I'm not terribly religious, to put it mildly, but my aunt is a nun, and I simply worship her and her cohorts, so whenever I see an actress in a wimple, I melt. In fact, my aunt the nun took me to see several nun movies when I was a kid, resulting in a lifelong obsession with habit forming acts of cinema. Here are my 10 faves:
KILLER NUN (1978)
This Italian "nunsploitation film" was banned in Britain as a "video nasty," but it ultimately saw the light of day as a bracing mix of the artsy and the exploitive. Fellini goddess Anita Ekberg is fabulous as a morphine addicted, possibly murderous nun with fake eyelashes, penciled in eyebrows, and a taste for sex with women only if they wear silk stockings. Warhol star Joe Dallesandro arrives as a good looking doctor (dubbed with a voice that sounds hilariously wrong for him) and things get even wackier, especially when Ekberg leads her nursing home charges in a bizarre calisthenics routine in between bouts of shtupping and killing. Shining a spotlight on the unsavory things that can happen in a religion-based institution, "Killer Nun" is an absolute riot that I'm a devout fan of. But when the needles come out, you might want to start praying. (And by the way, no, this is not one of the films my aunt took me to see.)
NASTY HABITS (1977)
This droll spoof of Watergate-like power plays set in a convent boasts the ultimate method acting cast: Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Page (whose reaction shots alone are priceless), Melina Mercouri, Anne Jackson, Anne Meara, and Sandy Dennis, who's a riot, especially when nibbling on pizza on a bus or winking at a drag queen in a ladies room. Added to that incredible ensemble are the real-life husbands of three of the actresses: Rip Torn, Jerry Stiller, and Eli Wallach. Oh, sister!
THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
This priceless adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a young woman studying to be a nun and the effect she has on a bunch of singing children and their dad is one of the best musical films ever made. Sure, it's pure kitsch, and the way the adorable von Trapps outsmart the Nazis isn't exactly documentary truth, but from the second Julie Andrews starts spinning around the Alps, there's pure magic on the screen. And the film cannily manages to reject and embrace the nun community at the same time. Loved it!
THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966)
Bratty girls battle it out with uppity nuns in a Pennsylvania convent school and the whole thing is a rollicking slapstick farce that's charmingly entertaining throughout. Rosalind Russell is formidable as the Mother Superior, Hayley Mills is winning as the young mischief-maker, and Gypsy Rose Lee even pops up as a very progressive modern dance teacher. By the end, when Hayley chooses God, you're amazed at how genuinely touched you are. Followed by a sequel, "Where Angels Go...Trouble Follows."
BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
One of the most visually striking films ever made, this Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger drama is based on the Rumer Godden book about sisters on a journey of the soul. Starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, it involves a gaggle of nuns who travel far, far away to the Himalayas, where they're beset by fantasies, allure, nightmares, and mental illness. A real dark gem.
THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943)
This shameless weepie pushes every imaginable button and gleefully succeeds to the point where I'm inevitably a sobbing mess by the end. Jennifer Jones shines as Bernadette Soubirous, the French girl who got a lot of attention for claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary, a fact that didn't go down well with the jealous and/or disapproving other nuns at the convent. But they come around to believing Bernadette, as she radiates beatific joy, all while suffering from a disease she never bothered to mention to anyone. This is Hollywood hokum at its finest, and I bought it hook, line, and stinker. And Linda Darnell looks fierce as the blurry vision of the Virgin.
THE NUN'S STORY (1959)
This two and a half hour epic, directed by Oscar winner Fred Zinneman, was a class project from beginning to end. Audrey Hepburn looks tres chic, but is utterly convincing as a nun who's stationed in the Belgian Congo and who eventually splits the convent to deal with the results of the Nazi occupation. (What's with nuns vs. Nazis? Seems to be a winning combination.) The cast also includes prestige actors like Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, and Colleen Dewhurst, so like I said, this thing is far from just nun-sense.
COME TO THE STABLE (1949)
In this movie based on a Clare Booth Luce short story, two French nuns (Loretta Young and Celeste Holm) traipse around a New England town to try to get help in building a children's hospital. On paper, this sounds like something that would ordinarily make me spew, but the performances and direction are lovely, and it's pulled off so charmingly that I happen to find the film an utter delight. Young and Holm were Oscar nominated, and so was Elsa Lanchester (who plays a painter of religious work). They should all have been sainted for the efforts.
John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer winning play about a forbidding nun/principal and her refusal to budge in labeling a priest a pedophile was a riveting study in the essence of condemnation and whether more wiggle room should be allowed. The movie version wasn't as potent as the Broadway production, but still, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams in the leads, it's not exactly chopped liver. I had no DOUBT it would get Oscar nominations, and it did.
SISTER ACT (1992)
Lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) witnesses an execution and has to hide out in a habit, whereby she appalls and ultimately uplifts the real nuns, who all get together to put on a kickass show. This free-wheeling comedy manages to be both irreverently sassy and hearteningly feelgood. Bette Midler foolishly turned down the lead role of the smash film, which spawned a sequel, a Broadway musical, and (coming soon) the inevitable remake.
Runner's Up: The Magdalene Sisters, The Bells of St. Mary's, Dead Man Walking, Nuns on the Run, Dark Habits, Viridiana.