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The 20 Best Biographical Movies of The 21st Century

10 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Sebastiano Perulli

best biopics 21st century

2014 has definitely been the year of biopics. True stories seem to have a great deal of charm for both directors and public, whether the subjects are well-known figures like Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” or individuals who return to prominence like Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and John du Pont in “Foxcatcher”.

In this list we have tried to include a wide variety of biopics, featuring some created in a traditional style and others which are distinguished by originality and innovation, including both American and foreign movies.

Let’s see which are the most inspiring biographical movies of the last 15 years.


20. Pollock (2000)

Pollock 2000

Based on the life of: Jackson Pollock

Ed Harris both directs and acts in this portrayal of one of the most intriguing artists of the twentieth century. The movie is effective in portraying the two faces of the character, showing the audience both the artistic genius and the vices that lead him to depression and ignominy.

What really makes the movie a masterpiece of its genre is the ability to remain faithful to reality and plausibility in portraying the creative process, especially when it depicts the famous dripping technique invented by Pollock.

Ed Harris avoids the predictable and banal aspects of the genre by featuring only the bare minimum of Pollock as a larger-than-life alcoholic and non-conformist, he focuses on a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between Pollock and his own paintings.

Female characters are well defined and have great importance in the movie: the performance by Marcia Gay Harden as Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner should be mentioned in particular, it earned her an Oscar for best actress in a supporting role.

Recently we have seen another biopic about the life of a painter, “Mr. Turner”, which certainly has its technical merits but which may not reach the level of sympathy and understanding for the character that Ed Harris achieves.


19. Shattered Glass (2003)

Shattered Glass

Based on the life of: Stephen Glass

The irresistible rise of Stephen Glass, young reporter of the New Republic, ends with a shock: his articles were entirely false and fabricated. Written by newcomer director Billy Ray (previously credited only as a screenwriter), the film lacks the visual power of other films in the genre but makes a hard-hitting statement about the lack of reliability of the American media. 

“America builds many myths and just as easily destroys them” is the message of this movie that comments not only on the rise and the fall of a man, but also on freedom of the press and journalistic ethics, a value which is essential but often forgotten in the world of communication.

The young cast is just perfect. Especially outstanding are the brilliant performances of Hayden Christensen and of the promising Peter Sarsgaard (recently seen in “Blue Jasmine” by Woody Allen).


18. Before Night Falls (2000)

Before Night Falls

Based on the life of: Reinaldo Arenas

This is the ruthless biography of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas: he was born in 1943, discovered his homosexuality during the years of Castroism, was censored and marginalized, arrived in the US after being driven out by the regime, and died alone and delusional.

The director Julian Schnabel proves to have an affinity for biopics (Basquiat and later on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and directs this film with style and flair, endeavoring to recreate the exuberant and vivid style of Arenas’ books. The movie features striking performances by Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, who plays two different characters: the transvestite Bon Bon and ambiguous Lieutenant Victor.

In this engaging picture of the gay world, we find a brilliant representation of Arena’s personal classification of gay people: “normal” ones, those who are not at risk and live with other homosexuals, and “hidden”ones, those who refuse to acknowledge their condition or choose to conceal themselves.


17. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich

Based on the life of: Erin Brockovich

The stunning Julia Roberts plays one of the most beloved heroines of recent American history. Erin Brockovich doesn’t look like much to the classic American icon: she’s rude, vulgar and indubitably provocative. The strengths of this biopic are the witty dialogue between the two protagonists (Roberts and Albert Finney), a sober direction by Soderbegh, and a solid and evocative script.

At first glance the film is presented as a realistic work that focuses on the character and does not stray from the truth. But the screenplay by Susannah Grant opens new horizons for the film and allows the viewer to empathize with the characters. The film is dissimilar from the previous ambitious works by Soderbergh, who only utilizes the two actors and bases the entire film on their dialogue.

An interesting detail, the real Erin Brockovich plays a small part as a waitress in the movie.


16. Monster (2003)


Based on the life of: Aileen Wornos

Charlize Theron gave her all in this movie: both as the protagonist and the producer, she demonstrates her professional growth in a role that in some ways resembles her performance in “The Devil’s Advocate”. The complexity of the character required an incredible physical transformation and total commitment to the role.

Ugly in her appearance, scarred by a traumatic childhood and wishing only for affection from someone, the prostitute Aileen Wuornos is guilty of murdering a series of her customers.

Not even the love of the bourgeois Selby, who seems to be the only person in the world who holds true fondness for her, can save her life. She will spend the rest of life in a Florida prison until her execution. (Wuornos was the first female serial killer sentenced to death in America.)

The film adopts a style very similar to the protagonist’s appearance and manner; it is dirty and grainy, and the story avoids a moralistic view from above.

Under the surface, however, there is an ambiguous message that one can even draw from the title: who drove her to such a condition, the real monster, the assassin or the society?


15. American Splendor (2003)

American Splendor

Based on the life of: Harvey Pekar

You might be surprised to find this indie-movie on this list, and you’d have good reason because “American Splendor” was critically praised but had little appeal for the mainstream public. The everyday life of the cartoonist Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) is a perfect portrait of “provincial America”, the same one depicted so well by Sam Mendes in “American Beauty”.

Harvey is depressed, ill, unsatisfied and has almost lost faith in himself and in life, but he possesses a weapon that will save him: irony. A combination of documentary and film, American Splendor is a true masterpiece and one of the most underrated biopics of the last years.

The main strength of the movie is that it is original and unconventional for the genre, and, in this way, it seems to accurately reflect its protagonist’s personality and frame of mind.

Paul Giamatti, although bearing no physical resemblance to Pekar, imitates him perfectly in the most important regard: the sheer sincerity of a character tremendously alive and real, with whom the audience can empathize.

Despite its relatively low returns (only 3.5 times greater than the cost of production, $7 million versus $2 million), the film became an instant underground phenomenon in the cinematic world among those who appreciate its value and importance.



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