These will be in no particular order.
Glory – I think I cry at the end of this film every time I see it. Matthew Broderick is perfect. Morgan Freeman is perfect. The story, the composition, the cast, the incredible action, everything comes together to tell the story of one of the most remarkable battles of the American Civil War, one that seems to legitimize the entire bloody mess. All the films on the list are must-see, but Glory is must-must-see.
Red Cliff – Ancient China, a battle to decide an empire. This is a magnificent achievement that John Woo created in China to honor the legend that all Chinese children learn about in history class. Fantastic characters pulled from the ancient world come to life with epic battles on land and sea. Truly a film to put on a queue.
Kelley’s Heroes – If only Catch 22 was this damned funny and hit the right beats. Clint Eastwood leads a greedy band of jerks behind enemy lines to steal a bank full of gold bullion that the German army left behind. What more do you need to know, really? Cue Donald Sutherland as a free-spirited beatnik tank driver, baby.
No Man’s Land – Harsh twist of fate. War reduced to man vs. man vs. mine. The final shot just leaves a hole in your gut, and wishing for some sanity in the world.
Come and See – Russian experience of World War Two and sick Nazi genocidal atrocities. Possibly the most powerful film on the list, and the kid in the leading role is magnetic and carries the film.
Dr. Strangelove – This is on everyone’s list. I don’t find it as funny as some, but it’s undeniably a thought provoking and important Cold War insanity film that everyone should see.
The Thin Red Line – This one is filmed and lovingly crafted so beautifully that it’s an immersive experience from beginning to end. A poem about life set in the horrors of death and destruction. The terror of war, the morality of mass murder, a flip-switch inside of man, it’s all there.
Devils on the Doorstep – A recent addition. This Chinese film lacks the grandeur of a Thin Red Line, shot in black and white and on a much smaller scale. But the characters are so well performed and pitted against one another that it makes for an unforgettable viewing.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – Any opportunity to mention this one — it’s the greatest movie ever shot – and it is set against the backdrop of the Civil War, which keeps intruding into the story time and again. At one point Tuco and Blondie actually join up with the northern army to blow up a bridge. The three characters are essentially at war for most of the movie, and yet they are forced to work together, against their own worst instincts, unhappy allies at each other’s throats when they’re not saving each other’s lives.
Three Kings – Three Kings tells its own side of its own story. Worth watching as a bit of modern Kelley’s Heroes, with a humanist story interwoven. I like it for its upside down twisted take on the first Iraq war.
Full Metal Jacket – Icy cold Kubrick at his best. This film freaked me out the first time I saw it. So harsh, so unexpected and twisted, yet plausible throughout.
Platoon – A little over the top in places, but a very gripping take on the US Vietnam experience. Tom Berenger delivers a hell of a performance as does Willem Dafoe. Even Charlie Sheen pulls it off, barely.
The Pianist – Polanski returns to his childhood and to his very real dealings with the Nazis in Poland. Outstanding visuals and recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Unforgettable, and the performance by Adrian Brody established him as a world-class actor.
Patton – Coppola turns in one of the most epic bio-pics of all time. Amazing shot selection and composition. George C. Scott scares the hell out of the enlisted men, but he taught me everything I know about tank warfare. It’s good to take an unflinching look at these guys.
Valkyrie – A surprise, Tom Cruise trying like hell to kill Hitler and end the war. The attention to accuracy and detail in this historical recreation is impressive.
Downfall – Yes the film they stole all those Hitler gets pissed videos from. Another recreation from World War Two that is just so damned believable that you think you’re in the bunker with Adolf and company.
Das Boot – The most claustrophobic movie I’ve ever seen. Performances that shine, and a perilous situation that can’t end well. Terrifying.
Lord or the Rings: The Two Towers – The best of the trilogy, which probably everyone will watch anyway. The battle at Helm’s Deep, against an army of Orcs no less, is one of the most spectacular and intricate, ever. It took several months to shoot. Not to mention Gollum growing ever more sinister and Frodo being taken over by the ring as they approach Mordor.