10 Best Biopic Movies Of All Time

Summary

  • The most important part of a biopic movie is that it captures the essence and emotional truth of its subject.
  • Many biopics, like “Amadeus” and “Oppenheimer” explore themes of tortured genius and how these individuals greatly impact history.
  • Some stories take the lives of real people and embellish them with additional dramatic elements, like in “The Social Network.”

Biopics are a difficult movie genre to perfect, but the best biopic movies of all time all transcend the traditional format and find new ways to engage the audience. Typically, biopics center on a famous figure in history and tell the story of their life, but a person’s life never unfolds the way a movie does. While there may be plenty of dramatic events across the subject’s lifetime, a good biopic knows what to omit and where to dramatically embellish to tell a story that holds more emotional truths rather than a dry recounting of hard facts.

The key feature of any person who warrants a biopic is that their actions in life created a fundamental shift in society and culture.

There’s been an increase in great music-biopic movies in the past few decades, as musical icons make great subjects for exciting films. However, politicians, scientists, and innovators are centered in these stories. The key feature of any person who warrants a biopic is that their actions in life created a fundamental shift in society and culture. Whether this was for the greater good or not is open to interpretation. Some filmmakers choose a neutral approach to the person’s life and do not take a stance, while others imbue their personal feelings and experiences related to the figure into the movie.

movies-based-real-people-more-biopic-best Related 10 Movies Based On Real People That Are More Than Just A Biopic

Biographical drama is a term that encompasses many films, but some break down the usual designations of the genre and expand upon them.

10 Walk The Line (2005)

Directed by James Mangold

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The film primarily focuses on Cash’s early years and the period of his life with the most tumult.

Much more than a country singer, Johnny Cash is a legend of country music, and his songs and artistry are well-remembered today. Joaquin Phoenix was the perfect choice to portray Cash, but it was Reese Witherspoon, who played Cash’s second wife, June Carter, who received great acclaim and accolades for her work. Her role was equally, if not more important, as the person who weathered the storm of Cash’s addiction and rise to fame. The film primarily focuses on Cash’s early years and the period of his life with the most tumult.

Though the movie chronicles great lows in Cash’s life, it’s an ultimately sweet tale with an uplifting ending that many biopics don’t give their stories. Ending on a high was a strong choice on the part of the director, James Mangold, as biopics are well-known for being tearjerkers with tragic endings. However, Walk the Line gets its tragedy out of the way early and isn’t afraid to let the audience focus on the beauty of the music. Both Phoenix and Witherspoon nail the musicality of their characters and their explosive chemistry.

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Walk the Line is a biographical drama film that tells the story of Johnny Cash, a legendary musician, and his tumultuous relationship with June Carter, a country singer. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as Carter, and explores their romance, as well as Cash’s struggles with addiction and fame.

Director James Mangold Release Date September 13, 2005 Cast Joaquin Phoenix , Reese Witherspoon , Ginnifer Goodwin , Robert Patrick , Dallas Roberts Runtime 136 Minutes

9 Oppenheimer (2023)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

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Oppenheimer might be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, as the movie highlights everything audiences and critics adore about the filmmaker. Additionally, Cillian Murphy likely hit a career-high with his performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. This, along with Nolan’s win for Best Director and Best Picture for the film itself, makes it difficult to argue the film’s merits. Its political commentary on the legacy of the atomic bomb has fallen under some criticism, but they were intentionally ancillary to Nolan’s depiction of the man himself.

The huge list of cast and characters in Oppenheimer is part of an ensemble of people who worked alongside the physicist in real life. Visually and technically, the movie is a marvel, but Nolan works hard not to let the magnitude of the film overshadow the most important part of the story: Oppenheimer’s journey. Oppenheimer is Nolan’s most character-driven work, allowing the audience to get a sense of the man, but also in conjunction with his accomplishments. What the legacy of Oppenheimer should be is open for audience interpretation.

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Oppenheimer is a film by Christopher Nolan, which follows the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy will play the titular role, with the story based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Director Christopher Nolan Release Date July 21, 2023 Cast Cillian Murphy , Emily Blunt , Matt Damon , Robert Downey Jr. , Rami Malek , Florence Pugh Runtime 150 Minutes

8 Schindler’s List (1993)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

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Schindler’s initial moral ambiguity is thrown into harsh relief by the cruelty and evil of Ralph Fiennes’ character, the SS officer Amon Göth.

Steven Spielberg took liberties with his interpretation of Oskar Schindler, the real man whose actions saved over one thousand Jewish people during the Holocaust. The movie drew inspiration from Schindler’s Ark, the 1982 novel by Thomas Keneally, which was a more straightforward historical description of Schindler’s actions. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and effectively expresses the nuance of Schindler’s position as a man who desired money but could not overlook his conscience. Schindler’s initial moral ambiguity is thrown into harsh relief by the cruelty and evil of Ralph Fiennes’ character, the SS officer Amon Göth.

The film’s main theme is one of the most famous pieces of cinematic scoring of all time, exploring the gravity and intensity of the story’s subject matter. Schindler’s List frequently ranks as one of the greatest movies about the Holocaust and is in conversation with topics of redemption for Schindler and the inaction of world governments to intervene earlier in the Holocaust despite their knowledge of the horrific events. Though the film has faced some scrutiny over its portrayal of black-and-white good versus evil, it remains a moving portrait of a horrible period of history.

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Schindler’s List is a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg, chronicling the efforts of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved over a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes, the film vividly portrays the atrocities committed during World War II while highlighting Schindler’s transformation from a profit-driven industrialist to a humanitarian savior.

Director Steven Spielberg Release Date December 15, 1993 Cast Liam Neeson , Ben Kingsley , Ralph Fiennes , Caroline Goodall , Jonathan Sagall Runtime 195 Minutes

7 Amadeus (1984)

Directed by Miloš Forman

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Few classical composers are so deeply entrenched in the cultural conversation as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, Amadeus is not only about Mozart, but about his bitter rival and great admirer, Antonio Salieri, and how their relationship was detrimental to the lives of both men. Of course, this so-called rivalry is mostly fictitious and was invented by Peter Shaffer in his 1979 play on which the movie is based. However, this doesn’t change how dedicated the film is to getting inside the mind of a genius.

Many parts of Amadeus were dramaticized, while others did happen in real life. Mozart’s meteoric rise to fame and success was thanks to his reputation as a child prodigy, and he was an oddity at court with a sense of humor that shocked the nobles. However, Amadeus and Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart is a stand-in for the universal tale of doomed genius and the toll that being a revolutionary has on the mind of one person. Amadeus was never supposed to be treated as a version of history but instead as a tribute to an incredible talent.

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Telling the fictionalized story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life, Amadeus is adapted by Peter Shaffer from his 1979 stage play of the same name. Set in 18th Century Vienna, Austria, the biopic follows the legendary composer from when he left Salzburg, through his disastrous rivalriy with Antonio Salieri.

Director Milos Forman Release Date September 19, 1984 Cast F. Murray Abraham , Tom Hulce , Elizabeth Berridge , Simon Callow , Roy Dotrice , Christine Ebersole Runtime 160 minutes

6 Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985)

Directed by Paul Schrader

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Schrader uses avant-garde filmmaking techniques to extrapolate how Mishima might have visually expressed his style of storytelling.

Carefully crafting a balance between Yukio Mishima’s real life and dramatizations of his stories, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters examines Mishima’s life as a writer and as a divisive figure in Japanese history. Paul Schrader directed and collaborated on the screenplay with Leonard Schrader and Chieko Schrader, and his interest in the intersection between Mishima’s life experiences and the characters he wrote on the page is evident. Style is prioritized over accuracy and detail, but it’s difficult to argue with the visually stunning look of the movie.

It’s the artistry of Mishima and Schrader that comes through the most in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader uses avant-garde filmmaking techniques to extrapolate how Mishima might have visually expressed his style of storytelling. Ken Ogata plays Mishima and is put through his paces as a performer. However, it’s unlikely that anyone other than the veteran actor could have portrayed him, as Ogata was well-versed in emotionally and physically demanding roles. The score by Philip Glass must also be mentioned as a feature of the movie that has stood the test of time.

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Director Paul Schrader Release Date September 20, 1985 Cast Ken Ogata , Masayuki Shionoya

5 The Elephant Man (1980)

Directed by David Lynch

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David Lynch’s The Elephant Man came out the same year as Raging Bull, and if it wasn’t for Raging Bull, The Elephant Man would have swept awards season with even more ease. By this point in his career, Lynch had only completed Eraserhead, the surrealist horror movie considered a cult classic today. Following this up with a biopic about Joseph Merrick, a man with physical differences in the late 1800s that people nicknamed “the Elephant Man.” While Lynch has typically stuck to more nonlinear and dreamlike narratives, The Elephant Man tells a concise yet tragic tale about a misunderstood man.

Overwhelmingly, The Elephant Man appeals to its audience to see those different from them as humans and approach the unknown with kindness and compassion rather than fear. It’s emotionally harrowing to watch The Elephant Man, as John Hurt plays Merrick with such sensitivity, even in the wake of indomitable cruelty. Anthony Hopkins starred alongside Hurt as the doctor who formed a relationship with Merrick and brings equal depth to the table. Shot in black and white, The Elephant Man is just as relevant and accessible today as it was in 1980.

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Director David Lynch Release Date October 10, 1980 Cast Anthony Hopkins , John Hurt , Anne Bancroft , John Gielgud , Freddie Jones , Michael Elphick , Hannah Gordon

4 The Social Network (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

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The film’s characterization of Zuckerberg only works so well thanks to the air-tight script from Aaron Sorkin that perfectly captures the nuance of Zuckerberg’s personality and the calculating direction from David Fincher.

Mark Zuckerberg is still a relevant figure in technology and the growing influence of social media, and for this reason, it becomes even more surreal to revisit The Social Network with each passing year. It’s practically impossible to remember a world before social media, but The Social Network reminds the audience that a few short years ago, it was one man in a college dorm room who changed everything. Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark is no hero, and the audience bounces back and forth between hate and pity for the character throughout the story.

The film’s characterization of Zuckerberg only works so well thanks to the air-tight script from Aaron Sorkin that perfectly captures the nuance of Zuckerberg’s personality and the calculating direction from David Fincher. With Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composing the score, it’s difficult to think of a recent movie that has such a star-studded creative team. Prepped for success, The Social Network easily becomes about much more than Zuckerberg or Facebook; it’s a mirror in which the audience sees themselves, willingly or not.

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David Fincher’s The Social Network chronicles the birth of Facebook and the rise of tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg. Following Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as he creates his famous social network along with his friend and investor Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). As Facebook’s popularity grows, Zuckerberg faces legal action from former friends, with The Social Network following his journey from an innovative young student to a titan of industry.

Director David Fincher Release Date October 1, 2010 Cast Jesse Eisenberg , Rooney Mara , Andrew Garfield , Justin Timberlake , Armie Hammer Runtime 120 minutes

3 Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Directed by David Lean

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The vivid colors, vast sets, and gorgeous costumes make it difficult to believe that Lawrence of Arabia came out over sixty years ago. However, only in the Hollywood Golden Age could such an epic be made with the longevity to remain a benchmark for cinema to this day. T.E. Lawrence, the real man the film is based on, would have long ago faded out of memory if not for the epic retelling of his story. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence, and the majority of the story tracks his station in Greater Syria during the First World War.

In Syria, he attempts to ally the Arab National Council with the British to fight the Turks. The film is in deep conversation with the violence and cost of war and how individual lives are so easily sacrificed by the people pulling the strings. Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t shy away from using its setting to its advantage with brilliant shots of the desert sands and amazing use of light. The film made waves at the Academy Awards, gaining concrete recognition for its success, but even without the accolades, Lawrence of Arabia would never be forgotten.

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The 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia is a historical movie based on the life of a real-life British officer who played a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn, the Oscar-winning film displays the man’s disillusionment with war and its politics.

Director David Lean Release Date December 11, 1962 Cast Alec Guinness , Omar Sharif , Peter O’Toole , Jack Hawkins , Anthony Quinn Runtime 228 minutes

2 Malcolm X (1992)

Directed by Spike Lee

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Like many biopics, the movie draws on the book written about X’s experiences,
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
, but it still feels like a Lee project from start to finish.

Capturing the life and death of the incredible political and cultural figure Malcolm X was always going to be a challenge. However, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington made the project into something unbelievable. In one of Washington’s greatest performances, he throws himself into the intricacies of X’s legacy and willingly evolves and changes with each new phase of life that X goes through. Like many biopics, the movie draws on the book written about X’s experiences, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but it still feels like a Lee project from start to finish.

Lee’s interpretation of X as a figure and a man is inextricable from the movie’s success. One of the most compelling aspects of Malcolm X is that the creative team understood that X’s story wasn’t just about the singular man but about the development of a new United States during one of the most tumultuous times in the country’s history. It’s a long and sweeping movie, more akin to the traditional epics of old Hollywood. However, that’s not to say that the visual style and cinematic techniques are at all lacking when compared to the story and performances.

Malcolm X
is available to rent on Prime Video or Apple TV.

Malcolm X (1992) PG-13BiographyDramaHistory

Malcolm X is a biographical drama directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington as the titular civil rights leader. The film chronicles Malcolm X’s life from his early days as a street hustler to his rise as a prominent and controversial Nation of Islam spokesperson, culminating in his advocacy for human rights before his assassination in 1965.

Director Spike Lee Release Date November 18, 1992 Cast Denzel Washington , Angela Bassett , Albert Hall , Al Freeman Jr. , Delroy Lindo Runtime 202 minutes

Related 10 Most Inaccurate Movie Biopics (That Are Still Really Good)

Biopics are usually known for being historically accurate, but that isn’t the case for these 10 movies – but that shouldn’t be held against them.

1 Raging Bull (1980)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Every Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro movie collaboration has gone down in history as a landmark movie, but few come close to the magnitude of Raging Bull. Based on the life of Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxing champion, the movie draws inspiration from LaMotta’s memoir. However, Raging Bull pulls no punches in portraying LaMotta as a complex and often cruel man, and De Niro is up to the challenge of bringing him to life. Not only does Raging Bull rank as the best biopic ever made but it’s frequently cited as one of the greatest all-around films.

Though it received high critical acclaim at the time of its release, Raging Bull has only grown in estimation as the years have gone by. It’s considered one of Scorsese’s best movies and demonstrates the similarities between an auteur and a champion in the intensity of the filmmaking. Films like Raging Bull make it clear why so many filmmakers are drawn to stories of obsession and sacrifice, as similar amounts of blood, sweat, and tears go into their art.

Watch
Raging Bull
on YouTube, Prime Video, or Hulu.

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Directed by Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull is a 1980 sports drama based on the rise and fall of real-life boxer Jake LaMotta as he strives for success while dealing with his inner demons and his violent temper. Robert De Niro stars as the middleweight champion, with Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, and Nicholas Colasanto in supporting roles.

Director Martin Scorsese Release Date December 19, 1980 Cast Robert De Niro , Theresa Saldana , Nicholas Colasanto , Joe Pesci , Cathy Moriarty Runtime 129 minutes

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