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The 20 Best Biopics of All Time

August 16, 2013  |  12:55pm
The 20 Best Biopics of All Time

Though it seems like biographical films or “biopics” are a recent trend with every semi-famous celebrity getting an on-screen adaptation, biopics have actually been around a long time. Both filmmakers and audiences share a fascination with recreations of the past exploring those who came before us, whether they’re vilified or admired. Mostly, it’s curiosity that drives our desire to watch these movies and answer the question, “Well, why did he/she choose to lead their life this way?”

Regular fiction or fantasy movies allow us to escape our reality. Biopics allow us to face our (sometimes common) pasts. They allow us to celebrate and rediscover each other as human beings.

In honor of today’s release of Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic, we’ve put together our list of the 20 best biopics of all time.

20. Capote (2004)
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In the same manner that In Cold Blood depicted the pristine scenes of Holcomb, Kansas, and the two men who disturbed them with a quadruple murder, Seymour Hoffman offered a precise-yet-chilling depiction of the man who helped found New Journalism. In turn, his performance burst apart Capote’s carefully crafted narrative to show just how haunted the writer himself had become.—Christina Lee

19. Brian’s Song (1971)
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Yes, it’s a TV movie and yes, it was part of something called ABC’s Movie of the Week. But that doesn’t mean it ended up overly sentimental and schmaltzy. In fact, this movie’s notorious tear-jerker qualities, particularly among men, actually stems from the fact that the deep friendship between the eponymous Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers is so well portrayed. And the friendship between the two football players and teammates for the Chicago Bears, was depicted in Brian’s Song in a way that shied away from setting an overly maudlin and emotional tone, even though one of the guys meets a tragic end. James Caan (Piccolo) and Billy Dee Williams (Sayers), like the football duo in real life, acted like real bros: You knew that they cared about each other, but there was never a shortage of insult humor and other jokes when they were around. Also, as it’s been said all over the internet: If you don’t cry during or after Billy Dee William’s/Gayle Sayers’ acceptance speech scene, you’re dead inside.—Anita George

18. The Elephant Man (1980)
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David Lynch melds history and art in the true story of severely disfigured John Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man,” and his physician Frederick Treves. Abandoned by his parents and exhibited as a side-show freak, Treves rescues Merrick from squalor, educates him, and allows him to become the toast of London. Filmed in black and white, the film is a triumph of cinematography as well as prosthetic makeup design. By film’s end, we feel Merrick’s exhaustion and depression as he gently slips away, reminding us that there are many kinds of exploitation.—Joan Radell

17. The Social Network (2010)
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It can be difficult to show the human side of technology, to go beyond the Nasdaq and the cold, hard metal and glass of today’s gadgets. But Fincher’s The Social Network accomplishes exactly that. The movie deftly brings forth raw emotion of all kinds: betrayal, anger, loneliness, jealousy. As the The Social Network chronicles the rise of social media, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, it also shows us the initial fall of the founder’s own social life starting with the break-up of his romantic relationship with Erica Albright and ending with the sad end to his friendship with co-founder Eduardo Saverin. It’s interesting that, according to this movie’s depiction of Zuckerberg, that the founder of Facebook, the person who essentially revolutionized human social interaction as we know it, seemed to have his own trouble connecting with others in his personal life. And therein lies the humanity amongst all of the algorithms. And with Sorkin’s trademark quick-witted writing and Jesse Eisenberg’s compelling portrayal of the iconic social media founder it is no wonder this biopic received a total of eight Academy Award nominations and won three of them: Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.—Anita George

16. The Last Emperor (1987)
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The last emperor of China, Puyi, spends his youth and young-adulthood in unparalleled luxury, is imprisoned by the Red Army, and becomes a gardener under Mao’s regime in a dazzling epic by director Bernardo Bertolucci. The photography is breathtaking, the subject is exotic and intriguing, and the history lesson is subtle as this film comes full circle, beginning and ending at the Forbidden City.—Joan Radell

15. American Splendor (2003)
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Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” books are fascinating in that Pekar believed that even the most mundane and seemingly uncomplicated lives were worth documenting. American Splendor does a great job of showcasing that theory by using real footage of Pekar, fictionalized versions and even the comic version to create a cohesive whole that documents a fascinating, albeit ordinary life.—Ross Bonaime

14. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
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Sissy Spacek ages from 14 to 45 in her career-defining role as Loretta Webb Lynn, the dirt-poor kid from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, who would become the First Lady of Country Music. This unapologetic film is almost a drama, almost a biography and almost a musical. Highlights are vocals by Spacek as Lynn and Beverly d’Angelo as Patsy Cline. Rock legend Levon Helm and folk music icon Phyllis Boyens (in her first and only credited film role) simply become Loretta’s parents Tom and Clary Webb. Coal Miner’s Daughter is all about perfection of performance, and set an incredibly high bar for musical biopics to come.—Joan Radell

13. Frida (2002)
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Inventive in its portrayal of the famous painter’s life, Frida even manages to free itself from the normal bounds of realism that most biopics adhere to. This is evident in how the movie even incorporates Kahlo’s vivid artist’s imagination into the depiction of the events of her life. Scene transitions are often still paintings come to life and Frida’s daydreams, however grandiose or fanciful they may be are played out in front of us alongside her real experiences. Through these fantasy-riddled moments and Salma Hayek’s moving performance as Kahlo, you really get a vivid sense of who Kahlo was as a woman. Kahlo’s life was the stuff of legend, but Hayek’s performance shows you the very human and flawed world behind all of that.—Anita George

12. The Aviator (2004)
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With Howard Hughes’ larger than life personality and those action-packed scenes of him flying (and crashing) planes, it’s hard not to first think of the famous businessman and aviator as a sort of superhero: a man capable of almost any feat, of withstanding any sort of struggle. But a movie that only captures that side of Hughes’ life would be an incomplete one. A hollow one. What makes The Aviator one of the greatest biopics of all time is that it shows Hughes’ vulnerabilities as well, most notably of which was his battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hughes at his lowest, during Hughes’ anxiety-ridden spirals is far more compelling and suspenseful than the Beverly Hills plane crash scene itself.—Anita George

11. Walk the Line (2005)
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Before Joaquin Phoenix took a couple of years off from conventional acting roles for Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, he gave one of his most memorable performances as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. The film tells the story of The Man in Black’s early career and his relationship with June Carter, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon who received an Academy Award for her performance.—Wyndham Wyeth

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