High Fidelity's ruminations on art and meaning are best summed up by the carefully designed "mix tape," a collection of songs that lovelorn Rob (John Cusack) makes for a girlfriend. For him, inarticulate in the language of love, the tape is a chance to use other people's poetry to express his own heart. This idea resonates strongly with me, because I find that quite often God uses other people's artistry—quite often in movies—to express his heart to me. A year-end look at the films most important to me always exhibits strong ties to what God's been teaching me, so I'm going to share the other nine films that made my year by detailing recent portions of my spiritual journey.

I began the year with a growing fascination with church history, particularly the stories of saints, after seeing last year's The Messenger. My interest was again piqued by The Third Miracle, a modern-day story about a priest (Ed Harris) who investigates nominees for sainthood. He's known as the miracle-killer (since most of his subjects turn out to be frauds) and the pain of taking away a community's hope has withered his faith. In short, he's in the position many Christians find themselves in this age of technological miracles, asking if God is really at work in the world. The priest's rediscovery that, yes, God is, leads him to fight for the sainthood of his latest subject—which gave me a new vantage point on my studies. I had been focusing simply on the person at hand, but afterward I tried harder to understand the community the saint lived in, since sainthood isn't solely about an individual's merit but a communal declaration that God is indeed at work among us.

In my readings I came across the rule of St. Benedict, which says we should "receive everyone as Christ"—a phrase that stuck with me because I felt untrained in hospitality. After seeing Where the Heart Is, in which a pregnant and abandoned teenager (Natalie Portman) is befriended and housed by a stranger, I felt even more sure that I was missing out. My life was filled with all sorts of good tasks but not the free time necessary to make room for people's needs. I wasn't quite sure where to begin restructuring my time, but soon I saw Erin Brockovich, which gave me inspiration. Although Erin (Julia Roberts) and her lawsuit are the primary focus of the film, I was equally intrigued by Erin's boyfriend, George (Aaron Eckhart). He takes care of her kids while she's off gathering evidence and talking to witnesses because his decision to live simply and work only when he needs to gives him the freedom to become involved in her life. This planted the seed for my desire to work as a freelancer rather than on salary, something my employer is willing to work out with me in the coming year.

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But making room for hospitality and practicing it are two different things, and this fall I was encouraged to take the next step when I saw Pay It Forward. The movie outlines a plan by grade-school boy (Haley Joel Osment) to change the world by doing three big favors for people—something they can't do themselves—and instead of accepting payback ask that they pass on such favors. My critic's mind was uncomfortable with the film's use of charity almost as a religion itself, rather than springing from a context of faith, but I nevertheless decided to take its challenge. It's more difficult than it sounds; the biggest need I encountered was babysitting our small-group leaders' five-month-old twice a week, but it doesn't even meet the criteria of something they couldn't take care of themselves. Nevertheless, it was a big step simply to have looked for someplace to show love, and has been what I've enjoyed most this year. Church has become more of a community to me since making my life more available.

My increased participation in others' lives brought about a second, unforeseen effect. I began to get more antsy in my hobby as a writer; sharing myself with the computer screen was somehow less satisfying than sharing with a person. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous forced me to wrestle with the question of where I belong now. Crowe's autobiographical story of writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager and traveling with a band clearly sets up the tension between being a fan and a critic. For Crowe, those years were a movement from a mere fan into a journalist, a truth-teller, but for me, the movie made clear that my days of remote observation are drawing to a close. I'm getting swept up in the music now, not just the theories or the instrument. Michael Douglas's character in Traffic best mirrors what I've been feeling. In one of several intertwining stories about drug trafficking, Douglas plays a newly appointed U.S. "drug czar" who discovers his daughter is a user. His speeches, policies, and plans all ring hollow because he can't even show his own daughter love, give her his time, or listen. There's a time for speeches, of course, but also a time to be in the thick of things.

Learning to enter into community hasn't been without challenges, though, and one of the films that helped me through the process is Meet the Parents. This squirm-in-your-seat exaggeration of pleasing the in-laws delivers plenty of laughs, but it's also a touching look at how two men so unalike—the uptight father played by Robert De Niro and the meek boyfriend played by Ben Stiller—are united because they want to please the same woman. As I formed deeper friendships at church, I found myself in a similar situation as Stiller, who finds that his preferences, habits, and assumptions are dissonant to his new surroundings. I needed the reminder that despite my differences with others, we were united in our love of Christ. I found a similar inspiration in X-Men, the comic-book story of mutants who are feared by society but nonetheless try to foster peace between their two communities. The X-Men love their enemies, both the humans who would quarantine them and violent Brotherhood of Mutants who feel superior to humans. While the Brotherhood sees a future of triumph over humanity, the X-Men are sustained by hope in a future of reconciliation. The film seems to say that your concept of heaven, or the future, determines how you will live. Loving my enemies, I learned, is the only course of action if I truly hope for a heaven where we will be reconciled.

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The film I enjoyed most this year had little to do with my spiritual journey; rather, it allowed me to talk with other people about theirs. Most of my Christian friends don't find themselves relating to characters like, say, Professor X, but easily found themselves connected with the lay evangelical featured in The Big Kahuna. The film offers a rare chance to dissect and study a typical evangelical posture, as young Bob (Peter Facinelli) debates sales, religion, and life with two colleagues at a sales convention. Some friends found Bob an exemplary model of how to share Christ; some saw the character as an attack against Christians for robotic repetition of cliches; others felt Bob's inability to express care for his colleagues was a good lesson in how stilted Christian jargon can sound—each response disclosing a whole set of assumptions about the relationship between Christians and culture. The Big Kahuna is among the best examples of how other people's poetry can lead us to express our own hearts.

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.

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Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today Film Forums include:

A Two-Hour Tour | What Christian film critics are saying about Cast Away, The Family Man, Miss Congeniality, Quills, and other holiday releases. (Dec. 27, 2000)

Dude, Where's My Humor? | What Christian film critics are saying about What Women Want,The Emperor's New Groove, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and other new releases. (Dec. 20, 2000)

Leaving You Hanging | Christian movie critics say Vertical Limit and Proof of Life deliver few insights about living or dying well. (Dec. 13, 2000)

Rating the Effectiveness of Movie Ratings | The ChildCare Action Project thinks parents could benefit from more information and fewer recommendations. (Dec. 6, 2000)

They Do Not Like Green Grinch's Ham … | What Christian critics are saying about How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Unbreakable, 102 Dalmatians, You Can Count On Me, and Dancer in the Dark. (Nov. 29, 2000)

You're a Wholesome One, Mr. Grinch | What Christian film critics are saying about How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Rugrats In Paris, The Sixth Day, Bounce, and Joseph: King of Dreams.(Nov. 22, 2000)

Of Characters Banished to Hell and Raptured to Heaven | What Christian film critics are saying about Little Nicky, Left Behind: The Movie, Men of Honor, Red Planet, and other current releases.(Nov. 16, 2000)

Have Mercy! | From Mercy Streets to Charlie's Angels the silver screen is full of spiritual references this week. (Nov. 8, 2000)

Tom Cruise Can't Hold a Candle to Cary Grant | Reviewer Sarah Barnett loves classic films, and has learned to appreciate modern cinema, too.(Nov. 1, 2000)

Princess of Darkness | Christian film critics are both boosted and bedeviled by Bedazzled,Bamboozled, and other movies.(Oct. 25, 2000)