“Of making many books there is no end,” wrote Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, and the same can been said about the making of lists. In fact, it’s precisely because of the endless production of books, along with films and music, that a whole genre of lists exists—the familiar top 10’s, top 50’s and top 100’s. The virtue of lists is that they are finite—they offer a roadmap to a seemingly endless landscape, and a guide to artistic landmarks.
Every year a flurry of new movie lists starts around November and runs to last week’s Academy Awards. Among this year’s crop is the Arts & Faith “Top 100 Films” list—not an annual list, but an all-time top 100 films list chosen by the community at the Arts & Faith discussion board.
Sponsored by Image Journal, a Christian magazine of the arts, Arts & Faith is a forum for open discussion about the arts, notably movies, that has roots going back a dozen years. The community began as a discussion among Christian cinephiles, and today includes film critics, novelists, professors, playwrights, Hollywood professionals, and movie buffs from all walks of life.
Originally called the Arts & Faith “Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films,” the list is not confined to explicitly religious subjects, but spiritual and moral concerns are a unifying principle. The list honors films not simply for technical achievement or historical importance, but because they reflect profoundly on the mystery of man, and often because they have played some significant role in the personal journeys of the voting members. The following titles give a good sense of the character of the list:
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927)
- Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
- Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
- Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1987)
- The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
- Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951)
- A Man For All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
- My Night at Maud’s (Éric Rohmer, 1969)
- Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
- Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
But even the A&F “Top 100 Films” list continues indefinitely, with several iterations of the list since it first appeared in 2004. The ten films listed above are among the perennial, canonical classics that have appeared on every list to date, but other films come and go with alarming regularity.
The 2011 list alone adds 24 new films never before seen on previous lists, including a number of Golden-Age Hollywood films (Make Way For Tomorrow, How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers), Japanese anime (Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, Paprika), and even a pair of moving ethnographic documentaries (Born into Brothels, The Story of the Weeping Camel).
In spite of the influx of Golden Age and other Hollywood films, English speakers will notice that foreign-language films dominate the list, particularly the top 20. It’s a curious irony that a country as comparatively religious as the United States should have produced comparatively few spiritual masterpieces akin to The Passion of Joan of Arc or Diary of a Country Priest. Even the piety of the Golden Age was seldom of that caliber; The Song of Bernadette and On the Waterfront (both honored on previous A&F lists, though not this year’s) are among the best examples one could name.
This verdict is borne out, incidentally, by another notable list: the 1995 Vatican film list, which honors 45 titles from cinematic history, subdivided into three groups of 15 under the headings “Religion,” “Values” and “Art.” Although American cinema is well represented under the headings of “Art” and “Values,” the “Religion” heading includes only one Hollywood film, Ben-Hur.
Of course, the addition of new films means that films honored in previous lists have dropped off. What about films that appeared on every A&F “Top 100” list until this year, including Open City, Solaris, Derzu Uzala, The Sacrifice, and The Wind Will Carry Us? What about other films that appeared on previous lists but not this year’s, including The Mission, Witness, Groundhog Day and The Last Days of Disco? What about a little film called The Passion of the Christ?
One could also point to deserving films that have never been included. My own shortlist of neglected films would include Monsieur Vincent, Grand Illusion, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Incredibles. Take The Tree of Wooden Clogs: a 1978 film that mesmerizingly captures the rhythms of peasant life in turn-of-the-century Italy, with ample attention to the centrality of family, the holiness of marriage, and the role of religion in everyday life. There is simply nothing like it. Others might wonder: What about Citizen Kane?
There are always new films worthy of consideration, as well. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, now in limited release, is an outstanding example: the true story of French Trappist monks kidnapped in Algeria in 1996 by Muslim extremists, and ultimately beheaded. It’s one of the most artistically and spiritually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. What about the Coen brothers’ take on True Grit, passed over for all 10 of its Oscar nominations? It would have had my vote.
The perfect Arts & Faith Top 100 list eludes us. Still, there’s a lot to be said for this year’s list—and for the list website, which includes capsule-length write-ups on each film. For those interested in landmarks of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the landscape of cinematic history, the 2011 Arts & Faith “Top 100 Films” will reward thoughtful engagement.
Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He also writes for ChristianityToday.com and for various print publications, and is a regular guest on several radio shows.
Arts and Faith Top 100 Films (2011)
Steven Greydanus’ Decent Films Guide
The 1995 Vatican Film List