Where can you find a character big enough to fit a charismatic actor’s personality? Try looking in the art world. Our final five selections for best art movie present unique challenges to bright stars, and they deliver.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) ~ Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston were hot property when they signed on as Pope Julius II and Michelangelo for this Carol Reed classic about the painting of the Sistine Chapel. You can feel the actors sizing up each others’ Oscars in the battle of the wills between two of the Renaissance’s biggest egos, and it elevates both of their performances. We know that Michelangelo is destined to finish the monumental project, but we can tell the Warrior Pope means it when he screams, “Michelangelo will paint the ceiling! He will paint or he will hang!”
Basquiat (1996) ~ “No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh,” says poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) early in Julian Schnabel’s film. The statement is packed with the sort of hysterical hype that made Jean Michel Basquiat incredibly famous, and probably killed him. That’s not to say that Basquiat, played here with comfortable charm by acclaimed stage actor Jeffrey Wright, wasn’t a top talent. The film’s cast and crew is populated by people who witnessed firsthand the artist’s incredible rise and fall, from David Bowie, who briefly collaborated with Basquiat and plays a fantastic Andy Warhol, to visual artist Schnabel, who makes his directorial debut here. These folks know what made Basquiat and his work so special, and keenly understand the power and vanity of the world that devoured him.
Surviving Picasso (1996) ~ Newcomer Natascha McElhone plays Pablo Picasso’s long-suffering lover Francoise Gilot in this project that was blacklisted by both Picasso and Gilot’s estates. Perhaps that’s because the real draw is Picasso’s (Anthony Hopkins) string of fiery mistresses, played by some of Hollywood’s most beloved character actresses. While we’re meant to focus on the moody Gilot, it’s hard not to delight in the antics of Julianne Moore’s Dora Maar and Susannah Harker’s Marie-Therese Walter. It seems that surviving a relationship with the wayward artist was truly a matter of dispensing with sanity.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) ~ Colin Firth plays Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson his mysterious subject in this slow waltz of a film by documentarian Peter Webber. Vermeer takes notice of his new maid Griet and decides she’ll be his painting assistant and model, much to the consternation of his family. It’s a careful acting exercise for the leads, who must keep their growing interest in each other bubbling under the surface to make way for the film’s real star: the soft grey light of 17th century Delft. The visual vocabulary of Vermeer and his contemporaries rules here, with characters forever pulling back curtains and pausing by glowing windows. It’s simple, spare and gorgeous—much like the painting that inspired it.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) ~ A self-made billionaire, bored with riches and romance, takes up art theft in one of the best vehicles ever crafted for the suave Pierce Brosnan. Mr. Bond plays Thomas Crown, who singlehandedly steals a Monet from the MOMA and arouses the suspicions of beautiful detective Catherine Banning (Rene Russo). A very stylish, wonderfully silly game of cat and mouse ensues. One lesson you’ll learn: if you steal a painting, don’t hang it on your wall.