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The 25 Best Biopics of All Time

29 March 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Ziyad Saadi

Peter-OToole-Lawrence-of-Arabia

Biopics are a dime a dozen nowadays, especially considering how much the Academy Awards evidently adore them. Luckily, not all biopics cater to the Oscar-bait pitfalls that render them as formulaic and generic as one has come to dread.

Whether a biopic depicts the life of a politician, a musician, a war hero or even a filmmakers, one thing they must all do to succeed is surpass the mere events for which their subjects became famous and place the audience deep into the mindset that makes them even more riveting on the big screen than they were in real life. Here are the 25 best biopics of all time that manage to do just that:

 

25. La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose

This foreign-language biopic about the life of famous French singer Edith Piaf, nicknamed The Little Sparrow, features one of the most captivating central performances in any biopic ever.

Marion Cotillard rightly won an Academy Award for her performance in “La Vie en Rose,” with her performance going far beyond a mere impersonation of her character. Though she lip-synched all the music, Cotillard certainly compensated by managing to encompass all of Piaf’s charm and innocence even as all the success she comes to earn slowly and tragically slips out of her fingers.

 

24. Good Night, and Good Luck

goodnight-and-good-luck

Looking at the life of news anchor Edward R. Murrow, this stylistically shot biopic was as brilliant as it was timely. While Murrow attempts to put an end to Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror and fear-mongering, things get increasingly heated as McCarthy’s witch hunt becomes more and more dangerous.

Released shortly after 9/11, “Good Night, and Good Luck” carries the same heft as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” did in its time, with George Clooney’s masterpiece bringing to the contemporary movie-going public the provocative message it so desperately needed to hear.

 

23. The Sea Inside

the sea inside

“The Sea Inside” chronicles the life of Ramon Sampedro, a Spaniard who fought long and hard for the right to be euthanized. Unlike most biopics, “The Sea Inside” focuses not only on its protagonist, but on the two women in his life who represent opposite views of this controversial battle.

While one supports him fully, the other tries to convince him of the value of life, and the result is a story that ditches the theory that only one side is unequivocally right and the other is dead wrong. Instead, the film becomes a meditative expression of what life means to different people.

 

22. The Last Emperor

The Last Emperor

In “The Last Emperor,” the life of Emperor Pu Yi is traced all the way from the very beginning of his life. This may be the most distinct factor in this biopic and the one that makes its subject so easy to sympathize with. Pu Yi was thrust into a changing world from the get-go and the result was a reign that suited neither him nor his country.

The script is filled with stark political intrigue, and the emperor is presented as a somewhat pitiful man whose inability to maintain control over his own country leads to a degradation that makes this tale of a fallen empire so riveting to witness.

 

21. Malcolm X

Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee’s affinity for controversial films may have reached its peak with Malcolm X, which already had a controversial figure at its core that perhaps renders this director-subject combination the perfect match. Over three hours long, “Malcolm X” doesn’t shy away from dealing with the overt issues of racism that prevail in America to this day.

Denzel Washington gives his best performance, taking charge of the film with the same power that drove Malcolm X to make a name for himself and his cause. Lee’s harrowing biopic makes it clear that whether or not you agree with Malcolm X’s methods, the time to remain silent is long gone.

 

20. Ed Wood

Ed_Wood_Johnny_Depp

“Ed Wood” is the rare brand of biopic that’s actually, you know, funny. And there could have been no other way to depict the life and work of notoriously untalented movie director Ed Wood – the guy who brought audiences the worst movie ever made with “Plan 9 from Outer Space”.

Anyone who has dared to sit through Wood’s most awful films will appreciate the laughable portrayal Tim Burton and Johnny Depp bring to the screen. Every bit of “Ed Wood” is as campy as the director’s own movies, which gives Burton’s hilarious biopic a delicate balance between sincere homage and voracious satire.

 

19. My Left Foot

Daniel-Day-Lewis-as-Christy-Brown-in-My-Left-Foot-1989

Playing Christy Brown, a man with cerebral palsy whose use of his left foot enabled him to become a famous painter. Daniel Day-Lewis reportedly never got out of character, even forcing some of the disgruntled crewmembers to carry him up and down staircases in his wheel chair.

Such may be the price for a flawless performance, as Day-Lewis was never better or more convincing in his role (and that’s truly saying something). Couple that with Jim Sheridan’s moving direction and this biopic, which could have easily turned into a formulaic Lifetime movie, becomes the perfect depiction of the human condition and its wonderfully endless potential.

 

18. Persepolis

persepolis

As far as animated movies go, this one tackles much more profound issues than most. “Persepolis” may not follow the life of a particularly well-known person (in fact, this is an autobiographical film by Marjane Satrapi), but that doesn’t prevent it from being a terrific film.

The style of animation is genuinely fitting, a gloomy black-and-white presentation of 1970s war-torn Iran that encapsulates the feeling of dread the Satrapi experienced before and after she was shipped off to Vienna for a better life. The story of her childhood was told by an adult, which enables this razor-sharp tale of freedom in the Middle-East to transcend the confines of both the biopic genre and the animation genre to create something all its own.

 

 

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  • Brian Lussier

    Clint Eastwood’s Bird is sorely missing here…

  • Klaus Dannick

    “Milk” needs to be on this list, especially considering some of the trite approaches to biopics which are the norm.

  • Carson

    Missing Mr. Turner, and there are a few here which are barely biopics… anyway good list!

    • Alex Simpson

      there are a few here which are not biopics, barely or otherwise.

  • Ellie Brown

    The bit about the Sophie Scholl movie refers to Anne Frank being the “most famous person to survive the holocaust”, it should be pointed out after a tip off the family were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camps where she eventually died of typhus the author might want to revise that bit of the article, also what about Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi?

    • Alex Nasaudean

      capital H in Holocaust and it’s Gandhi

  • Mr.Spooky

    I really have to take issue with the author’s description of the film’s of Ed Wood. He sounds like someone who has never seen any of Wood’s movies and really doesn’t know much about film history and is just parroting the usual party line about Ed Wood.
    His remarks about The Passion of Joan of Arc, in particular, “…despite the fact that it is silent…” as if that is a detriment in filmmaking, shows a huge amount of ignorance of filmmaking history.
    And his remark about Anne Frank surviving the holocaust shows a huge amount of ignorance of history in general.
    Not really a terrible list but very badly written one.

    • Brian Lussier

      Agreed!

  • Mateo Ormeño Caballero

    The Aviator , Capote and Serpico

  • Abhishek Mishra

    No Omar Mukhtar (Lion of desert) and no Gandhi ?

  • Ashutosh Sen

    What about The Aviator?

    • Harsha Raman

      I agree with most of your selection. But honestly The Doors wasn’t remarkable as such. It just depicts the drug-snorting monster Morrison

      and not the actual human Jim. I’d LOVE to see a remade version of The Doors but I don’t think I’m that lucky. Well.

      Yes! The Aviator and Capote are brilliant picks.

  • Veronica Clarke

    Not sure you could call ‘Amadeus’ a biopic, as other than historical characters there is no actual history in this.

  • Superb list, a few on there that I missed and will be watching!

  • Youssef

    Where is “The Aviator” ????

  • Vincenzo Politi

    “Amadeus” is barely a bio-pic; rather, it’s an over-fictionalised take on Mozart’s myth. To begin with, please stop saying that Salieri is a “not-so-famed composer”. Salieri is one of the most famous and remarkable composers of his times and, as a matter of fact, not only there was no competition between him and Mozart, but actually Salieri helped Mozart launching his career.

  • Praveen Lawrance

    Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, Catch Me If You Can, Aviator, Hunger, Hotel Rwanda…

  • Orso Bruno

    Walk the line???
    I’m not there???
    Capote???
    The Doors???

    Milk???
    Howl???

  • Klaus Dannick

    Milk.

  • Pablo J Daroca

    The life of David Gale?

  • Michael Yawn

    “Anne Frank may have been the most famous person to have survive the Holocaust”

    That’s the most ignorantly stupid thing I have seen written on the internet in a long time. Offensive and moronic. This site is great, but how did that glaring howler slip through your sub-editors. Do you have sub-editors? Amazing.

  • Gogzilla

    Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.

  • Lars Franssen

    Btw, Anne Frank didn’t survive the holocaust. She died from typhoid fever days before the liberation of the Bergen Belsen camp.

  • killerjoe1985

    I think a lot of biopic movie don’t stay in list: Chaplin (1992), Alexander Nevsky (1938) Ivan The Terrible(1944), Che Part 1 & 2(2008), Ned Kelly (2003) Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) The Doors (1991) Joan D’Arc (1999) Bird (1988). Regards guys!!

  • Ana

    Anne Frank did not survive the Holocaust.

  • Bobby Calloway

    Phew, you didn’t put The Imitation Game on your list. I’m very pleased about that 😉