The truth is all the best Catholic movies weren’t made as Catholic movies. For all the complaining we Catholics do about ‘Hollywood values,’ mainstream (and often Hollywood) cinema has been doing a better job of promoting Catholic values and Christian teachings than all the second-rate films labled officially “Catholic.”
Here is my list of the top 30 of such films – ‘pagan’ movies that save souls.
1. Casablanca (1942)
This one is mentioned a lot by Catholics, and deservedly. It’s a pro-marriage, pro-loyalty, pro-sacrifice romance. Victor Lazlo is a classic Christ figure. And the storytelling remains timeless after more than 70 years.
2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Another family favorite, this film is about as pro-life and pro-family as a movie can get.
3. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Haunting, frightening, viceral, The Seventh Seal is not a tame look at life and religion. Set in Europe during the Black Death, the film paints a frightening portrait of the Middle Ages while bringing the audience into the heart of the human condition.
4. Vertigo (1958)
Some people believe Catholic director Alfred Hitchcock was a sadist, voyeur and Freudian. I personally think – sadism aside, maybe – his voyeurism is actually anti-voyeurism, and his Freudianism is tongue in-cheek. I think this film, more than any other, is a cautionary tale against voyeurism. (For what I interpret as a Hitchcock parody of Freud, watch Psycho).
5. A Man For All Seasons (1966)
The life and times of St. Thomas More (Paul Scofield). Possibly one of the best saint bio-pics ever, and still one of the most intelligent stage-to-screen adaptions in the history of cinema.
6. The Scarlet and the Black (1983)
Although its portrayal of Pope Pius XII is a little weak (although, hey, at least it doesn’t portray him as a friend of the Nazis), in every other way this film is an almost heavy-handed champion of Catholicism.
7. The Mission (1986)
In my personal opinion, this is the greatest Catholic movie ever made. Directed by agnostic Roland Joffe, this film is the best portrayal of the priesthood ever, and has one of the most spiritually beautiful endings to any film.
8. The Princess Bride (1987)
A staple of Catholic cinephilia. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Catholic who hasn’t seen The Princess Bride and loved it. For that matter, I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who’s not seen it, and certainly not anyone who doesn’t love it.
9. The Dekalog (1988)
Made for TV and not the silver screen, this ten-part series of hour-long films is still possibly some of the most cinematic faith and philosophy ever put on screen. It’s very existential and not explicitly hopeful, but it’s clearly Catholic at its core. The series doesn’t have a trailer, but in lieu of one is a full episode:
10. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Some people might disagree with the inclusion of such a gruesome film on a list of Catholic movies, but more than any other on the list I will defend this one to the death. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a clear Christ figure, Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) cannibalism I suspect is connected with the Eucharist, and the portrayal of humanity and evil in Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) is one of the best cinematic studies of the nature of sin.
11. Groundhog Day (1993)
A story about the true nature of the ‘good life,’ which turns out to be a life lived selflessly. The groundhog is a Messianic device; Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is enslaved in an endless cycle of selfishness and death until the groundhog appears.
12. Schindler’s List (1993)
In my opinion this is the best film ever made in any category. The main character Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a model Christian in both his self-giving and role as savior.
13. The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King story is Hamlet and Star Wars, but also the Gospel. The innocent Simba takes on the sins of the other animals and is driven into the desert like a Hebrew scapegoat. He is blessed by his heavenly father, anointed by the prophet-monkey Raffiki, and sent back to save Pride Rock, take his place as King, and cast the usurper Scar into the eternal fire. Sound familiar?
14. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A story of hope and salvation. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is an innocent man convicted of murder. He enters the prison as an outsider, and brings hope and salvation to his prison mates by setting an example of charity. He then does what no one has ever done – escape the prison – like how Christ did what no one had ever done – defeat death.
15. Braveheart (1995)
William Wallace’s death at the end of Braveheart is almost too heavy-handedly Christian. Wallace (Mel Gibson) is stretched out as if on a cross, and the demonic Cardinal whispers temptations in his ear. Despite its overtness, and despite Wallace’s little detour with the French princess, this film is an amazing celebration of hope, love, freedom, and sacrifice.
16. The Truman Show (1998)
The story of a man, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrie) trapped in a television world of lies. He eventually breaks out of his false prison to embrace the pains and fears of real life (the Truth), due to the prayers of his beloved Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), and despite the temptations of his Lucifer-like television producer (Ed Harris).
17. The Thin Red Line (1998)
The first of two Terrence Malick films on this list, The Thin Red Line is a poetic war movie with heart. Malick transforms the battle for Guadalcanal into a spiritual journey, and he weaves the entire story around Jim Caveziel’s movingly Christlike character.
18. The Matrix (1999)
This film has many levels of interpretations, including as Gnostic, Buddhist, and Cartesian. However, there’s also a clearly Christian way of interpreting the story. Neo is another classic Christ figure who saves the world from the Powers and Principalities to live in the light of truth.
19. Return to Me (2000)
One of the most refreshing and wholesome romantic comedies ever. The Irish-Italian Catholicism of some of the characters is both hilarious and touching. As Grandpa Marty (Carroll O’Connors) says: “It’s the character that’s the strongest that God gives the most challenges to. Now you can take that as a compliment.”
20. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Tolkien’s original three-volume fantasy epic is widely considered one of the great achievements in Catholic literature, but it’s amazing that agnostic director Peter Jackson seemingly unwittingly translated the deep Catholic heart of the books to the screen. Strange coincidences go beyond what the story demands; for example, the statue of Aragorn’s mother in the extended cut of Fellowship is actually a Mary statue borrowed for the film.
21. Cinderella Man (2005)
A story of good Irish faith, family, sacrifice, and gumption.
22. Children of Men (2006)
There’s something of pagan despair in this film, but it is a pagan despair that wants a Messiah – and gets it. A nativity story from Joseph’s perspective in which Theo Faron (Clive Owen) must get the last pregnant woman in the world to safety.
23. Juno (2007)
Forget Bella and October Baby, Juno is the most effective pro-life film made yet, and was good enough to make it to the Oscars. Funny, vulgar, subtle, and with more heart than most movies in general, Juno celebrates life in a way that our culture can actually relate to.
24. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The entire Bourne Trilogy is about as Catholic as it gets, from the fact that Bourne (Matt Damon) is Catholic himself to his decision to be a gentleman and sleep on the floor for Marie (Franka Potente). And then there’s the baptism imagery. What? Didn’t notice that water throughout the film represented death, as it did for early Christians and Jews? Didn’t notice that Bourne twice conquered death by being brought to life after floating dead in the water?
25. UP (2009)
As Barbara Nicolosi says, the best 5 minutes of marriage in film ever was brought to us not by a ‘Catholic’ film, but by Pixar. Instead of the trailer, I posted these best 5 minutes.
26. Of Gods and Men (2010)
This film is practically a recruitment ad for the monastic life, as well as a beautiful study of the preeminence of charity in ecumenism and the importance of humility during persecution.
27. Book of Eli (2010)
In a post-apocalyptic fallout-ridden landscape, prophetic Eli (Denzel Washington) must transport the last Bible to a safe haven. Meanwhile, nasty mayor Carnegie (Gary Oldman) tries to use the book for his own twisted ends.
28. The Tree of Life (2011)
The second Terrence Malick film on this list. This breathtakingly beautiful portrait of the macrocosm and microcosm opens with the chilling line, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.”
29. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
No movie has ever struck me so squarely with Christian hope. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a classic Passion-Death-Resurrection cycle. On its own, however, this film flies in the face of postmodernism and demands hope and faith in humankind.
30. Les Miserables (2012)
Given the subject matter, the film had to have Catholic themes, but it brought home the Catholic message perhaps better than the original musical or novel. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is the ultimate Christian, and the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) is the epitome of pastoral charity.