The 20 Most Spiritually-Engaging Films of the 21st Century

10. Time Out of Mind (2016)


This low-budget, low-profile indie film about a homeless man portrayed by Richard Gere is a meditation on the grace found in the midst of poverty and suffering. A man down on his luck attempts to reconnect with his daughter while he struggles to keep his dignity on the streets and in homeless shelters. This quiet contemplative filmic prayer is sure to be cult classic.

It is beautiful, smart, and scary. It lends itself to human empathy, which is the greatest of spiritual attainments. No doubt Mr. Gere’s Buddhist beliefs had something to do with his desire to do a film like this, and more power to him.


9. In Bruges (2008)


Rife with metaphor, witticisms, and dark humor, this Irish dramedy has a little something for everyone. Though at its core, it’s a fairly weighty comment on guilt, religion, and justice; it also has its more grotesque moments to bring some absurdity into the matter. Absurdity abounds extremely in this dark Irish drama set in Bruges, Belgium.

The city itself is a subject of some contention between the main characters who we discover are fleeing the accidental murder of a child after a paid hit gone awry. Gleeson’s character thinks Bruges is beautiful, while his counterpart, the man who pulled the trigger, hates everything about it.

The journey this film takes us on is a journey of tragedy that teaches us the lesson of how humor can cast light into even the deepest darkness. A carefully woven medley of mise en scène, clever writing, and genuine chemistry. Writer director Martin McDonagh’s fascinating mind is on display again in this philosophical thriller.


8. The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)


This is the tragic story of a young couple in Belgium who have a love for Americana, and especially bluegrass. Both of the lead characters are musicians. When their young daughter becomes ill, their relationship starts to deteriorate. This is a film about what to do when tragedy strikes, or rather, why there is no right thing to do in such a situation.

The music, joy, sadness, and grief in this movie can be overwhelming. The very act of watching it will move you, but when you think about it later, it will continue to produce questions of spiritual insight long after you’ve turned off the television set. Rife with symbolism and beautifully shot and delightful as it is sad, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a must see.


7. Calvary (2014)

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

Brendan Gleeson may be one of the most underappreciated actors of our time. A slow burn and a spiritual tug-of-war, Calvary primarily follows a priest (Gleeson) who is told he will be murdered because of the abusive actions of another priest who is unknown to him.

The parishioner in question believes that since he was an innocent young boy, then a good way to get revenge would be to murder an innocent priest. It’s a strange idea, but when you’re in the head of someone who’s suffered from horrific abuse, perhaps not.

The film doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing this explicitly, but rather implicitly. Gleeson’s actions as the priest demonstrate that he is mulling over the morality of this conundrum rather than panicking. It’s a fascinating interior struggle put on film.


6. Beyond the Hills (2012)

Beyond the Hills (2012)

A stunning film that was shortlisted for Best Foreign Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beyond the Hills seems to be about the secular versus the religious and the tension therein. However, what the film is really about is faith and what one should have it in. It is about the deep wounds that forcing a particular spirituality on someone can inflict.

This film is a cry for freedom and a cautionary tale. The film is primarily set in a convent where the push and pull between two former lovers, one of whom left the other to become a nun, becomes too much for the community to handle and things go horribly awry. The film’s ambiguous and well-timed ending is leaves the viewer with ample food for thought.


5. The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life

In Terrence Malick’s stunning opus magnum, he explores spirituality through his experimental style of auteur filmmaking that features quiet whispering voiceovers, disjointed storylines, and the whole spectrum of human experience.

With a strong emphasis on The Book of Job and what it has to say about the conflict between faith and suffering, Malick is interpreting God’s response to Job on the subject, and turning it into a visual and auditory experience without equal.

This film is very unconventional, and has divided critics for years but among spiritual seekers and independent thinkers, this film is truly something that transcends the art form. This is a film for someone looking to dive into the deep questions, to take in a film as a meditation in real time, and who is ready to receive whatever it is that The Tree of Life provides for them.


4. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012)

This film is a rare gem of pure imagination that captivates your senses and brings together faith, politics, and fairy tales. A low-budget hit in 2012, the film went on to get several Oscar nods and even a rerelease in late 2012.

Set on a small island community off the shore of Louisiana called The Bathtub, a young girl named Hushpuppy and her father struggle to survive in worsening conditions of climate change when a storm strikes. Meanwhile, a village elder tells stories of a mysterious creature that lived a long time ago. Needless to say, this film is rich with meaning.

The spiritual implications this meaning can aid the viewer in prayer and meditation by capturing that spark of imagination provided by the visionary filmmakers responsible for Beasts of the Southern Wild.


3. Children of Men (2006)


This film is seen by many as one of the greatest of the 21st Century. The iconography used in this film references everything from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Sanskrit, and a whole slew of references from religions of all kinds, as well as pop culture.

The story is biblical in its scale, yet it is brought down to life by Clive Owen’s epic performance as a man unexpectedly charged with saving a young pregnant girl in a world that has been infertile for almost two decades. He literally is holding the future of humanity in his hands, and it is a job he takes very seriously. This one is a real thinker and so chalk full of life and symbolism that it would appeal most to the literati and the intellectual.


2. Embrace of the Serpent (2016)

Embrace of the Serpent

In the 21st Century, Millennial and Generation Y moviegoers are generally more secular than their parents or grandparents. For some, spiritual truths are spiritual truths no matter what culture they come from.

In an increasingly secular society, film plays a more important role than ever in searching for truth. Embrace of the Serpent explores indigenous themes of spirituality and personal discovery.

When a white man comes searching for a specific plant, his guide (the last of his people) shows him the way, in more ways than one. The mixture of myth, spirit, and psychedelic components will strike the right note for people of all ages looking for truth and meaning in film.


1. Son of Saul (2015)

Son of Saul

Son of Saul may be the most important movie about the Holocaust ever made. It is a simple story of one man’s single-minded pursuit to bury a boy, who he believes is his son (the truth is never made clear) in the proper Jewish tradition in the midst of the chaos of the concentration camps.

What makes this film connect with the audience is the way that it rends their hearts and jerks their spirit clean of trivialities. The film is shot in a meticulously sensitive way, leaving the horrors in the blurry background while the camera follows the protagonist, Saul, through the constant whirlwind of his environment.

This is not the way human beings were meant to live, and films like this are without equal, because they make these events feel more real to people who too often see this rather recent event as a relic of yesteryear.

Author Bio: Patrick McIlhone is native of Madison, Wisconsin where he attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison and got his B.A. in History before moving on to graduate studies in Religion & Art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He now resides with his wife in San Francisco and spends his free time seeing as many films as possible and whale watching.