8. The Motorcycle Diaries
Ernesto Che Guevara was known for many things, not least of which is his work as a revolutionary and guerilla leader. However, before his claim to fame, Geuvara was a medical student seeking adventure. In fact, “The Motorcycle Diaries” depicts his trek throughout South America with his best friend in which he seeks some fun and adventure before finishing his education.
While most biopics focus on the more famous events of the subject’s life, this film went in a refreshing new direction that brought new insight into an influential man. Guevara became the man we remember him as because of a deeper understanding of what this trip showed him about the world in which he was living. “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a profound journey of self-discovery and enlightenment that provides significant backstory for a significant figure.
If “The Godfather” had a female equivalent, it would be this Oscar-winning biopic about Queen Elizabeth I. Cate Blanchett commands the screen, a fitting a portrayal for a woman dealing with the domineering men who attempt to take control of her reign and strip her of her power.
What makes the film so riveting is witnessing Queen Elizabeth I transition from an innocent and bewildered rookie overwhelmed by her newly acquired power to a ruthless Machiavellian politico with whom one wouldn’t dare to mess around. The strength she finds within herself by film’s end is instantly felt by the viewer, and there isn’t anyone who would fail to respect her as a queen ought to be respected.
Martin Scorsese’s knack for gangster films is never more evident than it is in this iconoclastic mob drama. Depicting the life of Henry Hill right up until his placement in the witness protection program, Scorsese vigorously captures Hill’s lust for the gangster life while doing everything in his power to turn the audience off to it, which is exactly what makes this cast of characters nearly impossible to empathize with.
However, “Goodfellas” doesn’t merely portray the violence and degradation involved in mob life; it gives us that rare inside look into a thrilling world that we would only dare to experience from the outside.
5. Schindler’s List
Arguably Steven Spielberg’s greatest cinematic achievement (and that’s saying something), “Schindler’s List” is the definitive Holocaust drama. Stunningly (and fittingly) shot in black and white, the film chronicles the life of Oskar Schindler as he tries to rescue as many Jews as possible from a horrible fate.
The film doesn’t shy away from every horrendous act that took place during the Holocaust, and while an element of heroism is evident in the film’s protagonist, Schindler is also a perfect example of the guilt that will forever mark the event and all those involved in it. “Schindler’s List’ is a sombre tribute to those who survived the tragedy and a devastating eulogy for those who didn’t.
As close to Shakespearean a non-Shakespeare story can be, “Amadeus” is a brilliant twist on the biopic genre. The story is not told from the perspective of its titular character, the famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but rather from his archrival, the not-so-famed composer Antonio Salieri. It’s a rather effective tool, one that highlights Mozart’s brilliance better than it would have otherwise.
Salieri reveres Mozart’s music, which makes his contempt for him and his lack of effort even that much greater. His musical abilities that he compares unfavourably to those of Mozart and the inadequacies that he attributes bitterly to God lead him to wonder why he was destined to be nothing more than second-best, resulting in a harrowing attempt to destroy the greatest composer of all time.
3. Bonnie and Clyde
“Bonnie and Clyde” was released at a pivotal time in cinema, when the age of the auteur was just beginning and movies dared to be bold and different. The result was an unforgettable depiction of the famous Depression-era bank robbers/lovers.
The film falls whole-heartedly into the action genre, with the audience witnessing the many crimes the notorious duo committed, but Arthur Penn’s combination of action, comedy, romance and drama created one of the most spirited and engaging biopics ever made.
Even more brilliant is the complexity the story gives to its characters, all of whom soon find themselves in much deeper than they expected to be. Among the fun that’s had throughout Bonnie and Clyde’s adventures is the agonizing fact that none of it will end happily.
2. Raging Bull
It’s safe to say that no one but Martin Scorsese could have brought the life of violent boxer Jake Lamotta to the screen. Never has the director’s raw and powerful energy been so useful as it was in “Raging Bull,” which focused on Lamotta’s professional and his personal life.
The film’s editing and sound design are especially intense, with its boxing match sequences perfectly capturing the volatility that drove Lamotta to some of his most terrifyingly brutal moments. De Niro’s performance is one for the ages, as the actor makes no attempt to be subtle or poignant and instead relying purely on the animalistic rage that turns this biopic into Martin Scorsese’s most awe-inspiring cinematic achievement.
1. Lawrence of Arabia
There are few settings in film as memorable as the desert in David Lean’s grandiose Best Picture-winning masterpiece. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the rare film (and the even rarer biopic) that is in equal parts epic and intimate.
It may seem easy to get lost in a nearly four-hour film about a British World War I hero, but with a combination of fantastic writing, firm directing, multifaceted acting, haunting music and striking cinematography, what results is a screen achievement from which one can’t look away.
The initial depiction of T.E. Lawrence as a fun-loving and flamboyant young mapmaker is the perfect setup for what he is to inevitably become throughout his journey. Upon entering the war, Lawrence gets in way over his head, and no matter how much progress he makes in his attempt to unite the Arabs against the Turks, the rising death toll on his journey leads him deeper and deeper into the nightmare that surrounds him in the vast and endless desert.
This isn’t the most fascinating depiction of a real-life hero because Lawrence is a saint; it’s because he is undeniably fragile, troubled and perhaps not much better than his enemies, and his realizations throughout the story inform us without doubt that Lawrence, for better or worse, is no ordinary man.
Author Bio: Ziyad Saadi is a writer, director and producer based in NYC. After having received his Bachelor’s degree in Marketing from Concordia University in Montreal, he moved to New York where he produced the independent feature film Bag Boy Lover Boy. In addition to his work in filmmaking, he has also written for a number of publications including Indiewire, The Independent and The Gay & Lesbian Review.