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One Bold List

  • by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 21 Nov
One Bold List

Many Christians become enthusiastic about movies only when they carry a blatant religious message. And yet the big screens are almost always filled with stories that reflect spiritual truths, offer glimmers of God's glory, champion justice, portray the wages of sin, and appeal to our desire for a savior.

More and more Christians are discovering those ever-present films that raise important questions and reflect the world's brokenness, needs, and desire for beauty, justice, hope, and healing. They're finding that the cinema is a place full of provocation to contemplation and dialogue about spiritual matters.

If you're interested in seeing more than just the occasional "blatantly religious" film—whether it's "Christian movies" like Left Behind and Hangman's Curse, or mainstream flicks like The Passion of The Christ, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the much-anticipated Narnia films—then have we got a list for you.

The Arts & Faith online community—which includes a wide variety of Christians, including many professional critics, including Peter T. Chattaway and Ron Reed of Christianity Today Movies—recently posted its annual list of Spiritually Significant Films, 100 movies representing the wide world of filmmaking, in works domestic and foreign, contemporary and classic, narrative and documentary, traditional and experimental.

The list includes a few popular titles, but it also demonstrates that these voters are true cinephiles, eagerly exploring the entire territory of filmmaking. They watch films repeatedly, comparing and contrasting the filmmakers' techniques, vision, perspective, failures, and accomplishments.

The result is a list that others can use as a map to significant landmarks in the vast country of cinematic expression. Some titles are inspiring and beautiful, others are troubling paths into the underworld of sin and darkness. But all of them challenge us to consider new perspectives on timeless truths. All of them ask us to wrestle with the artists' perspectives and examine their ideas about spirituality. Many echo, and some challenge, Christian ideas.

But these are in no way the Top 100 "Christian films." Better to say they are films that Christians, attending to their individual consciences and proceeding with caution and discernment, would do well to encounter, meditate upon, and discuss.

In a prime example of the list's unconventional integrity, this year's Top 100 finds a film by the Dardennes Brothers at the top: Rosetta, an award-winning international favorite, is relatively unknown to the common American moviegoer. Other films by the Dardennes, The Son and La Promesse, show up on the list as well. All three are characterized by striking realism and a focus on action rather than dialogue, mere representation rather than storytelling that interprets the events for you. They'll challenge you to consider choices and consequences. They're not "feel-good" films by any means, but they nourish those who are willing to pay attention and think them through.

At The Matthews House Project, Michael Leary writes, "I like to think of the list as a sort of back door to faith, your own private entrance to the houses of the holy. … It is a monument to a history of people speaking a different language about eternal concepts, testing this new grammar of light, texture, and rhythm as it contacts the contours of faith and reality. The list honors artists in tune with the human condition, putting human faces on high-concept theological realities. And most of these films do more than simply describe these realities; they rehearse them, reproduce them, and enable us to inhabit them. These films are catalysts, mirrors, and antidotes."

The wide variety begs the question: What do these voters consider "a spiritually significant film"? I asked voters for their definitions. They say it's a movie that:

"plugs one into the world of the spirit"
"talks about spiritual issues"
"leads me to think about spiritual matters, for example, the nature of God and his relationship to creation, and the nature of Man and how he relates to the rest of creation and to God"
"must meet two requirements. It must be true and it must be excellent"
"raises the questions of life in a way that respectfully confronts our prejudices and beliefs. When such a film deals with religious issues it does so with sensitivity and insight. When it is not overtly religious, it is spiritually informed and reveals the universal human condition"
"often rises above the din of commercial cinema [and] points to truths about the human experience"

Arts & Faith regular Dan Buck argues, "The lack of formal definition of a 'spiritually significant film' is one of the best attributes of the process. Any attempt to put parameters on those terms probably would've taken the bite out of the list. We'd lose films that approach the transcendent through backdoors and hidden alleys."

Buck is thrilled with this year's list, saying it has "so many films that I've not seen. This opens up a year of potentially life-changing movie moments for me. That's exhilarating."

But Matt Page, another regular, was "disappointed that the list was so heavily slanted away from what the average person on the street would choose to watch. The 2004 list had enough popular films on it to make the list of interest to normal people, which would draw them in to the lusher pastures beyond. I feel the current list will put similar people off this time who will see it as irrelevant to them." Page was sorry to see Field of Dreams, Waking Life, and The Matrix come up short.

What do you think? You're welcome to join the conversation.

Here's A&F's full list of Spiritually Significant Films (click on any of the titles to learn more):


2.The Passion of Joan of Arc ("La Passion De Jeanne D'arc")

3.The Decalogue ("Dekalog")

4.The Diary of a Country Priest ("Le Journal D'un Curé De Campagne")

5. Balthazar ("Au Hasard Balthazar")

6.The Word ("Ordet")

7.. The Gospel According to Matthew("Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo")

8.Babette's Feast ("Babettes Gæstebud")

9.The Son ("Le Fils")

10.To Live ("Ikiru")

11.The Apostle


13.The Mission

14.The Seventh Seal ("Det Sjunde Inseglet)

15.Dead Man Walking

16.A Man Escaped ("Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut")

17.Jesus of Montreal

18.Andrei Rublev

19.A Man for All Seasons

20.Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

21.Chariots of Fire

22.Winter Light("Nattvardsgä sterna")

23.The Miracle Maker

24.Day of Wrath ("Vredens dag")


26.Sansho the Bailiff ("Sanshô dayû ")


28.Three Colors Trilogy

29.The Flowers of St. Francis

30.Wings of Desire

31.My Night at Maud's

32.La Promesse


34.The Greatest Love

35.The Passion of The Christ

36.Tender Mercies

37.Jesus of Nazareth


39.The Apu Trilogy


41.Wild Strawberries("Smultronstä llet")

42.Trial of Joan of Arc ("Procè s de Jeanne d'Arc")

43.Werckmeister Harmonies

44.The Mirror ("Zerkalo")


46.The Sacrifice("Offret—Sacrificatio")


48.To End All Wars

49.Schindler's List

50.Breaking the Waves

51.The Hiding Place

52.It's A Wonderful Life

53.Peter and Paul

54.The Big Kahuna


56.Not of This World ("Fuori dal mondo")


58.Yi Yi: A One and a Two

59.The Straight Story


61.A Taste of Cherry ("Ta'm e guilass")

62.The Gospel of John

63.Lilies of the Field

64.Tokyo Story

65.To Kill a Mockingbird

66.Hotel Rwanda

67.Dersu Uzala


69.Tales of Ugetsu ("Ugetsu monogatari")

70.The Last Temptation Of Christ



73.Open City ("Roma, città aperta")

74.The Lord of the Rings trilogy


76.The Believer

77.Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring

78.Late Spring("Banshun")

79.The Night Of The Hunter

80.Life is Beautiful ("La Vita è bella")

81.The Bicycle Thief ("Ladri di biciclette")

82.Close-Up ("Nema-ye Nazdik")

83.The Addiction

84.Cries and Whispers ("Viskningar och rop")

85.The Wind Will Carry Us ("Bad ma ra khahad bord")

86.The Virgin Spring{"Jungfrukä llan")


88.Les Misérables

89.The Trip to Bountiful

90.2001: A Space Odyssey


92.The Shawshank Redemption

93.13 Conversations About One Thing

94.The Silence("Tystnaden")

95.An Autumn Afternoon("Sanma no aji")

96.The Elephant Man


98.Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

99.In America


List of 100 movies copyright 2005 © Arts & Faith. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Text of article © 2005 Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.