Lights, camera, biopics! In a world where reality meets reel, biographical films have captured our hearts and minds, transforming larger-than-life individuals into captivating on-screen narratives. From the silver screen to the streaming platforms, these masterpieces transport us into the lives of visionaries, rebels, and heroes, offering a tantalizing glimpse into their triumphs, struggles, and untold stories. So grab your popcorn, settle into your seats, and prepare to embark on a cinematic journey as we uncover the crème de la crème of biopics, the movies that flawlessly blend artistry, authenticity, and unforgettable storytelling. Welcome to the reel world of the best biopic films ever made!
Biographical films have proven to be a favorite genre among cinema fans for decades, starting in the early 1900s with films like “Cleopatra” and “Davy Crockett” and continuing to the 20th century with hits like “Selena”. A recent study from the 2022 Oscars asking people what favorite movies they thought were snubbed even proved this theory further. When asked, the most popular of the group were “House of Gucci” and “Respect”. Both films feature real-life tales of the Gucci Family and Aretha Franklin, respectively.
Last year alone, the movie industry blessed us with films about Elvis (“Elvis”), Whitney Houston (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody”), and Marilyn Monroe (“Blonde”), to name a few. While entertaining to the viewer, these movies are also often educational, teaching new generations about past important figures and, more importantly, events in our history. 2019’s “Harriet”, for example, showcased the heroic story of Harriet Tubman and her escape from slavery, while 2008’s “Milk” told us the life of California’s first openly gay elected official.
Biopic is short for biographical motion picture. They lend intriguing insight into the lives of A-listers and important names in history while entertaining modern viewers. But which of these carefully crafted movies hit the nail on the head? StudyFinds set out to answer that exact question! We scanned across ten websites to narrow the list down to the top five best biopic films for your viewing pleasure. Don’t see your favorite on the list? We would love to hear from you about your go-to in the comments below! Now, onto the list!
The List: Best Biopic Films, According to Experts
This 1962 British historical drama has undoubtedly stood the test of time almost half a century later. Adam B. Vary at Entertainment Weekly describes the film as “director David Lean following Lawrence (Peter O’Toole in a star-making performance) from a nobody British intelligence officer into the larger-than-life figure who successfully leads the fractured tribes of Arabia against the Turks in WWI. For many in Hollywood, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ remains the gold standard for how to compact a great man‘s life into the confines of a feature-length film, but it’s also required viewing for anyone wishing to further understand how the Middle East got to be the way it is today.”
“The groundbreaking biopic is considered a cinematic masterpiece and rightfully won seven Academy Awards. It is regarded as one of the most influential films ever crafted, with O’Toole’s portrayal touted as one of the finest in all cinema history, perfectly tapping into what makes a biographical performance great,” describes Movie Web.
“Peter O’Toole balances Lawrence’s dual nature with aplomb, perfectly conveying the warrior and peacemaker’s internal struggles and divided loyalties. Lean’s film also contains a stellar score from Maurice Jarre, an intelligent screenplay from Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, picture-perfect editing by Anne V. Coates, and a star-studded supporting cast that includes Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. Given such pedigree, it’s not hard to see why the film is considered one of the greatest films of all time,” raves The Shelf. With stellar acting performances and a script that took its source material and made magic, it’s no wonder “Lawrence of Arabia” is a classic for generations.
“Steven Spielberg’s heart-wrenching 1993 historical drama ‘Schindler’s List’ is based on the Thomas Keneally novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’ and follows German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helped save more than a thousand manly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. Spielberg approached ‘Schindler’s List’ as a documentary and shot the film in black and white, despite his reservations on whether he was mature enough to create such a picture. The esteemed director famously forwent a salary for the project, declaring it ‘blood money,'” describes Movie Web.
“It’d be hard to find a more inspiring, moving story to tell than that of Oskar Schindler. And before seeing this film, I assumed that Steven Spielberg was exactly the wrong person to tell it. But all thanks be to the movie gods that I wasn’t a studio head in the ’90s, because Spielberg produced what was simply one of the most ambitious, wise, and moving motion pictures of our lifetime. The acting is superb—a career-making role for big lumbering Liam Neeson. But the script—oh, Steven Zaillian’s majestic script is the biggest star. He manages to take a Holocaust tale and turn it into a story of triumph, the story of how much one man can do, and the regret we’ll each someday have that we didn’t do much, much more,” says Paste Magazine.
Stacker raves about the film, saying it’s “a success on every level; Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece ‘Schindler’s List’ is, at its heart, two parallel character studies. On the one hand, there’s Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes), a purely evil psychopath, and on the other Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a greedy businessman turned unlikely humanitarian. Haunting and powerful, the film insists that goodness and truth can prevail, even in some of humanity’s darkest moments.”
As far back as he remembered, Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster, and in two hours and twenty-six minutes, “Goodfellas” shows us the riveting story of him doing just that. “Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece biographical crime film ‘Goodfellas’ narrates the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill, covering his relationship to wife Karen Hill and his ill-fated ties with mob partners Tommy DeVito and Jimmy Conway,” says Movie Web. “Depicting 25 years of the mobster’s life from 1955 to 1980, ‘Goodfellas’ is jam-packed full of suspense, degradation, and intense violence that is critical to the authenticity of the biopic. The powerful performances of its talented cast and Scorsese’s masterful storytelling and directing were celebrated, and ‘Goodfellas’ is heavily regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.”
“In ‘Goodfellas’, Scorsese perfects his knack for neither condemning nor glamorizing his characters; he presents the life of a gangster from the inside-out,” says Christian Blauvelt at Entertainment Weekly. With a cast that includes heavyweights in the acting game like Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Robert DeNiro, the film itself is only perfected by their calculated and researched performances.
“‘Goodfellas’ is more than just a great mobster movie: it’s also one of the highest-rated biographical films. A lot of the film’s success is due to the story derived from the novel ‘Wiseguys’ written by Nicholas Pileggi, which gives great immersion into the complex life in the mob, where rich friendships and luxury are juxtaposed by cruel, illegal acts,” describes Screen Rant.
Based on the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965, this quintessential biopic follows Martin Luther King Jr. and the period leading up to his speech on the Alabama State Capitol Steps. “‘Selma’ was praised for its historical authenticity as it followed Martin Luther King Jr. as he fought for Black voting rights. The film follows King’s frenetic three months leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Their efforts directly contributed to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act”, describes Collider. “The film focuses primarily on King’s role in the events without diminishing the importance of the other leaders’ contributions to molding this pivotal moment in American history. Moreover, the screenplay by Paul Webb and David Oyelowo’s performance as King gives us a profound, gratifying depiction of King as a man capable of errors, self-doubt, and pain.”
Indie Wire goes on to rave about the film, saying they are “much more partial to biopics that focus on a small but essential part of a person’s life, a part that explains the whole. Ava DuVernay’s ‘Selma’ does this better than any movie I can think of, using the details of the Selma march to give us insight into the fullness of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the stirring speaker, sure, but also the brilliant political tactician, and the human being wrestling with the risks and the cost to his family.”
There are icons, and then there is Martin Luther King Jr. Ever the professional, David Oyelowo viewed his portrayal of the history maker through an incredibly personal lens, deciding not to play him “as an icon”, which he felt would do the story a disservice. “I approached Dr. King first and foremost as a man,” Vogue Australia adds, highlighting Oyelowo’s brilliant portrayal of Dr. King.
“So give me a stage where this bull here can rage. And though I could fight, I’d much rather recite: that’s entertainment,” Robert DeNiro whispers in the opening of this Scorsese masterpiece. “DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxing champion of the 1940s and ’50s, is an isolated figure racked with guilt, sexual insecurity, and an inability to relate to women. De Niro’s weight gain (and loss) for the role has been justly praised, but it’s the way Scorsese gets inside LaMotta’s head, with slow-motion point-of-view shots and a disorienting soundtrack (the ringside crowd noises were mixed together with animal cries) that makes this critique of aggressive masculinity so devastating — and human,” describes Christian Blauvelt at Entertainment Weekly.
“The best film of the 1980s contains one of the all-time great feats of directing and one of the all-time great feats of screen acting. The status that Martin Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull’ has achieved in the years since its release is completely earned. Watching it is a fully felt experience. Then there are the boxing scenes. Scorsese deserves endless praise for finding such lively, inventive ways to capture the experience inside the ring. But what’s really amazing is that he goes beyond a great sports scene. Each fight serves as a window into LaMotta’s soul. The camera movement, the quick edits, and the sudden shifts in speed all reflect his mental state and his need to damage himself or cause damage to others. Such expressive, visceral filmmaking has rarely been equaled,” writes Michael Burgin at Paste Magazine, raving about Scorsese’s work specifically when directing this pick.
“When it (‘Raging Bull: My Story’) was turned into a movie, Martin Scorsese was at the helm with Robert De Niro playing LaMotta and Joe Pesci playing Joey, Jake’s brother/manager. As you surely already know, the Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci formula almost always leads to Oscar gold, and Raging Bull took home two honors (out of eight total nominations) at the 53rd Academy Awards,” mentions Yard Barker. Furthermore, in the role of Vicky LaMotta, Cathy Moriarty also earned herself an Oscar nomination. The actress was only 18 at the time of filming but held her own magnificently against the boys in her first acting role. The authentic performances by the cast, the direction, cinematography, and script come together to make this a near perfect viewing experience.
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- Paste Magazine
- Movie Web
- Vogue Australia
- That Shelf
- Entertainment Weekly
- Screen Rant
- Yard Barker
- Indie Wire
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.