The top 10 art movies list

Maria do Carmo de Pontes  -  April 23, 2018

Are you fed up with shy art critics and self-referential art journalism? Our art movies list could help you to better understand who we are and where we are going.

Like literature – have a look at the list of art novels we published some time ago – also cinema has represented visual arts in various ways, by giving an eccentric interpretations therefore often more authentic and eye-opening. Here below the list of ten art movies we believe to be an useful resource to better understand the art world and its endless narrative. Note: the list doesn’t include biographies and documentaries, which will be the object of a further research.

Andrei Rublev, by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966.

Not one for the lighthearted, as this is a three-hour black and white production set in medieval Russia. Battles between bloodthirsty princes, Slav and Tatars apart, there is not much dialogue in there either, and for a third of the film the main character has taken a vow of silence. Nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary movie, that must be watched by any art lover. The story is very loosely based – hence not a biopic – on the life of the great 15th Century icon painter Andrei Rublev. The plot is divided into seven chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. The latter, the only coloured segment of the film, is also the only moment when the public actually sees Rublev’s work. It comes after Tarkovsky had skilfully prepared the spectators’ minds into what to expect from Rublev’s art, through depicting his gestures, expressions, religious beliefs and so forth. As it was made at the height of the URSS, the film was not released in Soviet soil until many years after its completion.

Art School Confidential, by Terry Zwigoff, 2006.

If at first this seems like a 2000s take on the popular 1980s ‘Brat Pack’ gender, the plot – loosely inspired by the homonymous comic by Daniel Clowes – quickly evolves into a dark-humored, entertaining narrative. It follows the steps of Jerome, an unpopular yet artistically skilled student at high-school who goes on to pursue an arts degree at the fictional Strathmore University, where he expects to obtain both love and artistic brilliancy. As neither of these things prove easy to find, Jerome becomes increasingly cynical as he learns the dynamics of the art world, adopting questionable strategies to achieve his goals. On top of that, there is a serial killer at large on the campus. Filled with stereotypes and clichés, the film is borderline pastiche; nevertheless, a funny one. Starring, among several others, John Malkovich as an art-teacher with high self-esteem and Anjelica Huston as an art lecturer.

F for Fake, by Orson Welles, 1975.

Oh, Welles… Hours could be spent dissecting this film, and Welles’ production at large. Notoriously, actor and author Simon Callow first thought it would take him a couple of years to write a biography of Orson Welles; nearly three decades and three volumes later, he’s still working on it. Back to this particular work, it summarises Welles’ lifelong approach to filmmaking: fact or fiction, it all comes down to storytelling, and the notion of truth is secondary to the power of creating an immersive narrative. The film’s main characters are Welles himself, the art forger Elmyr de Hory (whose failure to obtain success through his own art led him to the more profitable forgery business), de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving (who also wrote a hoax ‘authorised’ biography of Howard Hughes) and Oja Kodar, a stunning woman whose grandfather supposedly tricked Picasso. Fact and fiction here come side by side to discuss the notion of authenticity.

How to Steal a Million, by William Wyler, 1966.

An adorable ‘feel-good’ kind of comedy, set among the Parisienne elite of the 1960s. A wealthy, eccentric aristocrat (Charles Bonnet, played by Hugh Griffith) holds an impressive collection of art, yet most of it was forged by himself. He agrees to lend the legendary statue of Venus, by Benvenuto Cellini (carved in fact by his father and featuring his mother) to an exhibition in Paris. A strong security scheme is organised to protect the piece and, for insurance purposes, it includes a close examination of the sculpture by a professional. Thus confusion is set. Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn – dressed exclusively in Givenchy – are in charge of the romantic tension of the film; he as a supposed art burglar, she as Bonnet’s daughter and accomplice. Kudos also to a great – even if brief – performance by Eli Wallach as an unscrupulous American collector.

Life Lessons (in New York Stories), by Martin Scorsese, 1989.

New York Stories gathers three tales of about 40-minutes each by some of the greatest directors associated with that city – besides Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola (Life Without Zöe, written with his then teenage daughter, Sofia) and Woody Allen (Oedipus Wrecks). Scorsese’s story, the first of the sequence, focusses on an inspiration crisis perpetrated by famous painter Lionel Dobie – an alpha-male who seems to have been moulded after Pollock, played by Nick Nolte – ahead of his big gallery opening. To deepen the crisis, his beautiful young assistant (Rosanna Arquette), with whom he endures a professional and romantic relationship, is about to leave him and constantly dates cool kids from the New York art scene. Dobie is short-tempered and make public displays of his jealousy; even if his love interest remains unachieved, the anger that fuels these outbursts triggers his creativity. In pain, he can finally paint again.

Midnight in Paris, by Woody Allen, 2011.

A polemic Allen, yet a marvellous one. Who never romanticised about other eras being more exciting than your own? The narrative is centred around Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) a screenwriter who’s struggling creatively to finish his first novel. He finds himself vacationing in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her family, wealthy but tasteless Americans. He mystifies the city’s creative potential – to the mockery of his fiancée’s family – and one drunk night, strolling alone as a good flaneur, is invited to enter an old car that magically takes him to the 1920s. What follows is a series of plots and sub-plots with plenty of romance, betrayals, different artistic views and so on, with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel and this entire, spectacular gang that lived in Paris in the early 20th Century. And then the Belle Époque. And then Marie Antoinette’s Versailles.

Spellbound, by Alfred Hitchcock, 1945.

A beautiful Hitchcock, though hardly his best. This is absolutely not to undermine the film, but the stakes here are high – think Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), to name just two other movies by him. The adapted plot (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes, from 1927) shows brilliant acting by Ingrid Bergman, a psychoanalyst who works in a mental institution, and Gregory Peck, who arrives to assume the role of director of the hospital, in spite of his young age. She soon becomes suspicious that he’s not who he claims to be, and what follows is a series of events with all the elements that characterize Hitchcock’s unique vocabulary: lies, romance, pursuits and elaborate escapes, morally tormented characters and the whole bowl. The scene that is crucial to disentangling the plot is a dream sequence devised by Salvador Dalí. Unfortunately, the producers thought it was too lengthy – about 20 minutes – and the final cut only present us with about 2 minutes of dream. Nevertheless, a treat to the eyes.

The Big Lebowski, by Ethan and Noel Coen, 1998.

It’s not a film about art per se. But since no one has ever been able to determine what the film is actually about – the least of all its creators – it might as well be in this list. An absolute classic with an outstanding cast, it starts with a misunderstanding – that is, Jeffrey Lebowski (aka the Dude, a misfit played by Jeff Bridges) being confused with an homonymous millionaire – that opens a pandora box for all sorts of misunderstandings. One of the film’s most delightful characters is Maude Lebowski (starred by Julianne Moore), daughter of the big Lebowski and romantic interest of the Dude. She embodies a super powerful, feminist conceptual artist whose production is described as ‘vaginal’. Extremely elegant and eloquent, she and her entourage deliver some of the funniest scenes of the movie through a very 1990s cliché of what a conceptual artist acts like.

The Pillow Book, by Peter Greenaway, 1996.

The Pillow Book is an original screenplay, written and directed by Peter Greenaway. As it often happens with his work, the film is heavily charged with eroticism. The narrative unfolds between Japan and Hong Kong, focussing on the story of Nagiko, whose father, a writer and exceptional calligrapher, would write on her body the story of creation every year on her birthday. This nourishes in Nagiko a love for literature as well as a fetish for calligraphy, so as an adult (and successful top-model) she sleeps with several men questing to find one that’s both an excellent lover and talented calligrapher. The art note here deals with body painting and the precious art of handwriting, increasingly in extinction. When it comes to Greenaway, the cinematography and edition – think of his signature super-imposition of frames – are in themselves an aesthetic trip. Starring Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor.

The Square, by Ruben Östlund, 2017.

The most recent production in this list, and one that you either love or hate. Christian (Claes Bang), the main character, is a handsome curator at a Swedish contemporary art museum that is about to inaugurate an installation titled ‘The Square’. On its ethos, the Argentinian artist who created it states: ’The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.’ One morning, heading to work, Christian has his mobile phone and wallet stolen; tracking down the location of his phone to a council house, he hands a letter to all its dozen of apartments, urging the thief to return his belongings to a nearby shop. Parallel to that, a third-part company is designing the publicity campaign for The Square. The film has several clever insights around the balance between artistic freedom, good-heartedness and political correctness, a delicate equation with no absolute consensual answer. It is also a delightful satire on Scandinavian values.