When Gertrude Stein realized that she wanted to become a writer, she wrote, "May I join that choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again." Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the poet as a high-wire acrobat who leaps from truth to that still higher place where beauty lies. William Gass asked people to think of the blank page -- and, by extension, the blank canvas, the blank film. The artist's job is to lie down in the blankness, as if it were clean snow, and make the imprint of an angel.

If we are lucky, most of our angelic images have come from immortal religious paintings from Western Europe, India or some other cosmology and not from Disney or Hallmark. The Bible gave text and story, but painters made unforgettable images of Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear a son; they also showed an angel substituting a ram for Isaac, the beloved son whom God asked Abraham to kill up on the mountain.

The Bible's angels aren't cute little cherubim but grownups entrusted with God's serious work: to drive Adam and Eve from Eden; to announce Jesus' coming; and to blow the "last trumpet" to signal the world's end. Like the fierce Hittite angel in the Angels from the Vatican exhibit, major angels aren't just decorative. They deliver God's messages and do his bidding. We recognize them as "direct from the source." Great artists become angels because the spirit flows through them. A friend asked George Handel how his composition of The Messiah was going. He replied, tears in his eyes, "I have looked upon the face of God."

Cinematic angels follow not only their own traditions but those of literary, musical and visual arts through the ages. We know now from scientific study of the human brain that visual images have more immediate impact than words. We also know that they are most powerful side-by-side or -- as in film -- intertwined. Seeing Orthodox religious paintings in Russia was a revelation. Scrolls with biblical texts float above biblical scenes, while out of angels' mouths roll scrolls of words. The words are explicit, though -- as in Western painting -- the text is implicit and supposedly known to the viewer. Human creativity is such a glorious consolation. People have found so many ways to be messengers with word and image. This last century has witnessed a new category of artistic angel: the filmmaker.

These 10 films of 1998 bear messages of great importance; they show the imprints of angels.

In chronological order of St. Louis exhibition, the first celestial film was Kundun, Martin Scorsese's immortal biography of the current Dalai Lama. Robert Duvall's The Apostle combined a great acting performance with a historic portrait of American culture. Though their sense of humor is devilish, Ethan and Joel Coen showed themselves angelic cinemagicians once again in The Big Lebowski. David Mamet definitely sees human beings' dark sides, but he writes and directs like an angel. The Spanish Prisoner played in St. Louis for months, probably because so many wanted to see it a second time.

After a flirtation with Hollywood commercialism (Green Card), Peter Weir once again took on angelic wings in The Truman Show. A character played by Jim Carrey discovers that his "life" has more to do with TV than with life. Angels know how to tell us truths we might otherwise avoid.

With its relentless opening sequence of the D-Day landing, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan creates fresh images of war's horror. This is a film for all time -- and a great, needed expression of gratitude to the World War II generation. Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful shows the war through Italian eyes. This hilariously funny film also gives the sharpest sense to date of Auschwitz's reality. A love story in every sense, Life Is Beautiful is a divine message that love will win out over hate, that the darkness cannot overcome the light.

Back on the theme of television and "life," Gary Ross' Pleasantville is a brilliant study in color and black-and-white. Life in a '50s sitcom looks so simple, but is it life? The title of Happiness also drips with irony. With multiple plots centering on one family, Todd Solondz's film lays bare pathology that lurks behind fronts of normality and success, including pedophilia. How could such a painful film be celestial? Angels can bear bad news about our human brokenness -- and in ways that we can and must hear.

Finally, on a note of joy, comes the must-see film of 1998's holiday season: Shakespeare in Love. This romp finds young Shakespeare in 1597 (Joseph Fiennes) writing a play that becomes another because he has met his Juliet/Viola/true love (Gwyneth Paltrow). Actors, wit, London, poetry, theater: This film is a chorus of angels.

Also of note this year were The Boxer, Wag the Dog, Afterglow, Oscar and Lucinda, The Borrowers, Ma Vie En Rose, Mrs. Dalloway, Men with Guns, The Gingerbread Man, Smoke Signals, Insomnia and The Inheritors. Films I missed so far include Velvet Goldmine and Gods and Monsters. A cheery note this year were some very entertaining comedies, including The Object of My Affection; Six Days, Seven Nights; and Next Stop Wonderland. Nor should we forget that swashbuckling delight The Mask of Zorro.

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