25 best religious movies, according to critics

Published 6:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2022

Twentieth Century Fox

25 best religious movies, according to critics

Religion is a delicate subject. You definitely don’t discuss it at the dinner table. So where do you discuss it? In films, of course. Some of the greatest films to ever be created center on the subject of religion, diving deep into philosophical conversations, centuries-old questions, and modern-day interpretations.

Religious films do not necessarily have to be overt. Often, the religious themes are subtly woven in, sometimes showing up as a battle between good and evil, struggles of virtue, and the desire to find a place to belong. In other examples, the religious overtones are more faith-based and overt. No matter the angle, what they all have in common is introspective stories centering on morals, lessons, and teachings rooted in religion.

Stacker compiled data on the top 1,000 films of all time, according to Metacritic, and narrowed the scope to films that deal explicitly with religion, regardless of which religion or which angle the film takes on the religion. To qualify, the film had to have at least seven critic reviews.

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Read on to discover the 25 best religious movies, according to critics. How many have you seen on this list?

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Cottonwood Pictures

#25. The Tree of Life (2011)

– Director: Terrence Malick
– Metascore: 85
– Runtime: 139 minutes

Set in Texas in the 1950s, this film follows the story of a man who wrestles with loss of innocence, a tumultuous relationship with his father, and his faith. Critics noted that the religious components in the film shone through the balance between good and evil, and, as the Chicago Tribune put it, between nature and grace.

The Archers

#24. Black Narcissus (1947)

– Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 101 minutes

Based on the 1939 eponymous novel, “Black Narcissus” is the story of a small convent of nuns who are working to build a school and hospital in a palace in the isolated Himalayan mountains. The tension lies in the struggle between the nuns’ piety and the sexual attraction toward the owner of the palace. The film is beautifully shot and won the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Art Direction.


#23. The Wild Pear Tree (2018)

– Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 188 minutes

A burgeoning writer comes home to find sponsors for his book, but upon his return, he is faced with his father’s crippling gambling addiction. Religion is woven into the story when the main character looks for comfort by engaging in conversations about religion and its place in modern society. According to IMDb, the film is inspired by the real-life story of the relationship between the co-writer and his own father.

Annapurna Pictures

#22. The Master (2012)

– Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 138 minutes

Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns home and tries to assimilate back into civilian life. He meets a leader of a religious movement (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known as The Cause, and finds purpose with the group. The film also stars Amy Adams as the leader’s wife. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, and director Paul Thomas Anderson made it clear to the BBC that it is his favorite film he’s ever directed.

Sundance Institute

#21. Divine Love (2019)

– Director: Gabriel Mascaro
– Metascore: 86
– Runtime: 101 minutes

This Brazilian drama follows the story of a devout registry office clerk who uses her position to try to dissuade couples from getting divorced. The film was highly regarded among critics, gorgeously shot, and contained a compelling storyline. The director was only 35 when he shot the film.

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Rialto Pictures

#20. The Wicker Man (1973)

– Director: Robin Hardy
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 88 minutes

“The Wicker Man” can only be described as a horror musical—songs play an important part in the storytelling. The story revolves around a deeply religious police sergeant who explores an isolated island in search of a missing girl. On the island, he discovers the locals have traded in Christianity for Celtic paganism. According to IMDb, Christopher Lee took on his role in the film for free.

New Line Cinema

#19. Maria Full of Grace (2004)

– Director: Joshua Marston
– Metascore: 87
– Runtime: 101 minutes

A Colombian teen finds herself in dire need of money to help her family, so she makes the decision to become a drug mule for the cartel. The leading actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, became the first actress to ever receive a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for a role that was done entirely in Spanish.

Svensk Filmindustri (SF)

#18. The Seventh Seal (1957)

– Director: Ingmar Bergman
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 96 minutes

The scene: Sweden during the days of the Bubonic Plague. A knight is on the hunt for answers about the existence of God, life, and death, as he is entrenched in a chess match with the Grim Reaper. The title of the film refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation. According to IMDb, Ingmar Bergman created the film to help him with his paralyzing fear of death.

Svensk Filmindustri (SF)

#17. Wild Strawberries (1957)

– Director: Ingmar Bergman
– Metascore: 88
– Runtime: 91 minutes

Another Bergman film that deals with the question of existence, “Wild Strawberries” follows an aging professor who sets out on a car ride with his pregnant daughter-in-law. Along the way, he meets a cast of characters that help him in his internal pursuit. The film followed shortly after “The Seventh Seal,” and The New York Times described it as even more mystifying than its predecessor.

Plan B

#16. Minari (2020)

– Director: Lee Isaac Chung
– Metascore: 89
– Runtime: 115 minutes

In this somewhat autobiographical film about director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, this story follows a Korean family that tries to make their way as farmers in Arkansas during the 1980s. According to Angel Us News, the movie isn’t overtly religious, but more focuses on the invisible workings of God and the struggles with failure.

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Sever Studio

#15. Hard to Be a God (2013)

– Director: Alexei German
– Metascore: 90
– Runtime: 177 minutes

A Russian science-fiction art film, “Hard to Be a God” follows a group of scientists who leave Earth to a mirror-image planet that is centuries behind in culture and technology. According to Roger Ebert, it is one of the most visually “disgusting” films ever made, and yet, one of the most masterful, having taken director Alexei German nearly 40 years to plan and 12 to execute.

Music Box Films

#14. Ida (2013)

– Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 82 minutes

In “Ida,” a woman lives in a convent in the Polish countryside. Just about to take her vows as a nun, she uncovers an old family secret that reveals Jewish ancestry and traces back to the German occupation of Poland. It’s a story of innocence, reflection, lost power, strength, and surrender, according to the Calgary Herald. It’s also beautifully shot in black and white in an old-fashioned 4:3 ratio.

Laokoon Filmgroup

#13. Son of Saul (2015)

– Director: László Nemes
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 107 minutes

“Son of Saul” follows a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner of a concentration camp as he looks to bury a child that he thinks is his son. According to The New Yorker, the heartbreaking character of Saul is the personification and fusion of Jewish violence and Jewish virtue.

Isuma Igloolik Productions

#12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

– Director: Zacharias Kunuk
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 172 minutes

An adaptation of an Inuit legend, this movie follows the story of an evil spirit that wreaks havoc on a community and how one warrior perseveres in the face of its destruction. According to Variety, this was the first-ever screenplay to be written in Inuktitut, the Inuit language.

Ousmane Sembène

#11. Moolaadé (2004)

– Director: Ousmane Sembene
– Metascore: 91
– Runtime: 124 minutes

A woman protects a group of girls from undergoing genital mutilation in an African village—a decision that ultimately tears her community apart. The story is at its core a human rights story, but “moolaadé” is also the term that refers to the purification ritual to preserve virginity.

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#10. The Rider (2017)

– Director: Chloé Zhao
– Metascore: 92
– Runtime: 104 minutes

“The Rider” tells the story of a young cowboy who struggles to find a new identity after suffering a head injury that nearly kills him. According to The Christian Review, it is a film that asks us to examine values and integrity, to count our blessings, if you will, in the face of desperate times and misfortune.

Arte France Cinéma

#9. Timbuktu (2014)

– Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
– Metascore: 92
– Runtime: 96 minutes

A cattle herder and his family lead a quiet life together. But all is suddenly turned on its head when Jihadists take over and completely disrupt and destroy their way of living. The religious storyline is blatant and, according to the New Statesman, harrowing in its detailing of everyday persecution.

Open Road Films

#8. Spotlight (2015)

– Director: Tom McCarthy
– Metascore: 93
– Runtime: 129 minutes

“Spotlight” is the true story of how The Boston Globe exposed the child molestation cover-up within the local Catholic church—a story that had the Catholic Church reeling all over the world. According to The New Yorker, it paints a portrait of institutional secrecy and forces us to ask who we listen to and who we protect.

Nina Paley

#7. Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

– Director: Nina Paley
– Metascore: 93
– Runtime: 82 minutes

This animated movie tells the legend of Sita, a Hindu goddess who joins her husband, Rama, to live in exile. She is abducted by a demon king, but she never waivers in her devotion to her husband. It is a story that is known to practically every Hindu person in India, according to Roger Ebert.

Paramount Vantage

#6. There Will Be Blood (2007)

– Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
– Metascore: 93
– Runtime: 158 minutes

“There Will Be Blood” is a classic story about the fight between good and evil. The Oscar-winning film is based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” and follows the rise and fall of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. According to Philosophy Now, there are parallels between Plainview and Nietzsche, who thought that philosophy and religion were merely expressions of self-interest.

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IAC Films

#5. Lady Bird (2017)

– Director: Greta Gerwig
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 94 minutes

According to Religion and Politics, “Lady Bird” is “a different kind of Catholic film.” The religious aspects are subtle and woven in. It follows the story of a young woman, Lady Bird, during her senior year and briefly post-graduation from her Catholic high school. It’s a story about coming of age and how doing so can often cause hurt and pain.

United Artists

#4. Apocalypse Now (1979)

– Director: Francis Ford Coppola
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 147 minutes

A U.S. Army officer is stationed in Vietnam and is given the mission to assassinate a Special Forces Colonel who has gone off the rails, likening himself to God. War movies often highlight the struggles between man and religion. It is widely considered one of the greatest war films ever made. According to The New York Times, it is about the “dualism of human nature,” a theme that keeps recurring throughout the movie.

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Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

#3. Schindler’s List (1993)

– Director: Steven Spielberg
– Metascore: 94
– Runtime: 195 minutes

“Schindler’s List” stars Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, an industrialist living in German-occupied Poland, who begins to rescue the Jews from Nazi persecution. According to Religion News, the film has reached “canonical status” among the Jewish population, with deeper lessons about evil inclinations and our inherent inclination to do good.

Twentieth Century Fox

#2. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

– Director: John Ford
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 129 minutes

Based on the iconic novel by John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” follows the story of a poor Midwestern family that is forced off their land during the Great Depression. The story is an Exodus-type metaphor, as a family leaves a situation of hardship behind in search of new opportunity. The New York Times fawned over the film, writing, “If it were any better, we just wouldn’t believe our eyes.”

Regency Enterprises

#1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

– Director: Steve McQueen
– Metascore: 96
– Runtime: 134 minutes

This true story adaptation tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from upstate New York who is enslaved in the United States prior to the Civil War. Religion is peppered all throughout the film through biblical quotes and the use of the word “righteous.” The real message, according to Religion News, is that people seem to “pick and choose the biblical verses they live by.”

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