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5 Brilliant Films About the Dark Side of Famous Geniuses

5 Brilliant Films About the Dark Side of Famous Geniuses

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.]

With the On Demand release of “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” — Alex Gibney’s look at the personal and private life of the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs — we’ve compiled a list of other great films about famous geniuses. 

READ MORE: ‘The Man in the Machine’ Trailer Proves You Don’t Know Everything about Steve Jobs

Great minds are often double-sided coins. On one hand, genius is a gift. Possessing a unique perspective coupled with a prodigious ability is a singular opportunity in life. It can be used to change the world, achieve notoriety, and everything in between. But on the flip side, being bestowed with a great mind can make for an isolating experience in life, fraught with the myriad challenges associated with greatness and the psychological pitfalls of brilliance. Many of history’s greatest minds — Van Gogh being the most prominent example — were tortured geniuses, and some of their lives ended in suicide, insane asylums or self-imposed isolation. Being extraordinary can be as much a gift as it is a curse. These five films explore the dark side of genius.

1. A Beautiful Mind, dir. Ron Howard (2001)

Russell Crowe left audiences reeling after he brought John Nash, the famed mathematician and Nobel Laureate in Economics, to life. “A Beautiful Mind” follows Nash from the late 1940s to Princeton, where he honed his mathematic prowess, then to MIT, where he teaches and hopes to discover a truly original theory. As the Cold War tensions mount, an agent from the Department of Defense invites Nash to the Pentagon on a secret mission to help crack encrypted enemy code. Nash has the uncanny ability to recognize patterns in what seems to be chaos and randomness, and he astonishes government officials with his penchant for decryption. But then he begins to see patterns everywhere. His mind works relentlessly to find connections that don’t actually exist. He becomes paranoid, convinced he’s being followed and manipulated by undercover Russian officials. Ron Howard takes care to bring the audience along for the ride as Nash experiences what turn out to be elaborate schizophrenic delusions, compelling in their complexity and verisimilitude. Along with Nash, we’re engaged in a struggle to distinguish fantasy from reality. The arrogant genius disintegrates into a helpless man ravaged by mental illness who alienates those around him and destroys his credibility. “A Beautiful Mind” is the prime example of a genius suffering at the hands of the very talent that makes him extraordinary. 

2. Amadeus, dir. Miloš Forman (1984)

Is genius innate, or can it be learned? Miloš Forman tackles the question with the most ambitious of subjects: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The dazzling spectacle that is “Amadeus” takes place in late 18th century Vienna, where a young Mozart (Tom Hulce) is just beginning to gain notoriety among the musical elite. Despite his breathtaking talent, Mozart is a crass, feckless and immature kid. It’s as if the gift of musical genius has been given to an undeserving soul. In fact, that’s exactly how Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) sees it — Salieri toils day in and day out but remains a mediocre musician, and he’s incredibly bitter about the fact that Mozart seems to have been endowed at birth with the gift of genius despite a lackluster work ethic. At first, Salieri nurtures Mozart’s talent, but eventually he becomes consumed with vile jealousy that drives him to ruin the child prodigy’s life. Although this is a largely fictionalized account of Mozart’s life, it sheds light on the truth of the nature of genius — and the perils that accompany it.

3. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher (2010)

Aaron Sorkin’s quick-witted dialogue ricochets around “The Social Network,” a story of the inception of Facebook and the social and intellectual warfare that followed. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, a young man accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room. He and two Harvard classmates work in tandem to build a dating site, but when Zuckerberg realizes he’s sitting on the greatest cultural invention of the century, he takes the money and runs. The cunning Zuckerberg becomes something of a megalomaniac in his attempt to bring Facebook to fruition — and keep the profit and credits for himself. The film moves at breakneck speed; acerbic banter, hot-blooded duplicity and ripe social commentary make it a consistently riveting watch. Sorkin and Fincher are ultimately interested in how genius breeds avarice. For Zuckerberg, narcissism is the fuel of the twenty-first century, and those who uphold old-fashioned humanistic values over personal gain get left in the dust. 

4. Pollock, dir. Ed Harris (2000)

Ed Harris directs and stars in this explosive portrait of Jackson Pollock, an artist whose demons bred his genius. Harris portrays Pollock as a manic-depressive alcoholic whose major struggle is to make it through the day without hurting himself or anyone else. When he discovers painting, artistic genius is borne of the need for a reprieve: Art is the only realm in which Pollock feels the need to create rather than destroy. His paintings, frazzled and violent in nature, are an extension of uncontrollable inner chaos. Harris’s performance is so empathic and insightful that it feels as if he’s channelling Pollock. The actor/director details the artist’s work ethic with the same diligence Pollock applied to his own process and, in doing so, evokes the mythology at the heart of creativity itself. 

5. Frida, dir. Julie Taymor (2002)

Frida Kahlo may as well have coined the adage “art is life.” With “Frida,” director Julie Taymor doesn’t need to take creative license; Kahlo’s life was as dramatic as they come, and its narrative is inextricably linked with her art. The film follows the surrealist Mexican painter — played by Salma Hayek, with precision and grace — through 30 years of her storied life. Though she came from an affluent family, Kahlo’s beginnings were not without strife: After suffering a crippling bout of polio, she was struck by a bus and bedridden for months. While incapacitated, Kahlo’s genius begins to emerge. She produced dozens of paintings and, upon recovering, presented them to Diego Rivera (Alfred Molino), who promptly makes her his protégé and lover. Rivera catapulted Kahlo to fame, but he managed to drive her insane in the process; their turbulent relationship is one for the soap opera ages. Hayek captures the fierce intensity of genius through the prism of an extraordinary — and extraordinarily painful — life. 

Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand for September’s Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Love & Mercy,” “The Overnight,” “Time Out of Mind,” “Cop Car” and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

READ MORE: How Steve Jobs’ Impact is Leading to New Kinds of Stories

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