For the record, what you are about to read is not a top ten list. I'm offering a slightly different take on the old standard because, for me at least, going to the movies isn't always about digesting the most lauded picture I can. I spend the time at the multiplex, rather, in hope that my experiences there might challenge and inspire me to live how I intend. So, with that in mind, here's a list of films that helped shape and mold me in 1999—ten movies that made my year.
Heart of Forgiveness
My struggles in living the Christian life rarely stem from a lack of biblical instruction, but from a lack of understanding how to live by God's principles. I suspect I'm not alone in this condition; Jesus often followed up his teachings with parables that illustrated his message so people like me could grasp what he said more easily. To feed this hunger, I often find myself reading the journals of Henri Nouwen or the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, to see how faith and passion can survive the day-to-day grind. And occasionally, I'll find stories like these at the movies. This year, The Straight Story helped instruct me on the nature of forgiveness.
David Lynch's film tells the true story of Alvin Straight, an old man who drove a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to meet with his estranged and dying brother. In experiencing his slow and painful journey, I caught a glimpse of the Herculean feat that forgiveness really is. My physical obstacles in the way of forgiveness are not nearly so great, but the emotional vulnerability the act requires is just as painful, and just as slow. I'm fantastic at forgiving people in my heart, at releasing grudges, but for me to tell the person I've forgiven that I've done so is wrenchingly difficult. Perhaps it's fear of being trampled on again, or of revealing how dark my heart's really been. Somehow, though, in acknowledging how difficult the process can be, and allowing it to remain difficult (as Straight does by refusing any rides), I'm allowed the freedom to stay the course. To me, Straight is a worthy model; as the film progresses it's clear that his attempt at forgiveness is not simply a last-minute chance to validate his life, but simply something that must be done because of who he is.
Forgiveness is also at the heart of Magnolia, a film of interwoven parables and morality plays. Here, the focus is on the power of forgiveness—the life-giving quality at its core—embodied in the character of LAPD officer Jim Kurring, one of the most human and multifaceted Christian characters seen at the movies lately. On his first date with a drug addict, she asks that they not lie to make themselves sound more impressive, and he agrees. In listening to one another's most vulnerable selves, they are able to offer a measure of forgiveness. It's clear that subtraction of blame lifts a great burden from both their hearts and helps them see again their own worth. As Kurring returns to his day job he begins to see the place for mercy in his profession of justice, finding the opportunity to hand back a criminal's life to him—not necessarily a cop's action, but a Christian's. As I struggle each day with attitudes of judgment or offense, it is worth remembering Kurring's story and the forgiveness that I, as one already forgiven, am told to give.
Part of the Past
Two films this year transported me back to my youth, alternately bringing joy and guilt, both of which were important to me. For a kid who grew up eating Chewbacca cookies and drinking out of Darth Vader Dixie cups, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace delivered spastic waves of giddiness, not only in the actual film but in the months of eager anticipation: scrounging for truthful rumors, exploring the back stories of characters in insider guides, chatting about the movie with every other movie fan my age. Granted, this movie wasn't quite as exciting as the previous trilogy, but that's to be expected when you're tracing the very beginnings of a conflict than when you're in the full throes of it. Actually, by avoiding the focus on good versus evil that the original trilogy details, The Phantom Menace adds nuance and depth to the series by showing how a person at the most innocent and selfless moment is never far from following the dark side—that the fight between good and evil is more often an internal battle than we recognize.
Three Kings also confronted me with the past, but in a less pleasant manner. War movies are nothing new to me, but since I'm young, I've always dissected the wars from the vantage point of someone who didn't live through them. In the case of this Gulf War picture, though, I saw my own actions incriminated by its scathing commentary. I had treated the war as not much more than an international Super Bowl, rooting for the home team. (I even had a set of trading cards featuring military leaders, weapons, vehicles, and patch designs.) It was agony to witness the devastation on the Iraqi people in this movie while I remembered buying souvenir magazines about the conflict. Even if the Gulf War was a just one, my actions were not. I had thought of Iraqis as less than full human beings—the kind of attitude that makes war possible. Three Kings works to erode the very heart of war by giving full human dimension to virtually every character, and by showing what a fired bullet does to the human body, to families, and to ideals. Walking away from this film, I had a renewed sense of compassion for the crowds of anonymous people I used to look beyond.
Often, even the movies that really affect me don't translate into outward action in any immediate way. When I am given a renewed sense of compassion or an understanding of forgiveness, it often results in a incremental shift in my attitude that only over time will lead to healed relationship or act of service. ("God's not finished with me yet" could be my slogan.) But three movies this year actually pushed me to concrete action of significance.
The Story of Us, which traces the 15-year marriage of a couple on the verge of divorce, opens with a family at a dinner table participating in a routine they call "high-low." Family members give a high point and low point to their day as a means of sharing. A minor detail, to be sure, but I decided it would be fun to try the routine with my wife. It started as a novelty, but over the past several months "high-low" has given me a new understanding of her. Her answers often revolve around physical input like a great dinner or getting too little sleep, whereas mine tend to be emotional stimuli like a kind word from someone or being worried about a project. This has helped us understand and care for one another in ways we never considered before. For me, too little sleep is inconvenient but inconsequential; knowing it's more important to her has helped me be more alert to making sure our schedule allows for that time. We know better what's of value to the other, and that offers clearer ways to show devotion.
Historical inaccuracies plagued The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, yet it's exactly that quality that made the film important to me. Before seeing the movie I knew only sketchy details of Joan's life, so I couldn't ascertain which events were factual and which were fabricated in the film. It seemed a shame I knew so little about such a famous saint; before long it dawned on me that I didn't know much about any heroes of the faith prior to the 20th century. This realization sparked in me an interest to discover more about the lives of saints, whether through historical novels like Frederick Buechner's Godric and Brendan or through simple biographies. I'm excited to have found these stories of God's work in many places and times. Yet the lives of the saints tend to get obscured under layers of reverence and oversimplification. In these cases I find myself following the example of The Messenger, trying to discover a real person behind a legend, not taking for granted their holiness but instead searching for where God might have been at work in them.
There's a scene in Fight Club in which Tyler Durden forces a store clerk at gunpoint to follow his dream of becoming a veterinarian. I identified with this clerk; sometimes I need the gun to the head to make the bold choice rather than drift along with the rest of society. To me, this scene made the movie's point: Choose this day whom you will serve. It also got me thinking: If I was forced to name what I wanted to do with my life, could I identify one particular thing I hope to accomplish, without which the trigger might as well have been pulled? So I decided to write, in essence, a mission statement. My mission is "to look for God's hand in the everyday and help others see it." The question Fight Club asks me, and that I will probably constantly struggle with, is why I'm afraid to leave behind what makes me unhappy in order to pursue that goal wholeheartedly.
Three films this year were influential in helping me achieve that goal of seeing God's hand in everyday life. This is important to me because too often I find myself looking through American eyes, Gen-X eyes, capitalist eyes—blinded eyes rather than godly ones. I am too often a creature of the time and place that define my station in this world. When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence in life, I find myself anchorless. God used these three movies to help align my eyesight more closely with his, so I see not as the world sees but with deeper perception.
After watching The Matrix, in which the world is revealed to be nothing but a virtual reality downloaded into our brains, I walked around for days doubting my senses. This period gave me an idea how much I trust my senses to perceive my existence, when in fact I know they tell me little about spiritual reality. For a short time, I was given different eyes with which to view the world. The Matrix also delivered a more lasting perception shift by creating a web of prophecies and miracles that surround the main character. Watching the movie through my 20th-century eyes, I was immediately skeptical of prophecies and miracles in this present age. My cynicism shocked me; it shouldn't belong to someone who believes in God's intervention in human history. In the end, the movie helped wake my interest in the supernatural that helped lead to my interest in saints and searching for God's hand throughout the A.D. era.
In a movie year packed with daring and original material, it's ironic that the film that left me most wowed with what's possible in moviemaking was a sequel. Toy Story 2's stunning animation and pitch-perfect story (even more resonant than the original) gave me a visceral sense of wonder and surprise. Surprise is important to me in seeking godly eyes, because I need to be reminded that the people around me are more complex than I believe, and are capable of surprise. It helps me to stop categorizing or even pigeonholing others but instead view them as whole people. Toy Story 2 goes a long way to reinforce this perspective for me, since this sequel reveals more facets and depth to characters I thought I was familiar with. Most sequels work against this, offering the same stagnant characters in a different situation, but a handful like this one let you know their characters are more complex than meets the eye. This reminder prompts me to seek fuller definitions of the people around me.
While Fight Club prompted me to write my mission statement, American Beauty was more forceful in shaping its content. If I had to choose one movie on this list, I would pick this one, because it was in the context of American Beauty that I made many of the discoveries I've talked about here. Rather than just providing a small shift in perspective, this film was transformative. At the core of the film is the comparison between human beauty and God's beauty. The Burnhams are, like many American families, obsessed with appearances, doing all they can to put on happy faces to hide from everyone the rotted reality of their lives. Human attempts to create ordered beauty ring false because life isn't always pretty. But the next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts reveals true beauty—God's beauty—that is visible in the chaos of everyday life. Looking through the lens of his camcorder, he searches through the random and broken pieces of life until he finds "the eye of God staring back" at him. The mundane becomes the edge of glory, just as a carpenter's son became a healer. This shift in perspective was so complete that during the brief scenes of nudity I did not see the bodies as sex objects, as they are often intended, but rather as God's creation. I saw in the image of a dead bird God's control of life and death. His hand was so clear in the minutiae of life that I left the theater with a hunger to recapture that perspective. The key to getting back there—which I believe is the lesson God hoped to communicate to me this year—shows up in so many of these ten films that it's beginning to finally sink in: put aside artifice and live vulnerably.
Steve Lansingh, who writes the weekly Film Forum department for ChristianityToday.com, is editor ofthefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
For a second opinion, read today's other article on 1999's top films, "
My Favorite Films of 1999," by Peter Chattaway.
Steve Lansingh's reviews of The Straight Story,
The Phantom Menace,
The Story of Us,
Toy Story 2, and
American Beauty are available at TheFilmForum.com.
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