In 2014, I published a list of ‘100 Best Catholic Movies.’ Below I have arranged the list not by their year of release but by my ranking of their comparative achievement. Naturally, this is a personal, and somewhat subjective, evaluation, but ranking serves to spur us to think more deeply about what makes a film great and what makes a film Catholic. I agree with Paul Schrader — screenwriter, director, and critic — that greatness in movies can be judged by the following criteria: strangeness, unity of form and content, tradition, repeatability, and morality. To put our finger on the ‘Catholic identity’ of a film is more difficult, but let me try: For a film to be regarded as Catholic, it’s subject matter must engage the mystery of human existence in a way that reflects, either in agreement or disagreement, the Catholic understanding of homo viator, men and women on a journey to God. Thus, a Catholic film will be morally and spiritually significant regardless of the director and his or her professed faith. Although films are often identified as ‘Catholic’ by their explicit engagement with Scripture, saints, or the Church, they must be films that achieve worth as films in order to make this list. Sadly, many films that set out to ‘have a message’ fail when it comes to their artistic values as films. Messages are far more powerful when they are met amid a very well-made film such as those below.
Top 100 Catholic Movies Rated 1-100
1. Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons, 1966.
2. Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, 2004.
3. Carl Theodore von Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928.
4. Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Decalogue, 1988.
5. Robert Bresson, Au Hasard Balthasar, 1966.
6. Roland Jaffe, The Mission, 1986.
7. John Huston, Wise Blood, 1979.
8. Robert Bresson, The Diary of a Country Priest, 1951.
9. Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964.
10. William Friedkin, The Exorcist, 1973.
11. Carl Theodore von Dreyer, Ordet, 1955.
12. Bruce Beresford, Black Robe, 1991.
13. Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront, 1954.
14. Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967.
15. John Ford, Three Godfathers, 1948.
16. Mark Pellington, Henry Poole is Here, 2008.
17 Alfred Hitchcock, I Confess, 1953.
19. Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, 1956.
20. Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men, 2010.
21. Frank Borzage, Strange Cargo, 1940
22. Leo McCarey, Going My Way, 1944.
23. Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thieves, 1948.
24. Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story, 1959.
25. William Wyler, Ben Hur, 1959.
26. Robert Bresson, Pickpocket, 1959.
27. Paul Schrader, First Reformed, 2017*
28. Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, 1952.
29. Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D, 1952.
30. Ida Lupino, The Trouble with Angels, 1968*
31. Henry King, The Song of Bernadette, 1943.
31. Anthony Harvey, The Abdication, 1974.
32. Robert Bresson, L’argent, 1983.
33. Franco Zefferelli, Jesus of Nazareth, 1977.
34. Jerry London, The Scarlet and the Black, 1983.
35. Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, 1987.
36. Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast, 1987.
37. Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.
38. Mel Gibson, Braveheart, 1995.
39. Michael Powell, Black Narcissus, 1947.
40. Maurice Pialat, Under the Star of Satan, 1987.
41. Pavel Lungin, The Island, 2006
42. Alejandro Monteverde, Bella, 2006.
43. John Ford, The Fugitive, 1947.
44. Cecil B. DeMille, King of Kings, 1927.
45. Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow, 1947.
46. Ermanno Olmi, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, 1978.
47. Liv Ullmann, Kristin Lavransdatter, 1995.
48. Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli, 1950.
49. Richard Fleischer, Barabbas, 1961.
50. Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977.
51. David Lynch, The Straight Story, 1999.
52. John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, 2008.
53. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011.
54. Agnieszka Holland, The Third Miracle, 1999.
55. Philip Groning, Into the Great Silence, 2007.
56. Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.
57. Martin Scorcese, Silence, 2016*
58. Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950
59. Joseph Hardy, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1974.
60. Bruce Beresford, Evelyn, 2002.
61. Denys Arcand, Barbarian Invasions, 2003.
62. Alexander Payne, About Schmidt, 2002.
63. Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982.
64. Ulu Grosbard, True Confessions, 1981.
65. Charles Sturridge & Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Brideshead Revisited, 1981.
66. Francesco Rosi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979.
67. Luis Bunuel, Nazarin, 1959.
68. Alain Cavalier, Therese, 1986.
69. Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989.
70. Krzysztof Kieslowski, A Short Film About Love, 1988.
71. M. Knight Shyamalan, Wide Awake, 1998.
72. Nancy Savoca, Household Saints, 1993.
73. Lee David Slotoff, Spitfire Grill, 1996.
74. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, L’enfant, 2006.
75. Martin Provost, Seraphine, 2008
76. John M. Stahl, The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944.
77. Peter Glenville, Becket, 1964.
78. Luis Bunuel, Simon of the Desert, 1965.
79. Martin Scorcese, The Age of Innocence, 1982.
80. Stijn Coninx, Daens, 1992.
81. Mervyn LeRoy, The Devil of 4 O’Clock, 1961.
82. John Ford, The Informer, 1935.
83. Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire, 1981.
84. Patrice Leconte, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000.
85. Jim Sheridan, In America, 2002.
86. Norman Stone, Shadowlands, 1885.
87. Ermanno Olmi, Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988.
88. Raffaello Matarazzo, The White Angel, 1955.
89. Klaus Haro, Letters to Father Jaakob, 2009.
90. Joe Johnston, October Sky, 1999.
91. John Huston, The Dead, 1987.
92. John Duigan, Romero, 1989.
93. Rodney Bennett, Monsignor Quixote, 1987.
94. Franco Zefferelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 1972.
95. Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005.
96. Michael Anderson, The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968.
97. Marta Meszaros, The Seventh Room, 1996.
98. Gordon Douglas, Come Fill the Cup, 1951.
99. Frank Capra, Lady for a Day, 1933.
100. Otto Preminger, The Cardinal, 1963.
*Added to Top 100
Ida Lupino, The Trouble with Angels, 1968*
Martin Scorcese, Silence, 2016*
Paul Schrader, First Reformed, 2017*
**Removed from Top 100
Nicholas Ray, King of Kings, 1961.**
Carol Reed, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965.**
Christian Carion, Joyeux Noel, 2005.**
Mr. Hudson, I would be very much interested in your reasons behind including First Reformed. I have read your comments here
and while they examine Schrader’s style, they don’t really explain how you look past his blatant recycling of Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light.
Jacob, is your objection that Schrader made use of those films in making his own? Deal
Basically yes. I am certainly a fan of both those movies and when I watched First Reformed and started ticking off all that Schrader was using from those movies, I had a very visceral reaction. I have read other reviewers call it homage, but to me, it was just too much.
I definitely think there are elements of First Reformed that are interesting. The conflict between the small church and its megachurch sponsor with corporate ties was definitely worth exploring. I just wish Schrader could have created something of his own to do it instead of taking Winter Light and subbing climate catastrophe for nuclear annihilation.
Jacob, I haven’t seen Winter Light in a long time and will watch it again. I don’t think the connection between Bresson’s Diary and First Reformed is that close — Schrader makes it clear that he admires Bresson as one creator of the ‘transcendental style,’ a style Schrader gave a name and one he put to full use in First Reformed. I was put off by Schrader’s use of the climate catastrophe, but his character won me over into believing that’s what motivated him. The diary aspect put Kierkegaard in my mind just as much as Bresson. Deal
Thank you for your replies, sir.
While you included the Excorcist, I was surprised The Rite was not included…?
I need to watch The Rite again. Thanks for the reminder. Deal
I wouldn’t bother. The Rite is very well done, and isn’t very Catholic. I would consider another similar movie though: The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
I’m surprised to see Black Narcissus listed as a “Catholic” film (great as it is). A film about a group of Anglo-Catholic (C of E) nuns being driven mad by the sensuality of their surroundings, isn’t exactly what I’d call edifying or Catholic (although it’s one of my favourite films).
Simon, Sister Coldagh (Deborah Kerr) is driven by memories of her lost love. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is an erotic bomb ready to go off—-and the entrance of Mr. Dean (David Farrar) provides the match. I think the nuns could have been a Catholic order, and nothing in the film would be affected. It’s a haunting film. I can’t think of another one to compare with it except for the film version of Bernanos’s Le Sous le Soleil de Satan (Maurice Pialat).
I love Shoes of the Fisherman with Anthony Quinn
I can’t believe you didn’t include Alejandro Monteverde, Little Boy 2015. This is one of the best Catholic films I’ve seen.
How many of the 100 listed have you seen? Especially the top 30?
I’ve seen 10 of the top 30 and without checking them off, probably another 30 of the rest of your list, and I’m not arguing you don’t have some good Catholic movies on the list, but I’d put Little Boy in my top 30. I saw you put Monteverde’s Bella on your list, which is fantastic, but I think Little Boy is a step up for him, and it’s an overwhelmingly Catholic movie. I’ll make it easy for you, drop Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for Little Boy. I don’t know if I’d consider Tree of Life a very Catholic movie. I personally am not a huge Malick fan, and I’ll give you that Tree of Life is probably one of his better movies (Thin Red Line is probably my favorite of his), but it’s not great, and again, I don’t see how it’s Catholic.
Charles, fair enough! I will take about look at the list. Deal
Fair enough! I do appreciate the list btw. As a Catholic and a movie fanatic, this makes me very happy. You’ve given me some homework: I have some movies I need to watch! And discussing this list with my wife, I realized, I haven’t exposed my children to A Man For All Seasons yet!!!
A truly great movie – top 5, really, at number 1 – is missed here – the 1955 Spanish film The Miracle of Marcelino.
Will go back and give it another try, Deal
Another great one that’s missed is Quo Vadis (1951)
Love Rozsa’s music, and I will reconsider after watching again, Deal
You are probably right about that one, Deal
What about The Departed?
I will have to watch it again. Deal
I remember liking the film but don’t remember it Catholic beyond it being about Irish Catholics — am I wrong? Deal
This is a very interesting list; thank you. I’ve seen 8 of your top 10, but only 36 from the full list.
Given that “The Tree of Life” is the best film ever made, shouldn’t it also be the best Catholic film?
I thought The Tree of Life was on the list. No? It should be. Deal
Yes, “The Tree of Life” is on the list, but not at the top. Perhaps I’m being needlessly provoking. I’m something of a Malick evangelist; it’s a trying vice.
I can suggest a few mostly-recent titles not on your list that may be unfamiliar. In roughly descending order of enthusiasm:
Eugene Green, “The Portuguese Nun”, 2009.
John Crowley, “Brooklyn”, 2015.
John Michael McDonagh, “Calvary”, 2014.
Paweł Pawlikowski, “Ida”, 2013.
Dietrich Bruggemann, “Stations of the Cross”, 2014.
Eugene Green, “The Son of Joseph”, 2016.
Eric Rohmer, “My Night at Maud’s”, 1969.
Werner Herzog, “Pilgrimage”, 2001.
Calvary should have been on the list. So should have Ida (Are you sure it’s not there?) Have not been able to view Stations of the Cross, Pilgrimage, The Son of Joseph, or The Portuguese Nun but will. Thought Brooklyn was fabulous but why this list? Your right to suggest I reconsider My Night at Maud’s. Thanks, Deal
I suggested “Brooklyn” for its portrait of Irish Catholic life in New York. It’s not a self-consciously theological film, but I liked how the parish formed the backdrop to the story in many ways. It’s something we’ve lost.
“Ida” is not on the list at present, but I’m glad you’ve seen it. A very good film, I think.
I have watched both ‘Stations of the Cross’ and ‘The Portuguese Nun’ and agree completely they should be on my list. As soon as I watch the Green and the Herzog, I will publish a revised list. Thanks again, Deal
Calvary should have been #1 on the list.
Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” should be on the list.
Probably. It’s on several Catholic movie lists. But I watched it again and their change heart felt like a deus ex machina.
Deal, Forgive my tardiness on finding your article, but kudos for the list. Would humbly recommend a 1963 film, “Lilies of the Field.” Seems to be almost forgotten now, but was nominated for five Academy Awards and its star, Sidney Poitier, won an Oscar for his role.
Yes, Joe, I think you are right about ‘Lilies.’ Best, Deal
Your comment appears to be cut off. Deal