Ranked: The Best and Worst Iraq/Afghanistan War Films

  • Publish Date: June 25, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 23 user comments

Life during wartime

Image What is it good for?

We know: you don't want to see any movies about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. At least, that's what the box office numbers are telling us. In recent years, high-profile war films like the Matt Damon-starring Green Zone ($35 million), Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (under $7 million), and the Tom Cruise-starring Lions for Lambs ($15 million) were, for lack of a better word, bombs. Even last year's much-heralded The Hurt Locker eked out just $16 million in receipts.

But the lack of moviegoer response hasn't deterred filmmakers from tackling these ongoing conflicts in the Middle East; in fact, the latest -- Restrepo -- is in theaters this weekend. And it doesn't mean there haven't been any good films about the two wars. Below, we look at the 10 best-reviewed movies inspired by the twin military engagements, as well as five additional films that were much less successful.

The 10 Best-Reviewed Iraq/Afghanistan War Movies
Movie Year Netflix Metascore Users
1 The Hurt Locker 2009 94 6.9
"A small classic of tension, bravery, and fear, which will be studied twenty years from now when people want to understand something of what happened to American soldiers in Iraq."
-- David Denby, The New Yorker
Kathryn Bigelow's portrait of an American military bomb squad charged with locating and defusing improvised explosive devices during the Iraq conflict has attracted criticism from some veterans for its alleged inaccuracies, but that doesn't stop The Hurt Locker from working as a tension-filled, small-scale action film. The best-reviewed film of 2009, The Hurt Locker also won six Academy Awards, among numerous accolades.
2 No End In Sight 2007 89 8.1
"The most coolheaded of the Iraq war documentaries, the most methodical and the least polemical. Yet it's the one that will leave audiences the most shattered, angry and astounded."
-- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Although its title seems more applicable to the war in Afghanistan these days, Charles H. Ferguson's debut film is a must-see documentary about America's involvement in Iraq. No End In Sight uses a series of interviews with key players and journalists to paint a highly critical portrait of both the decision to go to war and the American government's handling of the occupation. Critics praised its objectivity, helped by the fact that director Ferguson (a former Brookings Institution fellow) is a political moderate.
3 Turtles Can Fly 2005 85 9.4
"I wish everyone who has an opinion on the war in Iraq could see 'Turtles Can Fly.'"
-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Set in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq on the eve of the American invasion, Turtles Can Fly was the first movie shot in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses) brings a restrained, matter-of-fact filmmaking style to highly moving subject matter, resulting in a widely praised downer of a film.
4 Restrepo 2010 83 n/a
"A documentary so real and unflinching (and at times deeply frightening) that it's hard to watch, but it is one of those film experiences that you'll feel glad about getting through."
-- Sara Vilkomerson, New York Observer
Co-directed by author and journalist Sebastian Junger (best known for his book The Perfect Storm) and British photographer Tim Hetherington, this documentary chronicles a year in the life of U.S. soldiers stationed in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. The Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary at this year's Sundance festival, Restrepo has drawn praise for its raw, minimalist approach, though some critics feel that it doesn't make for a cohesive whole.
5 Taxi to the Dark Side 2008 82 8.0
"It’s the equal of 'No End in Sight' in its tight focus on the nuts and bolts of incompetence, and it surpasses any recent melodrama in the empathy it evokes for both its victims and--surprisingly--victimizers."
-- David Edelstein, New York Magazine
Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), this Oscar-winning documentary uses the case of an Afghan taxi driver who was mistakenly arrested and then beaten to death by American soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to build an indictment against the Bush administration's torture policy.
6 Control Room 2004 79 8.2
"Whatever your opinions about the war, the conduct of the journalists who covered it and the role of Al Jazeera in that coverage, you are likely to emerge from Control Room touched, exhilarated and a little off-balance, with your certainties scrambled and your assumptions shaken."
-- Dana Stevens, The New York Times
Jehane Noujaim's documentary presents a different viewpoint of the Iraq War: specifically, that of the Al Jazeera television news network. An intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at how news is covered, Control Room also offers a too-rare glimpse at how others view the United States.
7 The Messenger 2009 78 8.4
"One of the rare movies that communicates honestly and artfully about the real casualties of war: the surviving combatants."
-- Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle
One of only a few non-documentaries on our list, this powerful, Oscar-nominated drama stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as a pair of American soldiers charged with informing families that their loved ones have died in battle. The Messenger is the rare war film that doesn't need to depict the violent reality of war in order for war's terrible human cost to come through loud and clear.
8 The War Tapes 2006 77 9.0
"It's an experience that blows your mind, clears it and educates it."
-- Michael Sragow, Baltimore Sun
Out of all of the acclaimed Iraq War documentaries, The War Tapes gets the closest to the action in Iraq. It does so by handing cameras to the soldiers themselves, with several members of a National Guard unit shooting the movie's footage -- including both moments of combat and the realities of day-to-day living on base -- while deployed in early 2004.
9 My Country, My Country 2006 74 8.3
"Though the events have a rambling overfamiliarity, there's a real story between the lines: the resentment over the U.S. occupation on the part of non-insurgent Iraqis."
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
This Oscar-nominated documentary offers a look at life for ordinary Iraqis under the American occupation. Single-handedly filmed and directed by Laura Poitras over an eight-month period, My Country also provides an inside look at the politics behind Iraq's 2005 elections.
9 The Ground Truth 2006 74 6.5
"Anyone who claims to support the troops owes it to them to see the film and hear their stories."
-- Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The focus of this wrenching Iraq War documentary is the American military. The Ground Truth looks at every stage in the process for the men and women in uniform, from recruiting and training to deployment and combat, and, for some, homecoming.
The 5 Worst-Reviewed Iraq/Afghanistan War Movies
Movie Year Netflix Metascore Users
1 Delta Farce 2007 17 4.3
"If Director C.B. Harding's intention was to make one of the worst films in recent memory, congratulations are in order."
-- Michael Ferraro, Film Threat
What could be funnier than the Iraq War? Everything, as it turns out. This much-despised slapstick comedy stars Larry The Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, DJ Qualls as three average guys who are mistaken for Army reservists and shipped out to Iraq -- only to be dropped off in Mexico, which they mistake for the Middle East. We know: we had you at "Larry The Cable Guy."
2 The Tiger and the Snow 2005 22 7.6
"A scorching affront to Italians, Iraqis and the intelligence of movie audiences everywhere."
-- Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times
Leave it to Roberto Benigni to make light of a terrible situation. Not even an appearance from Tom Waits (!) can save this whimsical romantic comedy (!) set in Iraq just as the U.S. begins its invasion; the film plays out like a ripoff of Benigni's own Life Is Beautiful, only with more yuks. Yuck.
3 The Objective 2009 26 7.1
"It plays like a disastrous Sci-Fi Channel castoff."
-- Luke Y. Thompson, LA Weekly
Blair Witch director Daniel Myrick set his most recent supernatural horror tale in the middle of the Afghanistan conflict, where an American special forces team attempts to track down a mysterious man. Never heard of it? You're not alone; The Objective grossed just $95 in theaters. (And we're not talking millions -- or even thousands.)
4 Badland 2007 30 n/a
"Possibly the worst idea for a movie this century."
-- Jack Mathews, New York Daily News
Francesco Lucente's drama attempts to depict the burdens that the horrors of war place on soldiers after they return home, but instead we just get something mostly horrible. The film centers on a Marine reservist who returns to his family a changed man after stints in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Badland goes at least one step too far, changing the story into something else that is far less compelling.
5 September Tapes 2004 32 6.4
"Boasts some of the best filming seen in today’s so-called 'dramatic documentaries,' but an unrefined script and frankly unbelievable ending keep it from becoming something better."
-- Pete Vonder Haar, Film Threat
A fictional film disguised as a documentary, September Tapes (also annoyingly titled as Septem8er Tapes) depicts an American journalist's trip to Afghanistan to chronicle the hunt for al Qaeda terrorists. The only thing shakier than the camerawork is the acting.
Bonus: The War on TV
Show Year Netflix Metascore Users
  Generation Kill 2008 81 8.5
"Generation Kill is rewarding in its complexity. It feels real - and that realness is bracing, sad and funny in equal measures."
-- Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle
Seemingly unbeknownst to some people, Rolling Stone has engaged in serious investigative journalism from time to time, including Evan Wright's account of his months spent embedded with Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. David Simon brings the same level of realism, complexity, and intelligence to this seven-hour HBO miniseries based on Wright's writings that he brought to acclaimed shows such as Treme and The Wire; the result is gripping, once you are able to keep track of all the characters.
Bonus: The First Gulf War
Movie Year Netflix Metascore Users
  Three Kings 1999 82 7.8
"You walk out amazed and refreshed by the way it kicks the assumptions out from under the genre."
-- Jay Carr, Boston Globe
The last great year in cinema -- 1999 -- gave us this fine example of the right way to make a war comedy. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze play American soldiers stationed in a chaotic Iraq at the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991. David O. Russell's satire manages to be stylish, funny, political, sentimental, and wholly original, while adding a number of solid action sequences and great performances.

What do you think?

Have you seen any of the recent war movies, and have you liked any of them? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (23)

  • Amedeus  

    God, I was hoping you guys would find some way to mention Generation Kill in there. And somehow, you did. It really is my favorite anything related to the war. And I generally don't give much of one for war movies or games.

  • DEX  

    Almost everybody in America today either knows somebody who has been in the sandbox or has been there themselves; hurr durr I wonder why nobody cares about depressing and boring Iraq/Afghanistan films.

  • a  

    there's been a "top ten best and worst" for everything lately

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