The Arts & Faith Top 25 Divine Comedies
G.K. Chesterton says, “A joke can be so big that it breaks the roof of the stars...There is but one step from the ridiculous to the sublime.” The Arts & Faith Top 25 Divine Comedies focuses on movies that explore the space between the ridiculous and the sublime. Explicit religious themes are not a notable feature in most of these films, yet all of them, in different ways, touch on questions of ultimate import. Produced in 2014 by the Arts & Faith online community, this list spans 81 years of cinema, from 1931’s City Lights to 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom.
The Top 25 Divine Comedies is sponsored by Image, a literary and arts quarterly founded in 1989 to demonstrate the vitality and diversity of well-made art and writing that engage seriously with the historic faiths of the West in our time. Now one of the leading literary magazines published in the English language, it is read all over the world—and it forms the nexus of a warm and lively community. Explore Image here.
For more thoughts about this list by Steven D. Greydanus, click here.
1. Groundhog Day (1993), Harold Ramis
Widely ranked among Hollywood’s greatest spiritual parables, Groundhog Day has been claimed by existentialists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians of all communions. Projection? In specifics, perhaps; in evocative power, no. A comic fantasy conceit—a single day Bill Murray keeps reliving—occasions sharply funny soundings in helplessness, power, consequences, immortality, nihilism, longing, love, self-indulgence, self-worship, self-awareness, and finally selflessness and growth, with Andie MacDowell as Murray’s Beatrice, guiding him to true fulfillment. The movie’s master-stroke: its silence on why Murray becomes stuck—and unstuck.
—Steven D. Greydanus
2. The Truman Show (1998), Peter Weir
A seemingly perfect paradise is created for the home of insurance salesman Truman Burbank, who unknowingly serves as the protagonist for an elaborate television production broadcasting his life to the world. Truman (Jim Carrey) serves as the ordinary guy—the “true man”—navigating the world presented to him by the creator, a shrewd television producer, Christof (Ed Harris), who quietly manipulates Truman from afar. Comically prophetic in its analysis and indictment of reality television, The Truman Show is an enlightening exploration of the gods of media and the religion of consumerism.
3. A Serious Man (2009), Joel & Ethan Coen
This dark comedy from Joel & Ethan Coen is a distillation of some of the duo’s most potent themes. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is our Job figure, a physics professor in suburban Minneapolis who finds his life falling apart both personally and professionally. The principle of uncertainty, introduced early in the film via Schrödinger’s famous cat, becomes a kind of guiding metaphor as Larry navigates the limits of 1960s Jewish faith. Both riotously funny and tempted towards the nihilistic, A Serious Man isn’t ultimately concerned with theodicy or the existence of God; Hashem’s presence is taken for granted. Rather, the question is “What does he want from me?” and even more frighteningly, “Does it really matter?”
4. City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin intoxicates us from the very first scene. As the silent era passes, he graces the human voice with soap bubbles, whistles, and the most poignant title cards ever screened. He lets the touch of a hand work the miracle that technology cannot. And he defies the jeers, slammed doors, and knockout punches of life with supple, kinetic comedy (and a love so audacious it gives all and asks nothing in return).
5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Wes Anderson
When adolescents Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) run away from their homes to scout the trails of New Penzance Island, they are actually running toward a world full of joy and wonder where they are understood and loved, a desire expressed through their whimsical first romance. The purity and innocence of the world they create for themselves contrasts with their broken homes, which are troubled by affairs and rejection. An impending flood underscores the harm caused by these betrayals, but when it strikes, the local church becomes an ark offering salvation from the water and a chance to restore broken covenants.
6. Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin
This is a film about the machine age. Chaplin’s lovable character is repeatedly swallowed up by machines both literal and figurative: the gigantic gear-filled edifice at the factory where he works, social movements, and the government. Set against the mechanization of the modern age, he has only his most human qualities of love, compassion, and a boundless persistence in hope. Prefiguring modern dystopias, from 1984 to Dilbert, and full of outstanding set pieces, this deeply serious but gentle satire is no less relevant or enjoyable today than it was almost eighty years ago.
7. Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Preston Sturges
John Sullivan has built a successful career directing comedies, but something about his job is unfulfilling. He wants to document the pain and despair of real people living in the shadow of the Great Depression—not filming another farce. To research his great American tragedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title the Coen brothers appropriated for another film on this list), he embeds himself among America’s underclass, becoming a homeless man and riding the rails. His misadventures eventually land him on a chain gang where a transcendent encounter with a cartoon shows him the liberating power of laughter.
—Tyler J. Petty
8. Life of Brian (1979), Terry Jones
When the Pythons first thought of making a comedy about Jesus, they decided to actually read the gospels first. They discovered that his teachings were so good, he couldn't be mocked. So they made a movie about Brian instead, an accidental messiah whose frustrations with ungrateful lepers and slow-on-the-uptake followers echo Jesus' own. Many Bible movies flatter their audiences ("Of course we’d have been awestruck in Jesus' presence!"), but Brian reminds us that the gospel is often obscured by the people who hear it and don't quite get it. By getting us to laugh at these foibles, it brings to life a side of the gospels that other Jesus movies obscure.
—Peter T. Chattaway
9. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), Stanley Kubrick
Obsessed with protecting America’s purity of essence against international communist conspiracy, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) shuts down air force communications and orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, which, in turn, has built a doomsday machine which will detonate automatically if they are attacked. World annihilation may not seem particularly comic, but Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire hilariously exposes the absurdity of sin, as US and Soviet officials, led by Peter Sellers in three brilliant performances, attempt mass murder for the sake of peace.
10. Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Craig Gillespie
The premise of Lars and the Real Girl—Lars (Ryan Gosling) buys a blow-up doll and tells everyone “she” is his girlfriend—doesn’t sound particularly spiritual, and a lesser creative team would have mined the material for innuendo and cheap laughs. But screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie go in a different direction. They build a gentle, small-town church community around Lars that embraces his eccentricities, even as they help him to grow beyond them. Lars and the Real Girl reveals more than just an appreciation for the earthly side of religion, however, with a climactic scene that marries death and baptism to the hope of new life.
—Tyler J. Petty
11. Up (2009), Pete Docter
In a matter of ten minutes, we fall in love with Carl and Ellie’s romance as it springs up, blooms, and then withers under the winter of death. A grieving Carl sets off on a journey with young stowaway Russell in order to fulfill the adventure he once promised his bride, overcoming obstacles both external and internal in order to find true rest. Buoyant and imaginative, Up offers a vision of grace through the formation of unlikely friendships.
12. Finding Nemo (2003), Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane
The surface of Finding Nemo is a supreme visual delight, a kaleidoscopic tidal-wave of color and invention. It has bad puns, slapstick, and deft wit; surfer-dude turtles, sharks in a twelve-step program, and the unforgettably forgetful Dory. But like all the best family films, Nemo has deeper waters: themes of growing up and letting go, of the joys and responsibilities of friendship. And at its heart is a genuinely moving story of sacrificial love, as a timid agoraphobic clownfish must overcome his fears and go to the ends of the earth to save his only son.
13. Metropolitan (1990), Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan distinguishes itself above most other comedies by simultaneously taking great joy in humor for its own sake and by being “about a lot more than detachable collars.” Watching this film will convince you that one of the most amusing things in the world can be something as simple as participating in a conversation. Yet often the resonance of a comedy will last longest when it also deals with those things which determine how we live each day; things such as moral virtue, social convention, and the other-than-physical nature of the relation between the sexes. Thus Nick explains to Tom, “I’m not entirely joking.”
14. WALL-E (2008), Andrew Stanton
Existential awe and wonder before the sublime are not common notes in a Hollywood cartoon, but Andrew Stanton's WALL-E defies expectations and easy categorization: a post-apocalyptic slapstick comedy; a lyrical sci-fi love story and a savage Swiftian satire. Incipit vita nova, Dante wrote upon glimpsing Beatrice: “Here begins the new life.” EVE is WALL-E’s Beatrice, shattering the narrow world in which this Little Tramp-like robot’s quest for self-discovery has been carried out, sweeping him into a larger universe from which no return is thinkable.
—Steven D. Greydanus
15. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Joel & Ethan Coen
Ulysses Everett McGill persuades two naïfs from his prison chain gang to help him reclaim a stolen treasure, although his definition of this treasure is much different from that which he truly seeks. Fraught with the perils of blind seers, sirens, and cyclops in a Depression-era landscape, this is the musically enriched story of a proud, deceitful, and boisterous man, who learns that humility can bring him nearer to his goal than any type of clever huckstering or confidence scheme.
16. Ratatouille (2007), Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava
Remy is a French rodent who aspires to be one of the great Parisian chefs, and cooking happens to be a metaphor for the artistic process. Anton Ego is a renowned acerbic critic, who, against all odds, admires Remy’s handiwork (in fact, it brings him back to his childhood). The titular dish that wins him over is actually among the simplest, poorest delicacies. And thus Pixar's most allegorical story unites artistic aspirations (the artist participates in the act of creation), with humility, judgment, destiny, and childlike wonder.
17. The Fisher King (1991), Terry Gilliam
In The Fisher King, a disgraced shock-radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) discovers that when you hit rock bottom, you can find revelatory discoveries there. Jack finds another lost soul named Parry (Robin Williams), a reckless homeless man who, in order to cope with a severe trauma, fantasizes that he's a Knight of the Round Table. While Parry’s obviously broken and needy, his apparent madness provides a vocabulary for courage, healing, and grace — indeed, a path to the true Holy Grail of love for everyone involved.
18. Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Norman Jewison
“How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” So says Tevye, a milkman and family man living with his Jewish community in the town of Anatevka, in Tsarist Russia in 1905. Throughout the film, Tevye shows an admirable willingness to bend the customs of tradition for the sake of his children. But Tevye is also a man of conviction, showing us how abandoning tradition is no small matter. The film is a risky mix of song, dance, and melancholic humor—with outrage at anti-Semitic persecution—and manages to pull it all off brilliantly. But it’s ultimately about life: its constancy and change, the joys and tragedies that come along with it.
19. The Big Lebowski (1998), Joel & Ethan Coen
The Big Lebowski showcases the best of the Coen brothers’ comedic talents—lovably ridiculous characters, hilarious echolalic wordplay, and delightful sight gags—making this one of their most successful pure comedies. But just as effectively, Lebowski functions as Coen brothers wisdom literature. If A Serious Man is their Book of Job, then this film is their Ecclesiastes. By puncturing numerous archetypes of American manhood—the cowboy, hippie, self-made millionaire, obsessive sportsman, war hero, film noir detective, Hollywood bigshot—we are shown that all is vanity. And while all is ephemeral (toes with green nail polish, a rug that really tied the room together, and life itself), the world and our relationships (as exemplified by the transcendence of the bowling alley and the bond between the Dude and his hapless sidekick Walter) are beautiful things to be cherished.
20. The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin
Neither the comedian nor his audience knew the full extent of Nazi atrocities; if they had, The Great Dictator either wouldn’t have been made or wouldn’t have succeeded. Still, its takedown of Hitler (not to mention Mussolini, Goebbels, and Goering) is relentless and blistering, even if it’s a trifle naïve in spots. For the first nine-tenths of the film, hijinks predominate—all of them more or less aimed toward the moment when Chaplin's lookalike dictator and Jewish barber are mistaken for each other. Once that happens, there’s a marked change in tone—but if ever there was a time for seriousness, it was 1940, and if any filmmaker had earned the right to preach a little, it was Charlie Chaplin.
21. Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam
Perhaps the great dystopian satire of the cinema, Brazil reveals the foolishness and absurdity of its Brave New World with a dark wit and a robust humor. Jonathan Pryce plays the hapless Sam Lowry as a comic variation on Kafka’s Josef K. As in The Trial (the 1962 Orson Welles adaptation was a strong influence on Gilliam’s film), the logic of Lowry’s tormentors is never clear, but their judgments are inescapable. Monty Python veteran Gilliam manages to simultaneously have you laughing at the absurdity of it all and terrified at the plausibility. It’s a prophetic glimpse of an all-encompassing and self-perpetuating human system, effective in its disorienting (and at times frightening) imagery.
22. Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Paul Thomas Anderson
Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan is a lonely, meek, and put-upon man who has lived under the thumb of his seven older sisters, instilling in him an ever-building anger that he can barely control. In spite of this emotional turmoil, Barry becomes the object of affection of a woman who loves him for who he is. As a result of her graceful approach to their relationship, he becomes a modern knight-errant, summoning an inner courage he never knew existed and channeling that anger in the defense of his beloved.
23. The Princess Bride (1987), Rob Reiner
Eminently quotable, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride—with a screenplay by William Goldman based off his own book—combines slapstick humor with situational comedy and satire in a way few other films have ever achieved. No other filmic attempt at deconstructing the fairy tale has so successfully struck a balance between parodying the “wuv, tru wuv” we attempt to achieve through our own machinations and True Love which transcends our plans and sometimes even our own deaths. All of this framed in the context of a grandfather reading to his grandson—a simple, but profound example of true love indeed.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
24. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Wes Anderson
There are two things that can be unarguably claimed about the films of Wes Anderson. First, he is preoccupied with the idea of family—both that which one is born into and that which one chooses. And second, he has an unmistakable visual style. Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the young adult novel by Roald Dahl, may be the canvas where he has most successfully and timelessly let these aspects loose. Adding just the right amount of dry wit and laugh-out-loud humor to the story, Anderson crafts a divinely humanist tail (sic) about the relationships we value most.
—Darryl A. Armstrong
25. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Woody Allen
A “minor character” steps off a movie screen and into Depression-era New Jersey, stranding his fellow characters while offering perfect (but imaginary) love to an abused housewife. Woody Allen’s best film (even he regards it as the most successful of his efforts) is a delightfully comic exploration of the difference between movie fantasy and harsh reality, and of the way fantasy can be both a form of escapism and a form of inspiration; but it is also a remarkably canny parable about a created world that is deemed good yet loses its sense of purpose once its inhabitants “chuck out the plot.”
—Peter T. Chattaway
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