Top 10 Biopics of All-Time

Photo Courtesy of IMDB.

Photo Courtesy of IMDB.

The biographical picture requires risk-taking and fresh minds to be more than simply regurgitating history. Films that just rehash someone’s life can be fine, like The King’s Speech or Walk the Line, but they remain just fine. The best biopics offer something more.


1. Goodfellas: Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece is the culmination of everything he’s best at: mobster storytelling, top-notch narration, clever soundtrack, and sinister humor. Yes, this movie with an enormous body count his funny. It tells the story of Henry Hill, an East Coast gangster, his rise to the top, and his inevitable fall. It features great turns from Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, but the real star is Ray Liotta, who should have become a star from this, but got reduced to kooky roles in the coming years. His excitement for being feared and his cowardly interactions with those really doing the dirty work doesn’t exactly make Hill sympathetic, but it provokes a similar feeling from the viewer. Scorsese’s singular eye makes this impossible to imitate, though people surely have tried.


2. I’m Not There: Bob Dylan’s story is full of contradictions and half-truths. He revels in mystery and tries to keep everyone guessing who he really is. This makes a biopic about him next to impossible. It takes someone like Todd Haynes, who decided to cast a different actor for every “character” Dylan has played in his life: the cocky runaway child, Woody Guthrie wanna-be [Marcus Carl Franklin], the coy interviewee going by the name Arthur Rimbaud [Ben Whishaw], the crumbling, amphetamine fueled rock star [Cate Blanchett], the beloved protest troubadour [Christian Bale], the aging cowboy [Richard Gere], the lapsed romantic and bored celebrity [Heath Ledger], and the lost seeker [Bale again]. Each time period is shot with a different style. This is the definitive rock biopic because instead of trying to piece together Dylan’s life, Haynes decides to steer into the mystery.


3. Schindler’s List: Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece was the first major motion picture to tackle the Holocaust. Instead of trying to tell the entire history of the atrocity, something that would require at least a dozen movies. Spielberg instead chooses to zero in one one story, which requires an incredible scope as well. Oskar Schindler is portrayed by Liam Neeson in a career best role, an industrialist who sees a business opportunity as the Jews in Poland are being hunted and sent away. By employing them in his factory, he can hold a market and they can be saved. His transformation to sleazy businessman to historical hero is subtle and the exact turning point is debatable. His foil, SS officer Amon Goeth, is played by Ralph Fiennes [who even resembles Neeson], who represents so many of the Nazi officers who bask in senseless violence and then cowardly explain that they were just following orders. Of course, a movie like this was controversial, but it is rightfully hailed today as a compassionate portrayal of the victims of a devastating barbarism, without succumbing to Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality.


4. Raging Bull: Screenwriter Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese are one of the great cinematic duos and this might be the best example. Schrader wrote the story [with Mardik Martin] of  self-destructive champion boxer Jake LaMotta and his brother Joey LaMotta. Scorsese summoned career best performances from Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, focusing on how Jake’s brutish temper and jealousy cost him his career and his family, and his multiple failed attempts at reviving his life. Raging Bull is hard to watch, especially as Jake continues to dig himself in a deeper hole, but it’s essential viewing.


5. The Social Network: Aaron Sorkin is a great screenwriter, but can also be his own worst enemy. When left to his own devices, his work can be insufferable and maddeningly self-righteous. He needs someone else to realize his work, because he truly has a gift for breathing new life into true stories. David Fincher kept his telling of the creation of Facebook grounded and added enough visceral energy to keep it original. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, a brilliant, but jealous and often cruel Harvard Student. He takes the spirit of an idea by fellow students the Winklevoss twins [Armie Hammer], and with the help of his best friend Eduardo Saverin [a show-stealing Andrew Garfield], creates a massively successful website, and once under the spell of disgraced Napster founder Sean Parker [Justin Timberlake], starts burning bridges. Underneath all the tech-savvy story lies a more tragic one: a doomed friendship. Sorkin provides the quick wit and Fincher provides the toxic atmosphere.


6. Amadeus: This is a Mozart biopic in name, but the real story is of Antonio Salieri, played with wonderful restraint by F. Murray Abraham. Milos Forman’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play focusing on the painful jealousy and disbelief of Salieri as he begins falling into the shadow of Amadeus Mozart. Tom Hulce plays Mozart as an incredibly juvenile and crass individual, but still brilliant. Salieri cannot make sense of how such a person could be the greatest composer of his time. It’s fascinating and Abraham, who is looking back on the past with terrible guilt, turns a biopic about a classic composer into one about his forgotten rival.


7. The Elephant Man: David Lynch’s biopic about Joseph Merrick is stands out from the rest of his filmography because instead of creating a complex look at Merrick, a severely deformed man picked up by a circus, and basing it in very surreal dream-logic, Lynch shows Merrick for the tragic figure he was: an incredibly kind man who was rejected his entire life. John Hurt plays Merrick as an elegant, old soul ousted from society. Instead of furthering the exploitation of someone always branded a freak throughout history, it gives the punchline an actual personality.


8. Baadasssss!: Mario Van Peebles uses his own memory to retell the making of his father, Melvin’s, film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, one of the most influential blaxploitation films of all-time. Peebles proves he is the only person who can really tell this story, drawing from his intimate involvement in its making, and how his father’s unbreakable drive and uncompromising vision paid off, even in the face of countless setbacks.


9. Catch Me If You Can: Steven Spielberg is at his best when he avoids let his sappy tendencies trip him up. While he comes close in Catch Me If You Can, written by Jeff Nathanson, he is able to keep a stranger-than-fiction story funny and sincere. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a teenage conman who escapes a broken home and successfully reinvents himself several times over, fooling everyone and committing about $3 million worth of check fraud. The whole time, FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks, his close on his tail, and the film is at its best when it focuses on the tense and mutual respect the two have for each other.


10. American Splendor: Paul Giamatti, one of the best actors alive, holds Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s telling of the life of Harvey Pekar. Pekar, a curmudgeonly Average Joe, begins giving his mundane life stories to cartoonist Robert Crumb. He becomes an underground comix legend. It follows Pekar through a struggling marriage and cancer diagnosis. Pekar himself, now passed, provides some narration.