Need fresh inspiration? Here are 30 movies that might help! Not just visual artists, but dancers, actors, photographers, musicians, novelists, screenwriters and more. I synopsized each one so you can get a sense of which ones you might like (but view them all if you can!):
What Happened, Miss Simone?- I can't say enough about this incredible documentary, which expertly jigsaws the many lives of the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone. Straddling multiple musical worlds, including the classical education she got at Julliard and the budding American art forms of Jazz and Soul (not to mention some killer blues!), Simone puzzled audiences with her ferocious demands for their attention, even as she held them in her hand. Her radical politics drove a further wedge between herself and the larger music establishment, who refused to give her the respect she was due. Abusive relationships and exploitive friends burdened her progress. Stymied, but not stifled, by chronic mental illness, she moved herself to Africa, then eventually to Europe, where she settled for the rest of her life. Vivid, raw, tender, and unforgettable. Watch for the scenes where she talks about her music and the price of constant touring.
Fur- Mid-century modern has never looked so good, or so stifling. A phantasmagorical imagining of the early creative years of Diane Arbus, the restless photographer with an attraction to marginalized (and sometimes disturbing) human subjects. Her journey toward artistic liberation is aided by friendship with a strange neighbor whose physical appearance gives the film its title. Simultaneously dreamy and solemn, this rigourously stylish and provocative film will make you wonder if you're hiding anything vital from yourself. Watch for the scene with the razor.
The Pillow Book- A lost relic from the 90's that deserves to be re-discovered. The daughter of a Japanese calligrapher father and Chinese mother keeps a detailed diary, inspired by her namesake, while seeking revenge for her father's treatment at the hands of a cruel publisher. Her boldness and determination lead her on a series of erotic encounters that involve ink, blood, water and fire, as she slowly transforms herself from muse to artist. Unusually paced and endlessly compelling, with an strange formality for so carnal a subject. A film that plays with form as well as content, watch for 4-panel segments that dare you to keep up with each frame.
Pollock- He's the reason they called it "action painting". Pollock's journey from struggling painter on his knees to macho art-star with the world at his feet is depicted as part of the longer continuum of his genius and madness. This film also takes time to give voice to his long-time partner Lee Krasner, herself a skilled and original painter, and the role she played in arranging his success by literally bringing the world to their door. Muscular, colorful, celebratory, and inspiring. Watch for the scene where he accidentally spills the paint, and witness the birth of an artistic lightning strike.
A Little Chaos- From chaos, beauty. The artist depicted in this film is a visionary landscaper, negotiating with the chaos of nature to make space for her earthy garden scenes. An unexpected job offer from the court of King Louis XIV leads to a topiary triumph at Versailles. Though reserved and unassuming, the artist is haunted by ghosts from her past which threaten to overwhelm her at every turn. Her literal and metaphorical digging through her fears is noticed by her boss, a brusque fellow gardner whose true nature is eventually revealed as they work alongside each other. Elegant, graceful, passionate, and pure. Watch for the mistaken identity scene in the pear orchard.
Stranger Than Fiction- One of my favorite movies of all time. A stodgy IRS man is sent to investigate alleged tax fraud committed by a comely baker. Somewhere a famous author is agonizing over the fate of the protagonist in her latest novel. A young boy gets on his bike and begins to ride around the city. How are these three stories connected? A busy literature professor and a wise writing coach get roped in to help solve the mystery. Though it employs the ridiculously tired trope of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl", this extraordinary film turns expectations upside down with a twist that keeps on twisting. Vibrant, lively, and inspiring, it's a celebration of the awesome intersection of life and art. It also contains one of the most clever, unique and tender gifts of love ever shown on film. Watch for the scene when he runs up to her outside the bakery at night.
Frida- Love this movie and get something new out of it every time I watch it. Surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo was as visionary as they come. A traumatic teenage injury intensifies the course of her life as she works fervently to capture her imagination on canvas while her body wrestles with agonizing pain. Her relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera creates plenty of heartbreak, but ultimately helps bring her work to the larger world just as her body is weakening. Alcoholism and affairs with men, women, and Leon Trotsky are portrayed as the natural actions of a passionate person. This movie celebrates the power of appetites, and encourages us not to mindlessly consume but to actively relish, without apology. A true cinematic achievement that is magical, fiery, colorful and moving. Watch for the early scene on the bus.
Trumbo- Artists are workers! An enigmatic figure whose great wealth sat side-by-side with his ardent communist politics, Dalton Trumbo's Oscar-winning screenplays are the stuff of legend. Stalked by the ridiculously named (and seriously barbed) House Un-American Activities Committee during the "Red scare" of the 40's and 50's, Trumbo got around the Hollywood Blacklist's black mark on his reputation by producing a prolific output under assumed names. Crackling with clever witticisms and a (mostly) genuine moral imperative, this film invites you to wonder at Trumbo's extraordinary work ethic as he cranks out script after script to keep feeding his family and stoking his passion. Watch for the scenes where he addresses his fellow communist writers.
The Piano- No list of this kind would be complete without it. The heroine of this film utters not a single word, yet her voice echoes through every frame. A gifted Scottish pianist, beset by muteness, moves halfway across the world (to New Zealand) to marry a stranger. With her young daughter in tow, she waits on the beach for her piano to follow. What happens when it finally arrives forces her new community (and her husband) to recognize her power and understand who she truly is: clever, sexy, romantic, and fiercely passionate, much like this film. Will she finally find her voice? Watch for the scene with the ax.
What's Love Got To Do With It?- The woman, the myth, the legend. Tina Turner fell under Ike Turner's evil spell early on, when she was a teenager. Her explosive stage presence came partly from her desire to escape his long shadow and make a name for herself, then take back the one he gave her. A ceaseless work ethic and a powerful faith in her right to be herself kept her going. A spiritual awakening late in life enabled her to phoenix up from the ashes of her old life, and become the icon that we all know. Robust, sexy, and triumphant. Watch for the scene in the recording studio.
Perfume: The Story of A Murderer- Brace yourself for a dark tale. Has there ever been a more passionate advocate of scent than this psychopathic perfumer's apprentice? All kinds of horrible deaths take place wherever he goes, yet he shows little fear of recrimination as he gathers the elements of his strange brew. Though rendered from gruesome origins, his art is exquisite, and what he achieves is truly remarkable. Watch for the measuring scene in his Master's apothecary, and the extraordinary scene in front of the executioner's stage.
The Moderns- [The trailer is impossible to find, so I linked to the films gorgeous closing song, which gives a sense of the movie's aesthetic and pace]. I love this movie beyond all reason. This tiny but mighty creation transports you to the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein's imagination but gives their characters, and fellow compatriots, room to express themselves in all their wily, sensual, radiant glory. A tough-talking, ex-patriot American artist is hired by a shady femme fatal to forge some famous paintings. His estranged wife comes to town with her dangerous new husband and forces a confrontation that could have dire consequences for all. Dreamy, creamy, swoony and cool, art imitates life imitates art again as the characters reveal their true nature to each other. Watch for the scene when Nick addresses Hemingway, standing with two women, through his open window.
Love Is The Devil- How far will you go for your muse? Francis Bacon, the enfant terrible (and macabre) of mid-century post-modern English painters had one of the most extraordinary love stories of all time. You won't believe how he met his long-time lover, or how their relationship affected his work. Carnal, brutal, nasty, and yet somehow elegant and reverent, this movie doesn't judge Bacon for his choices, but allows him to rampage at will, while pulling no punches (so to speak) about the consequences of his actions. Watch for the scene at the boxing match; the artist's face tells all.
Kama Sutra- (NSFW TRAILER) An intense feast for the senses. This movie engages from the first frame and casts a magic dreamy spell that grows into a powerful statement of self-actualization. The larger subject is the creation of the Self, partly by transcending the dangerous limitations of being an artist's muse, and ridding oneself of illusions. Two girls raised as sisters in 16th-century India are forced to part ways due to class differences, but circumstances pull them back and forth through each other's lives. Powerful, passionate, wondrous and wise. Watch for the scene with the Kama Sutra lessons.
Atonement- One of my all-time favorite movies about the redemptive powers of art, and the ferocious determination of artists to heal ourselves and the world around us. A 12-year-old girl sees something strange from the window of her childhood bedroom in a 1930's English manor house, and tells a tale that sets in motion a chain of devastating events. Ravishingly beautiful, romantic, and brutal, you won't forget this film or its message. Watch for the scene in the library, and the one on the beach during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Finding Vivian Maier- What does a secret life cost, and how much is it worth? This documentary outlines the creative processes of both it's subject, the enigmatic and prolific street photographer, and her champion, the young man who discovered her thousands of negatives after her death, and attempted to bring her into her rightful place in American art history. Both celebratory and somber, a sober rumination on the personal legacy of artists, and how much their passion costs those around them. Watch for the scene where Mary Ellen Mark views Maier's work for the first time and makes an insightful judgement about its creator.
Seraphine- Still waters run deep. This film is a slow-moving river that explodes in a riot of color and life. Settle in for the ride and enjoy the calming, meditative pace punctuated by furious activity from its passionate protagonist, a so-called "simple" woman whose "naive" paintings became an international sensation in the 1920's after decades of her secret hard work. Raised without an artistic education or access to museums of any kind, this real-life master artist worked in secrecy for decades to bring her inner world to the canvas, with extraordinary results. An endorsement of self-taught geniuses, and an inspiring call to follow your own muse. Watch Seraphine's face any time she sits with the trees.
The Runaways- I dare you to watch the opening 10 seconds of this film and hang on for the ride! The rise and fall of one of the all-time greatest rock bands. They started out as kids, under the predatory tutelage of a notorious manager who exploited them at every turn (and may have even raped one of them, though this is not pictured in the film). The magical alchemy of rock and roll is on full display here, as the 4 young women persevere through rampant sexism and exploitation and turn themselves into legends. Watch for the scene where Joan Jett takes a guitar lesson.
White Oleander- Can art heal us from trauma? This stunning film believes it can, though not without a cost. The daughter of a murderous artist is taken from her mother at a young age and placed in foster care, enduring multiple horrors before emerging as a powerful artist in her own right. This film is brightly lit in contrast to its protagonist's dark journey, but brittle and harsh as her mother's eyes when they visit in prison. Softness comes in the form of occasional kindness bestowed by random strangers who become touchstones in her life, and encourage her to grow her artistic talents. Watch for the scene with the suitcases.
Concussion- (NSFW TRAILER) Not just a blow to the head. This film's dedicated artist is a married home renovator whose entire perspective on her well-heeled domestic life gets shaken up after she suffers the titular injury. Hired to work on a tony Manhattan apartment, she decides to get her groove back by hiring a sex worker (or two) to romp with in the vacant space. When one of them suggests that she give the oldest profession a try herself, she goes for it, returning faithfully every night to care for her wife and 2 children. Her clients don't much notice the shifting elements of the space where they meet, though one of them makes a particular comment about tiles that sends her on a literal and figurative tear. Spare, stylish, sexy and clever. Watch for the scene with the tiles.
Mo' Better Blues- Do you love anything as much as he loves jazz? The trumpeter/ composer in this movie gives it everything he's got, which doesn't leave much for the two women in his life. Though the film relies heavily on sexist attitudes and tired "mother/whore" tropes for its female characters, it carries a ton of authentic angst as Bleek struggles to stay on top of his personal life while pushing his musical talent, and his band, to greater heights. Loyalty to his friends and devotion to his art collide in predictable but still engaging ways. Sexy, jazzy, tender and true. Watch for the band rehearsal scene.
Frances Ha- Oh, those crazy Millennials and their over-privileged art school dramas. Frances is too old to be young and too young too be grown-up, so she drags her battered dream of being a dancer all over New York City in pursuit of her best friend, whose fiance has become an interference in their friendship. Stumbling, bumbling, yet light and airy as its unpredictable heroine, this film gives a glimpse into the pieced-together existence of so many artists, and the ways in which they learn to compromise at least some of their ideals. Watch for the sequence when Frances "runs" through the streets of NYC.
Velvet Goldmine- Strap yourself in for a rocking, rampaging, restless romp. Loosely based in the lives of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Ferry, T-Rex and other titans of 70's English glam rock, this fantastical film drops in a touch of magic realism just when you least expect it. A throbbing meditation on the power of outsiders to shape culture, the limitations of legends, and a terrific endorsement of the hedonistic lifestyle. Yet it's central figure is a shy, quiet, and reserved journalist, shifting through the past to solve a strange mystery that only he can believe in. Watch for punchy concert scenes and the fans that populate them.
Synecdoche- Get ready to go down in flames along with this film's painfully self-aware, yet atrociously self-centered protagonist. An ardent-but-aging stage director, he toils away at his life's masterpiece, a giant replica of "real life", full of characters living out their mundane lives, with no audience and no guiding force except his occasional commands. His personal life is a total wreck, but that won't stop him from writing it all into his piece and attempting to live it differently. Sound confusing? Stay where you are for the final revelation. Heavy, plodding, more than a little pretentious, and also very funny, with some sober truths about the theatrical arts. Watch for the scenes where he directs his actors.
Black Swan- Perfectionists, take note: this dark dancer's fairy tale might change you forever. A young ballerina competes for the role of a lifetime as her quest for artistic "perfection" drives her into madness. Is she seeing double, or is that her own reflection in a dirty mirror? A rival dancer jumps in to ramp up the stakes and confuse her even more. Bold, spooky, sensual, and more than a little melodramatic, this film's icy-hot power will leave you scorched. Watch for the ballet rehearsal scenes.
Henry and June- (NSFW TRAILER) Recline yourself, resign yourself, you're through. Like a heavy narcotic, this film swims into your veins and highjacks all your senses. The electric connection between writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller in the 1930's, and its life-long effect on both their writing, is depicted as revolutionary in its carnality, with plenty of ravenous appetites on full display. The arrival of Henry's sultry femme-fatal wife June throws an irresistible wrench into the works as Anais' husband works overtime to hold her attention. The characters indulge in each other like wild cats gorging on their prey, but emotional stakes prove terribly high. Slinky, sultry, and sublime. Watch for the scene at the art students' ball.
Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle- What lies beneath the surface of genius? The matchless wit and marshmallow heart of the great Dorothy Parker are put to the test as she mixes with fellow writers, actors, painters, and sycophants at the infamous 1920's Algonquin Round Table. An all-star cast of famous characters comes to life as Mrs. Parker struggles with her demons and wrings poetry from her pain, all while engaging in a long-running mutual flirtation with the one true (married) love of her life. Stylish and a bit stagey, but with a beating human heart. Watch for any scene at the Round Table.
Laurel Canyon- To my knowledge, the only example of a female rock music producer ever depicted on film. Though she is not the direct protagonist, her vibrant presence and robust talent permeate every frame of this ensemble drama about a son's desire to reconcile his past while training for his future. Set in the post-hippie enclave of Laurel Canyon (in suburban LA) in the early aughts, the privileged, over-indulged characters literally and metaphorically collide with each other as they struggle to come to terms with their buried needs, and wrestle some kind of beauty from the chaos. Sparkling, sexy, dizzy and tender. Watch for the party scene with famous musicians (how many can you spot?), and the scenes in the recording studio.
The Lives of Others- I thought I would hate this movie, but it won me over completely. In mid-80's East Germany a frosty and dedicated Stasi officer requests the duty of spying on a famous free-thinking playwright, whose international reputation largely protects him from harm at the hands of the brutally repressive government regime. The playwright's apartment is bugged, the guard begins his stakeout, and a powerful drama begins to play out inside his headphones. What he hears will change him utterly, and also alter the playwright forever. Eerie and unsettling, but ultimately powerfully redemptive. Watch for the final scene.
The Tango Lesson- Sure, you can lead... but can you follow? Master film director Sally Potter brings her real-life collaboration with tango titan Pablo Veron to the screen in a powerful endorsement of art imitating life. In exchange for tango lessons, she offers Pablito a role in her film with one caution: for the first time in his life, he will have to follow instead of leading. The resulting emotional push-and-pull mirrors their dancing, and teaches them both unexpected lessons. Lit with a smoky chiaroscuro, and crackling with electricity. Watch for any of the tango lessons.