The first list are movies I rate as very good and that are explicitly Catholic. The second, shorter list are movies that express Catholic themes or values in some way, even though they might not have a single reference to Catholicism. This isn't necessarily a "best" list, but certainly a "very good" list.
Great Catholic Movies
A Man for All Seasons -- I hope one day to meet St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, and I expect him to look like Paul Scofield. Great 1966 drama of a family man who would not compromise his Catholic conscience.
Becket -- "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" A king's expression of frustration with another one of those stubborn Catholics, or an invitation to murder? St. Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, had his brains bashed out and scattered across the floor of his cathedral while he prayed Vespers. Released in 1964 with a great cast including Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and John Geilgud.
The Passion of the Christ -- Mel Gibson's mesmerizing and bitterly moving 2004 reliving of Jesus Christ's Passion. Authentic details include everyone speaking the correct ancient languages, so Jesus speaks Aramaic, while Pontius Pilate and his wife speak Latin. (There are subtitles.) We watch it during Holy Week. Some of it, especially the Scourging at the Pillar, are frankly hard to take. I think there are two versions, one less graphic, but still bad enough. I know when I say the Second Sorrowful Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is the scene from the movie I often remember. The whole movie is perfect in tone for every scene, and the restrained use of bizarre images suggest the omnipresence of Satan, in his taunting moment of apparent victory.
Brother Orchid -- Totally changing tone now, this is just a sweet tale of a ruthless gangster who hides out with monks, and... You can probably guess what happens. By 1940 Edward G. Robinson was sick of playing gangsters, but agreed to this one in exchange for a promise of broader roles. Humphrey Bogart co-stars, but, as is typical at this point in their careers, he is overshadowed by Robinson.
Song of Bernadette -- 1943 movie faithfully presenting the traditional account of Bernadette Soubirous, the young visionary of Lourdes. This a solid movie built on a wonderful performance by a winsome Jennifer Jones as Bernadette. She won an Oscar for Best Actress. The screenplay was based on a novel written by a Jew, Franz Werfel, who never quite converted to Christianity. I saw it on TV as a young boy and still remember how sorry I felt for Bernadette when she rooted around in the mud as everyone made fun of her. I remember imagining that if I were there, I'd set them all straight! It sounds silly now, but we should not underestimate those early feelings of children. Mine, I would now call a childish chivalry. But what better sentiment for a boy to learn and to have? I wonder what we're teaching young boys and girls in today's entertainment?
The Passion of Joan of Arc -- 1929 silent masterpiece by Carl Theodore Dryer. I know what you're thinking. Sure, masterpiece for those days, before sound. No. This stands totally on its own merits. The cinematography is amazing, with constantly shifting angles, long pans, quick cuts to the faces of the clerics, each a fully realized portrait, many lasting only a few seconds. There is nothing dated about any of it. But it is Renee Jeanne Falconetti's luminous performance as Joan that makes the movie a masterpiece. It is possibly the greatest performance ever captured on film. Joan always seems on the boundary of two worlds, slipping almost imperceptibly from one to the other in response to events. This film is powerful to the point of disturbing. It is based on the actual transcripts of her "trial" -- some of the most remarkable documents in existence -- which I cannot read except as a defense lawyer. My blood boils. She, an illiterate girl, was alone before educated men, without counsel. The English tricked her into signing a confession she could not read. She was tormented, condemned and burned at the stake. The film treats St. Joan with respect, and, being based on the trial transcripts, is quite faithful to the shameful events.
For Greater Glory -- Critics hated this 2012 movie of the 1926-1929 Cristero War between Catholics and an atheistic Mexican government. The late Roger Ebert (a self-described Catholic atheist) had to admit the move was well-made, but reflected "Catholic tunnel vision." Have never been movies about other religions' struggles against wholesale slaughter in the 20th century that have won universal acclaim? I'm sure he did not criticize their tunnel vision! If the idea of guns isn't frightening enough to mainstream movie critics, Catholics using them while crying "¡Vivo Cristo Rey!" must give them nightmares. Andy Garcia brings his usual understated yet compelling presence to the role of a former general who agrees to lead the Cristeros for a nice paycheck, plus the adventure. He is not religious himself, at least not at first. It got marketed as a "Catholic movie" but I thought it was just a great, old fashioned action drama. I had not known about this bit of history. ¡Vivo Cristo Rey!
The Mission -- A 1986 movie starring Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro and Liam Neeson. Jesuits and Indians in 18th century South America. (I wonder if Pope Francis has ever seen it?) It is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Jesuits, who find the Indians are not necessarily peaceful. The movie is full of moral complexity where the right course is not as clear as in most movies. The great Ennio Morricone (still alive and working, by the way) wrote the score. He is known for scores for Clint Eastwood westerns, the Untouchables (which had a great one), and many, many others.
Of Gods and Men -- Poignant, understated 2011 movie about a small group of monks who serve an Algerian village. When Moslem radicals move in they must decide whether to remain or leave. Based on a true story. There is one scene where they share a bottle of wine at dinner that is unforgettable.
Into Great Silence -- 2005 beautiful documentary about the daily life of Carthusian monks high in the French Alps. The viewer is simply made a curious guest who watches the monks at their daily routine, goes along with some of them for their different work, and has conversations with others, young and old. The monastery has a barber shop, for instance, and the monks get their hair cut. No drama there. It is just an intimate look at everything. A monk is treated for a lung condition. Another repairs a cold frame for the garden. There are scenic shots of the mountains, a gathering storm. It is slow paced, but that's deliberate, indeed part of the viewing experience.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- I would not call this 2005 movie great, but it is good. A possessed girl dies after exorcism. The priest is put on trial, making this essentially a courtroom drama. As a lawyer, I find the idea of the criminal justice system being confronted by a supernatural event it is unable to deal with compelling. Interesting, effective and scary without going over the top, and it treats the subject respectfully and realistically. (The Rite is another exorcism movie released in 2011, starring Anthony Hopkins. It wasn't bad, and was generally well received as accurate in Catholic circles, but I just didn't enjoy it that much.)
The 13th Day -- This 2009 movie was, I believe, a straight to DVD release, but should not color expectations. It is a lovingly made Catholic art film that reverently and accurately portrays the miraculous events at Fatima, Portugal between May and October, 1917. Besides excellent, if obviously careful, cinematography, there are scenes where colors suffuse the screen in a way suggesting the supernatural atmosphere. There is nothing cute or well-scrubbed about the young seers, and the human side of the story is even gritty, emphasized by the black-and-white cinematography of most of the film. It makes the supernatural elements more moving. The famous "Miracle of the Sun," which was witnessed by 70,000 people, is especially well done in an unexpected, but compelling and utterly persuasive way. The story itself should be familiar to all Catholics, and probably even non-Catholics have heard something about "The Third Secret."
Not explicitly Catholic, But Expressing Catholic Themes
Ben Hur -- I have the DVD set that includes both the silent 1925 version and the more familiar 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston. Both have great chariot races. The 1929 version stars Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman. Just because they didn't have sound doesn't mean they didn't know how to make an epic. They built a real Roman warship, not the models used in the 1959 version. If the extras leaping off the burning ship into the water look terrified, it's because they really were jumping for their lives! The 1925 version better reflects Catholic tastes by including a beautiful holy card-like scene of a lovely young Madonna that is color in an otherwise black-and-white film. On the other hand, it is pre-Hays code, and silent religious epics frequently included gratuitous female nudity. Bare-breasted young girls throw rose petals before a procession. (It was Catholics who got Hollywood to agree to a voluntary code which kept movies clean. That led to the joke that Hollywood was an industry controlled by Jews selling Catholic theology to a Protestant audience.) Of course the 1959 version is great, too, and thats the one we used to watch around Easter before the nest emptied. That single scene where the bullying Roman soldier confronts the off camera presence of Jesus for giving water to Ben Hur is the best two minutes in movies. He goes from bluster to uncertainty to shame without uttering a word, as if his encounter with Christ has revealed the corruption in his soul.
Ikiru -- Haunting 1952 Akira Kurosawa movie about the meaning of life. The title means "To Live." A sad little middle aged man, Mr. Watanabe has a meaningless mid-level bureaucratic position and nothing else. Then he learns he has stomach cancer. Watch the trailer for more, if you wish. Kurosawa was, if anything, Buddhist. Kurosawa apparently never claimed any religion through a life marked by tragedy and artistic challenges -- in fact he attempted suicide. He claimed as his favorite novel, however, the explicitly Russian Orthodox The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. However, in one scene, a character looks at Mr. Watanabe and. remarkably, says "Ecce Homo," and, "He's Christ." Does Ikiru reflect a traditional Japanese outlook, or one that has been "baptized" by Christianity? One recalls St. Paul Miki and his companions who were martyred in the 16th century by crucifixion, on a hill overlooking Nagasaki. There was no visible Catholic faith when missionaries returned in the 1860s. However, a large, secret Catholic community was found around Nagasaki, that had preserved the faith for all those centuries. Who is to say to what extent Ikiru is not informed by a Catholic spirit? The movie sounds depressing, but it isn't, somehow. Easily makes any top 10 list of greatest movies in the world, period. A find by my son Michael, who is a big Kurosawa fan. You'll never forget it, the ending, or the song.