The 10 Best Films about Artists

David-Bowie-Basquiat Movie Best Movies about Artists

Guest Post by Michael Bergeron

There’s no shortage of movies about art. What follows are some of the best films about artists, old and new, that paint portraits of artists in the midst of their own personal confusion. It seems great art is always accompanied by some kind of inner turmoil.

We start with a Dutch painter who while virtually unknown in his lifetime is now considered one of the most influential artists in history – Vincent Van Gogh.

Lust for Life (1956)

Lust for Life is not just the title of an Iggy Pop song. Lust for Life, a colorful 1956 biopic, was directed by Vincente Minnelli and stars Kirk Douglas as the tortured genius. While Douglas was nominated for a Best Actor award it was supporting actor Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, who took home the gold statue for Best Supporting Actor.

Douglas turns 100 later this year. In his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son,” Douglas recounts how John Wayne chided him after an early screening of the film telling him “We’ve got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Douglas responded: “I’m an actor. It’s all make-believe, John. You’re not really John Wayne you know.”

Van Gogh (1991)

French director Maurice Pialet was known for films that were devoted to his unique brand of kitchen sink realism. Pialet tackled the final two months of Van Gogh’s life in his beautifully realized Van Gogh from 1991. Jacques Dutronc plays Van Gogh with a taciturn moodiness. Dutronc won a Cesar award for his performance in this 1991 film but more importantly was known as a pop songwriter. Perhaps his most famous song, written for Françoise Hardy, “Le Temps de l’Amour,” was given new life in the recent film Moonrise Kingdom.

Vincent and Theo (1990)

Robert Altman filmed his own version of the Van Gogh myth. Vincent and Theo, from 1990, stars Tim Roth as Van Gogh and Paul Rhys as his brother Theo. Altman concentrates on the earthy aspects of each brother’s life. There’s a gulf in the way each sibling lives, Theo being comfortable with materialism and Vincent dwelling in poverty.

Exit through the Gift Shop (2010)

The documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) takes on the mysterious identity of rebel artist Banksy. At first the images are low-res and handheld first person point of view, yet the imagery is astounding. This documentary opens suggesting it is all about the artist Banksy but it really covers the short but illuminating history of street art and its innovators Shepard Fairey, Banksy (never seen full face), and finally Thierry Guetta.

Guetta was a camera buff having videotaped hundreds of hours of everyday life including graphic artists at work on the streets, often in late night situations. His general sense of coolness to the scene allows him access to what are in retrospect groundbreaking art installations.

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) provides an old school look at the painting of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo played by Charlton Heston and Pope Julius II portrayed by Rex Harrison. The years long project is intercut with political intrigue and, you guessed it, artistic temperament. Carol Reed directs based on the novel by Irving Stone.

Frida (2002)

Frida (2002) totally captures the life of one of the most famous female artists of the 20th century with raw emotions set across a historical canvas. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo (also one of the film’s producers) has never been better. Famous artists and personalities depicted include Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton), novelist Lupe Marin (Valeria Golino), photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush). Direction by Julie Taymor provides a warts and all depiction of Frida’s stormy marriage to Rivera.

Big Eyes (2014)

Another tumultuous artistic marriage, and one that ended in a blustery courtroom trial, consumes Tim Burton’s film on Margaret Keane, Big Eyes (2014). Keane (Amy Adams), known for portraits where the subjects have the titular large eyes, was overshadowed by her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) who claimed credit for her output. A tony cast includes Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jon Polito, Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartman. Big Eyes is itself a study on the west coast art scene of the ’50s and ‘60s.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams focuses on artists who painted masterpieces 25,000 years ago. This fascinating documentary by Werner Herzog takes a rare glimpse inside the Chauvet caves in France. Herzog was granted limited entrance inside the caves, only recently discovered. The wall paintings show life those thousands of years ago was fundamentally the same as now when you consider that humans and animals enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The 2010 film is also available in a 3D version that includes some of the best uses of that visual technology.

Basquiat (1996)

Basquiat (1996) has the distinction of being a film about an influential artist that was helmed by the equally authoritative artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Jeffrey Wright launched his superlative career with his portrayal of the idiosyncratic yet short-lived street artist. Basquiat died just short of his 28th birthday in 1988. The supporting cast reads like a who’s who of mid-1990s thespians including Benicio Del Toro, Claire Forlani, Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey, Christopher Walker and Gary Oldman among others.

The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, the True Story (2012)

Sometimes a movie with a low budget excels in lieu of the way it presents facts in a coherent manner. Such is the 2012 documentary The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, the True Story. Director Joe Medeiros, former head writer for The Jay Leno Show, has made a film that seems to contain every detail of the most famous art theft in history.

While the production values are scant this doc most importantly illustrates the path the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia an Italian workman who gained access to the Louvre, took as he ripped off the painting one night in 1911. Medeiros traces where the painting remained hidden for over two years, how it was eventually discovered and returned, and follows up with an interview with Peruggia’s daughter herself in her early 80s.

— written by Michael Bergeron, the former associate publisher of alt weekly Public News. He currently writes for Free Press Houston.

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