It’s here! The story of Farrokh Bulsara is out on the big screen. A much-anticipated biopic of a little-known singer, songwriter, and producer born in Tanzania who would later become Freddie Mercury, the voice behind one of the prolific bands in Rock and Roll history.
Queen not only etched its legacy in the hearts of music lovers for generations past and to come, but Mercury was one of the most misunderstood and iconic front men of all time. And whether you see Bohemian Rhapsody or not in theaters, the movie is going to be a moving biopic because of the subject matter.
Freddie Mercury’s voice, vision, and veritas moved people. His singing evoked sheer passion. And his presence off the stage was even more mesmerizing. I’m not a critic but trust, the thumbs up and tomatoes will be polarizing on this one.
So, that reminds us: What’s your favorite biopic?
When you think of a famous person in history, did he or she inspire someone enough to make a movie about them? Few have and even fewer make a profit that’s worth discussing, much less, a difference that’s worth anything. There are 25 in movie history that are considered among the best — not only biopics, but overall movies.
We discussed the best biopics ever and judged them all based on many things to develop this list, not limited to the following:
- Box Office Numbers
- Pop Culture Impact
- Historical Significance
- Community Influence
- Acting Chops
- Cinematic Reach
- Personal Likeness and Evolution
Here they come…
The Top 25 Biopics of All Time.
Now, we thought about this A-List, and even watched some of these over, including the older ones to ensure the ranking. There will be many that folk believe others should break in the top 25 but this our list, so go get your own. Remember the criteria. Let’s get on with the show.
25. Straight Outta Compton
Think about all the biopics ever made. Movie houses have been using real-life examples for screenwriting for close to a century. That’s a lot of tape. And Straight Outta Compton, created in 2015, is at No. 25. It’s that good!
What’s so impressive about F. Gary Gray’s skills was projecting this movie from screen to real life. This is hip-hop history. NWA changed the entire genre because they refused to settle — they insisted on bringing where they came from to music with the reality in which they lived. So, a movie about musical history was one big reference to today’s history about race relations. It was poignant and raw. It was everything NWA was on wax and tape. A perfect reflection of its subject matter if ever there was one.
24. The Wolf of Wall Street
From the moment this movie began with a trail of nose candy resting in the crescent moon of… well, you know, someone’s moon, The Wolf of Wall Street was a wild roller coaster tale of debauchery and the brighter side of life. Kinda. What many casual movie goers didn’t realize because of the pomp and unrealistic circumstance was this movie was true.
This was Martin Scorsese’s most fast-paced, shameless, and entertaining films, and it based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, a broker who made a fortune on shady sales of penny stocks—and spent a fortune on drugs, sex, and other ways to raise a kerfuffle with a few million dollars of excess. Imagine Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing and The Social Network fame writing a script while on a ghetto batch of Molly. That’s three hours of bumper cars while having a stomach full of bad chili. What a complete trip…and some 20-year-old lived it all. Amazing.
23. The King’s Speech
Most people would assume a story about King George VI in 1936 and the speech therapist who helped the king seem more regal with his words seems like an artsy-fartsy film during award season that no one will see but critics will adore. And then “normal” people saw The King’s Speech and were mesmerized by the story behind the two men, and the two men (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush) playing them.
Imagine a country with a leader who sounded like a fool every time he opened his mouth. Now that you see what I did there, that was England during the reign of King George. Much like Christy Brown (see later on the list), this is a man with a message only was lacking the mechanism to get it to the world. He needed help and that beautiful story of struggle, plight, and deep respect was enough to win over his country and win more than 100 achievement in film awards, including four Oscars.
22. Brian’s Song
The Chicago Bears have been known for the ‘Monsters of the Midway’ and the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.’ But they also were home to one of the heart-wrenching stories in sports history involving the real-life friendship of teammates Brian Piccolo and NFL hall-of-famer Gale Sayers.
This stimulating friendship began where most never live — in the throes of competition and racism. Both Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Piccolo (James Caan) were vying for the same position, but Sayers was eons more talented. He also had this pigmentation thing working against him in the mid-60s. Then, Sayers suffers a massive knee injury comforted only by the dude he knocked out of a job. So, when Piccolo is riddled with cancer, Sayers turned favor. This was Brian’s Song, and its hymn about life was beautiful.
One of the greatest actors in recent memory led by one of the greatest directors in movie lore telling the story of arguably the greatest president in U.S. history. What could go wrong? In the movie of Lincoln, absolutely nothing. The movie should be required viewing for all those cantankerous farts in Congress of the magic that could happen when one strong person reaches across the aisle without fear of revocation.
Daniel Day-Lewis takes an ‘Aw shucks,’ plain-spoken man from Illinois and molds him into a quintessential leader brimming with self-confidence and a willingness to play politics in a fashion that should inspire all 535 elected officials in D.C. who are exactly the opposite. While this film covers the final months of Lincoln’s life leading up the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and an errant evening at Ford’s Theater, his life inspires the rest of us to dare to dream and think about the reality of the man and the realization of his myth.
20. The Fighter
Raging Bull (we’ll talk later). Rocky. Million Dollar Baby. Cinderella Man (nope, not on this list, but it was close). What is it about boxing movies that make for such visceral moments while clutching some Twizzlers and a large Coke?! The Fighter is the real life story of Micky Ward,
Many people knew Marky Mark was Calvin Klein beefcake gone action star, but not many movie fans knew he had these kind of acting chops. His portrayal of the junior featherweight was full of the ups-and-downs you would expect of a boxing movie — only this was a somber journey, up until Ward faces the legendary Arturo Gotti (three times). From rags to mediocre riches, The Fighter earned its prodigious company. So did Wahlberg.
19. The Social Network
“The Facebook” is part theme, part villain in this rapid-fire script and shaky-cam, but The Social Network all Aaron Sorkin and it won three Oscars (including best writing) for a distinct reason. He takes an almost forensic approach to telling this story – how the network was inspired and it was arguably “borrowed.” Doesn’t matter because Zuckerberg won, but the movie did enough to make dude flair up in angst like a bad, untreated case of herpes.
The nexus of Sorkin’s ability to cram 1,000 words of thoughtful copy into three minutes of screen time, and David Fincher’s careful direction to detail regarding the environment, lighting, and mood was a marriage made in a make-believe heaven of a movie studio. (C’mon, this wasn’t The Revenant.) And the baby that came together from this union is nothing short of a must-buy in your own DVD collection. And good luck with the memorization of those lines.
The film never could typecast someone as talented as George C. Scott, but a script and story as demanding as Patton almost did just that. This movie wasn’t only a tour de force thanks to screenplay, featuring Francis Ford Coppola, but also the timing. It’s 1970, the end of the peace-and-love movement and the beginning of a calm from a war-torn nation. And this film still pulls out seven Oscars.
What does it say about a man who is so possessed by war — the fight of another nation, not the protection of his own — that he would think his presence in it makes it complete. “The last great opportunity of a lifetime and I’m left out of it? God will not allow it to happen.” Patton was all man, all hero, and only Scott could pull it off. Oddly enough, another one of the most quoted war movies is Apocalypse Now. Made during the same time and written by the same man. That’s the Dogs of War barking loudly with master class role playing from Scott.
Despite what you think and what you may have heard, Truman Capote was a complex creature — as complex as his profound writing. The guy was besties with Harper Lee, for crying out loud. His scripts for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood are considered among Hollywood’s elite. So, in Capote, we are taken to 1959 when he heard of this murder in Kansas that inspired the legendary script. And, as a result, we fall deep in love with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
That man was a machine. He could do, say, act anything and make you believe it. Hoffman was Capote. People searched YouTube because they couldn’t believe the likeness and idiosyncrasies. The movie spans only six years of Capote’s life, but the near two hours of watching film took a lifetime of learning and discovery. And we enjoyed every minute.
16. A Beautiful Mind
John Forbes Nash was a math savant. He was also a man of troubled genius. Codes float in his mind that can be cracked into a world of deep understanding. There’s only one problem — Nash is schizophrenic. That’s the premise of A Beautiful Mind.
John Nash is credited with developing something called “game theory,” which became a foundation for contemporary economics. That alone would have him archived in history books for millennia; however, during the time he was working on numerical invention, he became delusional and paranoid during the Cold War and ultimately won a 1994 Nobel Prize. This movie is a beautiful journey into the recesses of what motivates a man to reach his own personal liberty. Crowe went from Gladiator to this Ron Howard film and won an Oscar. Twice. What a journey to behold.
15. The Elephant Man
Before this continues, yes, that Anthony Hopkins. (There’s nothing he can’t do.) But this movie belongs to John Hurt who plays the unforgettable true story of John Merrick, a legitimate “circus freak” who is on a quest to regain a life of meaning and dignity. The Elephant Man is a moniker given to a man involved in an awful accident in-utero causing him to be scarred with horrible defects. Nonetheless, despite of his grueling visage and despite what it does to everyone around him, Merrick just wants to know what it means to be a man.
David Lynch directs us on a complex journey that is both difficult to watch and impossible to look away. John Merrick was a man who had no reason to escape the shadows because of his appearance, but he had a heart that far outweighed the burden of his condition. When a doctor from London (Hopkins) sees the heart beyond the face, he rescues Merrick from that life to give him one of his own. This movie is every bit of gripping as you would imagine. A true haunting masterpiece.
A biopic involving this musical genius required someone who could exercise a little musical genius himself — that’s Jamie Foxx. His Oscar for Best Actor proves the genius he amassed playing Ray Charles Robinson. He captures what it meant to be blind, thoughtful, conflicted, and inventive with this unbridled passion to make music. He also portrays another side of the legendary R&B icon many didn’t know before Taylor Hackford brought us Ray (and nominated for an Oscar of his own).
Ray Charles was running from many of his own ghosts — being blind in a sighted world, being black in a largely white world. To cope, Ray ran to women, to heroin, and to music. We saw it all and witnessed the power of what happens when someone with a passion to tell a story digs into a role and learns the source. What we were left with watching is a film led by Foxx, inspired by Charles, and solidified what any of us knew about the man, his myth, and music’s legend.
13. Walk the Line
Speaking of musical legends, in James Mangold’s opus Walk the Line, we see what an actor can do even if he isn’t known for his musical prowess. No one in their right mind thought Joaquin Phoenix would be a perfect casting call for Johnny Cash. And now that we have seen the perfection he created onscreen as the country music icon, we can’t imagine him not in this role.
And while Phoenix was very impressive as Johnny Cash in this film, make no mistake, this movie was all about Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash. She was mesmerizing as she stayed committed to Johnny despite his many personal foibles. She was brilliant when she opened up her mouth to speak into Johnny’s life and sing into ours. This film required two people to give Oscar-worthy performances. It got that and introduced the magnetic voices of both Cashes to a world outside country that hadn’t yet spent a dime on them.
12. Coal Miner’s Daughter
There may be another A-List in the future — one that digs into musical biopics. We have discussed two of them, and there is a debate brewing for Coal Miner’s Daughter as the transcendent selection among all of them, for one primary reason — Sissy Spacek, whom Loretta Lynn hand-picked for this role. (BTW, Beverly D’Angelo was no slouch as Patsy Cline.)
Spacek was with Loretta Lynn for more than a year to learn who the Coal Miner’s Daughter was. On tour, at home, in public, and in private. This was the opportunity of a lifetime and Spacek became Lynn, down to her speech patterns and style. Reports of the two singing together on the Grand Ole Opry stage that people couldn’t easily tell which one was singing at any given time. When the artist herself can’t tell you apart from herself, you pretty much got that role down pat. See this movie and learn about a legend.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Later the following year, the neighborhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone, by a former city supervisor, Dan White (played wonderfully by Josh “Thanos” Brolin).
Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk was a triumph, so much that a few movie goers and critics alike questioned his own sexuality. Really convincing, not only with the intimate sensibility he plays Milk in private, but also the convincing and concise voice he uses to petition for gay rights in public. We see Milk unfold in Penn as we watch the man in the movie evolve from camera store owner to vociferous political catalyst. Once again, an inspirational creature becomes a tragic hero, and this film showed the character arc like a perfect rainbow. (See what I did there.)
10. My Left Foot
Daniel Day-Lewis has already etched his face on the Mount Rushmore of leading men in film, and possibly began that stone-cutting process with My Left Foot. This is a man who is known for his extreme fashion to prepare for a role. He sees it as portraying “truth” on screen, so he owes it to an inspirational Irish artist named Christy Brown who overcame insurmountable odds by learning to paint with the only limb he had control over not affected with cerebral palsy — his left foot.
There is not a single scene in this movie that you aren’t glued to the screen convinced Day-Lewis has a real ailment because he’s so… well, Day-Lewis. Everyone in the mid-1950s thought Brown was mentally affected because he had no control over most of his abilities. And then, he’s able to grab a piece of chalk with his toe and began to tell the world about his inner thoughts he was dying to express. If you haven’t seen this film, you need to do so. We all have a voice, and even if you are in a world where no one is listening, live like Christy Brown, do like Daniel Day-Lewis, and make them listen.
9. Lawrence of Arabia
For decades, this movie was the bar for all films in Hollywood — not just biopics. Lawrence of Arabia is the prototype for a “big Hollywood film.” Stellar cast, vistas to make you drool, spanning hundreds of extras, a story that is doctoral dissertation-level good, and a leading man that captures a world with his presence. That was Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, an English officer who united — and led — Persian tribes to fight off the Turkish empire during World War I.
You have Sir Alec Guinness (yes, Obi-Wan), Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer — all remarkable leading men in that time, all took a supporting role just to be a facet in this magnificent story. There is nothing to be said about this film that hasn’t already been said, save one thing — it was made in 1962 and still holds up. All the CGI, all the VFX, all the prosthetic, all the everything — none of it mattered then. The only thing was the story and the art of making movies. This movie is example A of total greatness.
This masterpiece by Martin Scorsese was much more than a brilliant biopic of a lifelong mafioso-gone-turncoat in Henry Hill. This is a movie that reinvented a genre — it broke the fourth wall. Narration throughout and then… he talks to you, sitting in your seat. Goodfellas was so many levels ahead of its time. (Yes, there was Ferris Bueller, but this is everything that movie — which technically did invent that fourth wall demolition — wanted to be.)
Many wonder how Nicholas Pileggi (also the mind behind Casino) could transform his book into a screenplay like that? Easy, he wrote his book that way. And the terrific troika of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta brought them to life in ways other actors could only dream. The fact that it only won one Oscar is one of the greatest crimes of the new decade at that time. Fortunately, its prestige and acclaim have won it so much more in loyalty, quotables, memes, and the respect of millions.
Although historically, this was more of a movie than a true tale about a person, there’s no denying the force of nature that Mel Gibson created with Braveheart. Most cinephiles believe this is a Top-10 all-time movie, and they’d be right. This story about William Wallace, a Scottish avenger of the voiceless and captive, was more than a film for many people who witnessed the power of acting. It was an provocative awakening of what it means to stand for something.
And while the movie may have misappropriated his nickname (yes, really), Wallace really was a warrior, a rebel, someone with a passion to live or die for his country because he saw a strength in thousands that couldn’t see it in themselves. His motivation could or could not have been because of a woman, but there’s no denying the power of love he left in his wake. The gore and the grim nature of how these patriots fought for their freedom is muted by Gibson’s supreme acting and directing us all through the life of Scotland’s hero.
6. Schindler’s List
Liam Nesson throws out a rod and reel and lures us all into the collection of emotion brought to us by Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List. Imagine a man so moved by the plight of his employees that he risks his life — and that of his family’s — to save them. This was Oskar Schindler, a man in German-occupied Poland who saw what Nazi persecution was doing to his Jewish workforce. And his acts of selfless heroism told the story only a man of Spielberg’s caliber and Nesson’s skill could tell.
This is a three-hour movie that has you stuck to your seat. You can’t miss a detail. You can’t forget an image. And forget going to the bathroom. This is one of the preeminent stories ever told on film. It’s like a novel peeling over page-to-page with every frame. A Spielberg movie. A John Williams score. A Nesson role of a lifetime. And a story that has to be seen to be believed.
5. Raging Bull
Before Sly Stallone made a fictional character the heartbeat of Philadelphia, Robert De Niro made Jake LaMotta’s story one that personified a sport and unveiled the untold stories within it. We have all read the tales of pugilists who use rage in life as fuel in the ring but Raging Bull was by far the most appealing, most distressing, and the most heartbreaking.
Make no mistake, this is not a movie about boxing. It’s about a man who boxes more than opponents but his own demons, and in-between slow-motion sequences and black-and-white stills, we see a struggle of the human condition and a tug-of-war that places a man’s desires over his own well-being. Jealousy, insecurity, and a nasty temper pushes everyone away forcing LaMotta even further into the corner of isolation he feared the most. Watching the movie, you want to help him. Feeling the movie, you begin to understand him. As much as anyone could. That’s the power of this film.
4. The Passion of the Christ
Whether you’re a person of faith, or not. Whether you are moved by religion, or not. Whether you think this even qualifies as a biopic, or not (and it does), The Passion of the Christ is a phenomenal film and one that had the world in the palm of its hand. Jim Caviezel has shared stories that even if he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ prior to this movie, he would now because of the power of portraying him and the sheer reality (and sometimes, physical labor) of this movie.
How do you tell a story that has been told countless millions of times already? The words are familiar. The allegories are known. The promises are accessible. You work with the adage, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” That’s precisely what Mel Gibson told Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion, The Lion King ) to do — tell this tale with imagery. It was rich, tangible, gripping, and evocative. The acting, the score, the emotion — all pulled together like a woven tapestry through imagery to make it life-changing. Fitting for this biopic, don’t you think?
Imagine someone who thought they caused your death telling your story in a way that is nearly matchless. That is the sordid tale of Amadeus, as mind-numbing jealous fellow and more contemporary composer Antonio Salieri (the great F. Murray Abraham) takes us by the hand and walks us through the troubled, arduous, and convoluted life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (the surprisingly stirring Tom Hulce).
Much like Braveheart, there was immense creative liberties taken to make this film and tell this story. It does focus on Amadeus. It does pose the dire need to be noticed by one and the dire need to be appreciated by the other. But this movie goes much deeper than maybe the real-life story unveiled. Salieri’s confession of “killing” Mozart is only a salve to calm his soul of guilt post-suicide attempt. And what we get is an orchestra of emotion that never lets up. It’s been said before, so this is a borrowed thought, but although the movie was slated as a biopic, the main character was the music he created as a result of his pain. And if Amadeus doesn’t move you, check your pulse. You’re probably dead.
2. Malcolm X
Although Training Day and Glory righteously brought Denzel Washington two Oscars, he has never — and will ever — perform better than he did in Malcolm X. From small-thinking gangster to becoming the mind of a generation civil rights leader in the Nation of Islam, there’s no denying Denzel was born to have Spike Lee direct him in this movie. It was a perfect storm and we all were fortunate to watch the waves crashing from scene-to-scene as we see the pages from Alex Haley’s autobiography become a torrent of emotion and ostentation.
This biopic is more of a tribute for a meager man who had no hope of becoming “someone” and ended up — as the movie celebrates in its final scene — that he became “everyone.” That’s the power of one man, one thought, and one passion. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz transformed his life in ways that billions could only imagine, and he did it to serve those he loved most — his family and his people. Malcolm was on a quest as he alludes:
You can’t separate peace from freedom because no man can have peace unless he has his freedom.
That quest is a personal struggle but it became of public plight as Denzel and Lee take us on the journey of a lifetime. After this movie, we are all thankful this life happened.
Speaking of being grateful for the majesty of a life unharnessed to reach its full potential, the country of India got Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and we got his supremely told story personified by Sir Ben Kingsley and directed by Richard Attenborough.
Gandhi is a movie that goes more than three hours, not because of excess but because there was so much to say about a selfless man who gave his life for a country and his soul for a people.
The movie is acclaimed and awarded for countless reasons (eight Oscars even), but central to this triumphant film is Kingsley. Watching every minute of this film in pensive thought and still quiet is giving it the respect Kingsley’s acting and Gandhi’s story deserves. And to think, it almost didn’t get made. This movie almost didn’t get made. Think about the crime in that. Attenborough has been quoted sharing that story:
“It took me 20 years to get the money to get that movie made. I remember my pitch to 20th Century Fox. The guy said: ‘Dickie, it’s sweet of you to come here. You’re obviously obsessed. But who the f—ing hell will be interested in a little brown man wrapped in a sheet carrying a beanpole?’ I would have loved to have met that guy after the Oscars and told him to f— off.”
We all would toast to that. A man who could drive out the British empire with his words. A nation that could drive out its fear by embracing the man. It was a time in history that this movie needed because without the grandeur of how it was made — from cinematography to acting to direction — we have possibly never know how deserving Gandhi was of praise and veneration.
This movie educates us all in ways none other, biopic or otherwise, can. Period.