The Top 25 Theological Films: A Working List

by Christopher B. Barnett

A Serious Man (dir., Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

One of the goals of this site is to locate theological motifs in every film I see. This may seem like a foolhardy task, but it is a tacit assent to Thomas Aquinas’ maxim that theology concerns not only God, but also those things that pertain to God as their origin and end. Hence, as a feature of human culture, all movies are open to theological investigation…yes, even films like Anchorman 2!

With that said, however, it is undeniable that certain films not only permit a theological reading but, in fact, demand it. Such films may ask broadly metaphysical questions, or they may directly confront a particular aspect of faith, Christian or otherwise. They are, in short, films that place theology at the heart of their narrative or, as I prefer, “theological films.”

Below is a list of twenty-five such theological films — not necessarily my favorite twenty-five but, arguably, the best twenty-five. Though tempting, I’ll refrain from putting them in a particular order, since I don’t want to give the impression that one is better than another. They are all worth seeing and pondering.

  • Babette’s Feast [Babettes gæstebud] (dir. Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • The Thin Red Line (dir. Terrence Malick, 1998)
  • The Seventh Seal [Det sjunde inseglet] (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  • Andrei Rublev [Андрей Рублёв] (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
  • A Serious Man (dir., Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
  • Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier, 2003)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Winter Light [Nattvardsgästerna] (dir., Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  • The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont, 1994)
  • The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)
  • Magnolia (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
  • The Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955)
  • The Mission (dir. Roland Joffé, 1986)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
  • The Gospel According to Matthew [Il Vangelo secondo Matteo] (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  • The Word [Ordet] (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)
  • Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth [El laberinto del fauno] (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
  • The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2005)
  • Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
  • Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995)
  • Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987)
  • Of Gods and Men [Des hommes et des dieux] (dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2010)
  • The Decalogue [Dekalog] (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1989)
  • The Apostle (dir. Robert Duvall, 1997)

Of course, as my title states, this is a working list. After all, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is now out, and who knows what will follow? Also, feel free to leave omissions in the “Comments” section. Even if I don’t change the list, it would be good to note other films (and there are many more) that bring theology and film together.