Over the decades, cinema has offered indisputably great works with faith at the center. From “Chariots of Fire” to “It’s a Wonderful Life” to even “Sister Act,” such movies depict flawed people full of contradictions who are put to the test.
But I probably don’t need to tell you that as a whole, the Christian film genre has struggled to hit the mark consistently. Describing mainstream views of the genre, one veteran producer recently said, “It signals that a film is going to be preachy, overbearing and not for them.”
Clichés that have long defined faith-based movies could still be found this year. Plagued by poor production and preachy scripts, such flicks played out as simple parables that in most cases didn’t even appeal to the Christian audience.
But a new generation of filmmakers is taking their faith and craft seriously. In a trend that peaked this year, major Hollywood studios made big gambles by producing stories with moral, spiritual and ethical questions right at the heart. Many took risks venturing far from “family-friendly” territory, revealing life in all its brokenness and chaos.
Plugged In’s Adam Holz asserts that the floodgates of quality faith-centric films actually opened last year, so my list includes some 2016 titles. As such, here are nine faith-centered movies in three main categories. The diversity of stories, emotional depth and visual artistry of these films may even win over some cynics. As a bonus, the first and last movies listed below are currently available on Netflix.
Category One: Films That Spark Discussion Around Faith
In our fragmented society where faith is often scorned, it’s no easy task exploring beliefs on-screen. Great films show rather than tell. Think of how “The Passion of the Christ” drew audiences by reimagining chapters of Scripture to great effect. The following films set a table nearly any viewer can approach.
The Case for Christ (PG, 112 minutes) While the title may be obvious and even somewhat in-your-face, the film earned high marks even from Variety. Based on a true story, this film recounts how a personal crisis leads Chicago Tribune reporter Lee Strobel to search out whether the resurrection of Jesus has a factual basis. Screenwriter Brian Bird interweaves the threads of a marriage near its breaking point, a son’s bitterness and a reporter’s quest for justice into a compelling whole that reportedly stays true to its source material.
“Usually the person who’s attacking people of faith is the bad guy,” says Bird about Christian movies. “In this case, the hero is an agnostic who’s trying to save his wife from what he thinks is a cult in her life.” By showing believers as imperfect and voicing a skeptic’s honest questions, “The Case for Christ” provides talking points for the curious and Christ-followers alike.
The Young Messiah (PG, 111 minutes) Similar to “The Passion of the Christ,” this little gem invites audiences to see the most iconic family of all time through new eyes. Portraying Jesus at age seven, the film follows Him and His parents back from Egypt as they return to their homeland in northern Israel.
Thanks to a director of Middle Eastern heritage, scenes from first-century cultures are aptly set in locations sparse yet eye-catching. More importantly, “The Young Messiah” tells a compelling story. How much did young Jesus know of his own calling and power? Pursuing the question fully brings a new childlike wonder to faith.
The Resurrection of Gavin Stone (PG, 91 minutes) presents a comedy anchored by Brett Dalton, best known from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Co-produced by an ambitious local church, the film centers on a passion play … produced by, well, an ambitious local church. Akin to John Crist’s stand-up sketches, it mines humor from religious clichés.
The film portrays former child actor, Dalton, who has made some missteps and must fulfill community service hours. The church casts him as Jesus in their passion play without realizing he isn’t actually a believer. Comedienne Anjelah Johnson (a.k.a. Bon Qui Qui from MADtv) serves as the perfect foil — gradually seeing through his act. Count on many laughs as Dalton fakes the church routine, along with insights into how faith means nothing if it’s only surface-level.
Category Two: Films That Expand Your Horizons
Through beautiful cinematography, music and dialogue, film can transport us to unknown times and unseen places. It can also make people into caricatures and reinforce familiar half-truths. A good Christian movie does the former. Big screen hits such as “End of the Spear” and “Amazing Grace” prove that movies can draw us into both the life-or-death struggles shaping the world around us as well as the corresponding and necessary hope found only in Christ.
Mully (rated PG, 81 minutes) is the true story of a Kenyan orphan who becomes a wealthy entrepreneur — then gives up his millions to provide 20,000 abandoned children a place to belong. To credibly capture such an unbelievable story, the documentary relies on extensive home movie footage and surprisingly honest interviews in which his biological kids confess resentment at giving up lives of privilege.
Viewers encounter two sides of the African nation. Children come in despair, many addicted to breathing paint thinner or inflicted with HIV due to abuse. Yet these same children also surge with bright colors, spirited dancing and the joy of knowing unreserved love. As wells and greenhouses spring up from dry land, the impact of self-sustaining enterprise is clear: Thousands of former orphans are now pursuing unique callings in colleges, nonprofits and prestigious job fields worldwide. Bearing out how one family’s sacrifice changed an entire city and even nation, “Mully” provides new vision for giving lavishly and selflessly.
Silence (R, 161 minutes) unveils the little-known history of Christianity in 16th century Japan, when foreign missionaries were banned. Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) and Adam Driver (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) portray two young priests in search of a prominent Jesuit minister (Liam Neeson) who once mentored them.
Many who journeyed to Japan to support the underground church were brutally executed (note the film’s R rating for violent images). When the ruling regime forces priests to either recant or watch local believers die in agony, the dilemma tears at their souls. Renowned director Martin Scorsese took three decades to make this film, which shows in the rich cultural details and multifaceted script. Viewers come away with questions, but also a new view of the cross.
In Our Hands: The Battle for Jerusalem (Not Rated, 109 minutes) grapples with a region of the world people of faith seek to understand, and earned a spot as one of the top 100 highest-grossing documentaries of all time in its limited run in the summer of 2017. Blending interviews of soldiers with dramatic reenactments filmed at Israeli locations, it gives gripping perspective on the 1967 conflict that influences the Middle East to this day.
The docudrama brings to light the personal cost of war as scenes of Jewish family life are cut short when men must take up arms in defense. Produced by a team that boasts “Schindler’s List” among its previous credits, “In Our Hands” sets a new standard for portraying historic events with a compelling, faith-centered approach.
Category Three: Films That Inspire
I think we can all agree this has been a trying year for our nation and our world. In the wake of disappointment and loss, we grasp for real substance and hope. Good stories can be a lifeline in such moments. They help us escape, yes, but more than that they help us know we’re not alone. Complex, gritty journeys grounded in real life reveal an overcoming spirit even during uncommon difficulties.
All Saints (PG, 108 minutes) doesn’t shy away from the vexing struggles inherent to faith communities. The film introduces a dying Episcopal church in Smyrna, Tennessee that is soon to be sold to developers. The film’s theme rings true to life, as the U.S. Census reports over 3,000 U.S. churches close every year.
In this hopeless situation, a new minister’s outreach leads a group of refugees to the church. Fleeing persecution in southeast Asia, they seek work and spiritual community. The pastor has an idea to help with both, though trials await, including church hierarchy, the language barrier and bias against immigrants. Anyone who has known crushing disappointment and lack will relate to “All Saints,” which proves to be a true triumph in the end.
Same Kind of Different As Me (PG-13, 120 minutes) features an A-list cast including several Oscar winners, and reveals how wisdom comes from unexpected sources. In the true story based on a best-selling book, befriending a homeless man opens one couple’s eyes to poverty and changes the lives of all involved. It took author Ron Hall over a decade — and going through bankruptcy — to produce the biopic.
Denver Moore’s journey delves into the hot-button issue of racism, which has made for controversy around the film. Though he has since passed away, his daughter praised how the film celebrates his life. With a personal take on how to mend deep divisions — a timely message for believers — “Same Kind of Different As Me” affirms the value of every person. As Moore says: “We’re all working our way back home.”
The Matchbreaker (PG, 95 minutes) For anyone needing to laugh off relationship woes, last year’s indie comedy “The Matchbreaker” could be the ticket. Written by Marshal Younger and Torry Martin, writers of Focus on the Family’s popular audio series “Adventures in Odyssey,” the story portrays a young man hired secretly by concerned parents. He befriends their daughters, dishes dirt and gets them to push the “errant” mate to the curb — a millennial’s dream job!
Flipping the script on rom-com tropes, “The Matchbreaker” uses humor to reveal a lot about image, expectations and what real connection looks like. The casting of the comedy is bittersweet, as it features singer-actress Christina Grimmie as the female lead. Grimmie was shot and killed at a concert shortly after filming. Friends have said her role in the fast-paced, lighthearted movie reflects part of her beautiful legacy.
Stories move us on a different level than mere abstract ideas. When borne from a writer’s or director’s own struggles, seeing transcendent beliefs lived out in crisis can lead to new revelations. The trend of fascinating, honest movies that explore rather than exclude issues of faith is one to watch.
For more insights on films worth watching, check out Plugged In. Watch for their invitation to vote on the past year’s best movies — coming soon.
Copyright 2017 Josh M. Shepherd. All rights reserved.