On March 22, 1895, the Lumière brothers screened their first projected motion picture at the Society for the Development of National Industry Conference in Paris, triggering an innovative visual art form that has entertained critics and casual moviegoers for more than a century.
One hundred years after the birth of cinema, the Vatican released a commemorative list of 45 films that the Holy See found either spiritually significant, morally compelling or artistically meritorious. These films range from the universally acclaimed (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Citizen Kane,” “Schindler’s List”) to the more obscure (“Thérèse,” “Lavender Hill Mob,” “Monsieur Vincent”).
While the Vatican’s film recommendations are excellent, 25 years have passed since the list’s publication, and it could use an update. Luckily, a few of the office cinephiles at America Media are here to expand the Vatican’s list with the most groundbreaking, impressive and beautiful films released since 1995. Ryan Di Corpo, Colleen Dulle and Isabelle Senechal have selected 25 films that are verifiably (by us) the best from the last 25 years. (If your favorite modern film didn’t make the list, let us know in the comments in our movie club on Facebook.)
Our criteria for this list loosely follows the Vatican’s three categories for their film choices: religion, values and art. We intentionally picked films that have overt religious themes or Catholic subtext; movies that are distinguished by their special moral worth (this includes works with morally complex storylines or content that may not be obviously virtuous but does add to the philosophical conversations these films are having with their audiences); and features that will stand the test of time for their artistic achievements. All of these films fit into at least one of those categories, although some do overlap into two or all three. These films are presented in chronological order.
“Good Will Hunting”(1997). Matt Damon is “wicked smaht” as the titular character—a brilliant but troubled college janitor—in Gus Van Sant’s box-office hit “Good Will Hunting.” A quintessential film of the 1990s and prime candidate for the title of “most Boston film of all time,” it succeeds in large part because of an intelligent, insightful screenplay by 20-somethings Damon and Ben Affleck and a masterful performance from Robin Williams. The two-time Oscar-winning film also marked a turning point in the career of Van Sant, launching the director of “My Own Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy” into the mainstream of American cinema.
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Stephen Spielberg’s epic World War II drama about an American squad’s courageous campaign to find a paratrooper (Matt Damon), who is the last surviving brother of three servicemen killed in action, has been lauded as a modern classic and one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time—with good reason. From its gritty violence and unflinching portrait of modern warfare to the morally gray situations that its characters must navigate as they plunge deeper into the heart of Nazi-occupied France, the film actively works to dispel the glamorized fantasy of war that its cinematic predecessors relished in, offering instead a realistic horror show that underscores the troops’ trauma and sacrifice. Complete with an unforgettable performance from Tom Hanks and impressive cinematography from Janusz Kamiński,“Saving Private Ryan” is a visceral experience that will haunt you long after you watch it.
“In the Mood for Love” (2000). Reminiscent of classic Hollywood romances (and with more than a nod to Sirkian interiors), “In the Mood for Love” tells the tale of a couple (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) drawn together by their respective partners’ affairs. Shanghai-born director Wong Kar-wai marries exquisite production design with a complex color palette to produce a veritable visual feast. A masterclass in tone, “In the Mood for Love” is one of the most stirring romantic pictures in recent memory.
A masterclass in tone, “In the Mood for Love” is one of the most stirring romantic pictures in recent memory.
“Spirited Away”(2001). A masterpiece from the celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” transports audiences to an imaginative, supernatural world that is as beautiful as it is mystifying. Every frame in this film is a visual treat for the eyes, and Studio Ghibli’s impeccable animation allows the scenes to materialize like a moving painting. In addition to its gorgeous cinematography, “Spirited Away” features a cast of offbeat but lovable characters and a surprisingly adult story that is nearly perfect in every beat. If you haven’t experienced this Oscar-winning animated classic yet, do yourself a favor: Turn off the lights, get comfortable, and allow this film to spirit you away for two hours.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”(2004). Perhaps the most surreal yet earnestly sincere love story ever committed to film, Charlie Kaufman’s indie darling “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an imaginative odyssey backward through one couple’s relationship from devastating breakup to classic meet-cute. When Joel (Jim Carrey) discovers that his quirky but impulsive ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has decided to undergo a neurological procedure that effectively erases her memory of him, he spitefully resolves to do the same, only to realize that obliterating his painful memories of her also means losing the happy ones. With its affecting story, captivating visuals and exquisite meditation on love and heartbreak, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is one romantic dramedy you won’t soon forget.
“Into Great Silence”(2005). A labor of patience and love, this German-language documentary ranks easily in the canon of classic Catholic films of the 21st century. Director Philip Gröning waited 16 years for a response from the silent Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French alps, who acquiesced to his request to film there only if he would agree to use no artificial light or any sound that did not naturally occur in the daily life of the monastery. The result is an almost completely silent, nearly three-hour immersion into the monastery’s cycles of work and prayer that puts the viewer in touch with his or her own spiritual longings and the deep silence within.
A labor of patience and love, "Into Great Silence" ranks easily in the canon of classic Catholic films of the 21st century.
“Pan’s Labyrinth”(2006). Set in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy film masterfully weaves historical drama with fairy tales, forging an ingenious commentary on the destruction of innocence in the face of inexorable violence. Each of the trials young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is given by the enigmatic faun (Doug Jones) in the overgrown, eponymous labyrinth functions as a parable for the turbulence of adolescence and the real world traumas inflicted by war. There are some truly terrifying moments in Ofelia’s quest—the Pale Man scene will have you squirming in your seat—but the real horror in “Pan’s Labyrinth” stems from man’s ability to dehumanize his enemy and follow orders without question.
“There Will Be Blood” (2007). Daniel Day-Lewis is a cunning, ruthless oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” which pits Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) against a young charismatic preacher (Paul Dano) in the early 20th century. Day-Lewis, in his second Oscar-winning role, is something to behold: sneering at the preacher, mocking his religious “superstition,” thrashing him in the mud. But the preacher holds his own, demanding that Plainview be baptized and publicly admit to abandoning his child. Complemented by Johnny Greenwood’s pulsating score and shining vistas of the Texan landscape, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit, “There Will Be Blood” is an enthralling ride into the dark heart of America.
“There Will Be Blood” is an enthralling ride into the dark heart of America.
“Of Gods and Men”(2010). Xavier Beauvois’s haunting and austere drama follows the true story of the martyrs of the Tibhirine, a group of Trappist monks who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996 by an Islamic extremist group during the Algerian Civil War. Much of the film’s two hours centers on the daily monastic and liturgical life of the monastery, which remains largely unchanged even as the fighting ratchets up and the monks must decide whether to accept protection from corrupt forces. Fully aware of the threats of violence and death, the brothers turn down the protection—though they receive it for a time anyway, until the tide of the war turns—choosing to remain in Algeria for the sake of their neighbors to whom they minister.
“The Tree of Life” (2011). Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, no stranger to best-of-the-century lists, plunges the viewer into a philosophical exploration of grief, theodicy and the duality of grace and human nature as a mid-century Texas family learns about the death of one of their three sons. The film’s experimental cinematography, replete with gratuitous nature shots, along with its extended special-effects sequence depicting the creation of the universe, cemented Malick’s signature aesthetic as well as his reputation for creating soul-searching films. This Palme d’Or winner earns a special mention on this list for its final beach scene, which we humbly but confidently laud as the greatest film depiction of eschatological bodily resurrection ever.
We humbly but confidently laud the final beach scene in "The Tree of Life" as the greatest film depiction of eschatological bodily resurrection ever.
“Amour”(2012). Don’t let the title of this film fool you: “Amour” is a tough sit, and all the better for it. Revered French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant (“Z,” “The Conformist”) and Emmanuelle Riva (“Hiroshima mon amour,” “Three Colors: Blue”) team up with the Austrian auteur Michael Haneke to portray a married couple navigating the complexities of age. When the elderly Anne (Riva) suffers a stroke, her husband Georges (Trintignant) must care for Anne as she becomes increasingly sick and unable to tend to herself. A meditation on suffering and the hardships of providing for a dying loved one, “Amour” and its unexpected conclusion challenge the viewer’s concept of love. For her extraordinarily vulnerable performance, an 85-year-old Riva received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013). Based on the 1853 memoir by abolitionist Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” provides a brutal retelling of Northup’s enslavement in the antebellum American South. As evidenced by his previous feature “Shame,” a no-holds-barred portrayal of sexual addiction in New York City, director Steve McQueen is not afraid of tackling challenging subjects with honesty and compassion. “12 Years a Slave” is no exception, and McQueen’s fearlessness is shared by commanding lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a terrifying Michael Fassbender and the revelatory Lupita Nyong’o—whose shattering performance won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
“Her”(2013). The most remarkable thing about Spike Jonze’s eye-catching sci-fi romance “Her” is that you can almost perceive two films nestled into one: one a meditation on persisting loneliness and isolation in a technologically advanced society; the other an honest portrait of a loving relationship that evolves to transcend some boundaries while erecting others. Both ideas would work well on their own, but together they create a special film experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The chemistry between sensitive Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his artificially intelligent virtual assistant, is palpable, though invisible, and the memorable soundtrack by indie rock band Arcade Fire will make your heart sing with the highs and lows of their relationship.
“Grand Budapest Hotel”(2014). This snappy, candy-colored dramedy from Wes Anderson packs innumerable plot twists and a star-studded 17-person ensemble into its breathless 100 minutes. The film follows Zero Moustafa, the hotel’s lobby boy, as he wins the trust of his boss, the punctilious concierge Monsieur Gustave, over the course of a murder accusation, Renaissance art heist, prison break and a confrontation with fascist troops who take over the hotel. Relentlessly funny and endlessly quotable, the film offers as much stylistic and narrative genius as it does the aesthetic and cinematographic innovations for which it is so often praised.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”(2014). Reality mirrors art mirrors reality mirrors art in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brilliant satirical black comedy “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up blockbuster actor from a soulless Hollywood who attempts to revitalize his career (and his reputation) by adapting a Raymond Carver short story for Broadway. The more Riggan sacrifices for his art, the more reality unravels around him. With its smart, snappy dialogue, crisp comedy and continuous one-shot sequences, “Birdman” is perhaps the closest cinema will get to resembling a stage play.
Reality mirrors art mirrors reality mirrors art in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brilliant satirical black comedy “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
“Son of Saul”(2015). The Hungarian director László Nemes made the cruelty of the Holocaust the subject of his Oscar-winning debut film. The film follows, literally and in tight close-ups, the fictional Auschwitz prisoner Saul Ausländer, who cleans gas chambers and removes the bodies of the executed as a member of the Sonderkommando. Relentless, claustrophobic and uncompromising, “Son of Saul” finds traces of humanity in the most inhuman of situations.
“Silence” (2016). Martin Scorsese’s quarter-century passion project, based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, stars Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield as two 17th-century Portuguese Jesuits who set off to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared, and to minister to that country’s “hidden Christians.” The film eschews any easy moral judgments, examining with compassion Rodrigues’s (Garfield) decision to step on an image of Christ, publicly denying his faith while still believing in his heart, in order to save others. America editor at large James Martin, S.J., led Garfield through St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the role, which had a lasting effect on the actor.
“Get Out” (2017). Jordan Peele’s genre-defying, satirical thriller wrests viewers into a perpetual state of unease and dread when a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) goes upstate with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her wealthy, “woke” parents, who are harboring a dark secret. Through inventive hypnotic sequences and superbly unsettling performances from its cast, the film nimbly captures the anxiety of navigating benevolent racism—superficially “positive” racism in which members of other races are perceived as sympathetic, but incompetent—in America. Top it off with a tight, darkly funny original screenplay that earned Peele an Oscar, and “Get Out” becomes a fun, eerie horror romp that will influence scary movies for years to come.
“Coco”(2017). Pixar’s Academy Award-winning animated film “Coco” follows an ambitious young musician, Miguel, as he is accidentally transported to the mythic Land of the Dead on the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos. Miguel clashes with his music-hating ancestors, who refuse to let him return to the land of the living unless he promises to give up his guitar. After a rambunctious hunt for his long-lost grandfather who, legend has it, abandoned the family to become a musician, Miguel solves a decades-long mystery and brings his family, living and dead, to a heartwarming and tear-jerking reunion.
“Lady Bird”(2018). Beautifully simple and genuinely touching, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age comedy about a Catholic high school girl’s senior year in Sacramento—“the Midwest of California”—is an affectionate love letter to the little details of adolescence, burgeoning womanhood and the places we inevitably leave behind. Saoirse Ronan delights as the film’s eponymous heroine Lady Bird, capturing her character’s stubborn, performative streak, while also delivering quiet, tender moments of compassion when the script calls for it. Laurie Metcalf likewise excels as Lady Bird’s strict but well-meaning mother, Marion, and the two actresses expertly play off of each other’s performances to create an authentic mother-daughter relationship. A film that unironically wears its heart on its sleeve, “Lady Bird” is the perfect watch if you want a good laugh or a good cry.
A film that unironically wears its heart on its sleeve, “Lady Bird” is the perfect watch if you want a good laugh or a good cry.
“BlacKkKlansman”(2018). The film that inspired the Academy to finally “Do the Right Thing” and give Spike Lee an Oscar, “BlacKkKlansman” is a triumphant, gleefully cathartic hit against white supremacists, racial propaganda and President Trump’s apparent ambivalence toward the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington comes into his own as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs history, who successfully infiltrates a local chapter of the Klan after posing as a bigoted white man on the phone. What follows is a suspenseful, astonishingly true investigation that somehow manages to make white nationalists look as ridiculous as possible while still acknowledging the very real threat that these hate groups pose to marginalized communities.
“Roma”(2018). Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood nanny tells the story of Cleo, an indigenous live-in housekeeper for a well-to-do family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the 1970s, who cares for her employers’ children while facing an unexpected pregnancy of her own. The film juxtaposes the family’s comfortable urban life with student protests and the shantytowns from which Cleo, Adela—the other maid—and their boyfriends hail. A masterpiece of social justice cinema, “Roma” provides a complex portrait of Cleo, which catapulted first-time indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio to international fame and broke numerous awards barriers as it became the first Mexican film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the first foreign-language film to win for Best Director.
“Parasite”(2019). The film that broke the language barrier, “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s wild, satirical smash, was the surprise winner of Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. At once clever parody and fast-paced thriller (courtesy of a brilliant tonal shift), the film presents a sharp contrast between the upper and lower classes in South Korea. It is the film’s twisting narrative, stellar performances and hard look at social inequality that have resonated across national borders.
At once clever parody and fast-paced thriller, "Parasite" presents a sharp contrast between the upper and lower classes in South Korea.
“The Two Popes”(2019). Both Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins deliver performances that soar into celestial heights, as Jorge Mario Bergolio (Pope Francis) and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) respectively, in Fernando Meirelles’s biographical dramatization of the events leading up to Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election in 2013. Pryce disappears into his role as the compassionate, yet conflicted Bergolio, while Hopkins evinces his acting dexterity by carrying Ratzigner’s strict demeanor and introspective nature in every step he takes and every line he utters. “The Two Popes” is a gorgeously shot, well-choreographed dance between two phenomenal actors, two complex protagonists and two dueling philosophies for rebuilding a church that is still healing from scandal.
“A Hidden Life”(2020). In his most recent film, Terrence Malick lends his spiritually searching, cinematic eye to the true story of the Austrian conscientious objector Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. Based on Jägerstätter’s writings from prison and letters to his wife, Fani, a hidden saint in her own right, the film depicts the mundane, daily refusals to cooperate with the rising nationalism of their community that ultimately lead to the Jägerstätters’s alienation from their rural village and Franz’s death by a Nazi guillotine. A stirring reflection on the banality of evil and the quiet strength of those who resist it in unseen ways every day, “A Hidden Life” has become an instant Catholic classic.