For me, one of the biggest signs that Easter is still primarily a religious holiday is the dearth of Easter movies. There are hundreds of Christmas movies that never mention the birth of Jesus, but there are only a handful of Easter movies – and most of them basically stick to the book. What I’m saying is, some of these Easter movies are a stretch, but I’m working with what I’ve got. Happy(?) Holy Thursday, if that applies to you, and have a good Easter, too!
This is what I’m talking about when I talk about Easter movies! Godspell is my personal favorite Jesus musical, an admittedly small genre. You ever notice that some people are Godspell people, and some are Jesus Christ Superstar people, and then everyone else is like “what are you even talking about?” Godspell is cheerful pseudo-hippie 1970s, whereas JCS is glam rock-y 70s, but both tell the story of Jesus as a (cheesy?) musical that I love. Godspell is based on the Gospel of Matthew and focuses on Jesus’ parables and his more peace-and-love type teachings. I’m going to go all-caps for a second, okay? VICTOR “MR. ANDREWS” GARBER AS JESUS. Okay? I am just warning you, this movie may leave you with a weird crush on both Victor Garber and Jesus.
*(Aside: I absolutely love movies filmed in 1970s-1990s New York, maybe because it looks like the New York I remember as a kid in the 90s, so that’s a bonus.)
Jesus Christ Superstar
While this is mostly an unranked list, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar probably are my top two Easter movies. While I like the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the movie is a bit less visually appealing to me (read: set in the desert). Also, it focuses on the Jesus/Judas relationship. I love a frenemy situation in musical theater (Hamilton! right?), but it also makes it feel a little darker and less uplifting than Godspell. Nevertheless, my corny musical-loving self is always here for an Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice collab.
My advice, if you can find it: watch the 2001 Great Performances version with Glenn Carter and Renee Castle instead of the 1973 film. We watched it in a high school theatre class and it’s when I really started to like Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Passion Of The Christ
I worked in a movie theater during this movie’s 2004 release, and I can honestly say that the worst customers I encountered were some of the church groups who came in en masse to the early morning shows. Also I worked at the concession stand at the time, and it sort of felt like a weird movie to nosh on Skittles and popcorn during, but what do I know. Customers aside, the hype was deserved and … it pains me a bit to say … Mel Gibson did a great job telling the story of the crucifixion in a fresh way. It was also graphically violent and isn’t a movie I’ve ever felt the need to rewatch.
The 10 Commandments
The 10 Commandments is usually on TV on Easter, even if it’s not technically an Easter Movie. It’s a Cecil B. DeMille Technicolor classic from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner, The 10 Commandments focuses on the story of Moses and will set you back almost four hours, including intermission. I guess it’s televised at Easter because the Moses story is kind of the lead-up to the New Testament, or maybe because it’s the only religious movie that was really in the game for a while there.
Plus, Easter and Passover are both in early Spring, and it illustrates the Passover beautifully.
This should be one of our Pop Culture Blind Spots, because I’ve never seen it. As best I can tell, it’s about non-Bible characters who live at the same time as Jesus, participate in a chariot race, then witness the crucifixion. Not only have I not seen the movie, I didn’t read the book, either. Charlton Heston is in it, of course, and it’s a beloved classic, so I should really get on this.
A note: there are plenty of other movies about the life of Jesus, some better than others. There’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, a Scorsese drama that caused a fair bit of controversy when it was released, and Jesus, a 1999 tv-movie staring Jeremy Sisto as Jesus and Debra Messing as Mary Magdelene (it was the height of the Will and Grace era). There are scores of others, too, so basically pick your favorite if that’s what you feel like watching. I haven’t seen any that seemed better than the others, necessarily, so maybe watch one of the more recent ones if dated costumes and sets will pull you out of it.
Assorted Children’s Specials
You won’t want to watch any of these unless you are trying to entertain a child, probably. I vividly remember The Greatest Adventure, an Easter cartoon about a child who goes back in time to witness the crucifixion. If you were in Catholic school, that passed for a really good Friday afternoon if your teacher rolled out the TV cart and played that bad boy.
Believe it or not, popular cartoons had Easter specials, too: the Smurfs, Rugrats, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There are a few Easter Bunny specials that probably air on whatever ABC Family goes by these days: Here Comes Peter Cottontail, that kind of thing. Compared to Christmas, the pickings are VERY slim. There’s always Veggie Tales, if that’s something your kids like!
Now for an entirely different movie: Hop, a 2011 cartoon/live-action hybrid featuring the voices of Russell Brand and Hugh Laurie. I watched this with some nieces and nephews a few years ago, and I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it. Bottom line: if you really want an Easter-y children’s movie,this isn’t a bad choice. The kids liked it, anyway.
The Sound Of Music
Definitely not an Easter movie, but The Sound Of Music always used to be on TV at Easter, maybe because networks look for movies that the whole family can enjoy when they’re together. Some of the scenery is sort of spring-y, plus the overall vibe of The Sound Of Music just feels like it fits with Easter and springtime. Okay: maybe I’m just up for any excuse to watch The Sound Of Music.
My first year of law school, a final paper for a class was due the day after Easter. I worked on it for weeks, finished it on Easter night just before The Sound Of Music began, and I swear, sitting down to watch The Sound Of Music felt like almost as refreshing as a beach vacation.
Now things get tenuous. Beatrix Potter wrote about rabbits, and we think about rabbits at Easter, and this is a movie about Beatrix Potter. But honestly, there is all of this spring-y Lake District scenery, all of this rain and these farm animals, and it really does feel like Easter. Plus, Beatrix Potter-inspired cartoons always used to be on TV near Easter, so I still associate it with Easter.
One thing I love about Easter-time (at least here in the Northeast) is seeing life slowly spring back – watching crocuses start to erupt, and then tulips, and – if my garden is any indication – then a whole bunch of weeds, somehow, even though it’s still cold out. A whole sequence of The Secret Garden is about watching the garden come back to life, and that feels very Easter to me.
There are a few adaptations to choose from. Margaret O’Brien was great, but I sort of grew up on the 1993 version.
Holiday Inn was a little bit of 1940s marketing genius. First of all, it stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Second, it’s literally set (mostly) in an inn where many holidays are celebrated. It manages to be a Christmas movie (White Christmas), Lincoln’s Birthday (the less said the better: blackface), Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and, of course, Easter(Easter Parade). Basically, you could pull this movie out at any time of the year, and it would be seasonally appropriate (and a little racist. It’s fine to skip that part).
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Not an Easter movie, but there’s a memorable Easter scene. Christos Anesti!
I told you there weren’t a lot of Easter movies, but who could forget the Easter Bunny scene from Mallrats? That’s enough to make the whole thing an Easter movie, in my book.
Life Of Brian
I wasn’t into Monty Python in high school, because I wasn’t in marching band and I didn’t run lights for the plays, and it seemed like everyone who did those activities loved Monty Python and everyone who loved Monty Python did those activities. But Life Of Brian is funny no matter WHAT extracurriculars you did 15 years ago! It’s about a man, Brian, who lived a life parallel to Jesus, except he was just Brian, a guy.