Having looked at four solid Christian films from the seventies, eighties, and nineties, we turn to some great Christian films made in the twenty-first century as the Christian film industry gained in production quality and talent.
1) Late One Night (2001)
Big budgets aren’t required to produce a quality film and Late One Night is proof. This thirty-four-minute film holds up as a solid artistic production in ways that most evangelistic shorts don’t.
Brad Heller stars as Larry, a disgruntled ex-con whose life has been one nightmare after another. He holds a dead-end job and was recently told to stay away from the boss’ secretary (who is a Christian) after she complained about him.
He and his two friends are eating in a diner. Jackson (Hugh Maclean), the cook, is the only staff working when a stranger (Josh Gaffga) stumbles in to order a meal. Larry goes through the stranger’s pocket and finds a tract that the stranger had received from a street preacher, leading Larry to strike up a conversation with this stranger about religion.
The film has a great sense of atmosphere, with restaurant scenes that are claustrophobic and dialogue that’s memorable, if a bit stylized. Late One Night does a fantastic job with its visual storytelling. We can tell that the street preacher featured before the main restaurant scene is nervous by the way he’s shuffling his hands as he waits and how he continues to witness to the stranger even after he learns he’s a Christian.
The stranger is a relatable character. He didn’t come to the restaurant looking for a debate. He came to get a burger and finds himself dragged into the debate by Larry.
The highlight of the film is Heller’s performance as Larry. He’s a bully and he’s a bit of a lout. However, he’s a very real character with flashes of honest eloquence, real pain, and a very raw sort of anger. Heller plays perfectly off Gaffga’s far quieter character.
The film’s final scene is memorable. It doesn’t give us a clear resolution but leaves us with a powerful image. Late One Night is low budget filmmaking at its best and is one of the best films of its kind.
2) Sherwood Pictures (2003-2011)
Sherwood Pictures’ four films (Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous) made huge strides in Christian filmmaking and opened the door for the small deluge of independent Christian films that have hit the market in recent years. This is thanks to the efforts of Alex and Steven Kendrick. Each film made far more than the tiny production budget. Most notably, Facing the Giants grossed more than one hundred times its production budget.
The Kendrick brothers were able to make the most of their challenges. In their first two films, they couldn’t afford professional actors, so they cast people with similar personalities to the characters that they were playing so acting wouldn’t be as great of a challenge. This greatly reduced the number of weak performances.
They also had a self-awareness of their films’ imperfections and made each film better than the last. One key example is editing. At two hours, their first film Flywheel was way too long for a movie about a used car salesman changing his ways. Watching the film, a half hour or more could have been shaved. There are far less extraneous scenes in Facing the Giants and the deleted scenes extra DVD revealed that they made a lot of smart cuts to the film.
What remained consistent throughout the films was their sincerity and the warmth of the characters that inhabited Albany, Georgia. Each film was full of charm that made the location and the characters appealing.
The Kendricks used humor to good effect. This was important, particularly in the last two films, which dealt with serious issues of marriage and fatherhood. They created memorable scenes, such as the death crawl in Facing the Giants and opened up with an unforgettable chase scene in Courageous that also set the stage for what the film would be about. These films managed to be entertaining while communicating powerful ideas.
3) The Second Chance (2006)
This film stars Christian Music legend Michael W. Smith in his one and only acting appearance. Smith plays Pastor Ethan Jenkins, a spoiled, wealthy assistant pastor. He is the son of a mega-church pastor and punished by the board by being sent to the Second Chance Community Church where the elder Jenkins got his start. There, Pastor Jake Sanders (Jeff Carr) is the current pastor.
The story features a realistic portrayal of this inner city church’s work. It also has a great central conflict. The mega-church where Ethan’s father pastors began out of his work with Second Chance Community Church, but it has lost much of its passion. It’s developed into such a cold, corporate environment; it has no problem demolishing the Second Chance Church in order to raise revenue even though relocating Second Chance Church will kneecap Second Chance’s ability to minister to the poor.
It’s also a buddy film where the solid chemistry between Smith and Carr pays off. Ethan is challenged by Jake’s life and is forced to re-evaluate his own life.
While the film isn’t a musical, it does have a musical moment with Smith towards the end. The Second Chance’s closing scene on the roof is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking ends to a Christian moving ever made even though the ending does leave many questions. Overall, this is a well-made film.
4) Christmas with a Capital C (2011)
In this film, irreligious businessman Mitch Bright (Adam Baldwin) returns to his small Alaska town and discovers his high school rival Dan Reed (Ted McGinley) is now the mayor. Mitch tries to drive a wedge between the mayor and his fellow citizens by suggesting the mayor’s religious Christmas displays are a barrier to business growth.
While the film is a culture war movie, it manages to be warm-hearted and winsome. The film is clearly against the efforts to remove Christ from culture, but the film focuses on how Christians should respond to people with whom we disagree. It keeps a difficult balance and remains a much more appealing film than many others in this category.
The film is bolstered by a strong supporting performing by Brad Stine. He looks and acts like the Robin Williams of the Christian film genre, creating some great scenes as the most hardcore opponent of Mitch Bright’s scheme.
Like in God’s Not Dead, the villain is found to have a huge Achilles heel that could be used to destroy him. There’s one key difference between the protagonists in Christmas with a Capital C and God’s Not Dead. In Christmas with a Capitol C, the Christians act out of love. In God’s not Dad, the Christians go for the jugular.
For Christians looking to make films addressing hot-button topics, Christmas with a Capital C is a good example of how to do it right.
Overall, the early part of the twenty-first century was kind to Christian films. Few had the polish of Hollywood movies, but there was a substantial uptick in quality of acting, writing, and directing. The films looked better and were better because Christians were telling better more compelling stories that still communicated great biblical truths.
In our next article, we’ll examine what lessons Christian filmmaker should take away from what has gone before in Christian films.