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7 best Easter movies to watch for the holiday

 Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter.
Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter.

Easter isn’t just a religious holiday. It’s a time to celebrate the return of bright colors to nature, the spring fever that makes you feel as if anything is possible after a long winter, and, of course, the universal adoration of bunnies and chocolate.

If you have little ones to entertain, you may want to opt for classic ‘70s TV specials like "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," "It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown!" and "The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town".

For a more mature crowd, here are seven Easter movies to watch for the holiday.

'The Last Temptation of Christ'

For those who can appreciate a Biblical film that isn’t a faithful retelling, there is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 opus based on the controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Scorsese received an Oscar nomination (and death threats) for his bold shepherding of the script, which imagines the human fears, doubts, and desires Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) confronts as an imperfect man struggling to accept his divine role and fate. The movie is unpredictable, from the R-rated introduction of Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), the sympathetic portrayal of Judas (Harvey Keitel), and the inspired casting of Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) to the jaw-dropping twist offering Jesus the chance to rewrite the ending to the greatest story ever told.

Watch on Peacock

  • Other epic tellings of the Passion streaming now include the 1973 adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" (Peacock), also accused of blasphemy, and 1965’s star-packed "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (Prime Video).

'Easter Parade'

Fondly remembered as the only pairing of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, the 1948 gem honors the tradition of fashionable New Yorkers strolling down Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday (in fact, the city still holds an Easter Bonnet Festival). In this 1912-set Irving Berlin musical, Astaire plays Broadway star Don Hughes, who learns his dance partner, Nadine (Ann Miller), is leaving their act to headline her own show. To make her jealous, he decides to turn humble hoofer Hannah Brown (Garland) into the next talk of the town. His plan works, but things get complicated when Don’s buddy Johnny (Peter Lawford) falls for Hannah, who’s head over heels for Don, who’s still thinking about Nadine.

As stellar as Garland is, it’s the showstoppers from Astaire (“Steppin’ Out With My Baby”) and Miller (“Shakin’ the Blues Away”) that you’ll be rewinding.

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple

'Ben-Hur'

"The Ten Commandments" gets the coveted annual airing on ABC, but if you’re going to watch Charlton Heston in a grand saga this weekend, consider the sweeping adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel that is tied for the most Oscar wins ever (11). In the Best Picture from 1959, proud Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) refuses to side with his childhood friend turned Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd), who eventually condemns Judah to row in the galleys and imprisons his mother and sister. After four years and an unlikely adult adoption by the Roman consul who turned him into a triumphant charioteer, Judah returns to Jerusalem to find his loved ones and exact revenge on Messala. Cue the nine-minute chariot race that remains awe-inspiring and heart-pounding 65 years later.

Judah’s journey coincides with the rise of another threat to the Roman Empire: Jesus (Claude Heater, face unseen and voice unheard), who’s preaching that God lives in everyone not just the emperor. Their paths cross multiple times, briefly but poignantly, culminating in Judah witnessing the crucifixion and finally understanding the power and peace of forgiveness.

Rent/buy on Amazon or Apple

'Chocolat'

Sometimes the most controversial thing a woman can do is open a chocolaterie during Lent. In 1959 France, Vianne (a wonderful Juliette Binoche) blows into a conservative countryside town with her young daughter (Victoire Thivisol) in tow and challenges the rigid morality preached by its mayor (Alfred Molina), who predicts she’ll be out of business by Easter. The Oscar-nominated 2000 charmer, directed by Lasse Hallström, costars Lena Olin as an abused wife who finds her joie de vivre in Vianne’s shop, Judi Dench as a cantankerous grandmother who transforms into a bawdy delight over a cup of cocoa and Carrie-Ann Moss as her disapproving daughter, and Johnny Depp as Vianne’s riverboat-dwelling, guitar-picking love interest.

The warmhearted movie’s final sermon — measure your goodness not by that which you exclude from your life, but by what and who you choose to include — still rings true. Make sure you have chocolate in the house; you’re gonna want some.

Watch on Paramount Plus

'Miss Potter'

This empowering 2006 biopic from "Babe" director Chris Noonan isn’t the first film that comes to mind when thinking of Renée Zellweger. But she earned a Golden Globe nomination for portraying beloved English children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, whose career launched with the 1902 publication of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." Beatrix is another single woman defying the conventions of her time, choosing not to marry for security and instead making her own money and decisions. While Easter is never mentioned, Beatrix’s affection for Peter and her other animal “friends” (she talks to them on the page) captures the spirit of the season, as do her efforts to preserve the picturesque Lake District — her source of inspiration, then rejuvenation following a heartbreak that you shouldn’t spoil by Googling.

Ewan McGregor reteams with Zellweger, his costar in the underrated 2003 rom-com ‘Down With Love,’ for a more tender love story, playing Beatrix’s unmarried publisher Norman Warne. Zellweger and Emily Watson as Norman’s single sister make another formidable pair.

Watch on Peacock

  • Also worth noting: The 2018 film "Peter Rabbit" (Prime Video) and its 2021 sequel, "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" (Hulu), are also streaming.

'Steel Magnolias'

We could think of worse Easter traditions than watching this 1989 tearjerker, which, let’s not forget, ends at an Easter egg hunt that reminds us that life — and friendly bickering — goes on. Julia Roberts nabbed her first Oscar nomination playing Shelby, a diabetic Louisiana bride-to-be, who’s willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to have a child. Playwright Robert Harling’s script gifts Sally Field (as Shelby’s mother, M'Lynn) one of the most unforgettable, moving meltdowns in cinema history conveying the pain, confusion, and anger of grief.

Just as memorable is the unexpected tension-cutter delivered by co-stars Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine, and the essential truth uttered by Dolly Parton, the ultimate steel magnolia: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” As an adult who’ll inevitably experience loss, laughter is the only way through.

Watch on Pluto TV

'Hank and Mike'

If your taste runs truly irreverent — e.g. you’re a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s pre-"South Park" films — you might be the audience for this 2008 low-budget, R-rated downsizing comedy starring and written by Thomas Michael and Paolo Mancini. When a bottom-line consultant (Chris Klein) suggests the company responsible for the holiday lay off some of its Easter bunnies (they get paid year-round for working one day, after all), partners/roommates Hank and Mike (Michael and Mancini, in rabbit costumes they never remove) get the ol’ heave-ho. Hank is a crude, cigarette-smoking, horndog slacker, while Mike is a shy, sensitive, high-performing nice guy. Still, neither of them fares well in the string of temp jobs that follow.

The lives of humanoid Easter bunnies are fairly untapped in pop culture, so Michael and Mancini make some clever rules up as they go. Most jokes still land (especially in today’s job market). Just be prepared for their situation to turn very bleak before they try to win back their route, save Easter, and give us a happy ending.

Watch on Prime Video

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