It is often said that biopics are no good as movies. Quentin Tarantino, cited by many as the greatest director to come out of Generation X, has denounced the genre. He sees biopics as nothing more than an excuse for actors to win Oscars. To be fair, he has a point. In recent memory, many actors who deserved Oscars years before have finally been awarded for their work by appearing in biopics. Leonardo DiCaprio should’ve won many times before, but when he finally got awarded Best Actor, it was for playing Hugh Glass in the biopic The Revenant. When Gary Oldman finally won Best Actor this year, after many deserving opportunities before, it was for playing Winston Churchill in the biopic Darkest Hour. Biopics are generally just a vehicle for actors to show off their stuff and get showered with very politicized awards. Another complaint about biopic movies is that they lack focus. It’s too much to tell the entire life story of a historical figure. There’s too much stuff to cover! Some biopics are focused, like they’ll tell the story of how Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, rather than his whole life. There are some really great biopics out there, in all fairness. It’s like any genre. There are even some fantastic romantic comedies. You have to wade through the crappy ones to get to the masterpieces. Some of Martin Scorsese’s finest movies have been biopics: Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street. Here are the 10 greatest biopics of all time.
10. Hacksaw Ridge
Usually when directors embark on making a sweeping World War II epic, they want to show the harrowing impact that violence has on the human psyche or patriotically portray the valiant heroism of the soldiers on the front lines. Either way, if it’s a war movie, it’s going to get bloody. But Mel Gibson decided to take a different approach. He told the story of an unlikely war hero who was also a conscientious objector. Now, you wouldn’t think that a guy who was totally opposed to violence and killing could make a name for himself in the deadliest war in history. But he wanted to serve his country and he wanted to do his superiors proud and he was a hell of a lot braver than most of the other soldiers out there. He volunteered to be a medic, and he saved the lives of a bunch of abandoned soldiers, purely because he had the balls to go back and get them. It’s an inspiring story. The guy’s name is Desmond Doss. Look him up. This movie is extra poignant as a biopic, because it’s about a guy that hardly anyone’s ever heard of, but it’s not really about him, it’s about the message that he preached against violence. That’s what it’s really about, and it’s a touching tribute to the man, who Andrew Garfield plays beautifully in a harmonious performance.
9. The Elephant Man
If someone told you that Mel Brooks once produced a movie about the circus called The Elephant Man, the last thing you might expect is a harrowing historical drama. You might expect a wacky slapstick comedy, but instead, you get something much more real and honest and profound. This movie tells the true story of the tragically deformed John Merrick, whose real name Joseph Merrick was slightly altered out of respect, and the surgeon who rescues him from a Victorian era freak show and nurses him to health, and the tragic end he meets after being shunned by society, simply for having a disability and being different. The story is a poignant one, brought to life beautifully by the visionary director David Lynch and his stars John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, who deliver two of the best performances of their careers in the roles of Merrick and the surgeon who helps him, respectively. The movie gave us the iconic line, “I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man.” The Elephant Man is a cinematic study of the human condition, and how sick we are as a society for treating people who are different as if they are inferior. Powerful stuff.
8. Straight Outta Compton
Named after the group’s seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton is a biopic of the pioneering hip hop outfit N.W.A., focusing specifically on the lives of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. Despite a stellar supporting turn from the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti as the group’s manager, the real stars of the movie were the then-unknowns playing the central three band members. E was played by Jason Mitchell, who has since gone on to play roles in Kong: Skull Island, The Disaster Artist, Detroit, and most notably, Mudbound. Dre was played by Corey Hawkins, who has gone on to play a recurring role on The Walking Dead and the lead role of his own 24 spin-off series. Cube was played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., whose casting was initially criticized as nepotism. But let’s be honest, he was playing his dad, and who knows a man better or looks more like him than his own son? And either way, it turned out to all be moot anyway, since O’Shea Jackson, Jr. He could play his father as a troubled artist, a struggling musician, intimidated as a kid, intimidating as an adult, a guy who can’t hack relationships, whether they’re business or personal – the kid has great range. He’ll next be seen in Godzilla: King of the Monsters and opposite Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in the political comedy Flarsky. Sure, the movie might brush over some details like Dr. Dre’s abusive treatment of women, but on the whole, this is an open and honest portrayal of one of the greatest and most influential rap groups of all time.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street
If there’s one thing that a lot of biopics are missing, it’s a heavy dose of humor. And if there’s one thing that most of the world of comedy is missing, it’s unabashedly dark humor. Martin Scorsese remedied both of these problems in his black comic portrait of the debauched, depraved stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role to gleeful perfection as he gets everything from his sexual perversions to his use of quaaludes down to a T. The critics initially described this movie upon its released as “Goodfellas meets The Hangover,” because they had literally never seen a movie like this before. But Scorsese was up for the challenge of creating a wholly unique movie. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the only movie that has both overtly comedic moments and overtly dramatic moments and manages to nail all of them. The whole quaaludes sequence is an exercise in the power of great filmmaking – the power, that is, to make you feel something you’ve never felt before (assuming you’ve never tried quaaludes). On the whole, this is a phenomenal movie that appeals across the board and, although sprawling and epic, is anchored by a terrific lead performance by the greatest actor of this generation.
For Stanley Kubrick, it’s go big or go home. So, when he set out to make a biopic about one of the most legendary slave revolutions in history, he went big, and gave us one of the greatest historical epics of all time. As well as being an awesome telling of the story of Spartacus’ life, the movie is also an allegory for the paranoid political times of the 1960s when the movie was made. The ending scene, in which all the slaves stand up in solidarity and announce, “I’m Spartacus!” has been interpreted as an allegory for how all the American people with Communist views stood together in defiant solidary. The writer of the movie’s brilliant screenplay, Dalton Trumbo, was blacklisted at the time of production for being a Communist. He’d had his screenwriting credits from his other projects removed or replaced with aliases, but Kirk Douglas, the star of Spartacus, fearlessly announced to the world that Trumbo had written the script for his movie, and then President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed the American Legion picket lines in order to see the movie, which helped to bring an end to Communist blacklisting. That’s quite an achievement for a movie.
5. Steve Jobs
After Steve Jobs died, two separate studios scrambled to get a biopic of the troubled Apple CEO made. One of them got rushed out. It was called Jobs and starred Ashton Kutcher and it really sucked. This version, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender, is much more beautiful and emotionally engaging. The storytelling here is incredible, as the entire life of Steve Jobs is told across just three nights. You get his home life, his troubles with women, his relationship with his daughter, his relationship with Steve Wozniak, his firing from Apple, his rehiring by Apple – you get all of this in just three nights, each of them the launch night of a seminal product that he invented (or at least took credit for) throughout his career. The limited settings and scenes present a sort of boiling pot of tension, and it’s the result of having a screenplay written by a gifted playwright. And with Boyle in the director’s chair, it’s a visual treat. All in all, this biopic works so well because it is a terrific character study of one of the most complex and misunderstood geniuses in history, plain and simple, brought to life by a typically stellar performance by Michael Fassbender.
Biopics can only be really great movies when they go beyond the confines of the biopic genre. If you go beyond telling the life story of an important and influential figure and start to deliver the message that they worked their whole lives to impart onto society – particularly if that message is a positive one about a pertinent social issue – then you’ve got yourself a masterpiece. And so goes Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the story of gay rights icon Harvey Milk. Like Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name and, well, Modern Family, Milk will bring even the most homophobic person to tears. It’s a tragic, beautiful, powerful, human story that should be seen by everybody. Harvey Milk is not only the first openly gay person to be elected into a public office in California, but he’s also just a regular guy with troubled romantic relationships, and so what if those relationships were with men? They’re the same problems that everyone has. By giving us this side of Milk and humanizing his subject in this way, Van Sant has made some serious social change with this movie. It contributed to the huge shift in the social acceptance of gay people that we’ve had in the 21st century. Finally, people are accepting other people’s sexual orientations. Harvey Milk was a huge part of that movement, and so was the movie about his tragically short life.
Truman Capote is one of the greatest authors who ever lived. He gave us a wide variety of classic literature and he continues to be widely read to this day. The biopic that was made about him, Capote, just like a lot of the best biopics, condenses his entire life down to one definitive chapter – the time he wrote a true crime novel. Capote was not usually a non-fiction guy or a crime guy, but he took it upon himself to uncover the truths of a gruesome and mysterious case in which a peaceful family were brutally murdered. Capote went to the prison and interviewed the killers and got the story first hand! This is the guy who was known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and he was interviewing mass murderers! Now, that had to be made into a movie, and Bennett Miller made it into a great one. Of course, this movie would be nowhere without the masterful performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who embodies Capote almost perfectly, more than earning his Academy Award for Best Actor. Plus, it’s interesting to see Harper Lee, not only as the childhood friend of another famous novelist, but as an aspiring novelist herself. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird! She set the benchmark for all novels to come! So, yeah, interesting to see.
2. Schindler’s List
Some movies are so incredible that they set a new benchmark for their genre or subject. For example, you can’t make a space movie now without it being compared to Star Wars. You can’t make a music mockumentary without it being compared to This is Spinal Tap. You can’t make a gangster movie without it being compared to The Godfather. And you can’t make a Holocaust movie without it being compared to Schindler’s List. Schindler’s List set a whole new benchmark for movies about this terrible historic tragedy. Trust Steven Spielberg to find a happy, inspiring story about a real life genocide. This was a systemic mass murder of millions upon millions of Jewish people, gypsies, gay people, disabled people, and a bunch of other minority groups. Instead of telling you the story of the guy who killed six million Jews, Spielberg told the story of the guy who saved a thousand of them. This gives you a glimmer of hope in humanity among the devastating atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps to say that not everyone was this terrible. The amount of lives saved by Oskar Schindler barely makes a dent on the overall death count, but at least he did something. We can all take inspiration from Schindler’s story.
1. Raging Bull
The biggest problem with biopic movies is that they deify their subjects. The director will do a movie about a musician’s greatest music, rather than his infidelities and drug addiction – but that’s the stuff that’s interesting! Martin Scorsese has always been the undisputed king of the biopic genre, because he has never sensationalizes his subjects. In fact, he has crafted terrific movies about them by exploiting their biggest weaknesses. For Jordan Belfort, the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street, it was greed. For Henry Hill, the subject of Goodfellas, it was his penchant for cocaine. For Howard Hughes, the subject of The Aviator, it was that he was absolutely insane. And for Jake LaMotta, the subject of Raging Bull, it was jealousy. Any time his wife so much as looks at another man, this volatile boxer goes berserk, and eventually it drives her away. Hell, it drives everyone close to him away. The third act of the movie gives us LaMotta’s later life as an angry old man who has lost his former glory and recites Marlon Brando monologues to himself in the mirror. This is a disturbing, brutal watch. In fact, it’s so disturbing and brutal that it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Rocky who?