14. Milk (2008)
Based on the life of: Harvey Milk
The gay, forty-year-old Harvey Milk travels from New York to San Francisco’s Castro district. After many battles, in 1977 he manages to get elected to the city council, where he is the first openly homosexual councilman in US history. Despite the huge media impact, the conservative Dan White brings an abrupt end to Milk’s political career and kills him in 1978.
Gus Van Sant veers away from the broad social matters at hand, instead he builds a biopic with sorrowful tones and all the common themes of the genre. The film displays an excellent historical reconstruction of the environment and social context in which Milk takes his stand.
The protagonists of the movie are the “losers”, young boys who have grown under the guidance of divorced parents, instructors, teachers, policemen, all people who are simply unable to understand and communicate with the protagonists.
Focusing his attention on those who live in disadvantaged conditions (primarily due to their homosexuality, but also in regards to ethnicity, environmental origin, and skin color), Harvey Milk strives to push them out of the margins and fights for their rights.
This time, Van Sant’s choice of protagonist isn’t a boy (as his protagonists had been in Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester) but an adult man in what looks like a mature development for the director. There is a great performance as usual by Sean Penn (Oscar Best Actor in 2009) and impressive work by young actors moving from television to film.
13. Walk The Line (2005)
Based on the life of: Johnny Cash
Traumatized by the death of his brother Jack during the Great Depression and resented by his father, the young singer-songwriter Johnny Cash moved to Memphis, got married and soon tasted international success. Yet the love for the singer June Carter and the abuse of amphetamines ultimately led him to self-distruction.
Narrated through flashbacks from the 1968 concert in Folsom Prison, the film is a lavish recreation of the journey which led Johnny Cash to become the living symbol of the “second chance” in American culture.
The movie showcases the talents of a great cast: Reese Wheterspoon has great versatility and ability to adapt to any subject (as seen in her great performance in “Wild”), while Joaquin Phoenix is, in a way, the opposite. If you assign him to the role of a forsaken man, rejected by family and society, the result will be great (as when he played Commodus in Gladiator).
A couple of anecdotes concerning the actors:
Phoenix met Cash months before hearing about the film, and he felt at the time that there were many actors far better-suited to the role than himself. Witherspoon prepped for the role with tremendous thoroughness, watching and listening to many different recordings of June Carter performing and speaking in order to perfect her impression of the singer.
12. La Vie En Rose (2007)
Based on the life of: Edith Piaf
The film, set in France and Prague, traces the joys and sorrows of a singer revered both in France and internationally, Edith Piaf. Her life could be summarized with her most famous song: “Je ne regrette rien” (“I Regret Nothing”)
Abandoned by her alcoholic mother and artist father, Edith grows up in the streets, her talent carrying her to the music-halls and finally to the international success that would bring her to America. As director Olivier Dahan shows us Edith’s premature aging due to alcohol and morphine, he alternates between traditional content and innovative narrative techniques.
But one must note that both director and actors preferred to explore their own ideas without adhering too strictly to the real events. The great Marion Cotillard (Oscar Best Actress in 2008) disdains any attempt at imitation and gives the performance a unique life of its own. The director Dahan, aware of the critics’ reactions, is happy to follow certain specific historical facts without respecting the exact chronology and with repeated use of flashbacks.
11. The Fighter (2010)
Based on the life of: Micky Ward
“The Fighter” is not just another biography of a boxer. It tells the story of a man whose real goal is to fight in everyday life and struggle onward in his own lonely way.
David O. Rusell brings together a great cast (Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg , Amy Adams, Melissa Leo) in this story revolving around the relationship between the two brothers; Bale offers one of his best performances, which required much physical effort (not as much as his role in The Machinist) and tremendous versatility.
The protagonist Micky grows up in a sleepy provincial town and in the shadow of his stepbrother Dicky, a kind of local hero for having knocked out the great Sugar Ray Leonard. But the enormous pressure which Micky suffers derives mainly from his family, especially from a mother that pretends to be his manager and, in her overbearing way, won’t allow him to make any mistakes.
The best thing about “The Fighter” is that it touches so many themes without ever losing its rouge. It’s a movie bursting with the same pent-up energy of his protagonist.
10. The Sea Inside (2004)
Based on the life of: Ramòn Sampedro
The Sea Inside insists on a subject too delicate to be discussed here: euthanasia, which Ramón seeks after 28 long years, ever since that cursed day when a simple chemical mistake made him a quadriplegic, forced to live inside four walls, bedridden, his life essentially cut short. But the Church and the Spanish state will not grant him his demand, and he will find strength to fight for his rights thanks to the love of his lawyer Julia.
Director Amenabar deals with a story that has shaken the conscience of a whole country. He dodges the diatribes and moralism always used to excess in films dealing with disabilities, and he offers us a jewel that can speak to both the heart and the head of the viewer.
The Sea Inside lives up to the expectations set by such an evocative title. It is a magnificent film that speaks of men, of their relationship with the world and nature , of God and of death, and it makes a great show in the process. There is an amazing performance by Javier Bardem (Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice Film Festival), believable as a middle-aged man and able to dominate the scene even from a bed, using only his facial expressions.
9. Ray (2004)
Based on the life of: Ray Charles
Let’s say it from the very beginning: this biopic rests entirely on the shoulders of Jamie Foxx. Ray Charles himself confirmed, while listening Jamie Foxx playing the piano at the beginning of the project: “This kid can do it. He is the one.”
Blind since the age of seven, Ray is raised by a poor and courageous mather, and later in life he finally attains success in the culture of his gospel and his country.
But, for years, Ray is slave of heroin and neglects his family; redemption will finally come, along with the progressive rebellion against the racist laws of Georgia.
Director Taylor Hackford knows the music’s history very well, and he seeks to avoid a tedious, laudatory tribute by tackling the most uncomfortable sides of Ray’s character, yet he still risks falling into banality. The result is a traditional biopic, with no great surprises, but pleasant and well-supported by a realistic historical setting.
Whatever the case, a remarkable performance by Foxx and the sequences of concerts liven up the movie. Although he did not previously know Charles’ music in much depth, the actor attended schools in braille, participated in recording sessions, and spent twelve hours a day blindfolded in order to truly invest himself in the part.
8. The Imitation Game (2014)
Based on the life of: Alan Turing
The Imitation Game is a movie that seems cryptic but immediately declares its intentions from the title. It is a game of deception which concerns not only the Nazis’ codes but also the interactions among the group of experts gathered to decipher it.
More precisely, it narrates the story of some scientists, Turing in the lead, forced to hide their personal and diverse backgrounds, and it especially criticizes the British society that produces geniuses and then confines them to the margins of its dull conformity. (The screenwriter Graham Moore presented a very moving speech on this regard at the Oscars.)
Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job with the character, convincingly displaying his social ineptitude along with his astonishing talent for numbers. The script is solid but devoid of literary flourish, all the better to enhance the striking and naturalistic behavior of the protagonist.
Particularly interesting is the choice to reconstruct Turing’s life with flashbacks and to divide the film into three different timeframes. The result is a solid biopic which pays strong tribute to the memory of one of the greatest yet most forgotten martyrs of the century.