Ah, the winter holidays. What better time of year to kick back and put on a great art movie? This year, we’ve seen the release of a number of incredible art-related films, from documentaries like the highly-rated ThePrice of Everything, to fictionalized accounts of true events, such as the heist film American Animals. It’s been a good year for art movie nerds. So if you’re looking for something to watch this winter, here’s a go-to guide of the year’s best art movies to stream at home (with one or two older flicks in case you need to catch up).
The Price of Everything (2018)
Artist Jeff Koons in front of one of his Gazing Ball paintings in The Price of Everything. Photo courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.
Boasting unprecedented access to the major players of the contemporary art world, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn reveals some of the secrets behind the incredible record prices art has hit in the past decade. Through interviews with (among others) collectors like Stefan Edlis, auctioneers such as Amy Cappellazzo, and the artist Larry Poons—whose market has suffered since he took a leap from his youthful, Minimalist style into more difficult terrain— Kahn peels back the curtain to ask what makes are valuable, how it’s sold, and why it all matters. Available on HBO Now.
American Animals (2018)
A still from American Animals.
American Animals is based on the unbelievable true story of four middle-class college kids who hatched an harebrained scheme to stage a daylight robbery of several rare, multi-million dollar books from a university campus in Kentucky.
In 2004, the thieves tried to pull off the audacious theft of four double-sized volumes of John James Audobon’s Birds of America from Transylvania University’s Special Collections Library. Although they failed in their initial goal, they nabbed some Audobon drawings and other rare books, which they then took to Christie’s as (supposed) representatives of a private collector. Police caught up with the gang in 2005 and they were later each sentenced to seven years in prison.
The movie is interspersed with real-life interviews with the four amateur criminals, offering a refreshing and entertaining take on the art heist genre. Available on Amazon.
Still from the film Struggle.
This documentary film looks at the life of the Polish artist Stanislaw Szukalski, an obscure figure whose work was subject to persecution by the Nazis. As a young man, he split time between Poland and Chicago and earned a reputation as his native country’s greatest living artist. There was even a museum dedicated to his work. But when the Germans invaded in 1939, much of his art was destroyed, and he then feld back to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. It was in America that he eventually met George DiCaprio (father of Leonardo), who, along with his son, financed this film. Available on Netflix.
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017)
Still from Damien Hirst’s mockumentary, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, courtesy of Netflix.
Damien Hirst‘s slickly produced mockumentary (which he financed himself) gave context to his two-venue, 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition, a show that featured “relics” supposedly found upon the discovery of a shipwreck that occurred 2,000 years ago. In the film, we follow the group of archaeologists as they come upon their cache of ancient gems, including enormous sculptures, which “experts” explain as having belong to a former slave turned voracious collector, Cif Amotan II. Available on Netflix.
Human Flow (2017)
Ai Weiwei at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece. Still from Human Flow.
Ai Weiwei’s groundbreaking documentary on the ongoing refugee crisis is an eye-opening account of the personal stories of displacement behind the newspaper headlines. Through interviews with refugees and experts alike, it highlights the enormous costs and difficulties of the crisis, which is a subject dear to Ai: as a child, he was also a refugee. During the holidays, when many of us have the privilege of enjoying ourselves surrounded by friends and family, Ai’s film is a poignant reminder of the suffering of millions of migrants forced to flee their homes in search of a better life elsewhere—wherever that may be.Available on Amazon.
Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World (2017)
Artist Rashid Johnson appears in Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World. Photographer by Ken Ng.
Artists and art industry insiders shed light on the increasing commercialization of the art world in this film by Barry Avrich. Interviews with collectors, artists, auction house specialists, and dealers expose the forces at work behind the shiny and glamorous curtain that obscures the art market.
The film’s brisk pace, high energy, and poignant anecdotes offered by charismatic individuals sets it apart from other art documentaries that too often get bogged down in banal stereotypes. Blurred Lines is a great one-and-a-half hour crash course for novices, but carries enough substance to inform and entertain seasoned art professionals. It’s a great choice, in other words, to introduce your philistine uncle to the complexities of the art world without boring you. Available on Netflix.
Cate Blanchett plays many roles in Julian Rosefeldt’s film Manifesto. Photo Courtesy Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Artist Julian Rosenfeldt’s critically acclaimed video installation Manifesto (2015) first made its North American premier at the Park Avenue Armory in 2016. In that presentation, 12 screens featured Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett in various roles (as a homeless man, a news reporter, a factory worker, a dance teacher, and more) reciting edited versions of more than 50 manifestos penned by Kazimir Malevich, Andre Breton, and Claes Oldenburg, among others. Last year, the expansive installation was edited into a film now available on Amazon and other platforms. Available on Amazon.