Redemption movies offer some of the strongest catharsis in cinema. After watching a character fail, mess up, and bungle all of their chances, they finally grow, step up, and redeem themselves.
All of the doubts we had about them are dispelled in one fell swoop as we're shown that they had what it takes all along.
Then again, maybe not. Perhaps their efforts were all for naught and they couldn't actually accomplish what they set out to do. Or perhaps their redemption would require a cost they aren't willing to pay.
That's the double-edged sword of the redemption arc: we're never sure if characters will truly redeem themselves or not.
There have been a number of fantastic redemption movies over the years. Here are my picks for the best movies about redemption!
10. Casablanca (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Drama, Romance, War (1h 42m)
Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a man who won't put his neck out for anybody. That is, until he comes across the love of his life who slipped away from him so many years ago.
In order to help her and her new husband get to America and escape the Nazis, he will have to do exactly that: put his neck on the line.
While redemption isn't the main point of this film—it's more of a tragic love tale—it still makes for a fantastic redemption arc for a strong and memorable character who is now a legend of classic cinema.
9. Liar Liar (1997)
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Starring Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney, Amanda Donohoe
Comedy, Fantasy (1h 26m)
Who knew Jim Carrey could do both a redemption movie and a comedy classic at the same time?
Liar Liar follows Fletcher Reede (played by Jim Carrey), a lawyer with absolutely no conscience. One day, he's stricken by a curse when a boy's wish magically prevents him from telling a single lie for an entire day.
Over the course of the film, Fletcher realizes the extent of his foul play and tries to rectify his wrongs. His redemption arc even involves mending burned family bridges, making it a true family film.
8. Léon: The Professional (1994)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Action, Crime, Drama (1h 50m)
Léon: The Professional is a film that moves many to tears, particularly because of the redemption arc on display.
Léon (played by Jean Reno) is a professional hitman and cold-blooded murderer who eliminates enemies of his mob boss. However, when he meets the neglected child next door Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman), his values change.
He takes her in to protect her from the cops that killed her family and will stop at nothing to keep her safe. It's a revenge flick on the surface, but one of the best movies about redemption deep down.
7. The Wrestler (2008)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Drama, Sport (1h 49m)
Darren Aronofsky might have a knack for reviving people's careers. He most recently did it for Brendan Fraser with The Whale (2022), but he also did it for Mickey Rourke with The Wrestler.
The Wrestler looks at the debilitating effects of professional wrestling. Mickey Rourke plays Robin Ramzinski, an aging wrestler who loses the limelight to newer and younger performers.
Lost in a world that doesn't care for him, Robin tries his hardest to rebuild the relationships he's ruined over the course of his illustrious career—but it's an uphill battle.
6. Crazy Heart (2009)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell
Drama, Music, Romance (1h 52m)
Jeff Bridges delivered one of his all-time best performances in Crazy Heart, a film that earned him an Oscar for his efforts.
The story of Crazy Heart follows Otis "Bad" Blake (played by Jeff Bridges), an alcoholic country singer who's looking to end his career with a big bang.
However, when he meets a woman named Jean Craddock (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), he realizes that he must get back on track if he ever wants to have a normal life again.
5. The Fighter (2010)
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
Action, Biography, Drama (1h 56m)
Dicky Eklund went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard all the way back in 1978. It was the height of his career, the pinnacle of his success.
However, despite being addicted to crack cocaine for the past few years, he continues talking about his comeback. He soon finds out that his comeback fight won't be his own; it'll be his half-brother's.
The redemption story at the heart of The Fighter shows Dicky trying to get clean of drugs and become a useful member of his family. It's a rocky story with ups and downs and it's totally worth watching.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy (1h 41m)
Phil Connors is self-obsessed, self-centered, and intolerably narcissistic. However, when he's trapped in a time loop on Groundhog Day where Punxsutawney becomes his eternal prison, he slowly learns that he must re-evaluate some of his priorities.
What happens over the course of the film is a realignment between how he wants to treat people and how he actually treats people.
With so much time to ruminate on his own character flaws and so many opportunities to try again, he manages to get it right in the end.
3. The Guilty (2018)
Directed by Gustav Möller
Starring Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 25m)
In The Guilty, a police officer awaits trial for a verdict on his actions during a fatal incident. Until then, while he's suspended from street duty, he works the telephones as an emergency dispatcher.
However, when he picks up a phone call and realizes that the woman on the other end is giving him cryptic clues that she's been kidnapped, he will have to give all of himself to help save her.
The Guilty was a small film to come out of Denmark, yet it's one of the best films of all time to ask the question: "How can I redeem myself for something unforgivable?"
Note: The Guilty got an English remake in 2021. While there are similarities between the two, the original is decidedly better with a much stronger ending that ties its themes together.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton
Drama (2h 22m)
"Hope can be a dangerous thing..."
These are the words spoken by Red (played by Morgan Freeman), a fellow prisoner at Shawshank State Prison. He's a man who's guilty of murder—a murder he committed over fifty years ago.
You probably came into this article expecting The Shawshank Redemption to be on this list. After all, the word "redemption" is right there in the title! But the reason it ranks so highly is that this film can make you feel the salvation that takes place on screen.
The Shawshank Redemption looks at the trials and tribulations that people face for the crimes they've committed. They long for salvation but also wonder if they can be honorable enough to receive it.
When Red sits opposite a desk of bureaucrats who decide whether or not he gets parole, he realizes that freedom is not the same as redemption. Only he has the power to do that.
1. Schindler's List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Biography, Drama, History (3h 15m)
It's a risky move for a movie to center on a businessman who profits off of Nazi Germany's war efforts. But when said movie follows that man's arc of redemption and all the ways in which he changes for the better? Well, you end up with a legendary film classic.
Schindler's List stunned audiences for so many reasons, but a lot of it had to do with Liam Neeson's performance as Oskar Schindler.
In Schindler's List, he went from being a cold, callous, and self-centered man to an undercover activist who was determined to save as many people as he could during the Holocaust.
Schindler's List is one of the best films of all time and easily the top pick amongst all the best movies about redemption.