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Best 4 Films on the Painter Vincent van Gogh

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The story of Vincent van Gogh's life has all the elements of a great film -- passion, conflict, art, money, death. The Van Gogh films listed here are all quite different and all worth watching. My all-time favorite is Paul Cox's Vincent, which uses only extracts from Van Gogh's letters to tell the tale.

All three show you his paintings in a way a reproduction in a book never can, the scenery Van Gogh was exposed to and inspired by, and what drive and determination he had to succeed as an artist. To a painter, Van Gogh's life and determination to develop his art skills are inspiring as the paintings he created.

1. Vincent: A Film by Paul Cox (1987)

Film about Vincent van Gogh by Paul Cox
Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans

Describing this film is easy: it's John Hurt reading extracts from Van Gogh's letters to an unfolding sequence of images of locations and Van Gogh's paintings, drawings, and sketches. But there's nothing simple about the film. It's extremely powerful and moving to listen to Van Gogh's own words relate his inner struggles and attempts to develop as an artist. To his what he regarded as his artistic successes and failures.

This is the film I think Van Gogh would've made himself; it has the same intense visual impact as encountering Van Gogh's paintings in real life for the first time rather than in reproduction.

2. Vincent and Theo: A Film by Robert Altman (1990)

Film about Vincent van Gogh by Robert Altman
Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans

Vincent and Theo is period drama transporting you back in time into the intertwined lives of the two brothers (and Theo's long-suffering wife.) It stars Tim Roth as Vincent and Paul Rhys as Theo. This isn't an analysis of Vincent's personality or works, it's the story of his life as well as the struggles of Theo to make a career as an art dealer.

Without Theo supporting him financially, Vincent would not have been able to paint. (You'll see Theo's apartment gradually becoming more and more crowded by Vincent's paintings!) As a painter, it shows how invaluable it's having an unquestioning supporter who believes in you.

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3. Lust for Life: A Film by Vincente Minnelli (1956)

Lust for Life is based on the book by the same name by Irving Stone and stars Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. It's a classic that's a little over acted and over dramatic by today's standards, but that's part of the appeal. It's tremendously emotional and passionate.

The film shows more of Vincent's early struggles to find a direction in life than the others, how he was sought to learn how to draw and then paint. It's worth watching just for the scenery, to get an appreciation for Van Gogh's early, dark palette and his later bright colors.

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4. Vincent The Full Story: Documentary by Waldemar Januszczak

Film about Vincent van Gogh by Waldemar Januszczak
Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans
A three-part documentary by art critic Waldemar Januszczak, originally shown on Channel 4 in the UK. What I particularly enjoyed about this series was seeing the locations in the Netherlands, England, and France where Van Gogh lived and worked, and Januszczak's surveys of the influences of other artists and locations on Van Gogh's paintings.)

A handful of factual claims didn't ring true to me, and some are open to interpretation, but this series is definitely worth watching if you enjoy Van Gogh's paintings and want to learn more about him. It's very much the "full" story, dealing with his whole life, including the early years in London and the period where he started to teach himself to draw.
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