The following list does not pretend to be definitive. It is one man’s attempt, from a Catholic perspective, to present to the general public a list of moving, potentially life-changing films. I am persuaded of the power of cinema, its ability to influence lives in a profound, hopefully positive, way. So I chose these films in this context. As a young actor in Los Angeles, I was also a Tour Guide at Universal Studios. There I was regarded by many as one of the more knowledgeable guides in the history of the tour. I estimate I have seen more than 7,000 films and I currently see between three or four films a week, in addition to staying abreast of current New York and Los Angeles stage productions. So my intent here is to provide suggestions for film viewing and not to reveal too many plot points so as not to ruin the film-going experience of seeing a movie for the first time.—Ethan Nielson
#1: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
• 1966 – Fred Zinnemann’s film version of a play by Robert Bolt based on the life of Sir Thomas More (later canonized), details the conflict between More and King Henry VIII of England over Henry’s decision to break with the Catholic Church when he could not obtain a decree of divorce from the Church over his marriage to Catherine of Spain. An exemplary piece of film-making with a compelling and beautifully told story with outstanding performances from Wendy Hiller, Susannah York and Robert Shaw, among others. This film won six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Paul Scofield, in a role that he originated both on the London and New York stages for which he also won the Tony Award.
• 2008 – Yojiro Takita’s recent film is the kind of work that is rarely seen anymore and almost never in the United States (Bella is a recent exception). This is a picture of such beauty and sensitivity that it should be required viewing for every human being alive today. It restores one’s reason for hope in the human race with a story of forgiveness that is almost unparalleled in the history of cinema. This picture won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008 and stars Masahiro Motoki in a beautifully modulated performance of both simplicity and complexity.
#3: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
• 1962 – Robert Mulligan’s film version of Harper Lee’s extraordinary novel is one of the few times a film did full justice to its literary roots. Considered by many to be the 20th century’s finest novel, it is based on the life of Ms. Lee’s father during the Jim Crow south of the 1930s. Gregory Peck won a well-deserved Oscar as Best Actor, in a role that defined him as the perfect father.
#4: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
• 1962 – David Lean’s film version of the life of T. E. Lawrence based in part on Mr. Lawrence’s autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is truly grand filmmaking in every sense of the word. With a compelling story, there are few films as visually arresting, fully justifying the multiple Oscar wins including Best Picture of the Year. Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness and a host of the 20th century’s best actors round out the cast of this true spectacular in all its 70MM glory (70 millimeter film is a special wide, high-resolution film).
#5: FORBIDDEN GAMES (JEUX INTERDIS)
• 1952 – Rene Clement’s film of the devastating effect of war on the lives of two children is both heart-wrenching and utterly heart-breaking in its execution. A must-see film with two of the greatest performances given by children in the history of cinema (Georges Poujouly as Michel Dolle and Brigitte Fossey as Paulette). This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 1952, I believe one of the first times this award was given.
#6: THE BICYCLE THIEF (AKA BICYCLE THIEVES)
• 1948 – Victorio De Sica’s beautiful film of life in post-war Italy and the devastating effects of poverty and the very precariousness of life itself, was an arbiter of the Italian new wave of cinema. It stars Enzo Staiola as Bruno Ricci and Lamberto Maggiorani as his small son, Antonio Ricci. This film had a profound effect on me as a child and continues to do so to this day.
#7: MY FAIR LADY
• 1964 – George Cukor’s film adaption of the 1955 Lerner and Lowe musical based on the 1938 film adaptation of a 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw (which won Shaw an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation in 1938). This is truly extraordinary filmmaking where the incorporation of both music and visuals is so seamless as to have been edited in heaven. Though Jack Warner took much heat for not casting stage original Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn did an exemplary job as did Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins (in a role that won him both the Tony and Academy Awards for Best Actor) and Stanley Holloway reprising his stage role as Alfred P. Doolittle. And kudos to Cecil Beaton for his Oscar-winning costume designs. This film also won the Oscar for Best Picture, proving perhaps to be the best musical film adaptation in history.
#8: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW
• 1964 – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film is the best film ever produced on the life of Jesus Christ. He reportedly chose Matthew’s Gospel over the others because he felt that John’s was too mystical, Mark’s too vulgar, and Luke’s too sentimental. It is the retelling of the story of Jesus’ life from the Nativity to the Resurrection with dialogue taken primarily from the Gospel of Matthew, as Pasolini felt that images could never reach the poetic heights of the texts. Again, this film had a profound effect on me as a child and continues to do so to this day. Enrique Irazoqui, a college student at the time, was chosen by Pasolini to portray Christ in a beautifully executed and deeply felt performance of total naturalness. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
• 1940 – Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s novel of the same name, was again a flawless version of a beautiful book, hitting all of the right notes in its execution. Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. DeWinter and Laurence Olivier as Max DeWinter helped David O. Selznick win his second Oscar in a row for Best Picture of the Year (he won the previous year for Gone With the Wind). It should be noted that this was the only time that a film by Alfred Hitchcock ever won an Academy Award (he also never won an Academy Award himself, not even an honorary Oscar).
• 1942 – Michael Curtiz’s classic film adaptation based on an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch is what many consider to be the most romantic film of all time. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre round out one of the most spectacular casts ever assembled in everyone’s favorite espionage, romantic thriller. This film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1942.
PLACES IN THE HEART • 1984 – Robert Benton’s deeply religious film won Sally Field her second Oscar in one of the greatest film performances in history.
LILIES OF THE FIELD • 1963 – Ralph Nelson’s film starring Sidney Poitier in his Oscar-winning performance is simply one the most enjoyable films ever made. It’s hard to believe this film was shot in 14 days on a $200,000.00 budget, proving that a short time frame and limited budget are no indicators of a film’s true greatness.
THE WIZARD OF OZ • 1939 – Victor Fleming’s film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel has simply no comparison in execution and simplicity of spirit. Its special effects are outstanding in an age before CGI was even heard of and stands up beautifully in today’s modern age of cinema. Though Shirley Temple was originally sought out for the role of Dorothy (and would have been excellent), it’s hard to imagine this film without the luminous Judy Garland. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan and Margaret Hamilton round out the perfect cast in a perfect film.
OLIVER! • 1968 – Carol Reed’s film adaptation of a musical play by Lionel Bart was based on a novel by Charles Dickens that was in large part responsible for amending Britain’s child labor laws of the 19th Century. With a sparkling score, wild coincidences and the triumph of the human spirit, this is one of the greatest film musicals ever made. Ron Moody as Fagin, Mark Lester as Oliver, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger prove again that great casting, directing and overall execution (including a Special Oscar to Onna White for her extraordinary choreography) produced an extraordinary entertainment.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY • 2002 – Douglas McGrath’s glorious adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel is a wonder to behold with a glorious cast headed by Charlie Hunnam and a beautiful score by Rachel Portman. Again a beautiful adaptation of a very lengthy book with appropriate edits.
MONSOON WEDDING • 2001 – Mira Nair’s beautiful film of a family and its servants in the days leading to a grand, celebratory wedding. Naseeru Shah and Shefali Shah lead an extraordinary cast in a grand, life-affirming film with beautiful music, is a must see for any film enthusiast.
THE NAMESAKE • 2006 – Mira Nair’s incredible film starring Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Kal Penn is simply a great film of family loyalty, heritage and the meaning of love.
LILY • 1953 – Charles Walters musical film starring Leslie Caron is one of the great MGM musicals of all time. It broke my heart as a child and continues to move me today.
THE PAINTED VEIL • 2006 – John Curran’s film adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in an extraordinary story of forgiveness and true love in 1920’s China. Diana Rigg gives one of the great film performances of all time in this picture as a Catholic missionary nun.
SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA • 1993 – Tran Ahn Hung’s film of life in an upper-class Vietnamese family is a beauty to behold, especially when you come to realize that the entire thing was actually shot in Paris, France. A stunning visual experience of a time and place that many of us will never experience, but proving again that the human experience is pretty much the same anywhere that you go.
IKIRU • 1952 – Akira Kurosawa’s stunning film of a last days of an elderly Japanese man and the relationships he holds with family and friends. A beautiful film performance by Takashi Shimura and sensitive direction makes this film mesmerizing from start to finish.
EL NORTE • 1983 – Gregory Nava’s heartbreaking film of the immigrant’s experience is as true today as when first it was released. Zaida Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando round out a cast that defies the fact that these people were actually acting in front of a camera and not a documentary film crew.
CHILDREN OF PARADISE (LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS) • 1945 – Marcel Carne’s beautiful film classic stars Jean Louis Barrault in a film performance that has influenced scores of actors (Jack Lemmon to name one) and a story to break your heart.
GRAND ILLUSION (LA GRANDE ILLUSION) • 1937 – Jean Renior’s film of the effects of war on a prisoner of war camp during World War I stars Jean Gabin in one of the greatest film performances of all time.
Erich von Stroheim also lends support as the Captain in charge of the camp. Grand filmmaking in every sense of the word.
Many of these films I first saw as a child and when I revisited them years later have found that they have held up in the truest sense of the word.
I have always said that it is the mark of great filmmaking when a picture can have a profound effect on both the very young and the very old (or mature, whichever you prefer).
I trust my suggestions may help some of you to have some extraordinary film experiences and introduce you to films and cultures that will deepen your understanding of the human spirit and so assist you on your spiritual journey.