Redemption is one of those themes that lends itself to a great conclusion for a film. However, the redemption arc can also be one of the cheesiest tropes out there, done to death (and poorly) in many films. So join me as we go through 20 of the best movies of all time about redemption in its various forms. The following list is in no particular order, but if you love a good redemption arc, these are the films for you.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A film that looks at the role of prison, forgiveness and adjusting to new situations, The Shawshank Redemption is full of great moments and redemption arcs.
Andy Dufresne uses his accounting skills to help the vicious prison guards with tax issues, eventually handling financials for the whole prison staff. This not only gives him several privileges but the prison guards take care of the inmates who were brutally abusing him.
Dufresne’s steadfast insistence on integrity in prison, where integrity is lacking, shows how characters can be free or unfree, based on how one perceives their own life and actions.
Man on Fire (1987)
A bodyguard tasked with looking after a young family goes on a homicidal rampage when the girl in his care, Pita, is kidnapped.
Struggling with alcoholism, burnout, and guilt over his actions with a three letter organization, John Creasy instead finds the bodyguard work fulfilling when he bonds with Pita. Her kidnap by a ruthless organization sees Creasy swear revenge.
Finding purpose in his life in this deed, Creasy eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice to take down the kidnapping ring and reunite Pita with her family.
The Family Man (2000)
A fantasy movie about the decisions that we make, Jack Campbell takes a job that forces him to leave his partner, promising her that their relationship will survive. However, a jump to the future shows Campbell still living the life of a bachelor.
A chance encounter with a man leads to Campbell waking up in a different house with his partner and finds out he is a family man with two kids working in a tire shop.
Eventually being returned to his old life, he then runs out on an important business deal to find his ‘wife’, telling her of the life they could have together and how he wants nothing more than to be with her.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Following the exploits of Will Hunting, the film is based in South Boston and looks at what happens when a self-taught natural genius finally has to confront his self-destructive tendencies.
Robin Williams plays Sean Maguire, a therapist who manages to reign in the wild Hunting, and helps him deal with his abusive childhood. Hunting learns from Maguire’s life experience, eventually pursuing a relationship that he was intent on destroying.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Phil Connors, a cynical television weatherman, is tasked with traveling to Punxsutawney, United States to cover the traditional Groundhog Day event, although he finds himself trapped in a time loop.
While initially using his knowledge of the day’s events to do all sorts of naughty activities, he eventually realizes that he can use the time loop to change himself for the better and save others from harm, eventually with Phil making it to the next day.
Gran Torino (2008)
Directed, produced by and starring Clint Eastwood, this drama film follows Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran haunted by his past and bitter at the world, particularly his own family.
He befriends a Hmong neighbor, Thao Vang Lor, becoming a father figure and mentor for the misguided youth.
Further pressure from the gang results in the rape of Thao’s sister, and Walt decides to help Thao while also ending his own life rather than die of what is thought to be terminal cancer by provoking the gang members to shoot him.
The Green Mile (1999)
Tom Hanks plays a prison officer named Paul Edgecomb who comes into contact with John Coffey, a death row inmate who is revealed to have supernatural healing powers.
Realizing that Coffey is innocent of his crimes, he attempts to help Coffey escape, only for the offer to be turned down as Coffey no longer wants to feel the suffering of those around him. Coffey transmits his powers to Edgecomb, only for Edgecomb to quit death row.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Inspired by sports agent Leigh Steinberg, Jerry Maguire has a life-altering epiphany after witnessing the devastation to one of his clients who gets injured, bringing to light the perceived dishonesty in the sports management business.
This infuriates his firm, who fire him and Maguire goes out on his own, trying to keep players who at the same time are being poached by his former employer. Eventually only having one client, Maguire has a very hard time satisfying the player’s crazy demands.
Eventually, Maguire shows that he cares about the player on an emotional level and secures him the deal he wanted, also committing to his new love Dorothy and gaining more clients as they saw the successes Maguire has had with his new methods.
Liar Liar (1997)
An amazing performance by Jim Carrey as Fletcher Reede, a compulsive liar who uses this trait to great effect in his career as a lawyer.
However, his family life suffers greatly as the lying about everything and anything causes his son to wish that Reede can’t tell a lie for an entire day, which comes true. Reede finds out that he is unable to lie, mislead, or even withhold a true answer, causing massive issues.
After he realizes how corrupting a force his lies are, he ends up doing everything he can to stop his son and ex-wife leaving him.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Based on the struggles of Chris Gardner, the redemption in this film almost never seems to come, with Will Smith’s character seemingly never catching a break despite him generally doing his best.
Becoming homeless after he invested his life savings into products that didn’t quite sell as well as he would’ve liked, Gardner has to juggle being a single dad, homeless, while also trying to land a highly competitive position at a large firm.
His determination and ability to deal with any obstacle in his way ultimately leads to his success, with the fact that this is based on actual occurrences make it all the more amazing.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
A powerful film portraying a mother’s grief at apparent police indifference to the unsolved murder and rape of her daughter, Mildred Hayes puts up giant billboards to pressure the police into acting.
There are several redemption arcs in the film, with Jason Dixon, a bigoted police officer, the police chief Bill Willoughby and Hayes herself all having to confront their mistakes, apologize, and try to make things right.
American History X (1998)
Two brothers, Danny and Derek, confront the issues of their upbringing and beliefs. One night when confronting would-be thieves attempting to steal his truck, he murders one and brutally curb stomps another, ending up in prison.
Realizing the hypocrisy of groups like the Aryan Brotherhood in prison, he renounces his racism, also motivated by the complete lack of support from his gang member friends who are still free. He tries to convince Danny, now also a skinhead, to change his ways.
After learning about Derek’s experience in prison and discussing the origins of their hateful thinking, the pair decide to withdraw from such bigotry and renounce their former lives.
The Wrestler (2008)
Following the exploits of a has-been 1980s wrestler Robin Ramzinski, he attempts to fix his broken life by chasing the dragon of fame, causing ever more damage to his broken body.
While trying to get into a relationship with a stripper at a local bar, his heart gives out at a wrestling match, forcing him to retire and work full time at a supermarket.
His attempts to reconcile with his daughter fail when a drug bender leads to him sleeping through their dinner date, and in a rage he vows to return to wrestling. The final scenes show him giving his all for one last great performance, surrounded by fans and cheers.
Schindler’s List (1993)
The film, based on a non-fiction work by Thomas Keneally, follows German industrialist Oskar Schindler. Schindler’s arrival in Krakow is ostensibly to take advantage of war demand to produce goods in the factories, using Jewish labor.
However, his witnessing of a massacre of thousands of Jews turns his priorities to saving people rather than making money, convincing many through bribes and clearing out his fortune to save lives by claiming they are essential workers.
The Fisher King (1991)
A story about taking responsibilty for your actions, the protagonist is Jack Lucas, a radio shock jock who inadvertently prompts an unstable caller to go on a murderous rampage at a Manhattan restaurant, killing several and then taking his own life.
The experience is so bad he ends up leaving the job and becoming a drunk, and after being attacked on the street and saved by a homeless man, he comes to realize that the homeless man is on a psychotic break due to his wife being killed at the same Manhattan restaurant.
Jack then tries to help the man escape his delusions by assisting him in his tasks, eventually being successful and also fixes his own life in the process.
Based partly on a true story, Awakenings follows the journey of a doctor who happens upon a miracle drug for the treatment of people in catatonic states.
While the effects are miraculous, they turn out to be short-lived and every patient regresses completely, however it emerges that the process caused many doctors and other people who came into contact with the patients to reexamine their own lives and be better people.
District 9 (2009)
Wikus van de Merwe works for MNU, tasked with dealing with alien refugees that came out from a giant spaceship hovering off Johannesburg, South Africa.
Originally assigned with evicting all the aliens to a different camp, he is relatively unphased by the killing of the aliens who resist. However, after being exposed to a contagion that starts to transform him into one of the aliens, he begins to realize the desperate situation.
Eventually, he comes to understand that only the aliens can help him, and he instead joins with them to fight off his former employer and the rest of the humans who are intent on killing and dissecting him.
The story of Flight follows an alcoholic pilot, Whip, who miraculously lands a plane beset by critical system failures despite being hung over and drunk while its pilot. Investigators uncover the truth and Whip tries to cover up his wrongdoing.
After meeting some of the critically injured crew from the flight, including his permanently disabled co-pilot, Whip eventually admits he was drunk while flying (and that he is even drunk during the hearing). While leading to a prison term, the film ends with a sober Whip.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Following the life of Ron Woodroof, Dallas Buyers Club is a tale about Woodroof overcoming his bigotry and biases when faced with a death sentence from HIV in the 1980s.
Although likely contracting the disease from a female intravenous drug user, the association of HIV with homosexuals leads to Woodroof being fired and evicted from his caravan.
He teams up with a transwoman named Rayon, who he initially despises, in order to better access groups who need the medicine smuggled in by Woodroof. Over time, Rayon and Woodroof become friends, with Rayon’s death revealing a completely changed Woodroof.
About Schmidt (2002)
About Schmidt examines how one should deal with life, how to find meaning, and the true purpose of why we’re all here for.
Warren Schmidt is a cranky old man who has a daughter who dislikes him, getting married to a man that he disapproves of. He is bitter about what his life has turned out to be, while also scared about what lies ahead.
A trip in a Winnebago is an eye opening one, with Schmidt finding it in his heart to forgive his wife after realizing how much he took things in his life for granted. He swallows his pride and delivers a kind speech at the reception.