The 20 Best Biographical Movies of The 21st Century

7. The Social Network (2010)


Based on the life of: Mark Zuckerberg

Critics defined David Fincher’s movie as “the mirror of an entire generation” and with good reason. As usual Fincher creates his movie through a reconstruction process, in this case mixing legal debates with flashbacks about the actual creation of Facebook.

Jesse Eisenberg does a great job with a cold, expressionless attitude that captures Zuckerberg’s state of mind, troubled by a continuous inferiority complex towards those he will never be (that is, athletes).

The rhythm of the film is frenzied, thanks to an amazing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, because the story’s generation lives in a technological world that grows faster and faster. But Fincher, not too subtly, hides a major criticism of Zuckerberg : the man who revolutionized the concept of friendship ends up having no real friends but a long list of enemies.

The tagline of the movie is, in this sense, very appropriate : “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. Nevertheless, Fincher looks at his protagonist with a great deal of empathy, viewing him with the utmost kindness and understanding at even the darkest moments.


6. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Based on the life of: Frank Abagnale Jr.

When an amazing story like that of young con man Abagnale falls into the hands of a great director like Steven Spielberg, success is certain. In a brilliant performance, Leonardo Di Caprio plays a young boy who, traumatized by his parents’ divorce after financial problems, decides to run away and travel the world as a talented criminal.

This incredible story gives Spielberg the chance to analyze some fundamental concepts in American culture (the myth of success, the importance of appearances, etc.) and to criticize their superficiality.

The movie has the appearance of a bright comedy but brings out some key themes of Spielberg’s philosophy. Just to mention one, the film depicts a continuing search for a father (played here by the amazing Christopher Walken) that leads the protagonist to become attached to the man who is, in fact, hunting him (Tom Hanks).

This occurs over the backdrop of ‘60s America, still naive and trusting, portrayed by Spielberg with an atmosphere of melancholy due partly to an amazing soundtrack, with an original score by John Williams and certain popular songs from the era (such as Come Fly With Me by Frank Sinatra).


5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind

Based on the life of: John Nash

This is definitely a case in which the movie is fully committed to exploration of its protagonist, and the result is an amazing performance by incredibly versatile Russel Crowe.

The action begins at Princeton University in 1947 where John Nash stands out as a student; he is introverted but intellectually brilliant. An evening at a local bar and an encounter with a blonde girl give him the idea for a ground-breaking mathematical study. Received with full honors at MIT, married to a beautiful and intelligent student, Alicia, the scientist falls progressively in an obsessive state that is soon diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.

Ron Howard is very clever in hiding some controversial sides of the character (alleged homosexuality, anti-Semitism) and skillfully portraying the protagonist’s hallucinations, with help from Paul Bettany as a convincing and compelling supporting actor.

Russel Crowe displays a superb range of acting ability and is totally believable in a role that goes from 19 years old to 66. The film’s amazing soundtrack was composed and conducted by James Horner and received a nomination at the Oscars.


4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Based on the life of: Jean-Dominique Bauby

The editor of a fashion magazine at the height of success (Mathieu Amalric) finds himself immobilized by locked-in syndrome: he remains conscious but is unable to communicate with the outside world, capable only of blinking an eyelid. With help from the nurse Henriette, he finally accepts his condition, makes peace with his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), and manages to dictate an entire book before dying.

Director Julian Schnabel, being a painter, artfully uses a visual medium to show the world from the perspective of a man “locked in a diving bell”.

The best thing about the film is the tone that avoids painful sorrow and questions the meaning of life without cynicism, instead employing a thoughtful irony. This was surely no easy task, as the film’s themes bear some similarity to those of “The Sea Inside”, which has been mentioned earlier.

Mathieu Amalric, a great actor whom you can appreciate in Munich, Polanski’s Venus in Fur and the amazing Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg, successfully acts solely through blinking his eyes (which is reminiscent, in fact, of the flutter of a butterfly).


3. Capote (2005)


Based on the life of: Truman Capote

American director Bennett Miller seems to have a strong propensity for biopics: after shooting “Capote”, he came up with the idea of making “Moneyball” and more recently with the brilliant “Foxcatcher”, a dark portrait of American sport.

“Capote” focuses on the creation of the non-fiction book “In Cold Blood” and succeeds in making a vivid portrait of the author, considered one of the most important and intriguing writers of the century. In addition to an amazing performance by the unforgettable Philip Seymour Hoffmann (Oscar in 2006), the movie explores the archetype of artists and intellectuals.

The story analyzes how Capote became a victim of his own writing because of the perverse relationship with the killer he was investigating. Hoffmann does a perfect interpretation of the character through his nuanced imitation of Capote’s voice and the neurotic mood of this gay dandy.

The direction by the newcomer Miller proves to be sober and extremely loyal to the original story, maintaining a certain originality and supported by an excellent screenplay by Dan Futterman, who would work again with Miller in “Foxcatcher”.


2. Hotel Rwanda (2004)


Based on the life of: Paul Rusesabagina

This film’s story takes place during the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu forces brutally exterminated a significant part of the Tutsi population.

Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a luxury hotel, is able to accept and save hundreds of Tutsis, despite the indifference of international organizations that are concerned only with the safety of white people.

The Irish director Terry George remembers a genocide which too many, at the time, had blindly ignored. The film proves that a director can instill pathos and tension without tearful scenes, instead focusing on the emotions of the protagonist, a common man.

Don Cheadle is perfect in his role (nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars) and, in his performance, makes it utterly clear that Paul is nothing more than an ordinary man, able to save himself and others simply through the art of “getting by”. For these reasons, the viewer can easily identify with the humble, unintentional heroism of the protagonist.

Some trivia:

The exterior scenes were shot in Kigali in Rwanda, while the indoor hotel scenes were in the Hotel Johannesburg in South Africa. In addition, the real Paul Rusesabagina participated in the filming process as a consultant.


1. The Pianist (2002)

Adrian Brody The Pianist

Based on the life of: Wladyslaw Szpilman

Adrien Brody, upon receiving an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, described his performance as “the role of a lifetime”, and he was absolutely right. Once more, director Roman Polanski explores difficult issues as he tells the story of a Polish Jew who, as a child, underwent Nazi persecution yet kept his sanity and his musical “touch”.

At the film’s outset, the ordeal of the Jewish family is narrated in a raw, straightforward fashion, but in the second part of the film, the story develops into a metaphor of the human condition.

The original autobiography was written in a neutral tone, distant and dry, almost as if the author were talking about someone else; accordingly, Roman Polanski adopted a similar tone that is grave, sober and sincere.

Yet probably the most important element of the movie is the music: the pianist survives mainly thanks to the strength he derives from his passion for music, and the melodious and sad Chopin melodies powerfully underscore the progression of events.

For all of these reasons, the strength of its message, its clarity and its unflinching harshness, “The Pianist” can be considered an absolute masterpiece and one of the greatest biographical films in the history of modern cinema.

Author Bio: Sebastiano graduated in Humanities and is attending a degree in Economics for Arts and Culture. He is interested in art and film ratings, and is a regular follower of Venice Film Festival.