Films and Documentaries Every Art Lover Should Watch
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Here's my guide to the 30 best films and documentaries for art lovers, culture vultures, and cinephiles in general. If you can't go to a museum and don't want to gaze at virtual museums on your computer, movies are the next best way to cyber experience art and culture from around the world.
My recommended films are intimate portraits -- fictional and factual, dramatic and damning, engaging and esoteric -- of some of the world's greatest artists. You can learn about their public and personal lives, see their greatest art works, and virtually re-live scandalous events, gossip, or love affairs in art history.
These are amazing and riveting movies about painters you need to see. I've happily watched all these films, some several times. So what are you waiting for? Turn yourself on to some of the best arty movies online.
Best Arty Movies and Documentaries for Culture Vultures
1. Frida, Amazon Prime and Netflix
This film is a graphic biopic about the controversial and tragic life of Mexican Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, played by Salma Hayek. She was married to the philandering painter Diego Rivera, played by Alfred Molina. Together, the outrageous and legendary pair became the most acclaimed artists in Mexican history.
The film follows both Kahlo's tumultuous public and private life. It's set during a period of political strife in Mexico, which makes the film even more fervent. Happily, for art lovers, Kahlo's paintings are woven into the plot and given top billing.
2. Pollack, Amazon Prime and Netflix
This may be the most well known art movie on the planet. But this 2000 classic earns its keep.
Jackson Pollack was the bad boy of the postwar New York art world, a testosterone-fueled society of brash artists. They drank and raged as much as they painted. Pollack was a pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist movement, inventing the "drip" method of abstraction in a "Eureka" moment. Pollack was also miserable, an alcoholic, and possibly bipolar -- leaving devastation in his wake.
The movie stars Oscar winner Ed Harris as Pollack and Marcia Gay Harden as his wife Lee Krasner (an impressive artist in her own right). It tracks his success, with the help of eccentric heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Inevitably, fulfilling the cliche of the tortured artist, Pollack dies in a drunk driving car wreck, killing an innocent person.
3. Caravaggio, Netflix
Caravaggio was the bad boy of the Baroque period in art history. He lead a life of violence and intrigue. He murdered a man and may have been murdered himself. His dramatic paintings were a mirror of his dramatic life. He revolutionized the art world with his use of chiaroscuro and emotional, naturalistic renderings.
Caravaggio is a British drama, a fictionalized take on the artist's turbulent life. The movie, which stars Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean, follows Caravaggio through the streets of Rome. Caravaggio controversially uses homeless people and prostitutes as models for his religious paintings. He engages in reckless behavior (guns and sex), which ostracizes him from his patrons and leads to an early grave.
If you want to know more about Caravaggio, click here for my Caravaggio guide to Rome, with a history of the artist and his most famous paintings.
4. Who Killed Caravaggio?, YouTube
This four part BBC documentary takes a look at whether our troubled Caravaggio may have been murdered. Most historians think he died at age 37 of a physical ailment -- complications from constant boozing, lead poisoning from his paints, malaria, etc.
But Caravaggio had a history of fighting, dueling, and getting into scrapes. He would be embraced by people -- popes, patrons, the Knights of Malta -- only to screw up and fall out of favor. This documentary looks at the available evidence, traces Caravaggio's steps in Europe, and theorizes that he was murdered.
5. Big Eyes, Amazon Prime and Netflix
In Tim Burton's Big Eyes, Amy Adams plays stifled artist Margaret Keane. She's exploited by her husband, wannabe artist Walter Keane. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Margaret painted portraits of sad, saucer eyes waifs. Walter (played by a creepy Christoph Waltz) takes credit for her work, insisting that women artists "don't sell."
With marketing zeal and a heavy dose of menace, Walter makes Margaret's paintings exceedingly popular, achieving immense commercial success. Art critics thought the works maudlin, but Andy Warhol dubbed them "terrific." At first, she's too meek to protest Walter's deception.
But when Walter becomes more abusive, Margaret adopts a new style (inspired by Amedeo Modigliani) and leaves him. She eventually spills the beans about his fabrications in a radio interview. Margaret gets the last laugh, with a major show at the NYC's Museum of Modern Art.
6. Basquiat, Amazon Prime and Netflix
This Julian Schnabel biopic chronicles the truncated life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist who rose to fame in the1980s. With the help of art world Wizard of Oz Andy Warhol (played by David Bowie), virtually overnight Basquiat becomes the leader of Neo-Expressionist painting. He goes from scribbling on walls to selling his work at uptown prices via aggressive promotion from the mainstream art world.
But his life is a tragic supernova. His attention getting art is exploited by greedy art dealers who are attracted to the novel young black SoHo painter. Consumed and overwhelmed by celebrity, Basquiat becomes addicted to heroin, sometimes destroying his own paintings in tantrums. He dies at only 27 of a drug overdose.
7. Loving Vincent, YouTube, Hulu & Amazon Prime
Loving Vincent is an animated film imagining the last months of tormented Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. The film charmingly explores Van Gogh's life and supposed self-inflicted death from a gunshot wound. Although accepted wisdom is that Van Gogh killed himself, there's ample evidence that he may have been murdered.
The film is truly beautiful. It's shown in 65,000 oil painted frames, hand painted in Van Gogh’s distinctive style by 125 painters. Incorporating 120 of Van Gogh's works, the film took 10 years to complete. With its intensely mesmerizing depictions, the film captures the essence of why Van Gogh was such a pivotal and groundbreaking artist.
7. Rodin, Amazon Prime
The French artist Auguste Rodin is considered the father of modern sculpture. You will likely known him from his most famous pieces -- The Kiss, The Thinker, and the Gates of Hell. Rodin was passionate and absurdly talented, his works a torrent of expressive power. While his titular film is rather inert and plodding, it's a good overview of Rodin's life and revolutionary oeuvre.
The film begins with a 40 year old Rodin's first public commission, The Gates of Hell. We see his artistic alliance and affair with his talented student Camille Claudel. And his ambivalent juggling of Claudel and his wife. The film portrays Rodin as grumpy and glowering, which isn't entirely accurate.
8. Camille Claudel, Amazon Prime
Camille Claudel is a serious dramatic film about the life of sculptor Camille Claudel, with a heavy dose of her ill-fated relationship with her mentor Auguste Rodin. It's a lusty biopic with Isabella Adjani and Gerard Depardieu in the starring roles. When Rodin notices the raw sculpting talent of a precocious Claudel, the two artists begin a scandalous affair.
Claudel becomes Auguste’s muse and assistant, sacrificing her own work to further his career. However, when Rodin won't leave his wife, she ditches him. Unfortunately, Claudel's work goes largely unrecognized. She gradually spirals into alcoholism and mental illness. Her family commits her to an asylum for the rest of her life, despite her apparent recovery.
9. Surviving Picasso, Amazon Prime
Surviving Picasso is told from the POV of one of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's long time loves and fellow artist, Francoise Gilot. Picasso is played by Anthony Hopkins. The film explores the union of the manipulative legend and the young artist. It's based primarily on Ariana Huffington's book Picasso Creator and Destroyer, not Gilot's own autobiography (which are both great reads).
In spite of Picasso's notorious reputation, Gilot is lured into Picasso's web and moves in him. They have children, but Picasso continues to philander, as is his wont. It's a vivid portrayal. The only issue is that you don't see Picasso's actual art (fake pieces are seen).
10. Death and the Maiden, YouTube and Amazon Prime
This movie takes its name from Expressionist painter Egon Schiele's most haunting masterpiece, Death and the Maiden. The stunning painting is housed in the Belvedere Palace, if you're ever in Vienna. Schiele was famous for painting highly charged eroticized images, even nude self portraits.
The biopic follows Schiele's love affairs, including one with Wally, the maiden in his famous painting. You'll see Schiele and other painters staring at models. At just 28, Schiele tragically dies from the Spanish flu.
11. Renoir, YouTube and Amazon Prime
This visually ravishing biopic is a compassionate late life portrait of French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renoir is suffering, mourning the loss of his beloved wife. But then a radiantly beautiful model, Andree, enters his life. The voluptuous and fiercely independent redhead works a miracle on the arthritic painter.
Rejuvenated, Renoir is once again prolific. But when his officer son Jean returns from war, he too falls for Andree's heady charms. Andree becomes both muse to the father and wife to the son. The movie showcases Renoir-like canvases painted by famed art forger guy Ribes.
12. Girl With a Pearl Earring, Amazon Prime
Based on Tracy Chevalier’s beautiful novel, this film is the imagined tale of Griet, played by Scarlett Johansson. When her father goes blind, Griet goes to work as a maid for Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth). They strike up an unlikely friendship and she becomes his muse, though it spreads disruption and jealously in the household.
Wealthy patron Van Ruijven begins to lust after Griet. He commissions a painting of her, Vermeer's famous Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is in the Louvre in Paris. A shy Griet and a broodingVermeer spend long hours alone together. Nothing much happens, but there's underlying sexual innuendo and long meaningful silences. In the end, Griet is gifted the pearl earrings as a symbol of her importance to Vermeer's art.
13. Night Watching, Netflix
Night Watching is a creative response to Rembrandt's most famous painting, The Night Watch, housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In 1642, Dutch artist Rembrandt reluctantly agrees to paint a portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia.
In the course of his efforts, Rembrandt stumbles upon a murder conspiracy. The film theorizes that Rembrandt encoded his painting, exposing and accusing the conspirators in allegory. But the painting may have led to Rembrandt's downfall. With that "J'accuse!", Rembrandt's patron saw to it that Rembrandt lost future commissions and the painter fell into dire poverty.
14. At Eternity's Gate, Hulu and YouTube
At Eternity's Gate is another Van Gogh biopic. It's a vivid and affecting portrayal, a sunflower of a movie shot with a handheld camera. The film is directed by Julian Schnabel, with an intense Willem Dafoe cast as Van Gogh. The film is based on Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo.
The film attempts to peak into Van Gogh's tormented psyche during the final years of his life. We see Van Gogh wandering through wheat and sunflower fields in Arles, using nature as a balm against his depressive personality. Van Gogh's work receives a rave review while he's simultaneously losing an ear and being tossed in the St. Remy asylum.
15. Mr. Turner, Amazon Prime and YouTube
Mr. Turner is a critically acclaimed biographical drama about English painter J.M.W. Turner, by filmmaker Mike Leigh. Turner revolutionized painting with a new take on form and light, influencing the subsequent generation of Impressionists. The film focuses on the last 25 years of Turner’s life.
With painterly cinematography, the film portrays Turner as a rather blunt and brutish man, inflicting unhappiness on others, particularly women. Unlike many artists, Turner was commercially successful during his lifetime. He was protective of his celebrity and had an epic rivalry with landscape painter John Constable.
16. The Art of the Steal, Amazon Prime and YouTube
The Art of the Steal is a fabulous documentary about the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. I've written at length about the fabulous museum and its turbulent history. The Barnes Foundation is one of the world's best (albeit quirky) collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, featuring seminal works by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Seurat, and Degas.
The film focuses on the controversial decision to move the Barnes collection from the Philadelphia suburbs to downtown, against the express prohibition in the will of its founder, the eccentric and dogmatic Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Barnes wanted his collection to stay in situ and function as an art school not a public museum.
The compelling documentary tells the story of the struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation. Tackling a controversial topic, the documentary provoked a lively debate. It's biased in favor of the move protestors.
17. Gerhard Richter: Painting, Amazon Prime
This film eschews the typical biopic style. Instead, it serves up a live action, behind-the-scenes view of one of the world’s most successful contemporary painters. Richter didn't work in just one medium. He moved from photo realism to abstraction to minimalism.
The film documents Richter's creative process, showing the artist at work on two canvases. There are interviews with Richter, art critics, and artistic contemporaries to add context. Between painting sequences, Richter nervously attends gallery openings.
18. Guest of Cindy Sherman, YouTube
Filmmaker Paul Hasegawa-Overacker gives us an intimate look at the personal life of reclusive photographer Cindy Sherman. Sherman is a contemporary master of socially critical photography. After several casual interviews, sparks fly and the pair fall in love. Guest of Cindy Sherman chronicles the course of their failed affair.
This memoirist film is told from Hasegawa-Overacker's perspective. He struggles with being a skeptical outsider to the ultimate celebrity insider. He basically turns into an envious parasite, feeling like a marginalized boyfriend at Sherman's myriads exhibitions and award ceremonies. His greatest indignity is sitting down at an awards dinner to a placard that read "guest of Cindy Sherman.”
19. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, Amazon Prime
Andy Warhol was a true iconoclast and performance artist. As the Prince of Pop, he was a hugely significant artist of the second half of the 20th century. This Warhol documentary is almost 4 hours long, as Warhol would no doubt have approved based on his own lengthy films.
The documentary argues that Warhol is the most important artist of the second half of the twentieth century and attempts to prove it. The film claims Warhol’s works are the modern day equivalent of old master paintings, comparing his portraits of Marilyn Monroe to famous religious iconography.
The film also follows the development of Warhol’s career and style in NYC, which I wrote about in my guide to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The documentary is a revealing, intimate, and serious view of Warhol.
20. Factory Girl, Amazon Prime
The 2006 Factory Girl is another Andy Warhol centered flick that tries to bring history to life. Warhol is played by Guy Pearce. The film focuses on Warhol's famous "Factory," his celebrated NYC studio for misfits. The film is imagined through the life and work of one of Warhol's muses -- actress, fashion model, and wealthy debutant Edie Sedgwick.
The movie received mostly negative reviews for shrill overacting. But Sienna Miller’s portrayal of Sedgwick was touching, delving into the world of her sordid drug addiction. Bob Dylan, Sedgwick's real life love interest, threatened to sue over what he perceived as a false portrayal.
21. Woman in Gold, Amazon Prime
The British drama Woman in Gold is a feel good story about looted Nazi art. The film follows the story of a Jewish refugee Maria Altman and her dispute with the Austrian government about the provenance of her family's gold leaf Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
The famed portrait was painted by Art Nouveau artist Gustave Klimt. It's considered the Mona Lisa of Austria. Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds play the lead roles. The engaging story is intertwined with griping flashbacks that show the Nazi occupation of Vienna. Once reclaimed by the family, the painting was sold to the Neue Gallery for $135 million in 2006.
22. Edvard Munch, Amazon Prime
Edvard Munich is Norway's most famous painter. He's most famous for his painting The Scream, which depicts the open mouthed agonized face of a waif-like figure holding his ears beneath a fiery sunset. If you want to know more about Munch, here's my guide to the Munch Museum in Oslo.
Written and directed by Peter Watkins, the film was initially made as three part miniseries. It follows Munch's life story in an unusual and unconventional way -- with interviews, narrated excerpts from Munch’s diary, and reenacted scenes from a local cast. Ingmar Bergman called the film “the work of a genius.”
23. Séraphine, Amazon Prime
Seraphine is a French biopic of painter Seraphine de Senlis. It won 7 Cesar awards from the French Academy, including Yolande Moreau for best actress. The movie begins in 1914, when a German collector of paintings rents an apartment in the town of Senlis France.
There, he discovers a work done by a stooped, world weary cleaning lady. He becomes convinced she's a primitive genius. The film unfolds from there, following the heartbreaking life story of a talented painter who was only known and respected after her death. She died in a mental institution in 1942.
24. Artemisia, Amazon Prime
Artemisia Gentileschi was likely the first successful female painter in the western world. Today, she's considered among the best Italian Baroque painters. The film is a quasi fictional account of her interesting life.
As a young girl, she was raped by her tutor, Augostino Tassi. He promised to marry her and, for a time, they had a romance. (Rape was treated differently then.) When her father discovered the affair, he accuses Tassi of rape. A seven month trial ensues, during which Artemisia is tortured to test her claim.
After the trial, Gentileschi moved to Florence and overcame the traumatic event. She became the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno. Her groundbreaking biblical painting Judith Beheading Holofernes may be an autobiographical attempt at artistic revenge against male violence, a war cry for oppressed women.
If you want to see a documentary take on Artemisia, tune in to Artemisia Undaunted on YouTube.
25. Louise Bourgeois -- The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, Amazon
Released in 2008, this film is dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Bourgeois was an eclectic artist whose art intersected with many avant garde movements. She was successful in the art world at a time when few women were.
The film focuses on the artist’s extraordinary oeuvre and her creative processs. Her work was personal and focused on the fundamental ordeal of being human. The film also explores her turbulent childhood, which featured an adulterous father and a loving mother. At the age of 71, the French-American artist became the first woman honored with a major retrospective at the MOMA in 1982.
26. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015), Amazon Prime
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a fascinating exploration of the life of socialite, art patron, and collector Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy rejected her conservative bourgeois background and embraced avant garde art. In her own words, she became an “art addict.”
Living in Venice, Guggenheim was an outrageous woman with an outrageously good art collection. She helped define the world of modern art. Guggenheim was an early advocate of Jackson Pollack, and called him her "great discovery." The film features numerous interviews with artists, art critics, historians, and audio interviews with Guggenheim herself.
27. The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes, Amazon/BBC/YouTube
In this classic homage to modern art, no nonsense art critic Robert Hughes demystifies it for us common folk, abjuring the "airy-fairy, metaphor-ridden kind of pseudo-poetry" that's commonly used. Hughes wasn't slow to speak up when he felt art was pretentious or dull. He took no prisoners and had many admirers.
The Shock of the New is a UK BBC documentary series with 8 installments, written and narrated by Hughes. Each hour long episode traces a period in art history from Cubism to Surrealism to Expressionism.
The series was recently updated, mostly to take into account the rise of conceptual art. A new episode features Jeff Koons, who fancies himself a second Michelangelo when he's actually just a second rate Warhol.
28. Midnight In Paris, Netflix
Directed by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is a charming, romantic, and whimsical film of cultural nostalgia. It imagines what would happen if we could go back in time, as we sometimes wish. The film follows Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) on his journey back in time on a trip to Paris.
Pender is a perpetually dissatisfied screenwriter. Each night after saying goodnight to his fiancee, Pender wanders the streets of Paris. He travels back to the 1920s, the glittering golden age of Paris. There, he meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. Apart from these luminaries, there are gorgeous shots of the City of Light for some virtual travel.
29. Mona Lisa Smile, Amazon Prime
Mona Lisa Smile is a feel good fictional story of a young art teacher Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts. She teaches art history at snooty Wellesley College in the 1950s. She's horrified that her brilliant students are only interested in procuring Mr. Right, not in post graduate work.
Watson launches some disruptive self-empowerment. This causes her to butt heads with the school traditionalists. The most interesting people in the film are the three students -- an arch traditionalist, an aspiring lawyer, and a promiscuous rebel.
30. Klimt, Amazon Prime
Klimt is Raul Ruiz’s lavish biographical film about the Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. Klimt was known for his beautiful gold toned and eroticized portraits, mostly of women. And for his many affairs with women, which may have produced 30 illegitimate children.
John Malkovich portrays Klimt as a cold obsessive artist, an elegant monster really. The New York Times described the film as a "voluptuous wallow in high-style fin-de-siècle decadence." There's much talk about what constitutes art, what is beauty, and how many men in Vienna are syphilitic.
If you'd like to watch some arty movies about great painters, pin it for later.