Christian Films: Best of 2016 and advice for future filmmakers

Two weeks ago Hillary Scott won a pair of GRAMMY awards for her album, Love Remains, and the hit song, Thy Will, in the contemporary Christian music category – a category that has been around since 2012. The recording industry presents awards in this category to performances that are expressly Christian in their content, and not merely to Christian singers who perform another genre such as country or pop.

To date, the film industry has not created a similar category for faith-based films, despite the growing number of filmmakers who weave their stories through a distinctly Christian worldview. This may, in part, be due to the significant quality gap that exists between faith-based and secular films, similar to the gap that existed in the music industry through the early 1990s. Of course, Christian musicians eventually achieved a level of production quality comparable to their secular peers.

Though Christian filmmakers have recently closed the gap in production quality (as well as in direction, special effects, stunts, and acting), a sizeable one remains. However, 2016 may be the year all that changed. This past year witnessed a significant improvement in overall filmmaking quality, particularly in screenplays, direction, and acting within the faith-based genre. It is a trend that will no doubt continue as Christians in the industry hone their craft.

That said, Christian films will never attract widespread audience interest (and industry recognition) beyond the church community unless several critical changes occur – changes that will also improve the overall quality of Christian films.

First, eliminate the heavy-handed and preachy dialogue. Those who want to hear a sermon go to church on Sunday morning not to the movies on Saturday night. Nothing interferes with a good story like incessant melodramatic sermonizing, which also exposes the directorial limitations of the filmmaker. Scriptwriters and directors should learn the art of subtlety in communicating the Christian message through cinema. That doesn’t make it doctrinally spineless, just less overt.

Second, develop multi-dimensional Christian characters with real flaws. Too often directors portray Christian characters as morally upright individuals who make good decisions, use churchy language, behave like Christ, and exhibit few flaws. But such superficiality does not reflect reality. The Christian encountered on the screen rarely mirrors the Christian encountered in everyday life, and such caricatures do a disservice to the Christian community and the film industry alike. Christian filmmakers who really want to connect with a secular audience must create authentic characters – those who struggle and sin like the rest of us.

Third, exercise creativity and be original. Too many Christian filmmakers and scriptwriters adopt a formulaic approach in telling their story (a flaw that pervades Hollywood and the studios as well). Such laziness neither inspires nor interests the audience. Instead it leaves them feeling fleeced. It is true that originality requires considerable time and effort, as well as reflection and research. But a final product that captivates audiences and manifests industry excellence makes it worthwhile – and honors the Lord far more than a cheap, sluggish imitation.

Finally, with the Motion Picture Academy set to announce their awards tonight, I thought it appropriate to select a few winners in the genre of Christian films since the Academy does not award Oscars in that category. I exclude films nominated for an award tonight, like Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, even if they had a Christian lead character or Christian theme. [By the way, their recognition by Hollywood demonstrates that films with a clear Christian message are taken seriously by the industry when excellence is achieved].

Now, without further ado:

Best Picture: Risen

Perhaps the best Christian film in recent memory. What makes this movie so original is that it unfolds through the eyes of a skeptic, a Roman Tribune tasked with finding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. He dismisses the rumors of Christ’s resurrection as poppycock and simply wants to locate the dead body, on orders from his boss, Pontius Pilate, to quell the growing unrest in Jerusalem. It powerfully communicates the gospel without being preachy, exemplified by the cognitive dissonance displayed on the protagonist’s face when he encounters the risen Christ surrounded by His disciples in the upper room.

Best Actor: Joseph Fiennes (Risen)

Fiennes excels at nuanced expression and accurately captures the skepticism and urgency of his character. His performance is a tour de force and establishes a standard of excellence for other actors in faith-based films.

Best Actress: Madina Nalwanga (Queen of Katwe)

Sublime performance for newcomer Nalwanga, who plays a young girl in the Ugandan slums whose innate talent for chess creates an opportunity to improve not only her and her family’s life but to inspire her nation as well.

Best Comedy: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

The strength of this film is two-fold: the performance of lead actor Brett Dalton, who nails the role of faux-Christian Gavin Stone, and the levity it brings to the faith-based genre. The film never takes itself too seriously and often pokes fun at churchy talk and Christianesque behavior. The approach is both refreshing and the source of many laughs, and communicates its message without being too preachy. [As an added benefit it reveals the ease with which people can come into church and fake their faith for the purpose of advancing a selfish agenda – a timely warning].

Agree or Disagree? What films and actors would you award for excellence in 2016? Post your thoughts below.

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