All too often, as Arts & Faith member and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet said in a post accompanying the list, Christian media have "celebrated art and entertainment for its 'evangelical potential' ... As a result, 'Christian art' has become more and more didactic and simplistic. Its messages are easily paraphrased. No wonder the rest of the world dismisses it so easily." Arts & Faith, an online community of Christian arts enthusiasts, most of whom are professional cultural critics, scholars and artists, announced its Top 100 Films of all time this week. The list focuses specifically on films that explore spiritual and/or religious themes. What's surprisingly refreshing about the list isn't just what's on it -- more on that later -- but what's missing from it. There's no 'Fireproof' or 'The Passion of the Christ' or 'Facing the Giants' or even 'The Ten Commandments.' And for that, this movie-lover who happens to be a Christian says, "Hurrah!"
All too often, as Arts & Faith member and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet said in a post accompanying the list, Christian media have "celebrated art and entertainment for its 'evangelical potential' ... As a result, 'Christian art' has become more and more didactic and simplistic. Its messages are easily paraphrased. No wonder the rest of the world dismisses it so easily."
So to put it bluntly, the Arts & Faith Top 100 isn't based on how many nonbelievers a movie is likely to convert to Christianity or any narrow-minded notions that a film containing mature language, violence or sexuality is automatically "of the devil." Many of the listed films don't deal with Christianity at all but still delve into deeper questions that people of faith who love art would and should appreciate. It's a perfectly thoughtful approach, really, because sometimes the art can speak louder than the artist (as anyone who still enjoys Roman Polanski's films can agree).
Although some of the filmmakers represented on the list are professed Christians -- Soviet Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who has six films on the list, German director Wim Wenders and Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose 'Ordet' ('The Word') topped the list -- others are avowed atheists (Lars von Trier) or Jewish (Gidi Dar, whose excellent Israeli drama 'Ushpizin' is No. 89, or the Coen Brothers, whose latest Oscar-nominated drama 'A Serious Man' came in particularly high at No. 22) or irreligious or undeclared. Again, this is laudable, because to some audiences, the filmmaker's personal beliefs are just as important as the film itself.
In other words, a movie doesn't need to star Kirk Cameron or be based on a C.S. Lewis novel to be relevant to Christians, regardless of what studio marketing departments might think. More to the point, Christian filmmakers and screenwriters shouldn't feel compelled to turn their movies into ministry tools that can be screened at church retreats. There's no need to pander, just make a thought-provoking movie that anyone would want to see, not just Christians.
What's especially curious about the list is that so many are foreign language films. Does world cinema offer more contemplative, spiritual film experiences? Apparently, the answer is yes. Filmmakers in other countries, most of which have governments that help finance films, don't have nearly the same level of financial pressure to make a profitable or commercial or celebrity-driven products. Still, it's curious how few of the selected movies will be recognizable to mainstream audiences.
Here are five personal favorites from the Arts & Faith Top 100:
- No. 32: 'The Apostle,' directed by Rubert Duvall, is a powerful chronicle of a troubled pastor who packs up, leaves town and re-invents himself as a revival-style preacher who brings forth the Word to fellow sinners.
- No. 45: 'It's a Wonderful Life,' directed by Frank Capra, is so much more than a holiday tradition. It's the study of a man's true worth -- his history, his relationships, his impact on the people he loves.
- No. 58: 'Magnolia,' directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is an epic treatise on human tragedy, as interlocking stories highlight how much we all yearn for connection, love, forgiveness and acceptance.
- No. 91: 'Au Revoir Les Enfants' ('Goodbye To The Children'), directed by Louis Malle, is a heartbreaking World War II tale about an 11-year-old Jewish boy who goes into hiding at a French Catholic school for boys.
- No. 96: 'The New World,' directed by Terrence Malick, is an ethereal exploration of Captain John Smith's tragically beautiful relationship with Pocahontas, and by extension between the English and the Native Americans.
I applaud the Arts & Faith members who recognize that faith and culture need not be mutually exclusive. Even if you're not a a Christian, their list is Netflix-queue worthy, if only to catch up on some classic foreign films that will make you think about life, beauty and art -- a worthy endeavor for any movie fan.
10. 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew'
9. 'Early Summer'
8. 'Andrei Rublev'
7. 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans'
6. 'Au Hasard Balthazar'
5. 'The Son'
4. 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'
3. 'Babette's Feast'
2. 'The Decalogue'