How about a list of the best faith-based films released in the decade of the 2010s? The term “faith-based cinema” as used by Hollywood to advertise movies like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead is not what I’m referring to. Faith-based films aren’t what I’m referring to, but rather films that examine faith in all its complexity, its many ups and downs, and its tenuous status in our secular day.
In the recent decade, there have been a number of terrific films like this one. This is a list of my top 15 picks. My faith has been deepened and occasionally challenged (in positive ways) by these films; they have also served as sources of devotional meditation and even worship. My best wishes are with you.
1. The Tree of Life (2011)
As a Christian director, Terrence Malick is one of the most important artists working today; he’s now shooting a film about the life of Christ. It remains a distinctive work of religious art and the best Christian film ever made, a biblical epic set in small-town Texas and exploring creation, fall, redemption and restoration. (YouTube | Amazon)
2. Silence (2016)
Not for the faint of heart: Martin Scorsese’s horrific rendition of the Shusako Endo’s famous novel When you watch Silence, you will be disturbed and (appropriately) quieted by its unsettling meditation on the difficulty of faith in the face of pain. I’ve had more theological discussions about Silence than any other recent picture, and that’s saying something. In a letter to Scorsese, Malick asked, “What does Christ want from us?” after witnessing Silence. It’s one of a number of questions the film raises. (YouTube | Amazon)
3. A Hidden Life (2019)
Among other things, Malick’s latest picture, which premieres in theaters in December, is his response to Scorsese’s Silence. “A Hidden Life,” based on the true story of Austrian Christian Franz Jägerstätter, tells the narrative of how he fought to keep his faith in spite of persecution. Life is a compelling exhortation to steadfast endurance for Christ’s suffering wife, a kind of cinematic portrayal of the Psalms set in the stunning Austrian Alps. Release date: Wednesday, December 13th, in theaters.
4. First Reformed (2018)
Despite Paul Schrader’s fame as a filmmaker, Calvin College alum, and film theorist, First Reformed didn’t come as much of a surprise to those who know him. In a nice way, it was nonetheless a surprise to me. What struck me as an insightful assessment of American Christianity was the film’s inclination to try to resolve the tangled contradictions of faith in one of two erroneous directions. What would you call this movie’s level of difficulty? No, there isn’t. Thoughtful Christians may find it worthwhile, while others may not. Absolutely. (YouTube | Amazon)
5. Of Gods and Men (2010)
When it comes to Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, a film about a group of Cistercian monks in Algeria, there’s a memorable scene at the end of the film in which they try to remain faithfully present, serving their community, despite Islamic extreme threats. Aside from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” the only spoken words in the “Last Supper” scenario convey the joy of Christian fellowship in the face of dread and suffering beautifully. As the music builds, so do the monks’ tear-filled eyes, expressing sorrow while simultaneously expressing hope in the ever-nearer presence of Christ. (YouTube | Amazon)
6. Secret Sunshine (2010)
To qualify for inclusion on my decade’s list, this Korean picture by filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Burning) was only released in the United States in December 2010. It’s just too good to ignore. When one Korean woman’s struggle with God in the face of horrific sorrow is depicted in Sunshine, it’s one of the most effective, painful images I’ve ever seen about the scandalous offense of grace. (YouTube | Amazon)
7. Hail, Caesar! (2016)
There are few theological filmmakers working today who have a better track record than the Coen brothers, and this film is one of their most overtly religious efforts. A meta-biblical epic, Hail, Caesar! is billed as a satire on the Hollywood studio system. There are some heart-warming and poignant moments in this book, as well as some heart-breaking ones, as it examines Jewish and Christian views on God’s character from Hollywood’s perspective. (YouTube | Amazon)
8. Selma (2014)
Despite the title, Ava DuVernay’s civil rights biopic is about more than just Martin Luther King Jr. (played here by Christian actor David Oyelowo). Christian faith inspired and maintained an often perilous but ultimately fruitful struggle toward social justice. Although justice is a good cause, it is not an easy one to achieve. This isn’t a trend or a hashtag. It’s a long, arduous climb, but the reward at the top is well worth the effort, if only by the grace of God. (YouTube | Amazon)
9. Calvary (2014)
John Michael McDonaugh’s Calvary is a hard but beautiful look at the cost of sustaining faith while the church is in ruins (see also: 2013’s Philomena and 2015’s Spotlight) (literally in the film). Even when it’s physically and emotionally exhausting, Brendan Gleeson remains unflinching in his devotion to his flock, no matter how much it costs him. (YouTube | Amazon)
10. Arrival (2016)
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the only film on this list that isn’t directly about Christian faith, gives the sci-fi thriller about an alien invasion a distinctively philosophical spin with its stunning direction. Despite the fact that God is not explicitly referenced in the film, the themes of free will, predestination, and having confidence in God are all explored. Arrival, starring Amy Adams as the film’s heart-wrenching protagonist, also has a stunning pro-life message. (YouTube | Amazon)
11. The Overnighters (2014)
Pastors and churches are often the focus of documentary filmmakers, but I wish there were more of them out there. There’s a lot of suspense there! So many ideas. When oil workers began flooding into North Dakota, the local pastor responded with compassion. Jesse Ross depicts this in his film The Overnighters. In my opinion, it’s one of the most touching and shocking faith-related films of the last decade. (YouTube | Amazon)
12. To the Wonder (2012)
Malick’s autobiographical To the Wonder, while smaller in scope than The Tree of Life, is just as engaged in faith. A pastor character—Javier Bardem’s “Father Quintana”—makes this clear, particularly during an awe-inspiring closing sequence in which St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer is transformed into a cinematic tone poem set in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (YouTube | Amazon)
13. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, is the subject of Mel Gibson’s most faith-oriented film since The Passion of the Christ. It’s a film about staying true to one’s religious beliefs despite overwhelming social pressure to do otherwise. More than ever, we require films of this caliber. (YouTube | Amazon)
14. Ad Astra (2019)
Theological interpretations of James Gray’s sci-fi adventure picture are numerous. Is it a quest to find God at the heart of this story? The absence of God? It was in my review that I emphasized on how the film portrays man’s desire to climb the ladder of Babel, rather than receive God’s gifts and revelation from the ground up. With or without its godlike gaze, witnessing Ad Astra is likely to move your heart. The film is now playing in theaters.
15. The Drop Box (2014)
It’s a heartbreaking look at a South Korean pastor who has set up a “drop box” outside his Seoul church where mothers can drop off their abandoned children. Watching this film, which shows the dignity and adoption of children as people made in the image of God in a society where they are treated as trash every day, is powerful. (YouTube | Amazon)
To date, we’ve covered “Best New Worship Songs of the 2010s,” and we’ve also covered, “Best Christian Albums of the 2010s.”