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Top Ten Art Films

While there are a lot of well known documentaries about artists and art movements, I thought I’d focus on films for this top ten list. The lives of artists are often a mixture of the inspiring and the tragic. I suppose that is why a good number of the films below don’t have happy endings. Each of the movies I’ve listed is certainly worth a spot on your NetFlix queque. Tissues, sketchbooks and paint tubes not included.

10. Max

Have you ever wondered what America would look like if the South won the Civil War? Or if Al Gore had become U.S. President in 2000, rather than George W. Bush? That very sort of “what if” question hovers over the plot of Max starring John Cusack as a Munich art dealer and Noah Taylor as Adolf Hitler. Hitler was actually a painter, and this movie highlights a fictional relationship between him and the art dealer played by Cusack.

9. Modigliani

Most people know that Andy Garcia played an Italian mafiaso in Godfather Three, but his talents for playing an Italian in a film did not end there. He does an admirable job playing the painter Amadeo Modigliani in this movie. I think the best parts are the ones that focus attention on Modigliani’s rivalry/friendship with Picasso.

8. Lust for Life

You can bet that when Van Gogh died, he had no idea he’d be as revered as he is today. Nor could he have guessed that the man who would play in a movie about his life would be nominated for one of film’s highest honors. Kirk Douglas plays Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life. He certainly looked the part and he played the artist so well that his performance garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1956. The above scene takes place when Paul Gauguin (played by Anthony Quinn) comes to live with Van Gogh in the South of France. The volatility of Van Gogh and the eventual demise of Gauguin’s stay in the South of France with Van Gogh is summed up well in this scene. I love the moment when Gauguin smells the pot in which Van Gogh has been cooking their meal.

7. Downtown 81

Downtown 81 is an urban fairytale starring Jean-Michel Basquiat playing a character much like himself. It’s a really interesting period piece about downtown NY in the 80s and well worth watching. But one note: if the sound seems off, it’s for good reason: the audio was damaged and the film had to be re-dubbed. Because Basquiat died, the filmmakers asked poet Saul Williams to do a voice over of the lead character’s lines.

6. Waking Life

I suppose this film could be classified in a lot of ways. Experimental, philsophical narrative. Spaced out, stream-of-consciousness film essay. Mindscape movie making… Whatever you call Waking Life, I think it was pretty breakthrough when it came out in 2001. Even if you were to watch only one scene, you can gain something from it. I’ve embedded A.O. Scott’s astute analysis of the film for the NY Times.

5. American Splendor

I LOVE this movie. And though I’m not sure the late, great Harvey Pekar would call himself an artist, I’m going to anyway. Plus, Robert Crumb is an important character in the film, so there. When I watched it, I thought immediately of Henry Miller, given how much the American author may have liked Pekar’s stance that ordinary life is pretty complex stuff. Paul Giamatti does a terrific job playing the curmudgeonly Pekar and the interaction of animated illustrations and regular film making in the movie is great.

4. My Left Foot

In this movie, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irish painter, poet and author who had cerebral palsy. I’m always impressed by Day-Lewis and the roles he takes on for his films. For me, he’s one of those actors that engages a character, learns the script and comes out on the other side of the camera as another person. This film is a prime example of that.

3. Girl with a Pearl Earring

Before he played a king with a speech impediment, Colin Firth was Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring. There are only 34 known paintings by Vermeer in the world and one quite accurate part of this film is that Vermeer was a famously slow painter. He took a painstaking amount of time on each of his compositions, which is partially the reason why so few of his works exist. In real life, the man who was Vermeer’s patron was a pious man and not the vulgar womanizer depicted in the movie. And it’s likely that the model the title painting is based on was one of Vermeer’s daughters, rather than a maid who worked in his house. The actual painting called Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer is at the Mauritshuis Gallery in the Hague. But in case you can’t make it to the Netherlands and happen to live in NY, a similar Vermeer is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2. Pollock

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are famously symbolic of American Modern Art in the mid-20th Century. This film chronicles the prodigious drinking, the haphazard dripping, the notorious womanizing and the incredible work that made Pollock one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. Ed Harris does an exceptional job playing Pollock (and man does he ever look like the painter) and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Pollock’s wife, the painter Lee Krasner, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film.

1. Basquiat

Soho was a very different place in the mid-80s than it is today. I happen to like Basquiat’s work a ton, which is part of the reason I’ve seen this movie about 25 times. But I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Wright too. Wright plays Basquiat, the graffiti writer turned art world darling. The star-studded cast includes Gary Oldman, Bencio Del Toro, Dennis Hopper, Parker Posey and David Bowie as Andy Warhol. The film was directed by the painter Julien Schnabel, who knew Basquiat when they were both NYC based painters in the 80s. Funny enough, the character that is meant to be Schnabel appears to be the most level headed character in the film…

4 thoughts on “Top Ten Art Films”

  1. DDG says:

    So happy to see American Slendor on this list–such a GREAT movie. Also, happy to see that Basquiat is at No.1.

  2. Adam D. says:

    Netflix queue updated.

  3. Ma Bla says:

    Chelsea Girls? Possibly the best art film of all time, and the only film I can think of off the top of my head that depends on two simultaneous projections… not available on Netflix tho as its rarefied presentation is as much a part of its myth as it’s content and director/superstars. Anyway, what’s the difference between an art film and art house films? Stan Brakage in the house?

  4. Bob says:

    ‘Frida’ is a must for this list also.

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