5 “Inglourious Basterds”
The third of Quentin Tarantino’s three masterpieces after “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” “Inglourious Basterds” is an extraordinary melding of historical fact and absurd fiction. A revenge flick at the pinnacle of the genre, “Basterds” places a rogue unit of Jewish-American soldiers hunting Nazis in German-occupied France. As with Tarantino’s other two masterpieces, the movie is driven by dialogue and intertwining plot lines, punctuated with elevated violence and scattered with career-high performances of brilliant actors. In this case, Brad Pitt goes mano-a-mano with Christopher Waltz, who portrays a Nazi colonel so diabolical that he rivals Adolph Hitler, who is an actual character in the movie.
4 “Full Metal Jacket”
Essentially two movies in one, “Full Metal Jacket” is the first film to truly examine the process by which the military can take a kid fresh out of high school and turn him into a killer so quickly. The first half features real-life drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey’s portrayal of a ruthless Marine instructor bent on physically and psychologically breaking naive, young recruits before rebuilding them as soldiers. The second half sees those young men unleashed into combat in Vietnam. A breakout performance by a young Vincent D’Onofrio, whose character is broken beyond repair in boot camp, personifies the brutal process of the militarization of young men.
Prior to seeing “Glory,” it would have been difficult to imagine the kid who played Ferris Bueller just three years earlier bringing a tough, no-nonsense Civil War colonel to life on the screen. But Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of the commander of the famed 54th Massachusetts, the Army’s first all-black unit, headlined what is history’s defining Civil War movie. Backed by stellar performances by Morgan Freeman and a rising star named Denzel Washington, “Glory’s” historically accurate retelling of freed slaves rising up against their former masters as Union soldiers is inspiring and heartbreaking all at once.
Imagine waking up on the jungle floor, soaking wet, covered in ants, the rest of your platoon asleep—only to notice the bushes moving to reveal approaching human silhouettes. If you’ve seen “Platoon,” you don’t have to imagine. War veteran Oliver Stone’s portrayal of the daily grind of an infantryman in Vietnam brings to life not only the horror of combat, but also the racial tension and political upheaval that hung over the era. Charlie Sheen’s transformation from a fresh-faced teenager who lands in Vietnam to the grizzled, broken man who leaves on a chopper a year later instills in the viewer a glimpse at the trauma inflicted by war.
1 “Saving Private Ryan”
The opening 27 minutes depicting the American landing at Omaha Beach alone is enough to put “Saving Private Ryan” in league with the classics. Bookended by two extraordinary battle scenes, Steven Spielberg’s gritty, realistic World War II epic took the romance out of combat and immediately dulled the luster of any battle depiction that came before. Tom Hanks shines even through the career-best performances of Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns, Matt Damon, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Adam Goldberg.