In order to beat the December 31 deadline to qualify for Oscar consideration, dozens of films have been released in limited markets during the past few weeks. In this edition of Film Forum, we'll look beyond the usual blockbusters to spotlight ten of these low-budget movies that have merited mention from several Christian reviewers.

The End of the Affair

The latest provocative drama from director Neil Jordan has caught the attention of the Christian media for two reasons: First, it's based on the explicitly spiritual book by Catholic novelist Graham Greene. Second, it's explicitly sexual—enough to earn the film an NC-17 on its first viewing by the MPAA. (It was reduced to an R on appeal.) The movie follows a jilted lover, Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), who tries to discover why his partner left him. The sexual material offended the Christian critics, while the spiritual angle elicited more debate.

Preview 's John Adair was highly impressed with the "deep discussions about love and hate—scattered throughout the film. [The lovers] also struggle with issues such as the existence of God and why he allows so much suffering in the world. The discussions are in-depth, emotional, and reflect a tone of reality in the lives of many hurting people."

ButMovieguide was upset with the movie's portrayal of God: "God is depicted as one who answers prayer when a character prays for healing, yet when the same character is separated from her adulterous partner, she blames God." The review adds that "the central character acknowledges God, yet wants nothing to do with Him." Others see that fact as a criticism of Bendrix, however, not of God.

Mainstream critic Michael Sragow of says the director "makes it clear that Bendrix is a prisoner of a worldly worldview—and that he wants to jail [his lover], too, within his perceptions of her." He contends that the movie's lack of pat conclusions makes faith seem realistically complex: "Audiences of all kinds may find it easier to recognize in this tale not just the force of belief and the wonder of transcendence, but also the humbling difficulty of absorbing it."

The Third Miracle

Receiving far more enthusiastic notices is another Catholic-centered film, The Third Miracle, which finds a disillusioned priest (Ed Harris) rediscovering his faith in God when he investigates a series of miracles connected with a request for sainthood for a Chicago laywoman.

Movieguide , not usually known for gushing reviews, offers compliment after compliment for this film: "Rarely has the tension between faith and reason, miracles and reality, sinfulness and redemption been treated with more sense of reverence and skillfulness." And The Third Miracle is more than just well-intentioned; the film "successfully draws viewers into experiencing the anguish and joy of Father Frank's journey, leaving them with a sense of mystery and hope."

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Mary Nella Bruce of Hollywood Jesus praised the film for highlighting the role of doubt in a life of faith. "Doubt has its work in all of our lives. It forces us to deal with our own inner struggles and face the brutal truths that lead us into a life of faith and hope beyond ourselves."

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

A review on Christian Spotlight by guest reviewer Matthew Prins called attention to Mr. Death, the latest from famed documentarian Errol Morris. Leuchter was an esteemed expert on death who worked to make more humane the available methods of capital punishment, whether by electric chair, gas chamber, or lethal injection. But after inspecting the gas chambers of Auschwitz and essentially declaring that the Holocaust never happened, he lost his career, his wife, and his respect. For Prins, this movie highlighted a human fault rarely discussed: "Hubris is a sin not often discussed in media—sexual promiscuity and violence are more fashionable—but Morris shows how easily arrogance can get in the way of a man's relationship with the world." Leuchter's relationship with the world is an analytic, not compassionate, viewing death as "a clinical problem to be solved by creating comfort for the dying and systems to help clean up the mess."

The Legend of 1900

Also in favor with Christian critics is The Legend of 1900. The movie tells of a piano player (Tim Roth)—named 1900 because he was born on January 1, 1900—who grows up never leaving the ship he was born on.

"The entire premise of the movie forces the audience to consider conflicting worlds of finite versus infinite," writes John Adair of Preview . The limited but knowable resources on the boat are more attractive to 1900 than a world of possibilities, just as we on earth are more comfortable with what we can see and hear.

Movie Parables ' Michael Elliott was impressed with the attention given to the stories of those who traveled on the boat. "As 1900 surmised, each passenger does have a story and each story is worth the telling." He adds that the film's score, from Ennio Morricone and Roger Waters, contributed to the telling of these travelers' stories: "Ranging from wistful and yearning ballads to jazz that bubbles over with enthusiastic optimism, the music represents the hopes, dreams, and desires of the various passengers traveling for the first time to the promise of America."

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Fantasia 2000

Speaking of musical achievements, Fantasia 2000 picks up where the 1940 original left off in celebrating the best of classical music, providing animated sequences to enrich the aural poetry.

Michael Elliott ofMovie Parables praises the music for lifting the listener to "inspirational highs simply not attainable through other mediums," adding that "it is no wonder that the Levites, as the priestly tribe of the Old Testament, were also the appointed musicians."

But for Preview 's Mary Draughon, the accompanying visuals spoiled the musical feast; she cites "disturbing elements of the New Age concept of earth worship," "sorcery as entertainment," and frightening images as reasons parents should be wary of taking children to this G-rated film. (Elliott notes these elements as well, but maintains that "the emotions evoked from Fantasia 2000 are positive ones, being full of hope and promise.")

Mansfield Park

Also receiving mixed reviews despite a wholesome pedigree was Mansfield Park, the latest adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. Christian critics, like Mary Draughon ofPreview , were surprised at "its graphic sex scene, light treatment of a drug addict, and strong sensual undercurrent that is out of character for Jane Austen."

Mainstream critics, such as's Michael Sragow, were more upset with the transformation of the story into a "toothless underdog fable" as the reserved yet resolute heroine Fanny Price was transformed into a "spunky poverty-stricken gal [who] proves herself the better of rich relatives." Yet not every critic was put off by the alterations.

Michael Elliott of Movie Parables says that "from a purely dramatic perspective, the revision makes perfect sense and improves the film's audience appeal." For him, the movie's idea that "love and logic can be combined" in choosing a marriage partner makes it noteworthy.

Movieguide was likewise complimentary, praising the depiction of "a young woman who refuses to compromise her heart," not minding the rougher added material since it only highlights her successful "struggle to maintain her character in a den of sinful characters."

Holy Smoke

Movieguide was less forgiving of Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, in which a veteran cult deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel) finds himself tempted to drop his rational beliefs after meeting an Australian woman (Kate Winslet) who has fallen under the influence of a Hindu guru. In addition to the explicit sex and nudity, Movieguide took offense at the film's "New Age pagan and feminist worldview that supports the false religion of Hinduism with ecstatic visions, and briefly mocks Christian belief."

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Mainstream reviews disagreed with that assessment—Entertainment Weekly says that "her devotion to Eastern transcendentalism [is only] skin-deep"—but nevertheless found the movie's take on religion and belief lacking in depth.

Matt Reichl of says Campion "goes for laughs and insight at the same time (a worthy tactic), but fails miserably at both.—[The film's] inconsistent tone makes it easy to ignore its questions."

Liberty Heights

Belief and identity also play a big part in Liberty Heights, a semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Barry Levinson, which follows two Jewish brothers who break taboos in 1950s Baltimore by dating gentile girls—including one who's black.

The U.S. Catholic Conference was enthusiastic about the story, saying the "gentle but telling humor examines religious and racial prejudices in a warm-hearted portrait of a family and a class-conscious community."

Movieguide fell on the opposite end of the spectrum, criticizing the "black characters in the movie [who] are offensive stereotypes meant to get cheap laughs," the "crude language about sex and body parts," and the "nonexistent" religious faith of the brothers. The review adds that the characters never "seem to learn anything from the experiences they undergo in the movie. Hence, neither does the audience."

Felicia's Journey

Polar reactions could also be found in the Christian reviews for Felicia's Journey, the story of a pregnant teenage girl (Elaine Cassidy) befriended by a kindly catering manager (Bob Hoskins) who turns abusive.

John Adair of Preview calls it "a complex tale that methodically draws viewers in, especially with the brilliant depiction of the disturbed Joseph." He compliments the film for focusing "more on character development rather than showing as much gory and graphic violence as possible," and gives the film a high acceptability rating.

Movieguide acknowledges the movie's "marvelous achievement" on an artistic level, but harshly criticizes the "troubling moral content" such as abortion, attempted murder, and an attack on Christianity "by making prayer ineffective, and by depicting a strange Christian sect that runs away when true communication with nonbelievers occurs."

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Sweet and Lowdown

Woody Allen's jaded comedies have never received much praise from Christian critics, and his latest, about a self-destructive jazz musician (Sean Penn), is no exception.

Movieguide dislikes "Allen's pseudo-intellectual, humanist worldview, [which] doesn't allow him to really explore the moral or spiritual dimensions of the situation he sets up in his movie."

Jeffrey Overstreet of GreenLake Reflections echoes some of those same sentiments: "As Allen gets older, the obsessions and selfishness that he made so funny in the central characters of his early films seem downright loathsome and sad in these newer works.—The cheer has gone out of his tone, and he's developed a mean-spirited voice, making his last few releases different variations on the same themes of hopelessness, self-loathing, and regret." Nevertheless, Overstreet recommends the film to Christian audiences because "this character sketch has more worthwhile to consider than Allen's other recent works," primarily because of a relationship between the musician and a mute woman (Samantha Morton) that is "fascinating, touching, even funny."

Steve Lansingh is editor of , a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.