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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)

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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  • Brandon Thompson

    Imitation Game isn’t that good!

    Also my top picks would be

    The Social Network
    The Pianist
    Catch Me if You Can

  • Brian Lussier

    You had an almost identical list just a few weeks ago, except it was restricted to 2000-2009. What’s the point of this new list with half the same films as the previous ones? Also, many are really ordinary films, like A Beautiful Mind for instance, which you put #5 and has almost nothing historically accurate about it!

  • No I’m Not There? What the fuck?

    • Brian Lussier

      I love that film, but it’s not remotely biographical, it’s a fantastical imagining of the life of a man.

      • But it had more substance than all of the bio-pics that came out that year. I would also mention Walk Hard which was a perfect spoof of the bio-pic genre.

        • Sebastiano Perulli

          Walk Hard is really nice but it is based upon a fictitious character

          • Yet, it’s still better than a lot of the bio-pics that came out during that time. Plus, it’s hilarious.

        • Brian Lussier

          Yeah, it did. Believe me, I think I’m Not There is a masterpiece. But as a true biopic, I can’t deny that it really isn’t one at all.

    • Klaus Dannick

      I’m Not There, unlike half of the films on this list, is actually worth seeing in that it’s more cinematic than a Wikipedia entry.

  • Eric Newman

    Control- Ian Curtis

  • Brian Lussier

    Someone took my comment down?! Why?! All I said in that comment was that the idea of this list is pointless because you posted a list just a few weeks ago of the best biopics ever made, and that half the ones on here were on that list. I also mentioned that A Beautiful Mind, which you shamefully put at #5, was not really that good a film and not remotely historically accurate!

  • Danielle Burkhalter

    I’d say The Social Network deserves to be a bit higher… Also, A Beautiful Mind’s inaccuracies should not allow it to be #1.

    • Brian Lussier

      It’s not, it’s #5. But more to the point, it’s not really a good film and it probably should be at the very bottom of the list, and that’s if it even deserves to be on it at all!

  • Praveen Kumar

    But what about Schindler’s List??Theory of Everything??The Aviator??Raging Bull??

    • Sebastiano Perulli

      Schindler’s List is a 1993 movie, Theory of Everything is good but i find it too much “dramatic”.. Both good movies though!

      • Brian Lussier

        And Raging Bull is from 1980, so it doesn’t qualify either.

    • Klaus Dannick

      The list is exclusive to 21st century films.

  • tdaoud73

    My Left Foot???

    • Sebastiano Perulli

      The list is about 21 Century films

      • tdaoud73

        my bad… thanks

  • Mateo Ormeño Caballero

    The Aviator

    • Brian Lussier

      I don’t know why, I didn’t like it that much. DiCaprio gives a wonderful performance, but I always thought him a problematic choice for the role. He looks too young for it, and although he portrayed the man’s OCD really well (I’m OCD, so I recognize his brilliance here), he doesn’t have the stature for it. I always thought he should have waited a few years for it. Now would be a good time for it, as a matter of fact. On top of that, the dark wig looks weird and unnatural on him, but perhaps that’s nitpicking. My OCD side, perhaps. Hahaha!

  • Mariusz Kucharczyk

    If there was a list of “The 20 Best Biographical Movies of The 21st Century NOT made in Hollywood”, this one should be on it for sure:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3745620/

  • Allister Cooper

    Good of you to include 21st century films only, it’s time to give the upstarts a chance. Apprentices should do what they must, which is to out-maneuvre the masters. That’s life.

  • Bintang Lestada

    Belle? The King of Scotland?

    • animatorunite

      King of Scotland isn’t really a biographical movie. It’s completely fictional.

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There

    The King of Scotland is better than The Imitation game.

  • La Vie en Rose and The Social Network > Catch Me If You Can IMO. Also, where’s The Theory of Everything?

  • Klaus Dannick

    Oh, come ON! Walk The Line, A Beautuful Mind, Erin Brokovich, and Ray are totally uninteresting, uncreative, by-the-numbers biopics dustinguished ONLY by good performances from the players. Otherwise, they’re completely unremarkable as films.

  • Titir Mukherjee

    Lincoln? Invictus? Aviator? Theory of Everything?

  • Kevin Wang

    Love and Mercy