This incredible creative marriage of director/co-writer David Lynch and Mel Brooks (the film was produced by Brooksfilms) is an emotionally devastating tribute to the real-life Joseph Merrick (called John in the film), who enjoyed a questionable degree of fame in his life for being extremely deformed.
One of Lynch’s most straightforward films, the movie wisely focuses on John Hurt’s unforgettable portrayal of Merrick, which couldn’t be further from any notion of exploitation. The Elephant Man is somber, but its overall message and depiction are anything but cruel. The film also features strong supporting performances from Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.
Watch if: You want to see a strange story treated with astonishing dignity. Avoid if: You try to stay away from movies that leave you in a heaping pile of gooey sobs.
Apparently, 1980 was a strong year for biopics. Certainly, the genre has become more refined through the years. More and more filmmakers saw this movie type as a chance to do more than just tell someone else’s story. Raging Bull is one of the most profound examples of that idea, and it is remains one of the best Martin Scorsese movies to date.
Raging Bull is more than just visual poetry in its grimy, somber story of boxing legend Jake LaMotta. Scorsese tells a fascinating story of obsession, and De Niro as LaMotta creates a tangible, jarring character at the center of that. This is the height of De Niro’s ability to transform into characters, including real-life, problematic figures. He didn’t miss a beat here.
Watch if: You like boxing movies that aren’t really about boxing. Avoid if: You can’t sit still for black and white.
8. Amadeus (1984)
Few entries on this best biopics list veer as far away from factualness as Miloš Forman takes 1984’s Amadeus. That seems to be okay with virtually everyone who has ever seen this, which is the story of the life of Mozart (Tom Hulce), but is more about Mozart’s relationship with fellow composer Antonio Salieri.
The movie plays fast and loose with their relationship, building a rivalry that probably didn’t exist. The movie takes a lot of liberties, but emphasizes that certain biopics can get away with that. There is something to be said about capturing the spirit of something and someone at the same time with such skill, the energy of the film creates an impression of these things and people we can’t quite shake.
Biopics do not need to be 100% factual, although this knowledge dooms more films than it assists.
Amadeus also features F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, a note on bitterness and desperation that deservedly won Abraham an Oscar.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most elaborate romantic comedies of all time. Avoid if: You actually care about someone getting Mozart’s life right.
9. Malcolm X (1992)
Only Spike Lee could make a biographical epic about Malcolm X with the passion and fury that runs through this entire film. Combined with one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, Malcolm X is decidedly and appealingly unapologetic.
In its best moments, the film strives to move beyond being a biography of a fascinating figure to also capture the singular energy and chaos of the 60s. It succeeds in capturing that on a level that hasn’t been properly appreciated to this day.
Watch if: You like biopics with teeth. Avoid if: You’re not a big fan of the more politically-minded biopics.
The sweetness and affection for its subject that exists at the heart of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood are qualities that are seemingly lacking from most of the movies he’s made post-Big Fish.
Regardless, Burton’s best collaboration with Johnny Depp remains a stirring tribute to not only Wood himself, but to misfits and outcasts in a broad sense. Even more touching than the relationship depicted between Wood and a faded Bela Lugosi (played by the legendary Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for this) is the consistent thread of sacrifice.
Ed may have made some of the worst movies of all time, but he put everything on the line to do that. Sincerity and passion do not necessarily make for a component filmmaker, but Wood clearly did the best he could. Even among the slight liberties taken with his life story, those qualities come through.
Watch if: You want a worthy tribute to a worthy filmmaker. Avoid if: You can’t even handle the good Burton/Depp collaborations at this point.
11. Casino (1995)
Although the names are changed, and certainly elements of the actual events, no other film more intensely recreates vintage Las Vegas than Casino. There is a romanticism about the era of mob-controlled Vegas that director Martin Scorsese explores and deconstructs in equal, breathless measures.
Few movies with a running time like Casino (178 minutes) move as quickly as its story and editing. This is another example of a biopic whose accuracy is less apparent than the notion of making sure every single detail is historically accurate. Casino is also supported by one of Robert De Niro’s best performances, which can also be said of costars Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, and pretty much everyone who appears in what is technically a biopic about notorious gambling handicapper Frank Rosenthal.
Watch if: You want to see the best movie about Las Vegas made to date. Avoid if: Savage violence makes you a little uncomfortable.
12. Frida (2002)
It seems unlikely that anyone will ever be able to fully capture the life and work of artist Frida Kahlo. Nonetheless, Salma Hayek (as Kahlo), director Julie Taymor, and everyone else involved in this breathless, brilliant example of the biopic do their damndest to try.
The end result is a sweeping saga that portrays Kahlo with the honor, dignity, and intense attention to her artistic work she deserves. The depth and power of Hayek’s performance almost overshadows this entire movie. That certainly makes sense, but Frida should still be commended for a number of other qualities.
It boasts an exceptional supporting cast (such as Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera), puts a pleasing focus on Kahlo’s singular personality and style, and resists pandering to the audience at every turn.
Watch if: You want to see a biopic that also captures a compelling chapter of art history. Avoid if: You’re afraid of anything that even remotely suggests it might have a feminist slant.
At this point, based on his work in films such as Hotel Rwanda, it is a glaring omission indeed that Don Cheadle hasn’t won an Oscar. As humanitarian/hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, Cheadle stands as the center-piece of a larger story that seeks to depict the Rwandan Genocide as bluntly as possible.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the horrors of its story, but Hotel Rwanda is also a complex story of heroism. These are elements that can be difficult to capture in a biopic, which often settles for focusing on one or two aspects of telling a story.
With powerhouse supporting performances from Nick Nolte and Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda is near-perfect in its desire to do more and stand for more.
Watch if: You want a historical drama with weight and intensity. Avoid if: You have a weak stomach for monstrosities running side-by-side with cinematic tension.
14. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Adapted from the deeply effecting memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and Butterfly is a slow burn that can make sitting still agonizing for the viewer.
This feeling will not come out of boredom with the story, which details Bauby’s struggles with a condition known as Locked-In Syndrome, in the aftermath of a near-fatal stroke. It is partially because of the previously-unfathomable depths the movie reaches in mediating on life, fate, death, family, and other subjects.
It is also through the mesmerizing performance by Mathieu Amalric as Bauby, which is combined with director Julian Schnabel’s unique approach to this inspirational, at-times-sorrowful material.
Watch if: You want one of the most encouraging celebrations of life in film history. Avoid if: That agony I described just doesn’t sound like your cup of tea.
15. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Steven Soderbergh’s final movie (at the time) let the director go out in a style befitting him, with the writer/director once again finding unique ways to describe a truly unique life.
The general perception of the somewhat-odd Liberace is a limited one. Soderbergh’s attention to the relationship between Liberace (one of Michael Douglas’ best performances) and Scott Thorson (an underrated Matt Damon) allows him to not only depict Liberace’s era, but it also offers considerably more respect and depth than the man usually gets.
It’s easy to get lost in the weirdness of Liberace’s life and career. Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from these things. At the same time, in what is essential for a biopic about a singular personality, he aspires to construct a film that goes deeper than the outrageous wardrobe choices.
Watch if: You want a compelling depiction of a truly eccentric entertainer. Avoid if: Matt Damon and Michael Douglas playing lovers is more than you can handle in a movie for one reason or another.
Best Biopics Runners-Up
The biopic continues to evolve, and there literally dozens of worthy examples of that ongoing process. Chances are, I didn’t include one or two of your favorites. Hopefully, it wound up here, presented in no particular order:
Man on the Moon (1999) Ray (2004) Control (2007) La Vie En Rose (2007) American Splendor (2003)