12 Best War Movies of 2012

the-duellists

I just noticed yesterday that I didn’t write a post on the Best War Movies I’ve seen in 2012 and thought I’d remedy that immediately. Obviously the list consists of the movies I’ve watched this year and not the movies which came out this year. And it also consists only of the movies which I have seen for the first time that’s why you will neither find Platoon nor Tigerland on the list.

And here goes:

Captain Conan

Agora

Waltz With Bashir

The African Queen

The Dam Busters

The Battle of Algiers

Soldier of Orange

North Face

317th Platoon

Stalingrad or Dogs, do you want to live forever?

The Duellists

Mephisto

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Waltz With Bashir (2008) – A Guest Post by The War Movie Buff

I’m glad to have another guest post today. This time it is from one of my oldest blogging friends, Kevin aka The War Movie Buff. He started his war movie blog only a few months after I started mine and I was glad to find someone who doesn’t only share the interest and posts regularly and writes in a very detailed and passionate way but also someone who answers comments and likes a good discussion.

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In August, 2010, I went to see a movie called “Julie and Julia”. Little did I know that taking my wife to a chick flick to get brownie points would change my life. The plot of the Julie half of the movie involved a blogger cooking a different recipe a day and writing about it. That gave me the idea to start a blog where I would review the greatest war movies. I had recently encountered Military History magazine’s issue on the 100 Greatest War Movies so I used it as my guide. My plan was to review one movie per week starting with #100. I started as simple a blog as I could handle (being computer-challenged) and journeyed into uncharted territory not knowing what to expect. I truly did not expect to get much traffic and being a high school history teacher I am used to lack of recognition. However, my very first post resulted in a response from a blogger named “All About War Movies”. This person quickly became my mentor, colleague, and friend. In recognition of that, I have chosen to write this guest post on a movie I never would have seen without her influence. When I became a faithful follower of “All About War Movies”, I realized that there were some very good foreign war films that I should watch. Being an American, this was news to me. In my whole life of watching hundreds of films, I could recall having watched only one foreign film (“The Seven Samurai”). I quickly came to respect Caroline’s recommendations and anytime she mentioned a movie I had never heard of, I checked on it. I decided to expand my parameters to include categories beyond the 100 Greatest. One of those categories is what I decided to call “Should I Read It?” which refers to subtitled movies. The first foreign war film I blogged on was one of Caroline’s favorites – “Joyeux Noel”. I was hooked on foreign films instantly. I now even watch non-war, subtitled films. I am proudly less Americentric now.

I give this background because the movie I am going to write about is not only a foreign film, but the best war film I have seen since I started my blog. It reinforced my belief that modern war films can and should be superior to old school war movies, even the classics. Technology and experience are huge advantages for modern war movie makers. “Waltz With Bashir” is an Israeli film released in 2008. The movie blew me away because it hit several of my buttons. It is historically accurate, I learned about an event that I knew little about, it is realistic in its depiction of the military and combat, and it is striking in its cinematography.

Writer and director Ari Folman spent four years creating what he calls an “animated documentary”. If not the first of this type, it is still ground-breaking. It won numerous awards and was critically acclaimed. The film is autobiographical. Folman takes as his theme the effects of war on memory. The movie begins with a jaw-dropping three-dimensionally animated scene of a pack of dogs running through the streets to a man’s apartment building. The dogs represent a memory flashback for a friend of Ari. The friend tells Ari each dog represented the 26 dogs he sniped during the Lebanon War of 1982. This conversation causes Ari to confront the fact that he has holes in his memory of his experiences in Lebanon. That very night he has his first flashback which involves himself and some naked comrades coming ashore on a beach at the city of Beirut. Another friend theorizes that people sometimes fill in gaps in their memory with fiction. He encourages Ari to try to fill in those gaps with the truth. Don’t fear opening those doors, “memory takes us where we want to go”. He assures Ari he cannot get hurt by learning the truth.

Ari goes on a quest to talk to comrades he served with and other veterans of the invasion. Their individual stories are vignettes that powerfully depict the nature of modern war. Several universal truths about warfare and young soldiers shine through. The adrenalin-fueled fear in a firefight is followed by the overwhelming silence of death. Soldiers tend to fire their weapons at nothing and nowhere when traveling through enemy territory. Soldiers are clueless pawns of the brass and the pols. Surviving members of a unit suffer guilt feelings. Unlike some anti-war movies, “Waltz with Bashir” does not glamorize the appealing aspects of armed combat.

The movie and Ari’s quest builds to the infamous Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre. Ari’s unit is sent into western Beirut after the assassination of the Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayal. The film takes its title from an incident in which a member of Ari’s unit waltzes with a machine gun in the middle of a Beirut street while under fire from snipers and RPGs and as Lebanese civilians spectate. Time seems to stand still as he twirls amidst the bullet casings and ricochets. The dance symbolizes Israel’s relationship with Bashir.

The film concludes with the Israeli Defensive Forces allowing vengeance-minded Christian Phalange militia to enter the Muslim camps. The individual Israeli soldiers exhibit cognitive dissonance as they are slow to grasp what is clearly taking place before their eyes, abetted by their lighting the night skies with flares. It takes three days for an Israeli general to order a stop to the killings. The movie makes it clear that the Israeli government (Defense Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Begin) was complicit in the massacre, but Folman is not on a crusade. He lets the audience connect the dots. The memory theme comes full circle as Ari realizes that he had filled in the black hole of his memory of being near the atrocity by imagining that he and his comrades were instead at a beach. The movie closes with real footage of the massacre victims as though to remind the audience that although animated, the story is true.

I love war movies because I love Military History. I have been attracted to war stories since I was a child because of the action, but also because war brings out all the emotions and character traits in human beings. I prefer war movies that have action and are true to human nature. They don’t have to be historically accurate, but I insist they not be ridiculous and unrealistic. When you have seen as many war films as I have, you also are impressed when the movie takes a different approach to telling a war story. “Waltz with Bashir” fits this description (as do “300” and “Oh! What a Lovely War”). Movies like these prove that although the war movie genre (starting with “Birth of a Nation”) is almost a century old, there are still new ways to tell a war story.

“Waltz” looks very different from every other war film I have seen. Folman uses a variety of animation. The movie is mostly a blend of cut-out and classic animation. It is influenced by graphic novels and has a scene reminiscent of Japanese animation. He includes some three-dimensional scenes, but used the technique sparingly and only for spectacular shots. His use of color varies depending on the mood of the scene. The war scenes tend to be monochromatic. The home front scenes are much more vibrant. (He makes the point that although he was fighting only twenty minutes away, at home the public was unaffected by the war and life went on as usual.) The shading and shadows are amazing. The look is mesmerizing. Blu-ray was made for movies like this.

The movie is true to human nature mainly because these are real people who Ari interviewed and built the story on. From my reading of men in combat, I have a good idea of how men behave under that stress. For those vast majority of people who do not want to read extensively in this difficult area, movies can serve the purpose of educating civilians about what their young warriors go through. This is important because these young men deserve to be understood. Civilians need second-hand memory. Undoubtedly, some Israelis were offended by what they saw in “Waltz”. The fact is that atrocities happen on both sides in every war. Good war movies like this show what really happens in war, but also provide the why.

As an American, I admit to being ignorant about most modern non-American wars. My blog experience and Caroline’s influence have opened up my eyes to several conflicts that I would have remained clueless about. I have watched movies on the Bosnian War (“No Man’s Land”, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”), the First Chechan War (“Prisoner of the Mountain”), and the Lebanon War (“Beaufort”, “Lebanon”). They are all good movies that taught me something and encouraged me to research the war. My modus operandi when I read books is usually to read books that I can learn from. I am not as strict with movies, but it’s an added bonus when the movie is instructive.

In conclusion, we war movie lovers all have our reasons for loving this genre. But don’t forget it is a genre with many fascinating subgenres. Be willing to sample from them all, even the ones where you have to read. And try out the newest one – animated war documentary.

Thank you Caroline for giving me this opportunity to spout.

Waltz with Bashir aka Vals Im Bashir (2008)

The Israeli animated movie Waltz with Bashir aka Vals Im Bashir is this rare thing – a really surprising movie. On top of that it’s well done, original, interesting and has a great score by Max Richter (Shutter Island).

In Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman tells his own story. He was in Lebanon in 1982, fighting with the Israeli army. At the beginning of the movie we see a pack of dogs, running in the night. It’s a very haunting, eerie image and we learn soon that it’s from a nightmare form one of Ari’s friends who was fighting in Lebanon at the same time. Although not capable of shooting people, he had to shoot the dogs who guarded the villages at night. Those dogs have come back, after far more than 20 years and haunt him in his dreams. One evening in a bar he tells Ari about it. They had never spoken about the war before and Ari had never thought of it much. To his great dismay he realizes that he doesn’t even remember anything. It’s as if it had never taken place.

After this conversation with his friend, he dreams of the war for the first time. The pictures seem to be part of a memory that he cannot really place. It looks like he is remembering a massacre in a refugee camp.

The conversation and the subsequent dream are the reason why Ari thinks, he needs to recover his memory, needs to talk to old friends, to comrades and officers. He travels to Holland and many other places, looking for people who were in Lebanon with him. He speaks to psychologists and learns a lot about the way how memory works, about dissociation and how traumatic experiences are suppressed.

It is highly fascinating to watch how he recovers his memory. Fascinating and sad as he finds out so many horrible things. It’s interesting that more than one person recovers their memory or snaps out of a state of dissociation when thinking of dying and killed animals.

What adds further complexity to the story is the fact that Ari Folman’s father was in Auschwitz. It becomes apparent after a while that the horrors his father has described to him are somehow linked to his suppressed meories and  once he recovers the memory of the war he has been in, he remembers everything else as well.

During the last five minutes the movie suddenly turns into a documentary. It is no longer an animated picture but we see original footage of the war in Lebanon.

This is the second animated war movie I have seen (the other one was Grave of the Fireflies) and both were excellent. It’s a medium that works extremely well for this topic. 

Waltz with Bashir is highly recommendable. It contains a moving and profound anti-war statement and a very interesting exploration of memory.

The 15 Most Original War Movies

The question you might ask yourself right away is probably: What is an original war movie? Is Stalingrad original or Black Hawk Down? I would argue, no, they are not. They are great, they are absolute must-sees but they are not original. They consist pretty much of linear story telling. Well filmed but nothing out of the ordinary. What about Enemy at the Gates? Admittedly according to my definition this  almost made it into the list, as it is originally beautiful, but so are others.

Original is about something more than beautiful cinematography, it is something beyond the well-trodden path. Either a different way of telling an old story, a new look at something we saw before, a different way of filming, a genre-blend, an original story etc. After thinking for a very long time about it, I came up with the following fifteen movies that are far from the ordinary. I guess that all these fifteen films are movies that mostly also appeal to cinema lovers in general.

Three Kings (USA, 1999): Taking place during the first Iraq war it is definitely one of the most original movies I have ever seen. The way certain things are filmed is pretty unusual. When someone gets hit by a bullet we follow the bullet on its way inside the body, see how it affects the system and causes gangrene. Quite astonishing. On top of that it is a crazy, fast-paced story. Like a filmed version of a rock song.

Pan’s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (Spain, 2006): Set during WWII in Franco’s Spain. A genre blend, half fantasy, half war movie. Uses lots of fantastic elements, striking colors. Absolutely different.

Ovelord (UK, 1975): WWII, UK just before D-Day. A very short movie that alternates original footage and filmed bits. Filmed in black and white, it has a very old-fashioned feel. The story is original as well as it focuses on one individual soldier who will be shipped to France. Uses dream sequences, elements of foreboding. Still straightforward storytelling. (see my post Overlord: An Overlooked War Movies masterpiece)

The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998): WWII, The Pacific. This is the most lyrical of all  war movies. Intense pictures, haunting voices in the off meditate about death and dying. It is one of those cases –  you love it or you hate it but can’t deny it is original.

War Requiem (UK, 1989): WWI, France. Silent movie. Visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem based o the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Mixed with original footage that gets more and more gruesome towards the end. The most gruesome original footage that I have every seen. Heavy on symbolism, colors etc. Despite Sean Bean this is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (see my post War Requiem; Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943): Boer war, WWI, WWII. A movie that relies heavily on almost choreography like acting, loads of allusions to British culture. Extremely funny, filmed in brilliant Technicolor. Quite slapsticky at times, reminded me of one or the other Laurel and Hardy at war movies, but undeniably British humor. Two astonishing acting achievements. Deborah Kerr playing three different women and Roger Livesey playing the young, the middle-aged and the old Colonel Blimp. Amazing performances.

The Downfall aka Der Untergang (Germany, 2004). There have been such a lot of movies about Hitler but this concentrates on his very last moment, in the bunker in Berlin. Quite an unusual look. Creepy, spooky, with a fabulous Bruno Ganz in one of his best roles.

300 (USA, 2006): The last fight of the Spartans is original because of the heavy use of CGI, outstanding camera work and graphics. (see my post 300: This is Sparta! )

The Hurt Locker (USA, 2008). Iraq movie. Academy Award Winner. Different in the sense that it focuses on one special task, bomb disposal and one special man who is doing it his way. He goes about his business as if he was a player in some video game. Death-defying. Plus the movie has a thriller feel which is quite unusual for a war movie. At times it feels like Speed goes to Iraq. (see my post A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker)

Birdy (USA, 1984). Post-Vietnam. This is unusual in many ways. Outstanding acting, a story that is far from ordinary and a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome like we haven’t seen it often before. (see my post Alan Parker’s Birdy: A Tale of Frienship, War and Being Different)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (USA, 2008). WWII, Holocaust. Haven’t we all seen a lot of Holocaust movies? This is one that will stay with you. The cinematography is brilliant and the story is haunting. Nobody would expect that ending. The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a child that has no clue what is going on, only sees the signs and interprets them his way, is creepy. (see my post The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: An Unusual Look at the Holocaust)

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka (Japan, 1988). Beautiful anime from the Ghibli studios. The sad and moving tale of two kids in WWII Japan, fighting for their survival after the loss of their family. (see my post Grave of the Fireflies: An Anime War Movies)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008): Israel.  Another animated movie but of an altogether very different kind. This looks more like a woodcut. Interesting take at the Lebanon war.

Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979). Considered by many to be one of the best war movies there is, it is also very original as it doesn’t show the Vietnam war as it was, instead more like a hallucinatory re-telling of The Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam war. Using Wagner’s Valkyrie and The End by the Doors further underlines it’s aiming at being something different. Whether you like it or not, it is very original.

Full Metal Jacket (USA, 1987). This is a highly original movie as it creates images that will burn themselves into your memory. Visually one of the most powerful movies. Plus it tells two stories. Boot camp and street fight. This last element is also quite original as Vietnam movies mostly portay combat in the jungle. Plus the Vietnamese sniper…

Have I forgotten any and if so, why should they be included?