First off, what do we mean by "redeeming" films? They're all stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree—some quite clearly, some more subtly. Some are "feel-good" movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films.

It's interesting to note that six of our ten choices are all based on true stories. Maybe that just goes to show that some of the best redemptive stories—at least the ones that move us the most—are those that are really true. And so, our list:

1. Into Great Silence

Be still, and know that I am God. If ever the words of Psalm 46:10 could be applied to a movie, this is certainly the one. German filmmaker Philip Grö ning spent six months living with Carthusian monks at France's Grande Chartreuse Monastery, documenting the tranquil, contemplative everyday lives of the extraordinary men who live there. It adds up to three hours of nearly silent meditation that is simultaneously slow moving and spellbinding—a film to be experienced more so than merely watched. The film caused several of us to ask ourselves, "If these men can spend entire days—indeed, their very lives—in devotion and service to God, why is it so hard for me to spend 10 minutes a day doing the same?" A remarkable piece of filmmaking that gives rich new meaning to the term, "quiet time." (Our review.)

2. Lars and the Real Girl

Long before we saw this film, its official synopsis made us nervous: "A lonely, delusional young man buys a life-size sex doll on the Internet and falls in love with her, telling people it's his girlfriend." Based on that premise alone, we considered skipping it outright. But we're very glad we didn't, because this was one of the sweetest, most sensitive movies of the year, and, surprisingly, a powerful look at the body of Christ in action—and the relentless and patient nature of God's love. When Lars brings his new "inflatable friend" home—and yes, their "relationship" is pure and chaste—it's heartwarming to see how his family, friends, and fellow churchgoers (including even the most skeptical among them) love him unconditionally by playing along and embracing him in spite of his bizarre behavior. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll walk away with a smile and warm fuzzies. (Our review.)

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3. Juno

Exhibit A (or is it B or C or …) in what was a year of films with pro-life themes is a charming, quirky, and witty look into the life of a whip-smart 16-year-old girl (played brilliantly by Ellen Page) who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with her boyfriend. At first, she plans to abort, but after running into a teen pro-life activist outside the clinic, she realizes the fetus she's carrying is actually a living, growing baby. She changes her mind, decides to carry the baby to term, and begins a quest for "the perfect parents" to adopt the child. There's some rough language and teen sex talk, but the storylines are mostly redemptive—in addition to Juno's choice to have the baby (which her stepmom calls "a miracle from Jesus"), her parents are portrayed as loving and supportive (instead of the dolts we often see in teen comedies), and there's a nice exploration into the topic of unconditional love. (Our review.)

4. Amazing Grace

Can one person change the world? You bet, and no film indicates that notion more than this one, a biopic about the life of William Wilberforce, a devout Christian politician who almost single-handedly was responsible for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Ioan Gruffudd brings both gravitas and a dose of humanity to the role, portraying the 19th Century Parliamentarian as a man on a mission, driven by his love for God and love for all mankind. En route, he meets former slave trader John Newton (played by the terrific Albert Finney), the writer of the hymn "Amazing Grace" who motivates Wilberforce to persist in his quest. It's a "history film" without being dull, and a "religious film" without being preachy. But perhaps most of all, it's a movie that will convince any viewer that he or she can also make a difference in a sin-sick world desperately in need of social justice, mercy and compassion. (Our review.) (Discussion Guide.)

5. Bella

Another example from a year of films with life-affirming themes (see No. 3 Juno above), this quiet little indie flick tells an engaging story about how our lives can be changed—dramatically, even tragically—in an instant, but that our subsequent choices can make all the difference in the world. When José, a chef at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, learns that one of the waitresses, Nina, is pregnant out of wedlock, he shows concern—and no, he's not the father. When she considers an abortion, Eduardo's compassion kicks into high gear and sets into a motion a series of choices for both of them that will be life-changing. First-time director/screenwriter Alejandro Monteverde calls it a "love story without the romance," and that's an apt description of a movie that celebrates life, love, family, and friendship. (Our review.) (Discussion Guide.)

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6. Into the Wild

The true story of Chris McCandless, a young man who gives his life savings to charity and hitchhikes across America to escape society and get back to nature—all while his parents have no clue where he is and are worried sick. Chris makes it to Alaska and moves into an abandoned bus, where his short but fascinating life ultimately meets a tragic end. This idealistic young man was running away from the right problems, but he ultimately ran right past the meaning of life—and those mistakes cost him his life. But the beauty and wisdom he encounters along the way have much to offer us all. (Our review.)

7. The Kite Runner

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the film tells the story of Amir, a well-off boy from Afghanistan who, as an adult living in the U.S., is haunted by the guilt of betraying a childhood friend. Ultimately, Amir returns to his native country to help his old friend in this tale of friendship and family, of guilt and redemption. Includes some powerful thoughts on the nature of sin, and on the need to stand up for what is right. It also gives us a revealing look at a side of Middle Eastern and Muslim society not often seen in the West. (Our review.) (Discussion Guide.)

8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Wonder what it's like to experience the world as a person completely paralyzed, except for the use of one eye? This brilliant French film—the true story of magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who ended up that way after a massive stroke—will give you a bit of a feel for such an existence, as much of the film is shot from his perspective … looking at his surroundings through that one working eye. But what seems hopeless and hellish soon begins to take a redeeming turn, as those around him—doctors, nurses, therapists, family, and friends—patiently and compassionately love him into enjoying life again. Shows that our capacity for joy isn't dependent on circumstances or physical limitations, but is embedded in something far deeper. (Our review.)

9. Ratatouille

Rats, roux, rues, and … redemption? You bet. The best animated film of the year, from the brilliant mind and creative hand of Brad Bird and his Pixar cohorts, takes an old cliché—you can rise above your circumstances and fulfill your dreams—and brings it to such inventive and imaginative life, you'll want to run straight to the nearest French restaurant and indulge in culinary delight. This feast for the eyes and the soul is also a commentary about the pursuit of excellence, rather than settling for competence, and about how great things can come from the unlikeliest of places. (Our review.)

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10. Freedom Writers

It's an old story: Rogue classroom that is way out of control. Ambitious but naïve teacher who thinks she can change the world—starting with these unruly students. But this true story is more than just a feel-good flick about an inspirational instructor. It's about teens, most of them headed down a path of self-destruction, who, for perhaps the first time, are hearing a simple but profound mantra: I believe in you, and you can do it. Hilary Swank brings a strong but tender touch to the role of Erin Gruwell, the real-life teacher who turned around the lives of these high school students in Long Beach, California. (Our review.)

We asked each of our voters to choose one movie they wish had made our list of 10 most redeeming films.

The Bucket List

Two old men—one of them grumpy—share a hospital room and learn they are terminally ill with just months to live. Sound like fun? Actually, the movie often is, as Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman decide to see the world and live their lives fully before they "kick the bucket." Along the way, they share some meaningful conversations about what matters most in life (including faith and family). Sometimes weepy, sometimes hilarious, the film succeeds on the charm of its leading men. It's a sweet, generally wholesome dramedy about bearing one another's burdens through friendship. (Our review.)
—Russ Breimeier

Dan in Real Life

There's something ironic about the response to Peter Hedges' film Dan in Real Life: The film's greatest strength happens to be the thing that brought the film its greatest amount of criticism. Hedges' movies have all explored the theme of family with poignant insight and complexity; Dan is no exception, giving us one of the most inspiringly sincere, positive portrayals of family life in recent memory. It's so joyful and earnest, in fact, that some critics have dismissed it as mere sentimentality. For the less cynical among us, however, Dan in Real Life is a hopeful, loving portrayal of family life that's funny, challenging, and uplifting all at the same time. (Our review.)
—Josh Hurst

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The Devil Came on Horseback

When ex-Marine Brian Steidle took a job as a patrolman in the Darfur region of Sudan, he had no idea what he would witness. In this devastating documentary, we follow Steidle as he observes atrocities and genocide carried out against native African farming communities by the Janjaweed barbarians. Steidle gathers crucial evidence that should inspire anybody to get involved and stop this injustice. (Caution: Shocking, grisly images.) That's the first chapter. In the second chapter, similarly disturbing, Steidle brings the photos to America. Steidle's courage in shedding light on such injustice and barbarism should inspire many to action and compassion. (Official website.)
—Jeffrey Overstreet

Eve and the Fire Horse

A "spiritual-coming-of-age" story, the film centers on Eve, a precocious 9-year-old Chinese-Canadian who, in the wake of family misfortune, begins to ponder the Meaning of Life. Her older sister Karena begins looking into Christianity, and soon, statues of Jesus pop up in the home—right next to the porcelain Buddha and Chinese goddesses. As the young sisters—who dub themselves The Girls of Perpetual Sorrow—continue their quest for spiritual truth, we see it all unfold through Eve's wide-eyed, soul-searching wonder. It's an utterly delightful study of what spiritual searching might look like through the eyes of the child—and there's a whole lot of Truth shining through at the end. (Official website.)

Gone Baby Gone

Ben Affleck's underseen directorial debut is a thought-provoking and scintillating moral case study disguised as a gritty R-rated police thriller.In fact, the entire plotof a little girl's disappearance from her Boston slums home turns out to merely be a means of setting a big What-Would-You-Doconundrum in the film's final half hour. It's easy to hold a lofty idea of justice or to proclaim the ends don't ever justify the means. But when face-to-face with the world's evils, do those ideals hold up? What does "shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves" look like in real life? Brilliantly, Affleck lets the audience decide. (Our review.)
—Todd Hertz


This low-budget Irish indie, an arthouse hit last summer, is a modern sort of musical. It uses music not for glitzy dance numbers and Chicago-style theatricality as much as it uses it as a metaphor for time, momentary experience, and fleeting human connection. The film is about two people who share a deep human bond for a time, just as a song and its listener enjoy a sort of sacredly finite communion for a few short moments.Similar to Lost in Translation or Before Sunrise, Once is a divinely restless little film that shows the purity of unadulterated joy—even if it is only a finite glimpse of a greater, infinite experience. (Official website.)
—Brett McCracken

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The Painted Veil

In 1920s England, Walter and Kitty marry for dubious reasons; he needs some humanity as he studies infectious diseases, she wants to prove to her high-society family that she's not becoming a spinster. When Walter discovers Kitty's infidelity, he accepts an assignment in a remote Chinese village ravaged by a deadly epidemic. In this beautiful but dangerous location, they discover tough lessons about punishment and forgiveness, social class and appearances, motivations and expectations, themselves and each other. Based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Painted Veil offers perhaps the most moving lessons about the fragile, surprising, and redemptive nature of true love. (Our review.)
—Camerin Courtney

Rescue Dawn

This film—the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966, tortured and thrown into a jungle prison—is a harrowing and rousing tale of comraderie and buoyancy of spirit. Dengler, modest and good-natured, even in the face of extraordinary adversity, has no doubt he will escape his shackles and find freedom. But he is utterly unwilling to succeed without his cellmate, helicopter pilot Duane Martin (Steve Zahn). Dengler's platonic bond with Martin, as strong as marriage and more resilient than death, is unforgettable. (Our review.)
—Brandon Fibbs

The Savages

Films about adult brother-sister relationships are a rare breed, and Laura Linney has now appeared in two of them: 2000's You Can Count on Me, and this year's The Savages. Her brother is played this time by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and together, they have to figure out a way to look after their father, who is slipping into dementia, and who, it is suggested, did not treat his children so well in the past. The characters' lives are somewhat messy, and writer-director Tamara Jenkins allows some issues to go unresolved, but she does a masterful job of showing how family, for all the wounds it causes, can provide at least some of the healing, too. (Our review.)
—Peter Chattaway

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Spider-Man 3

Painted in the bright primary colors of their source material, the comic-book morality of theSpider-Manfilms is undimmed by Hollywood cynicism or sophistication. Though overstuffed with action, characters and spectacle,Spider-Man 3doesn't neglect its moral center. Where the original was about power and responsibility andSpider-Man 2was about sacrificing dreams and holding firm for the greater good, this threequel is about selfless love, the ugliness of vengeance, and asking and giving forgiveness. (Our review.)
—Steven Greydanus