(Last updated January 26th, 2013) | Related Post: Great Movies about Travel and Adventure.
How can the story of the artist’s process be adequately captured on camera? To depict the hours/days/weeks (and in some cases years) that it takes to complete a work of art requires looking into the depths of the soul of a painter – a fete that is extremely difficult to do on screen. But some actors, screenwriters, productions and documentarians working together to tell the story of fine art in film have nailed it – those are the films that soar. Some art-based films are on the right track and are intriguing in their own right, some are pretty much bogus (we kept those from this list, at least, in our opinion.)
The story of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), who in the late 1970′s went from sleeping on the city streets to becoming the darling of New York City‘s brutally elite art community. At a time when black artists didn’t have much of a place in the white dominated art world, Basquiat walked right into Andy Warhol’s (David Bowie) infamous circle and quickly became very famous. He transformed graffiti and street art into forms such as Neo-expressionism and Primitivism that have changed the way we see modern street-art today. His battles with suicidal depression and insecurity are felt throughout the movie, lending to the frenzy of indulgence that thrived during this era. A film about Basquiat, but more about the art scene and the artist collective. Smart performances throughout. (2011 | Rated R)
She was the kind of person that everybody wanted to watch. Edie Sedgwick – an actress, socialite, model and heiress and Andy Warhol’s muse. She was named the original “it girl”, by Vogue Magazine. When she wandered into New York, she was already rich and beautiful. Add art study to the mix and you have a girl smack in the middle of New York City life at its best and worst in the 1960′s – glamour, parties, art, drugs and tragedy. Warhol (Guy Pearce) and Edie (Miller) are a dreamlike match and just as she was to Warhol in real life, Edie is the center of the universe in this film. A story about muses, artists, and scenesters. (2007 | Not Rated)
This may arguably be the persona that Hayek was born to play – a thoughtful film about a woman who lived an unforgettable life. Frida was famous for her self-portraits, for her success as a woman painter and for her more famous husband and mentor: Mexican painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). This film highlights the struggles of marriage in life and in art, affairs of the heart, a deep connection to home, and the will to paint (and live.) At times, the film is guilty of talking about the work, rather than letting the work speak to its own beauty. But the emotive quality of the acting and the intensity of the Khalo/Rivera story makes a movie fan want to watch and a painter want to paint (the latter often the very reason we dive into a biographical study of an artist.) (2002 | Not Rated)
John Malkovich embodies the wild soul – the relentlessly passionate soul – of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Klimt lived his life like he painted it – full of intensity, sensuality and passion. In this biographical fantasy by director Raúl Ruiz, Klimt (Malkovich) recalls the decadence of his past in feverish visions from his deathbed. Reflecting on his many torrid affairs and his struggles for artistic freedom, he travels back to the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. There, Klimt is introduced to a mysterious dancer, Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows), who emerges as his muse and the personification of his own erotic ideals and carnal desires. At the height of his career, Klimt was notorious for challenging critics and the western art world. One of the crowing achievements of this film is the cinematography and the way it makes the stories that surround the gold paintings from Klimt shine. (2009 | Rated R)
Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison portray two of the Renaissance’s most colorful figures in this historical drama based on Irving Stone’s best-seller set in the early 16th century. When Pope Julius ll (Harrison) commissions Michelangelo (Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the artist initially refuses. Virtually forced to do the job by Julius, he later destroys his own work and flees to Rome. Eventually resumed, the project becomes a battle of wills fueled by artistic and temperamental differences that form the core of this movie. Nominated for an Oscar®, heroic cinematography and named one of the year’s best films by the National Board of Review. (1965 | Not Rated)
He was the world-renowned King of Pop Art, and his life was about to take a dramatic turn in exchange for someone else’s fifteen minutes of fame. Starring Lili Taylor (Ransom) this “vibrant, touching and thoroughly entertaining film” (The New York Times) explores the provocative story behind the shooting of ’60s superstar Andy Warhol. Valerie Solanas (Taylor), a lesbian writer, loner and prostitute, has come to the Big Apple with one goal in mind: to spread the gospel of her radical feminism. Desperate for an audience, she latches on to the fringes of Warhol’s (Jared Harris) glamorous sex-and-drug-laced Factory scene. But as her zeal swerves dangerously out of control, her private madness leads to a bizarre obsession with the artist himself and a final, explosive act of violence that not only gets her notice – but makes her manifesto infamous. (1996 | Rated R)
This is one of our favorites on this list because it is set during the glamorous Post-Impressionism era of art in Paris and depicts not only the great artist Modigliani, but Soutine, Picasso, Monet, Rembrandt, Gertrude Stein and other greats of the movement. Andy Garcia stars as the painter Modigliani, a Jewish Italian that has fallen in love with a beautiful Catholic girl, Jeanne. The couple has an illegitimate child, and Jeanne’s bigoted parents send the baby to a faraway convent to be raised by nuns. Modigliani is distraught and needs money to rescue and raise his child. The answer arrives in Paris’ annual art competition. Prize money and a guaranteed career await the winner. Modigliani and his dearest friend and rival Picasso believe that competitions are beneath true artists like themselves, but with the welfare of his child on the line, Modigliani signs up. Picasso follows suit and soon Paris is aflutter with excitement over the outcome. Like all great love stories, it ends in tragedy, and the ride to it is intense. (2005 | Rated R)
Charles Laughton brilliantly captures the inner turmoil of the passionate 17th-century genius in one of the finest acting performance ever recorded. In Amsterdam of 1642, master painter Rembrandt Van Rijn (Laughton), enjoys a rich, full life in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist of fame and fortune. But with the sudden death of his beloved wife and muse, his work takes a dark, sardonic turn that quickly offends even his most loyal patrons. Bankrupt and bereft, he finds comfort in the arms of pretty, young Hendrickje (Elsa Lanchester), a servant in his home. A story of second chances and courage to keep working after facing intense emotional pain. (1936 | Not Rated)
From the window of her immaculate New York apartment, lonely housewife Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) locks eyes with a mysterious new neighbor (Robert Downey, Jr.) whose gaze strips the stuffy veneer from her tidy reality. Drawn to the man, she is determined to take his photograph. She sneaks into his apartment and unlocks a well of his (and her own) deep secrets and her remarkable artistic genius is awakened. This is when she is cast into a journey that allows her to become a brilliant writer and photographer. Hers is a fascinating story of talent, making it a shame that the film focuses on the love story more than the story of her work. (2006 | Rated R)
Brilliant painter Francisco de Goya, considered by many to be the most important artist of the modern era, reflects on his turbulent career and tempestuous relationships during the decline of Spain and a bloody war of independence, while living out his final days in exile.
This film by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura is compelling – great acting, awesome cinematography and art, art, art (!) throughout. (1997 | Rated R)
Canvas, color, metal, ceramics. The century’s leading artist commanded all of these mediums. But legendary Pablo Picasso had another great passion: romance. And it dominated his genius.
Anthony Hopkins gives a brave performance as Picasso, told from the viewpoint of Picasso’s muse, longtime mistress Françoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone), and mother of his children, Claude and Paloma. (1996 | Rated R)
From director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) comes the sensual, epic saga of a woman for whom genius was the ultimate aphrodisiac. Based on the true story of untamed passion and inspiration. Like moths to a flame, the greatest talents of turn-of-the-century Europe were drawn to Alma, a remarkable muse who ignited desire that would translate into masterpieces of art, music and literature. What drove “the most beautiful woman in Vienna” to inspire the hearts and minds of composer Gustav Mahler, painter Oskar Kokoschka, architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel? A tale of creativity and seduction, of art and love, and of the sacrifices one extraordinary woman – a century ahead of her time – made in her attempt to have it all. (2001 | Rated R)
Starring International screen star Isabelle Adjani as the creative prodigy, Camille Claudel, and Gérard Depardieu as sculptor Auguste Rodin. This is the true story of their passionate obsession with art and each other. Both an inspiring saga of artistic vision and the haunting portrayal of a doomed romance, Camille Claudel is beautiful and stirring. This film was nominated for many awards and earned Oscar® nods for the historically accurate depiction of one of the most important collaborations in the history of modern art. (1989 | Rated R)
Few play a tortured soul as well and as believably as Ed Harris. And this movie is one of the best examples of that. Harris received a written biography of Jackson Pollock from his father (who thought they looked alike) and it ignited fascination into the troubled life of painter – a fascination that would lead him to direct and star in the film.
The film Pollock tells the story of the rise and fall of the manic-depressive alcoholic and famed abstract expressionist who made drip painting famous. Marcia Gay Harden plays Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and they are a brilliant pairing – so much so that she won the Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress. This film has a few things going for it that many other movies about art do. One of them is painting – scenes of the artist at work are sewn into the fabric of the movie (and to us, that’s when you really know a film is about art.) (2001 | Rated R)
A look inside the path of a young artist – Art School Confidential follows talented Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) as he attends Gage Academy on the east coast. His ambition is to become the world’s greatest artist, like his hero Picasso, but his classic training is unmatched for the modern nature of the curricula - or so the story is painted. He meets a girl, Audrey, the daughter of a successful artist, who falls for Jerome’s genuine disposition. But its not long before she falls for the class hunk, breaking Jerome’s heart and inspiring an artful plan to win her back. This story is more about the story than the story of the art, but it’s entertaining and reminds us of how it felt in our early days of searching for a future in the world of visual arts. (2006 | Rated R)
An intimate fictionalization of the circumstances surrounding the inspiration behind the famous painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It’s a good period piece, interesting to see the likeness of Johanasson with the depiction in Vermeer’s famous painting – a little slow for our taste, but all in all, a pretty good film. (2004 | Rated PG-13)
The moment young Finn sets eyes on Estella, she becomes his inspiration and later, his obsession. Under the watch of the richest lady in the Gulf, Miss Dinsmore, Finn paints Estella’s portrait from childhood until she disappears to school abroad after high school. They meet years later in New York – where an adult Finn will break open the art scene. Though his art is inspired, really good, he did not get here on his own but by a mysterious benefactor intended on making all of his dreams come true. Finn and Estella spend their entire lives in love, and as promised to him as a child, she broke his heart over and over again. This movie, a very loose adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Great Expectations’, is whimsical and flashy in some ways, but the deep connection of chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Gwynyth Paltrow is palpable. Great movie about muses, dreams, heartbreak, and regret. Beautiful renditions of artwork shown throughout. (1998 | Rated R)
Seductive, fearless, and outrageous, Marina Abramovic has been redefining art for nearly forty years. Using her body as a vehicle, she creates performances that challenge, shock, and move us. Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present is a mesmerizing journey into the world of radical performance, and an intimate portrait of an astonishing magnetic, endlessly intriguing woman who draws no distinction between life and art. (2012 | Rated R)
Performance artists and lovers Marina Abromivic and Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) walk The Great Wall of China from opposite outside points towards each other for three months until they meet at a central point. It is this central point that they finally say goodbye to their art and love. This is the greatest love story you have probably never heard. (1988 | Not Rated)
It s been called the greatest theft of art since the Second World War. The Art of the Steal reveals how a private collection of paintings became the envy of the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major institutions and the prize in a battle between one man’s vision and the forces of commerce and politics. Founded in 1922 by wealthy American drug developer and art collector Albert C. Barnes, the Barnes Foundation became the finest collection of paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and other masters. Housed in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, the Barnes Foundation was envisioned by Barnes as an art school, not a public museum, but ever since Barnes death in 1951, the fight over its future has been underway. On one side are the artists, historians and lawyers defending Barnes wish that the entire collection (valued at over $25 billion) never be moved, loaned or sold; and on the other side, the politicians, huge charitable trusts, tourism boards and rich socialites pushing to relocate it to downtown Philadelphia. This is a real-life David vs. Goliath story, a tale of suspense in which hangs the fate of some of the most sublime works of art ever created. (2010 | Not Rated)
‘How To Draw A Bunny’ explores the fascinating often hilarious and always enigmatic world of artist and underground icon Ray Johnson. A “pop art mystery movie”, the film is framed by Johnson’s mysterious suicide in 1995 and the puzzling circumstances of which left that left both his intimate admirers and the general public wondering if this was a final “performance.” Little has been written about him yet the man who many have dubbed “the most famous unknown artist” was considered a genius whose career spanned nearly fifty years and whose collages have been exhibited in major museums around the world. (2002 | Not Rated)
‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ is a chaotic study of low-level criminality, comradeship, and incompetence. By turns shocking, hilarious and absurd, this is an enthralling modern-day fairy tale – with bolt cutters. This is the inside story of Street Art-a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money, and vandalism collide. Exit Through The Gift Shop follows an eccentric shopkeeper turned amateur filmmaker as he attempts to capture many of the world’s most infamous vandals on camera,
only to have famed British stencil artist Banksy turn the camcorder back on its owner in this very provocative film about art and the artist’s quest for fame and anonymity.
(2010 | Rated R)
Like a matador confronting a bull, the artist approaches his easel. As he wields his brush, the painting dances into being before our eyes. Pablo Picasso, the most influential artist of the 20th century, is making art, and famous French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (“Diabolique”) is making a movie. This entirely new kind of art documentary captures the moment and the mystery of creativity; for the film, the master created 20 artworks, ranging from playful black-and-white sketches to widescreen color paintings. Using inks that bled through the paper, Picasso rapidly created fanciful drawings that Clouzot was able to film from the reverse side, capturing their creation in real time. When the artist decided to paint in oils, the filmmaker switched to color film and employed the magic of stop-motion animation. By contract, almost all of these paintings were destroyed when the film was completed. Unavailable for more than a decade, “The Mystery of Picasso” is exhilarating, mesmerizing, and unforgettable; it is simply one of the greatest documentaries on art ever made. The French government agrees; in 1984 it declared the film a national treasure. (1956 | Not Rated)
Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn. A portrait of one of our favorite a tormented artists, Vincent Van Gogh. Quinn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gauguin. Masterfully directed by the legendary Vincente Minnelli. A chronicle of the Dutch painter through various phases in his life, a stormy friendship with fellow artist Gaugin, an Impressionist-inspired artistic awakening and a psychological descent to suicide in 1890 (1956 | Not Rated)
In Ronald Neame’s film of Joyce Cary’s classic novel, Alec Guinness transforms himself into one of cinema’s most indelible comic figures: the lovably scruffy painter from London named Gulley Jimson. As the ill-behaved Jimson searches for a perfect canvas, he determines to let nothing come between himself and the realization of his exalted vision. A perceptive examination of the struggle of artistic creation, The Horse’s Mouth is also director Neame’s comic masterpiece. (2006 | Not Rated)
A thrilling document of legendary German artist Richter’s creative process, juxtaposed with intimate conversations (with his critics, his collaborators, and his American gallerist Marian Goodman) and rare archive material. From our fly-on-the-wall perspective, we watch the 79-year-old create a series of large-scale abstract canvases, using fat brushes and a massive squeegee to apply (and then scrape off) layer after layer of brightly colored paint. This mesmerizing footage, of a highly charged process of creation and destruction, turns Belz’s portrait of an artist into a work of art itself. German with English subtitles.
Poor China. So isolated, so misunderstood. And why is the rest of the world always picking on it over the business of stifling personal expression and trampling human rights? Using sarcasm as a diplomatic strategy may not work very well, but in the intimately revealing documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, it is doled out in equal measure with irony and outrage as a way of conveying the danger and absurdity of some of the country’s more egregiously oppressive policies. The artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been captured in unique profile by the American freelance journalist Alison Klayman, who had unfettered access to this near-heroic figure as he traveled around China and the world to promote his exhibitions and his fight for a variety of human causes, which were often one and the same. Until the government shut him up, that is, in an incident that made world headlines and that Klayman revealed as best she could after his 81 days of detention and an official gag that left his powerful voice and deliberate actions all but paralyzed.
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