Christian film report card: 2016

Since a major focus of this blog is faith and culture, I thought I would try analyzing the past year from the perspective of Christian film. The “faith-based” film market has exploded in recent years, and everyone from indie filmmakers to large production studios like Sony are trying to cash in.

When discussing Christian film, the first task is to explain what exactly that even means. There are three major categories I‘d like to look at: faith-based films, films about historical Christianity (movies about the life of Jesus, in other words, even if they contain fictional elements/characters ) and larger market secular films that contain strong Christian themes/characters. I will assess each category before assigning a grade for the year as a whole.

ROUND 1: “FAITH-BASED” FILMS 

The faith based film market was alive and well in 2016, much to the chagrin of Christian moviegoers who desire movies about their faith to qualify as good art. Thankfully, 2016 was not quite as bad as other years. Sure, God’s Not Dead 2 came out, and it was still profitable, but it never seemed to capture the electricity of the original. I’m hoping this means that audiences have already had their fill of this pandering, insipid franchise. The same descriptors could also probably apply to Miracles from Heaven, this year’s “noble” studio attempt at providing soft, un-challenging spiritual uplift (this one backed by Sony’s Affirm Films). It netted a respectable but uninspiring $61 million at the box office.

Priceless is a great example of how to do a faith-based film right.

And…that’s about it! There were a couple of smaller films that I really enjoyed. The human trafficking film Priceless was an effective thriller with an empowering message. And Hillsong’s innovative concert film Let Hope Rise was all-around sensational. Some predictable duds here, but this sub-genre is finally starting to get wise to the fact that Christians might actually want quality films that speak to them, rather than easy religious pandering.

ROUND 2: FILMS ABOUT JESUS

Speaking of quality, there was a plethora of engaging and thought-provoking films about the life of Christ in 2016. Though they weren’t all a slam dunk (remember Ben Hur? Yeah, neither do I), this was an impressive group overall. Risen gave us a unique look at Christ through the eyes of a Roman guard (an always-impressive Joseph Finnes) tasked with finding Christ’s body after it disappears from its tomb three days after his death. This novel take on a well-trod story starts out fairly standard but gets more intriguing as it goes on. By the time it was over, I had tears in my eyes, and they were well-earned. This is a well-written, acted and shot adventure yarn, with a redemptive message that is irresistible.

Another buzz-worthy film was The Young Messiah, which imagines what the missing

The Young Messiah is an intriguing, speculative look at Christ’s adolescence, continuing the recent trends of Jesus movies that blend history with fictional elements.

years of Jesus’ childhood may have looked like. Based on a novel by Anne Rice, the film is sometimes dull but deeply reverent. I left the film feeling like its events could have actually been the real story of Christ’s adolescence, and that’s no small feat. Gorgeous cinematography and great supporting performances from the likes of Sean Bean ensure a decent flick.

The best Jesus-based film of the year by far was Last Days in the Desert, a provocative look at the tail-end of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and the devil, and the result is electrifying. McGregor may seem like a strange choice, but I think his sensibilities work well with the material. Director Rodrigo Garcia’s screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers; it asks difficult questions about divinity, questions that may make some true-believer uncomfortable. But for those willing to probe a bit deeper, the film is well worth your time. It probably helps that three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably stunning (the crucifixion scene, in particular, may be the best ever put to film).

ROUND 3: MAINSTREAM FILMS

This category gets an all-around A+ this year. We thankfully weren’t lacking for filmmakers looking to tell quality stories with courageous Christians at their center. This category mostly tackles the “secular” world of film, or at least the high-budget, A-list director realm. The big success story here is obviously Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. The controversial director’s first film in a decade lived up to the hype, telling the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in WWII who, due to his Christian conviction, refused to even hold a gun. He did, however, earn the Medal of Honor as a combat medic after saving the lives of dozens of his fellow soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. It’s an inspiring story, and Gibson tells it in an earnest, gritty and effective way. It’s a powerful story told in a powerful way.

While we’re talking about controversial filmmakers, how about Nate Parker and his slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation? Here’s a film that garnered major accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, only to make nary a dent at the box office or the awards circuit. Many blame this on rape allegations that surfaced from Parker’s past, but it’s hard to see the fault coming from the film itself (although it didn’t garner quite the critical praise many expected). It’s certainly a troubling film, but one that should inspire conversations about the nature of Christian resistance and how far God’s justice extends to our own actions. It’s certainly an excellent work of art all-around, but an immensely disturbing one. I’m not sure I am comfortable with the conclusions Nat Turner came to, in history or in the film. But the movie is saturated with scripture, and even seeing someone misuse the Bible doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is very much front and center for the vast majority of the film’s run time. I highly recommend it, though I will likely never see it again.

Scorsese’s Silence exemplifies the recent contemplative spiritual mode of many prolific filmmakers.

The final major film about Christian resistance in 2016 is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Long in gestation, the legendary director’s film about Jesuit missionaries in 16th-century Japan is garnering high praise all around. I have yet to see it, but critics are calling in some of Scorsese’s best work, though, like Birth of a Nation, it may be a film you’ll only want to sit through once. It’s dense, challenging and absolutely essential. Still, seeing courageous Christians martyred for their faith should engender in Christians thoughts and prayers for Christians all around the world martyred for their faith every minute. This is an important story to highlight at a time in our history where violence against Christians has never been higher.

FINAL GRADE B+

Despite a few artistically bankrupt duds (both of the indie and studio variety), 2016 was an inspiring year for Christian film. From innovative concert documentaries to provocative looks at the life of Jesus and famous historical Christians, every believer should find something from this past year to strengthen their conviction, inspire their resolve or lift their spirits. And, in a world filled with hardship and pain, that’s something we could all use a lot more of.

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