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
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
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” 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
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
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” 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
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.
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.