at taking us through the court-martial procedure that led to Slovik’s death.
3. Hornblower: The Duel (1998) Here is the second movie on my list that is based on a series of historical fiction. Horatio Hornblower is in some ways the equivalent of Richard Sharpe when it comes to Napoleonic naval warfare. This made-for-TV film introduces the character, played by Ioan Gruffudd. The movie uses scenarios from several of the novels with the central arc of Hornblower’s conflict with one of the greatest war movie villains. The production values are quite good for a television movie. The acting is stellar and the characters are vivid and well-developed. The movie is an excellent tutorial on the life of tars. There is also some good action and not one, but two duels.
2. Star Trek: Rogue One (2016) I recently reviewed this so you know I was thrilled by it. I treated it as a war movie and it works as such. The motley crew gathering and subsequent questing is an entertaining lead-in to the kick-ass multi-battle finale. I had fun finding references to famous battles. The reason why it did not place first is I can’t be sure I did not overrate it because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars movie since Empire. Relatively speaking, it is a masterpiece.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) Here is the third made-for-TV movie to make the list. When I eventually get around to compiling my 100 Best War Movies list, it will include a number of television productions. Most "best of" lists do not include this type of war movie, but I feel some of the best of the genre are made for TV. In this case, I would argue that a television movie might even surpass the cinematic original. The 1979 version is sadly forgotten by many, but it is an excellent retelling of the novel. The battle scenes cannot match the original, but the acting is better and it obviously has a more modern feel to it. This movie brought the greatest war novel to the “I only watch color movies” audience. And it brought it in a remarkably underrated package. My review is of the extended version. That review will be my next post.