Ahead of the 83rd Academy Award nominations, A&F released their Top 100 Films for 2011, including a biannual special interest list chronicling the Top 25 Horror Movies.
Among the millions of accredited search results crowning the "best of" films, what makes this particular list distinct from all the rest is faith.
A&F, Arts and Faith, is an open online community that started in 1999, involving members who are passionate about the art of filmmaking and about the religious themes and questions that movies explore.
The Top 100 list, generated by Image journal, is the fruit of their discussions on the role of artistic expression in faith and spirituality.
Over a period of several weeks, A&F members recommend titles – a list of nearly 400 nominations. Image then produces an electronic poll, and each voter rates his or her assessment of each film's excellence and importance on a scale of one to five.
Sixty-five people voted for the Top 100 this year, as opposed to the 44 voters last year.
From experienced film critics, graphic designers, and artists, to playwrights, professors, and pastors, many of the participants are Christian or simply individuals who are attracted to the deep thematic questions that these members are asking – "questions that challenge … and kindle the deepest longings for all that is sacred and good," according to Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic, novelist, and columnist for Christianity Today.
Each film is characterized by both "artistic excellence and a serious wrestling with questions that at root, might be called religious or spiritual," writes Overstreet.
The A&F community is not particularly interested in celebrity-centered blockbusters, but flicks that are "honored for their excellence, their beauty, and their capacity to inspire [moviegoers] to become more fully human," according to Overstreet.
All the movies chosen are meant to provoke audiences into thought and reflection, with each movie having clear spiritual resonances.
Now before dismissing the list as too "Christian" and biased, many of the movies are not overtly cries of faith. You won't find Mandy Moore's "Saved" or Kirk Cameron's "Fireproof" on this list. Instead movies like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "Andrei Rublev," "Ordet," "The Decalogue," and "Au Hasard Balthazar" top the list, intersecting with AFI's own Top 100.
"The Arts & Faith Top 100 isn't based on how many nonbelievers a movie is likely to convert or any narrow-minded notions that a film containing mature language, violence or sexuality is automatically 'of the devil,'" wrote Sandie Angulo Chen of Moviefone, "but [based on] deeper questions that people of faith who love art would and should appreciate."
Commenting on the nature of Christian media today, Overstreet stated on his blog, "Many Christians have become so concerned about the usefulness of art as a tool of ministry and evangelism, they've forgotten – or never known in the first place – what art really is, and how it works."
"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 … People turn to art for an imaginative experience, not a lesson or a sales pitch."
Overstreet also critiqued America's narrowing view on art, and how most moviegoers, whether of the faith or not, lack education in film history and are largely ignorant of independent and foreign cinema.
ArtsandFaith.com then, seeks not only to highlight films that echo religious truth, but also to recognize artistic excellence and imagination. They seek to bridge the gap between faith and art, and renew the culture back to God.
But is it possible to glorify God through movies produced by secular artists? John Piper explored this question on his website, desiringGod.org.
"I think the main thing is, test your heart as to whether entertainment is defaulting to the world, or to something more wholesome. We live in an age where we tend to default to the world for entertainment," Piper stated.
"What concerns me is the distinction between entertainment and cultural analysis. To watch something, to study the culture, learn from the culture, be more able to interact with unbelievers for the sake of the glory of Christ is one thing," the pastor continued.
"To just sit and bask in nudity … or bask in a worldview that is shot through with arrogance to the core, and enjoy it … that seems to point to something going on in the heart."
So as long as the believer can distinguish between the two and continue to point to the truth instead of defaulting to the world, the arts could have the possibility of uniquely touching people, getting them to reflect and reason with their own souls.
Take A&F's new list showcasing the Top 25 horror films. Shouldn't good Christians avoid depictions of such violence and depravity?
Overstreet stated, "It may seem strange, but horror movies are important to this community for the way they can raise and address vital questions about human nature, addiction, spiritual forces, death, the afterlife, and the wages of sin."
"If these subjects were not relevant to our lives, horror movies would not frighten us so much," Overstreet addressed.
"Think about it. What is the central image of Christian faith? The cross. The blameless Son of God was nailed to that wooden plank and raised up, naked and bleeding, for the amusement of his scornful community. What could be more horrific?"
We're compelled to seek a cure for our disease, to seek the reconciliation of a dismembered world … conscientious artists are sometimes moved to expose the ugly truth. This can be an act of social responsibility … even love."
Horror movies can do more than just frighten, Overstreet explained. They can ask us to move beyond terror into contemplation. He quoted Filmmaker David Cronenberg who said, "I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face."
A&F's 2011 Top 25 Horror Movies and the Top 100 Films continue to challenge audiences and shake up how people look at the role of faith in films.
This year's A&F Top 100 list includes 34 new films that have never been seen before, including Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow." Twice as many English-language films also made the cut, though world cinema still dominates.
Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles were new to the list with "Paths of Glory," "Vertigo," and "Touch of Evil," while animation filled a few spots with "The Miracle Maker" and "The Iron Giant." Even Japanese animes like "Paprika" and "Spirited Away" emerged.
Though "the 2011 Arts & Faith Top 100 Films … won't make the headlines of the Times," it will stir continual meditation on "the eternities," remarked Steven D. Greydanus, guest blogger and film critic for the National Catholic Register.
"No list is for eternity, but reading the eternities – engaging the realities that are eternal – is an excursion that can begin with any of the films on the 2011 Arts & Faith Top 100," Greydanus concluded.