Catholic Culture Podcasts
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The best movies I watched in 2023

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2024

In the past, I’ve listed my favorite films I saw for the first time in the last year along with my books in the article on that topic. This time, I have decided to give the movies their own article for the sake of space.

As you may know, I co-host Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast with James Majewski. In the past year we finished our 3-year journey through the 1995 Vatican Film List, and then moved on to consider other works. Some of the films I mention here are from the Vatican film list or otherwise covered on the podcast, and in those cases I will link to the relevant episode—but most of the films on this list are movies I watched on my own.

Watch at your own risk; make a habit of doing your own research when it comes to content (I find the IMBD parents’ guide useful).

Religious films

Natalia. The only film on my list that was actually released in 2023, this (not Padre Pio) was the Catholic film event of the year. But few as yet know it, because it’s just been on the festival circuit, not yet having found a distributor for wider release. Natalia is a raw and mesmerizing documentary about religious discernment, following a spunky young Byzantine Catholic nun during the months leading up to her final profession. (You may be familiar with the film’s protagonist, Mother Natalia, because of her numerous appearances on Matt Fradd’s podcast Pints with Aquinas.)

Rather than being a talking-heads infodump, Natalia is squarely in arthouse doc territory with beautiful black-and-white photography, and the absence of voiceover or direct interviews makes it feel more like a drama. I had the privilege of hosting a screening of Natalia at my apartment, and recording an interview with director Elizabeth Mirzaei (which we are waiting to publish until the general public is able to see the film).

I’m quite excited for more people to see this film eventually…In the meantime, you might check out the touching Oscar-nominated short film Mirzaei co-directed with her husband, Three Songs for Benazir, on Netflix.

The Miracle Maker. This little-known animated Gospel film with Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus, which we discussed on Criteria, could merit a place in any Christian family’s Easter viewing. Its beautifully crafted mix of stop-motion and traditional 2D animation engages the imagination without dominating it in a way that live-action cinema can’t.

It’s also a masterful piece of adaptation, compressing the story of Christ into 88 minutes. It somehow retains the compactness of the Gospel accounts, yet feels fleshed out by subtle touches and connections within the existing material rather than overmuch invention.

Ordet (The Word). Included on the Vatican film list along with The Passion of Joan of Arc by the same director, Ordet is based on a play by the Lutheran priest Kaj Munk, who was later martyred by the Gestapo. The film centers on the Borgen family, land-owning farmers in a small village in Denmark. The patriarch, Morton Borgen, is a religious man, but his oldest son Mikkel has lost his faith, while his second son Johannes, while studying theology, has gone mad and believes he is Jesus Christ Himself.

Ordet can be viewed as a provocative critique of a modern Christianity that no longer believes in miracles. Its astonishing conclusion throws down the gauntlet, forcing us to consider what it really means to have faith.

The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick’s comeback after two decades away from moviemaking was, in my opinion, both his first masterpiece and his first full-on religious film. It’s a war movie, but really more about finding the beauty of existence in the midst of chaos, suffering and evil. Many Catholics became more aware of Malick after he covered a saint in his 2019 A Hidden Life. If you haven’t seen The Thin Red Line or if Malick hasn’t piqued your interest yet, let Jim Caviezel’s breakout role entice you.

Rome, Open City. Filmed in Rome just after its liberation from the Nazis, while the rest of Italy was still at war, Roberto Rossellini’s film documents a unique moment in the history of the Eternal City. Catholicism is central to the film, with Aldo Fabrizi playing one of the great heroic movie priests, almost an Italian counterpart to the one in On the Waterfront.

Apocalypto. Is this a religious film? Well, it’s a film in which religion plays an important part, though that religion is decidedly not Catholicism. Set in Mesoamerica immediately before first contact with the Spanish, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto features a protagonist from a small forest tribe who is captured by Mayans for the purpose of human sacrifice (depicted as the mass-scale brutality it was) and must try to escape back to his family. Gibson’s depiction of Mesoamerican peoples is sensitive and sympathetic but not PC. Rather than a triumphalistic depiction of evil, Gibson wanted this film to make us reflect on the decadence of the modern West and in particular the American Empire. The film is about a culture of death not unlike our own. It’s a stunningly ambitious recreation of a lost civilization, but also a thoroughly entertaining chase movie.

Films of conscience

Schindler’s List. This masterpiece by Steven Spielberg conveys something of the horror of the Holocaust in a way that is honest without feeling the need to traumatize the viewer. More importantly, it offers a real spiritual challenge which will especially resonate with those who wish to give everything to God.

La Promesse (The Promise). A Belgian teen whose father both helps and exploits illegal immigrants is faced with a crisis of conscience when one of them dies on the job and his father covers it up. A beautiful drama shot in documentary style by the Dardenne brothers.

Ikiru (To Live). Director Akira Kurosawa is better known for samurai films like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, but his story of an elderly bureaucrat who decides his life finally needs to bear some fruit moved me more than any other Kurosawa film I’ve seen.

Japanese animation

Spirited Away and The Wind Rises. This year I made a point of beginning to explore the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s equivalent to Walt Disney (but better). Miyazaki says, “If you go out looking for something shameful or vulgar, then finding it in this society is one of the easiest things imaginable. I thought it might be better to express in an honest way that what is good is good, what is pretty is pretty, and what is beautiful is beautiful.”

British classics

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. During the second world war, an elderly major-general reminisces about his military and romantic career. As we move from the Boer War to the Great War to WWII, we gain respect for a character who at first seemed somewhat ridiculous. This movie deals with three or four major themes at once without ever feeling bloated, and the color is amazing for 1943.

The Third Man. This ultra-atmospheric noir has been voted the greatest British film ever. Sinister evocations of postwar Vienna. Written by Graham Greene with the famous “cuckoo clock” monologue added by Orson Welles.

American classics

My Darling Clementine. One of John Ford’s loveliest Westerns, though I don’t hear it mentioned as often as The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “Have you ever been in love?” “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

In a Lonely Place. What at first seems to be a normal noir crime story ends up being about the breakdown of a relationship. Classic Humphrey Bogart performance.

Indian cinema

This is a new area of exploration for me. Most people think Indian cinema means Bollywood, but that term applies only to the Hindi film industry. Indian movies are highly regional and there are several different industries according to language group—thus I have barely scratched the surface.

Pyaasa. Starring and directed by Guru Dutt in 1957, this is considered one of the classics of Hindi cinema (and the only Hindi film I’ve seen). It’s a musical, a love story, and a spiritual journey of a down-and-out poet. It ends with surprising spiritual force and has a couple of songs I find highly moving. You can see it on YouTube.

Jumping to the present day and a different region of India, we have the Malayalam film industry, based in Kerala, which is where most of India’s Catholics live. One of the chief directors of the so-called “Malayalam New Wave” is Lijo Jose Pellissery, most of whose films are set in Catholic communities. Nicknamed the “Master of Chaos” because of his off-the-chain crowd scenes, Pellissery works at a level of cinematic craft that puts contemporary Hollywood to shame. We featured him on Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast, and I’ll recommend two of his films here:

Jallikattu. An off-the-wall action movie about villagers trying to chase down an escaped bull—framed within quotations from the book of Revelation which seem to indicate that the bull represents Satan.

Ee.Ma.Yau. The title refers to the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph invoked in the ears of a dead person lying in state; the movie is about a son struggling to provide a good funeral for his father, but constantly being frustrated by his own limits. You can watch this one on YouTube.

Switching over to the Telugu-language film industry: RRR. This was a worldwide hit in 2022 and is the third-highest grossing Indian film of all time. It won the Oscar for best original song. RRR is a period film very loosely based on two heroes of the Indian independence movement, who are essentially treated as superheroes. “Friendship between opposites” is the theme, as explicitly laid out by the awesome title song (the title, by the way, doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into the movie). The story is from a Hindu perspective and the British are cartoonishly villainous. I can’t stress enough how incredibly entertaining this movie is.

Sci-fi

Blade Runner. I can’t say that the story made a deep impression on me, but it is a masterpiece of visual concept and atmosphere.

Minority Report. For some reason I never thought of Spielberg as a genre director, but after watching this it finally clicked me that this guy is a master of conceptual sci-fi. While A.I. is depressing and nihilistic (seriously, the ending of that film messed me up), Minority Report offers a clear defense of free will against psychological and environmental determinism.

Short films

Who cares about short films, really? Well actually, anyone who regularly spends time on YouTube. But these are movies, not “content”. I have linked to some of them on YouTube, but the video quality is inferior to what you will find on the Criterion Channel streaming service.

Films by Abbas Kiarostami. This Iranian director was one of the greats of world cinema. His early career in the 70s was under the employ of the Center for the Education of Children in Tehran, where he made many short films either for or about children. The Colors is a very simple film educating small children about colors—but it is beautiful and becomes more conceptually clever as it goes on. Bread and Alley is a delightful short about a little boy carrying some bread home and encountering a hungry dog that blocks his path. The Traveler, a bit darker and not for kids to watch, is about a delinquent 12-year-old who will do anything to make it to attend a major soccer match 150 miles from his village.

Films by Mark Lewis. This Australian director specialized in documentaries about animals—specifically about people’s relationships with them. All are shot in a highly creative and dramatic way, with the interview subjects reenacting their experiences, with often-hilarious results. I recommend Cane Toads: An Unnatural History and Rats.

Films by John and Faith Hubley. This husband-and-wife team were central to American independent animation. John worked for Disney but quit out of creative frustration; he and his wife promised each other they would make at least one creative project together per year, and ended up winning multiple Oscars for their animated shorts. There are many I haven’t seen yet, but I recommend The Hole (Oscar-winner), Urbanissimo, The Tender Game.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for CatholicCulture.org, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: chapman18668 - Jan. 23, 2024 3:33 PM ET USA

    Ikiru is sublime. Have you yet seen "Living" the "reamke" of this story? It too is masterful but in a different key.