The 25 best biopic movies, in no particular order, are:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Marriage can get stale, so why not go on the rob? Bonnie and Clyde did exactly that with plenty of stealing and violence throughout their wedded life. This film might be a bit less harsh and violent than the (pretty grim) reality, but it’s still an enticing watch. If only they had two TVs per household back in those days, this might have been avoided.
My Left Foot (1989)
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy who can control just one limb – the eponymous left foot. Inspirationally (the less charitably-inclined might say annoyingly) he mastered amazing feats of art and writing with it.
Ray Charles never made it to the premier (he died of lung cancer shortly before the screening). As a result, we don’t know how he felt about Taylor Hackford’s masterly screen narrative of his life. Jamie Foxx filled in the blanks, with an Oscar-winning performance as the drug-dependent R&B legend.
The Aviator (2004)
Christopher Nolan, Warren Beatty and Michael Mann all tried to make a film based on the life of Howard Hughes – but it was Martin Scorsese who eventually grabbed the prize. Leonardo Dicaprio does sterling work as Hughes, whose obsessive character takes him from the highs of Hollywood glamour and grandiose feats of engineering to his eventual fate as a germophobic recluse.
Coco Before Chanel (2009)
Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in this rags-to-fur-coats tale that depicts the style icon’s struggle from obscurity to become one of the leading lights of 20th century fashion. Don’t be put off by the vapidity of modern vanity – this is a steely drama that beds its steely roots in raw feminism and can be safely enjoyed by the sandal-and-sock-wearing man.
Raging Bull (1980)
Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese team up in this tale of self-destructive middleweight Jake LaMotta. The raging bull’s violent, destructive personal life leads him to be king of the ring. Meanwhile, Joe Pesci plays it cool. For once.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Remember the girl in the red coat? Course you do… it was the only bit of Spielberg’s gritty second world war biopic that appeared in colour. But the real story was of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German factory worker who managed to save over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. The film deservedly picked up seven of his namesake awards.
Astonishing performances and Ben Kingsley aren’t exactly strangers, but Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who gained India’s independence by encouraging non-violent protests, earns him more stripes than most. A fitting tribute to a great man, and it scooped eight Academy Awards. Even the British loved it.
The Elephant Man (1980)
John Hurt plays Joseph Merrick, a horribly disfigured Victorian freak helped by the kindly curiosity of Anthony Hopkins’s Dr Treves. David Lynch’s film adaptation of the biographical stageplay immortalised this true-life story of our shallow human lives.
The Queen (2006)
Dame Helen Mirren wears considerably more clothing in this film than she did in Calendar Girls. Regardless of this blessing/disappointment, her Oscar and BAFTA winning performance of Her Majesty’s life immediately after Princess Diana’s death was both believable and compelling, even if she was slightly upstaged by Michael Sheen as Tony Blair.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Russell Crowe plays John Nash, an economic Nobel laureate who develops paranoid schizophrenia, resulting in hallucinations and dangerously erratic behaviour. We began to question the existence of everyone we knew immediately after the credits began to roll. Well, after we’d wiped away a tear.
Malcolm X (1992)
Recidivist Malcolm Little has an epiphany in jail. He converts to Islam and adopts the name Malcolm X, rejecting the surname given to his family by white slave owners and propelling him to become Islam's national spokesman in the US. Needless to say, he got gunned down in the end. Before you head for the comments, there’s no such thing as a spoiler in a biopic.
More after the break...
The King's Speech (2010)
It’s difficult to make a powerful, morale-boosting speech to a war-ravaged country when you’re tongue-tied. Colin Firth and the medium of film conspire to help us all understand how George VI overcame his debilitating speech impediment to do just that. The movie was ladled with a record-breaking 12 Oscar nominations.
Harvey Milk’s election was a Californian landmark – an openly gay man took office for the first time. Gus Van Sant’s biopic veers between tender and violent to tell the story from a perch carefully balanced between Milk’s private and public lives.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as the eponymous writer – Truman Capote – researching his non-fiction work, In Cold Blood. Capote becomes obsessed with a multiple murder, travelling to meet the relatives (and, ultimately, killer). His friend, To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee, corresponds throughout. Dark, but brilliant.
Walk the Line (2005)
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the man in black (that’s Johnny Cash to you) was so unerringly accurate, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the reality from the fiction. But he’s a plastic figurine next to Reese Witherspoon’s note-perfect June Carter. Repeated viewing advised.
We’re not sure how Mozart – one of the world’s most famous composers – would feel about getting the first-name-only Madonna treatment. But we’re pretty sure he’d have enjoyed this restless biopic about his life and friendship-come-rivalry with Antonio Salieri. Awards rained on Milos Forman’s film.
American Splendor (2003)
Only an actor of Paul Giamatti’s calibre could have captured the essence of Harvey Pekar – file clerk, comic book writer and life-long grump. Pekar listens to jazz, moans about his job, meets his wife (Joyce) and gets cancer – documenting everything in a comic book series and becoming a strange kind of celebrity in the process. With cameos from ‘Real Harvey’ and ‘Real Joyce’.
If you’re a fan of the tense on-screen political interview, it doesn’t get much more nail-biting than David Frost versus Richard Nixon post-Watergate. Michael Sheen is creditably annoying as the British TV host and it’s worth a watch just to see Frank Langella do his best to illustrate where “I’m sweating like Nixon” comes from.
Ed Wood (1994)
Seen Plan 9 from Outer Space? Or Bride of the Monster? Yes, we might be fed up with the ‘Tim Burton directing and Johnny Depp playing an eccentric’ formula but this bio of the worst-director-of-all-time Ed Wood was one of the first to cement the relationship. Wood’s zany gang includes Orson Welles and drag queen Bunny Breckinridge, played by Bill Murray.
La Vie En Rose (2007)
Marion Cotillard does her turn as “Little Sparrow” Edith Piaf in this story of the street singer turned French national treasure. The plot zips back and forth but if you can keep up, you’ll quickly be drawn into the stories of the murdered club owner who discovers her, Piaf’s love affair with Marcel Cerdan and the death of her only child. It gets emotional.
Martin Scorsese's classic crime saga follows Ray Liotta's Henry Hill as he works his way up the gangster hierarchy, lured into a life of crime by the perks of being a 'made man'. It's packed with classic scenes, from the one-take Steadicam Copacabana shot to the frenetic jump cuts of the drug-paranoia sequence. And of course there's Joe Pesci's career-best performance as the psychotic Tommy "funny how?" DeVito.
Before his recent rebirth as Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr's career-best performance was undoubtedly his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin. Richard Attenborough's film sprawls a little, but Downey Jr's portrayal of Chaplin – from impoverished music-hall turn to the iconic Little Fellow – is riveting.
George C Scott's vainglorious General Patton is one of cinema's great warriors, bestriding the battlefield like a colossus. But director Franklin J Schaffner's film goes beneath the surface – his Patton self-consciously crafts a stage persona as a flamboyant war leader, while simultaneously buying into his own propaganda. "General, the men don't always know when you're acting or not," says one officer. "They don't need to know," Patton replies. "Only I need to know."
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
If you get the chance to see David Lean's 1962 epic on the big screen, do it. Television – yes, even your Philips 21:9 monster – doesn't do justice to its sweeping landscapes and visual spectacle, all shot on 70mm film. And that's before we even get to the performances – Peter O'Toole as the unconventional hero, given the opportunity to act out on a grand stage, and Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif in justifiably famous supporting turns.