Top 10 Art Movies, Part 2

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.

Our picks:

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.

Click here to browse our first five selections, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more meditations on art.

Advertisements

Top 10 Art Movies, Part 1

Film gives us the invigorating opportunity to see long dried canvases shine bright and wet again. Telling a beloved artist’s story to the world’s satisfaction is more than just a process of retracing her brushstrokes, though. Our first five selections for best art movie are willing to take as many creative risks as the artists they profile.

Frida (2002)– This biopic of the Mexican surrealist was stalled for years until Salma Hayek took the helm as producer and lead. Hayek and director Julie Taymor paint the story of an artist who suffered through crippling physical mutilation and bottomless heartache with the most vivid palette. That was Kahlo’s outlet and weapon, after all, even as she lay in bed while her sometime husband Diego Rivera gained global notoriety for his own work. It helps to know the story’s true ending, even if it would be a bit capitalistic for Kahlo’s tastes. It’s not Rivera’s face you’ll find in the window of every Santa Fe gift shop.

Lust for Life (1956)– A bearded, bedraggled Kirk Douglas is mesmerizing as Vincent van Gogh in this classic portrait filmed in Holland and France. It’s a career highlight for Douglas, but Anthony Quinn steals the show in his Oscar-winning turn as Paul Gauguin, who admires Van Gogh’s work but finds that he can’t stand the man himself. Some of the film’s best scenes are in its quieter moments, when the famously volatile Van Gogh picks up a brush and pours out his emotions on canvas.

Modigliani (2004)– “The future of art is in a woman’s face. Tell me, Picasso, how do you make love to a cube?” sneers Modigliani, waving a rose in the air. It’s Modigliani‘s best moment, and it really happened. The rest of director Mick Davis’ high energy film bends the truth a bit, but it all works in the way Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris did. Famous figures are always dropping by for self-aware bit parts that keep the film light on its feet. It’s the artist’s story told in the manner that Parisians must have gossiped about it just after his death at 35. All of the pieces are there, but their order gets more muddled with each delicious glass of absinthe.

Pollock (2000)– Director Ed Harris’ film is as much about Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism as his art, and though we know that the artist’s addiction will win in the end, all of the tension of his controversial rise, tumultuous personal life and tragic death in a drunk driving accident holds us captive. Harris, who plays Pollock, and Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner are so driven in their portrayal of abstract expressionism’s royal couple that when the paint starts flying, you’ll believe it’s really Pollock holding the brush.

Artemisia (1997) – Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s long, extraordinary artistic career is often eclipsed by the events surrounding her rape as an 18-year-old. Director Agnes Merlet chooses to tell only that small piece of her story in Artemisia, and fudges the details a bit by turning it into a love story. The film’s saving grace is Valentina Cervi, who plays Gentileschi with fierce passion. When Cervi’s face fills the screen, as it often does, her expressive eyes tell the whole story.

Check out our final five picks for best art film, and follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds for more art meditations.