1. Andrei Rublev (1966)
It will be a crime not to begin this list with Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece “Andrei Rublev“. A paragraph will not be sufficient to do justice to this largely black-and-white film which lasts around three hours, and, in some way, it is a difficult watch. Andrei Rublev was a 15th century icon painter living in medieval Russia, and the film follows his journey as he leaves Andronikov Monastery with two other monks, travelling to Moscow. What follows is the depiction of medieval Russian rituals, Tatars’ invasion, Andrei’s attempts to protect a simple-minded girl, among others events. Some stunning iconography by Rublev is also on display, including “The Holy Trinity” and “Christ, the Redeemer“, at the end. “Andrei Rublev” is a complex work of art which masterfully conveys the messages on morality, religion and artistic freedom. On such a film, one can simply say that it is not merely a movie but one of a kind cinematic experience.
2. Seraphine (2008)
This film, which is based on a true story of Seraphine Louis and which won 7 Cesar Awards, is an exquisite and quietly powerful portrayal of an awakening painter. Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) is a naively eccentric, deeply religious woman devoid of social graces and who works as a cleaner in a house in Senlis, France. When a new tenant from Germany, Mr. Uhde, an art expert, arrives to stay at the house he is impressed by Seraphine’s natures mortes. A convincing performance by the leading actress makes this film poignant and heart-felt, even if it is overlong. This interesting story is proof that an artistic genius can be found even in most unexpected of places.
3. Frida (2002)
Salma Hayek (“Tale of Tales” (2015)) is in the role of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), a sensational Mexican artist working in a Surrealist style. The pleasures of watching this beautiful film lies in its vivid exploration of the evolution of Frida as a woman and a painter in a certain political climate in Mexico, and Hayek’s performance is outstanding. The film could have done without some sex scenes or melodrama, but it also benefits nicely from the performances by other committed actors, including Alfred Molina (“Chocolat” (2000)), Antonio Banderas and Valeria Golino (“Rain Man” (1988)).
4. The Square (2017)
This Palme d’Or winner directed by Ruben Ostlund is thought-provoking in every respect as it satirises modern art and museum practices in the 21st century. It has the outstanding performances by Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale“) and Claes Bang to boast about, and the film could also be said to be as ambitious and unusual as the art “The Square” that the curator of the modern art museum attempts to promote on his business premises. It may be too long, but the film is particularly interesting to view since it gives a glimpse into how an art gallery may be run when it has not only showcase extraordinary pieces, but also satisfy potential donors with big pockets who are into “cutting-edge” and unusual art installations.
5. Mr. Turner (2014)
This film is a bibliographical account of a British painter J. M. W. Turner, who is played by Timothy Spall, a role which justly landed him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Everything in this film seems masterfully executed, from directing and acting to cinematography and costumes. The film may most appeal to those who are interested in the story in the first place, but its merit is not only the fascinating portrayal of eccentric Mr. Turner, but also the deliberation on the art and evolution. As Sean Nelson says: the director here “created…a snapshot…in an evolution, when art, having passed from the cave wall…to the gallery wall…then took a turn toward novelty, from which it may not ever have fully recovered“.
6. Basquiat (1996)
This biographical film tells a remarkable real story of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), a neo-expressionist/graffiti artist working in New York in the period between 1979 and 1988, before he met his tragic demise at the age of 27. The film starts in New York in 1979, and Basquiat is opinionated and charismatic, but also broke and homeless. What follows is his amazing ascend to “fame” as he starts to rub shoulders with the same eccentric, larger than life personalities as himself. It is remarkable that one of his paintings was actually sold for $110.5 million in 2017. The film also has a cool parade of stars attached to feature in some role or another, including David Bowie, Dennis Hooper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Tatum O’Neal, Willem Dafoe and Benicio del Toro.
7. The Best Offer (2013)
Guiseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso” (1988) and “The Correspondence“ (2016)) crafted this beautiful film about Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), an ageing proprietor of an action house who falls under the charms of a mysterious young woman Claire (Sylvia Hoeks) who contracts him to sell off her antiques. As with many other Tornatore films (that often deal with “lovers” who have a significant age difference), there is a peculiar emotion and charm in this movie. It has some nice twists and suspense, as well as the score by Ennio Morricone and a beautiful production.
8. Painted Fire (2002)
This film (also known as “Drunk on Women and Poetry”) tracks the life course of a Korean self-taught painter Jang Seung-eop (Owon) (1843-1897). A lover of a drink and having a ferocious temper, Owon is not a role model, but his painting has all the indication of a genius producing them. The film is set in a difficult political time for Korea, and has the distinction of winning the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2002. The film is a compelling portrayal of a complex man torn by natural instincts, artistry control and a desire to have absolute perfection in his artistic expression.
9. Big Eyes (2014)
Directed by Tim Burton (“Sleepy Hollow” (1999), “Batman Returns” (1992)), “Big Eyes” tells the true story of Margaret Keane who produced paintings of largely women and children with “big eyes” in the 1960s. Her venture was a commercial success, but her artistry was initially wrongly attributed to her husband Walter, who took all the credit for her paintings. The beautifully-shot film has its faults, but Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz perform exceptionally well against each other and the story itself is fascinating with an important social commentary.
10. Lust for Life (1956)
Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” tells the fascinating story of Vincent van Gogh and has very committed performances by Kirk Douglas (van Gogh) and Anthony Quinn (Gauguin). It is unjust that this picture is more or less forgotten now and rarely reviewed. It is a brave and powerful portrayal of the troubled artist, and it has an outstanding production design, especially by the standards of that time. It is fascinating to watch the dynamics between van Gogh and Quinn, and, even people who have not previously showed interest in van Gogh may suddenly develop a fascination after seeing Douglas’s emotional performance.
11. Pollock (2000)
This film traces the life and art of Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris (“A History of Violence” (2005) “Mother!” (2017), an American abstract expressionism painter, from its humble beginning to talent recognition. The impressive thing here is that Harris is also the director, and the film also features Jennifer Connelly, John Heard, Val Kilmer and Bud Cort. In the movie, we get to know the person behind the art as an introverted, but passionate about his art man, battling his own inner demons. The film is not that engaging, but it provides an interesting insight into how art is produced and the performances are impressive (Harris and Gay Harden (“Mona Lisa Smile” (2003)) were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles (Gay Harden won).
12. Museum Hours (2012)
This film is a fascinating, sublime experience. It introduces us to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and to some great paintings by Rembrandt and Bruegel, while also meditating on the nature of friendship and romance. Our hero here is a museum guard Johan who meets Anne, a Canadian woman. Existentialist and explorative, the film sends many messages on such diverse topics as history, sexuality and materialism. It is probably an idiosyncratic film which would most appeal to those who love art, but those who like contemplative films that have hidden broader meanings may also find a lot to like here.
13. Conversations with My Gardener (2007)
Based on a book by Henri Cueco of the same name, “Conversations with My Gardener” or “Dialogue avec mon jardinier” is a French-language film by Jean Becker about a painter returning to his childhood house in the countryside to live after many years of living in Paris and encountering once again his childhood friend. The theme of friendship is well-explored and the performances are impressive in this light drama/comedy that is also sporadically tender and tries to shed light on the meaning of the class divide, old age and passing time.
14. Montparnasse 19 (1958)
This film (also known as “Les Amants de Montparnasse“) dramatizes the life of an Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani who is famous for his modern-style paintings of people. Gérard Philipe plays Modigliani, while his female co-stars are Anouk Aimee (Jeanne) and Lili Palmer (Beatrice Hastings). This film is not great, but most of the time it poignantly and poetically tries to tell of a troubled painter struggling to cope and being influenced by his female muses. Besides, the film provides a glimpse of artistic Paris and the struggles many up-and-coming painters had to face in Montparnasse, an area slowing turning into an European art mecca at the turn of the century.
15. Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
It is interesting to speculate on the origin of Vermeer’s famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. Tracy Chevalier did so in her book of the same name, and then, later, this movie appeared. The fascinating fictional account, coupled with the performances by Colin Firth (“The Mercy” (2017)) and Scarlett Johansson (“Match Point” (2005)), make the film good and strangely multi-themed. Although the drama is low-key, the film is beautifully shot and acted. It is much like the quote of Germaine Greer about Vermeer’s art: it does not “seek so…much to amaze“, but to simply “invite the observer to come closer…[to the painting], “peer into it, and become intimate with it“.
16. Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
This movie, directed by Mike Newell and starring Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman” (1990), “Money Monster” (2016)), Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia” (2011)) and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is underrated. Critics say it is too predictable, but the film’s innate charm and an important social message do make this film worth your time. It is often said to be a “female” version of “Dead Poets Society” (1989), but it has its own wheels and winning performances. Roberts portrays a History of Art Professor at a girls’ college who is determined to take on the conservative traditions of the institution. The main point is the concern with the culture of role-taking and conformity in the 1950s in the US (see Mendes’s “Revolutionary Road” (2008) for a similar theme), but the film also frequently references and talks art, including the works of Soutine and van Gogh.
17. Camille Claudel (1988)
Isabelle Adjani takes the role of Camille Claudel, for which she was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award, while Gerard Depardieu plays Auguste Rodin. Claudel and Rodin were both very talented French sculptors creating work of amazing force and beauty. While Rodin established his reputation, Claudel was often overlooked. It was not easy for a woman to compete alongside a man at the end of the 19th century, and the film is strong thanks to the powerful performance by Adjani and the fascinating story about the artistic and emotional transition of Claudel, as she takes her place near Rodin as his assistant.
18. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston play Pope Julius II and hard-working Michelangelo respectively in this movie about the tortuous painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. During the film’s first ten minutes, we are introduced to the life and work of Michelangelo, both in Florence and in Rome, including his sculptures Pieta and the Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici. What follows is the story of the commissioning of the painting of the ceiling by Pope and Michelangelo’s work (the ceiling, together with The Last Judgement fresco, is still considered to be one the greatest ever artistic accomplishments of humanity). It is true that the film is long and underwhelming, but could also be informative; the leads there are charismatic; and the production design is marvellous.
19. Woman in Gold (2015)
This film is far from perfect, but the story it tries to tell is intriguing. It concerns Klimt’s famous painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”. It was once stolen by the Nazi government, and the family of the woman depicted in the painting waged a war in the early 2000s to return the painting from the museum in Vienna to the family. Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, the heiress, and, in a surprising cast, Ryan Reynolds is Mr. Schoenberg, a lawyer hired to help return the painting. The truth is probably here more fascinating than the film, but Helen Mirren’s performance is the one to watch and the film still explores some thought-provoking issues.
20. Cezanne et Moi (2016)
Guillaume Gallienne and Guillaume Canet (“Last Night“ (2010)) play a French painter Paul Cezanne and a French novelist Emile Zola respectively in this French-language production by Danièle Thompson. The film is nicely written and acted, and the story behind the friendship of these two French art “heavyweights” is fascinating. Zola and Cézanne had a complex friendship, which was further compounded by the success of one and the mental decline of another. The film may be bland and unengaging a times, but the drama of this friendship is still strangely compelling and the presentation is filled with artistry.
This list excluded animations and documentaries and was in no particular order. For great art films that fuse documentary, history and drama, check out Alexandr Sokurov’s ground-breaking “Russian Ark” (2002) and “Francofonia” (2015). Numerous other films also referenced art heavily, such as the so-called Robert Langdon films, “8 and 1/2 Weeks” (1992), “Melancholia” (2011) and “The Handmaiden” (2016).