The 21 Best Biopics on Netflix

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The 21 Best Biopics on Netflix

What do a Beatle, a U.S. president, a British prince, an Indian orphan, a jazz musician, a baseball player, a rapper and a mobster all have in common? You can watch a biopic about them on Netflix right now. Biopics, or biographical dramas, tell stories based on the real lives of their subjects, whether famous men and women doing great things or unknown individuals quietly leading extraordinary lives. Netflix has more than 100 films listed as Biographical Dramas. We’ve selected our favorites for you.

Here are the 21 best biopics on Netflix:

queen-of-katwe.jpg 21. Queen of Katwe
Year: 2016
Director: Mira Nair
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), the first titled female chess player in Ugandan history. Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) directs the Disney biopic, following Mutesi’s unlikely journey of a girl living in the Kampala slum of Katwe, who dropped out of school at age 9 when her father died of AIDS to help her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) sell maize in the streets. When Robert Katende (Selma’s David Oyelowo) teaches chess to some of the local children, Phiona becomes fascinated with game. The film is as much about Phiona’s the struggles of discovering a world outside of her slum as it is a typical underdog sports biopic. —Paste Staff


woman-in-gold.jpg 20. Woman in Gold
Year: 2015
Director: Simon Curtis
Sometimes a single great performance elevate an otherwise middle-of-the-road movie. In Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold, Helen Mirren makes everyone look better both in front of and behind the camera just by gracing the frame with her presence. The film purports to chronicle a True Story, this time about Nazis and art restitution. Mirren plays the late Maria Altmann, a Holocaust survivor transplanted from Vienna to Los Angeles during World War II, who in the film’s present day (1998) initiates a round of fisticuffs with the Austrian government over ownership of a portrait of her late aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. We see her painted by the great German symbolist Gustav Klimt (Moritz Bleibtreu) in the film’s delicate, entrancing opening sequence, which details Klimt’s painstaking efforts to immortalize Adele (Antje Traue) on canvas. It’s a lovely and mesmeric moment, and the film might have been well served by the inclusion of more like it. But Woman in Gold isn’t about how the painting came to be—instead it’s about how it came to return to the possession of its rightful owner. But Maria is a delight. Mirren, sporting an accent that’s about as close to Viennese as an English Dame can likely get, imbues Maria with pluck, high dignity and a vulnerability that’s kept hidden beneath exterior reserve. She’s quite a lady, but above all else, she’s a link to her country’s tragic past. —Andy Crump


42-movie.jpg 19. 42
Year: 2013
Director: Brian Helgeland
The entire life of Jackie Robinson is a rich subject for a film adaptation, not that this would be obvious after viewing 42, Brian Helgeland’s fourth feature film. But as a portrait of segregated, post-war America, 42 serves its purpose, and if viewed primarily as a baseball movie, Helgeland’s film becomes a wholly enjoyable and thrilling experience, perhaps even a triumph. 42 focuses on two legends in American baseball—Branch Rickey (played by an appropriately theatrical Harrison Ford), the executive of Major League Baseball who first integrated the sport, and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) who became the first black to play in the majors when he signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The plot of 42 follows Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the Minor Leagues, and then to the Dodgers (and its effect on baseball and the whole of America). As Robinson, Boseman embodies the rebelliousness and strength of a reluctant hero. He captures this tension down to his very jawline, simultaneously wearing the stress of segregation (and desegregation) and a love of the game throughout the film. 42 is at its best when it enters the stadiums and brings the story of Jackie Robinson, the American Legend to life. Brutal racism on the field and the sheer thrill of the game (which even non-baseball lovers will feel) collide with every violent pitch, with every homerun. In focusing on the nature of the game as it was experienced by Robinson, and the love of the game (and every main character, in the end, displays this unconditional love for the game), 42 delivers a powerful story, adding one more crucial piece to the puzzle that is American history. —Shannon M. Houston


lion.jpg 18. Lion
Year: 2016
Director: Garth Davis
The based-on-a-true-story goes: Saroo lives with his family in Khandwa, a city in Madhya Pradesh, India. After he falls asleep on an empty train car, he ends up a thousand kilometers and change away, in Calcutta. He’s a lost child in a loud, unending cityscape where the common tongue isn’t his own, and his journey up to that point is harrowing, verging on nightmarish. Calcutta is no place for a lonely kid, especially a lonely kid who only knows Hindi and not Bengali or English, and Davis is fixated on the way that cities make people feel like foreigners in their own country. Saroo pushes through a crush of bodies exiting the train on its arrival in Calcutta, approaches a ticket counter to appeal for help, and is jostled, shouted at, shoved aside like any workaday inconvenience. The absence of humanity in these encounters drains the blood from our veins. But Saroo’s narrative is greater than his childhood trauma, and so too is the film. Escorted from Calcutta to Hobart, Tasmania, Saroo finds a new family under the care of his adoptive parents. Adult Saroo is a man with two homes, but he doesn’t know where one of them is located, and this, along with his bounty of memories of his mother and brother, causes him no end of torment. So he spends his days coping, as anybody would. Then his friends introduce him to Google Earth, and thus begins an exquisitely boring, tech-driven search for his birthplace. Be warned: Lion will reduce you to a sniffling wreck. Stone-hearted types may resist its cathartic charms, or they may try, but the film isn’t traditionally manipulative in the same vein as so many other movies of its make. Davis has a knack for engineering waterworks, and skill enough to break through the defenses of even the most stoic viewers, but most of all he embraces authenticity in storytelling. It helps that Lion refrains from overwhelming mushiness and manufactured sentimentality, and also that its story has the rare power to appeal to viewers’ lachrymose center without any excess persuasion. Lion earns our unabashed blubbering not simply through its design but rather through the organic nature of its material. —Andy Crump


born-to-be-blue.jpg 17. Born to Be Blue
Year: 2016
Director: Robert Budreau
Not too long after Chet Baker’s death in 1988, filmmaker/photographer Bruce Weber released Let’s Get Lost, his documentary portrait of the jazz trumpeter/singer. As harrowing and tragic and as beautiful as it is—with Jeff Preiss’s 16mm black-and-white cinematography vividly evoking a sense of glamorous ruin—Let’s Get Lost is, to some degree, limited by Weber’s obsession with its subject as an emblem rather than as a human being. Writer/director Robert Budreau’s biopic Born to Be Blue fills in the gaps. More than just a showcase for Ethan Hawke’s interpretation of Baker, Budreau’s film strips away the idol-worship of Weber’s documentary and attempts to get at the self-destructive personality underneath. Budreau forgoes the epic breadth of other music biopics and focuses on a particular period in Baker’s life: the few months after a brutal beating left his lips and teeth damaged enough that there was a strong possibility he’d never be able to perform again. Though, to address some backstory, Budreau has come up with a fairly imaginative framing device: an apocryphal, aborted attempt at a Baker-starring biopic about his own life, the black-and-white remnants of which make up the film’s “flashbacks.” Budreau isn’t so interested in depicting the facts of Baker’s life as he is in capturing an impression of it. For all of Budreau’s writing/directing skill, however, Born to Be Blue all comes down to Ethan Hawke’s take on Baker. His breathy high-pitched drawl exudes a child-like innocence and passion which gives credence to the James Dean comparisons many made for him early in his career. It’s a remarkably sensitive performance. Just as Budreau is more interested in an impression of Baker rather than absolute fidelity to the facts of his life, Hawke captures the artist’s alternately wonderful and tragic essence. —Kenji Fujishima


roxanne-roxanne.jpg 16. Roxanne Roxanne
Year: 2018
Director: Michael Larnell
The importance of a story like Roxanne Roxanne making it to the big (streaming) screen cannot be understated. Roxanne Shanté, born Lolita Shanté Gooden, started rapping when she was just a child. She was a prodigy, going on to become the best battle rapper in Queens, New York. She would go on to suffer through and survive an abusive relationship with a statutory rapist who she fell in love with, just as her talent was beginning to catch the attention of record producers. Clashes with her mother and her absentee father made her life in the Queensbridge housing projects all the more complicated. I love that Roxanne Roxanne exists. I want everyone to see it (and to become familiar with new talent Chanté Adams as Shanté). But I also know that this could have been a much better work of art. There is plenty to enjoy from writer/director Michael Larnell’s presentation of Roxanne Shanté’s story. The ’80s New York vibe is all the way there, and I can’t be mad at some great moments we get to witness: Roxanne Shanté vs. Sparky D; a shy, young boy in Shanté’s projects, named Nasir, who wants to be a rapper; and an unknown Biz Markie beat boxing for Roxanne when her DJ (Marley Marl) bails on her. But as a whole, the film is missing an emotional pulse that was likely sacrificed in an attempt to emphasize the difficulties that Shanté endured as a young girl. Shanté’s personal and artistic experiences are ultimately hijacked by the men in and around her life, whose failures ultimately dominate her story. This should have been a female-centric narrative, weaving personal experiences with the art of rhymes and battle rapping. Instead, Larnell spends much of the time exploring the impact of men in Shanté’s life (men who steal, rape, take and beat), while, unfortunately, eclipsing her incredible accomplishments. The stories yearning to be told—of motherhood, of struggle, and sisterhood, and friendship and first (highly problematic) love for a girl who doesn’t quite know what good love looks like—are all there on the surface of Larnell’s film. We are desperately in need of more movies concerned with women in rap, women from the projects, women in relationships with men like Cross—and women who refuse to be defined by any one of these things—but we also desperately need the writers and directors who take on the stories of such women to push beyond the surface and give us the excellence we deserve. —Shannon M. Houston


come-sunday.jpg 15. Come Sunday
Year: 2018
Director: Joshua Marston
In the early 2000s, Bishop Carlton Pearson, a respected Tulsa pastor with a large following, risked heresy by changing his tune, arguing that God wouldn’t send people to hell—even if they didn’t believe in Him. Inspired by a This American Life episode, Come Sunday charts Pearson’s dark night of the soul as he struggles with his conscience and faces the anger of both his superiors and his flock. Chiwetel Ejiofor has portrayed anguish before—most notably in 12 Years a Slave—but the spiritual suffering on display in Come Sunday requires an especially nuanced actor. Neither strident nor blandly pious, Pearson is a man who simply wants to communicate God’s will to the world—except he’s no longer sure if what he’s been raised to believe about God punishing nonbelievers is true. It’s hard to convey something as interior as faith on screen, but Ejiofor does it with heavenly grace. —Tim Grierson


milk.jpg 14. Milk
Year: 2008
Director: Gus Van Sant 
Sean Penn took home a Best Actor Oscar, and writer Dustin Lance Black an Original Screenplay statue, for their work in Gus Van Sant’s vibrant snapshot of slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay individual to be elected to public office. As the activist-turned-politician—who was assassinated in November 1978 by fellow city supervisor Dan White—Penn is characteristically intense, but there’s a singular ebullience to his portrayal of a public servant at a watershed moment for civil rights, a decade after Stonewall and with four decades to go until marriage equality. In Penn’s chameleonic characterization, Milk’s journey is a personal one writ large, a midlife crisis that prompted landmark campaigns—and not just for LGBTQ rights. Van Sant captures the energy of San Francisco’s counterculture, especially in the Castro District, with Milk’s spirited calls for action igniting the community. Despite his understandable martyrdom, Penn doesn’t shy away from Milk’s flaws, tantrums and lapses in judgment. It’s a fully fleshed, utterly astonishing turn in a career of them. The ensemble cast is uniformly outstanding; you can feel Josh Brolin at once imploding and exploding as the repressed White, and Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, James Franco, Victor Garber and Denis O’Hare, as Milk’s assorted lovers and colleagues, lend emotional depth and purpose to his journey. One of the best, most moving biopics in recent memory. —Amanda Schurr


first-they-killed-my-father-movie-poster.jpg 13. First They Killed My Father
Year: 2017
Director: Angelina Jolie 
We may tease or scorn actors for stepping out of the frame to hunker down behind the camera, because for whatever reason we’re only cool with artists when they stay in their lane. Think of Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father as a democratic response, or, if you like, a defiant flip of the bird. It’s fitting that Jolie should be the actor to produce a film this accomplished. Recall the volume of shit shoveled on her for the release of 2014’s Unbroken, her Louis Zamperini biopic, and 2015’s By the Sea, the romantic drama she made with Brad Pitt: These were works met with deserved and undeserved response, both middling at best, but neither could be mistaken for being too vain. Whatever promise was found in her earlier movies is fully realized in First They Killed My Father, a brutal movie with a human heart. Jolie doesn’t gloss over the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. She knows honesty is the best way to face history and honor the dead, but she doesn’t find any nobility in the suffering of Loung Ung’s family as they flee from state-sanctioned genocide. First They Killed My Father’s emphasis falls on Loung, on the violence paraded before her young eyes, Jolie mining tragedy not for a misguided sense of importance but for an experiential scope and for, most of all, empathy. —Andy Crump


christine-campos-poster.jpg 12. Christine
Year: 2016
Director: Antonio Campos
Why did TV journalist Christine Chubbuck take her life on camera in 1974? The brilliance of this Antonio Campos drama is that it tries to answer that question while still respecting the enormity and unknowability of such a violent, tragic act. Rebecca Hall is momentous as Christine, a deeply unhappy woman whose ambition has never matched her talent, and the actress is incredibly sympathetic in the part. As we move closer to Christine’s inevitable demise, we come to understand that Christine isn’t a morbid whodunit but, rather, a compassionate look at gender inequality and loneliness. —Tim Grierson


imitation-game.jpg 11. The Imitation Game
Year: 2014
Director: Morten Tyldum
The historical thriller The Imitation Game is precisely the type of film studios love to dangle as Oscar bait. It focuses on a relatively unknown, yet significant, World War II code-cracking project and features a socially awkward genius as its protagonist. It doesn’t hurt that the aforementioned hero and his compatriots are Brits. Noted mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing is often considered the father of modern computer science, but his most consequential work—conducted as a WWII codebreaker—remained largely unknown until the British government declassified related documents in the 1970s. The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the eccentric Turing, focuses on his wartime tenure at the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park, located about 50 miles northwest of London. In the confines of the nondescript Quonset Hut 8, Turing leads a team of prototype hackers to decipher Germany’s Enigma machine codes. Their work is said to have shortened the length of the war by several years. Cumberbatch gives an intense performance as the brilliant loner with behavior that registers along the autism spectrum. While he indulges in too much scenery chewing and stammering, Cumberbatch creates a memorable character who is at once fascinating and off-putting. The only person squarely on Turing’s side is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), an astute mathematician recruited for the testosterone-heavy team. Knightley shows off a dynamic range as she plays a dutiful daughter, torn between obligations to her parents and her country. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, known best for 2011’s Headhunters, and scribe Graham Moore keep the tension high, even when the hackers and decoders are conducting tedious work. The supporting actors transcend their one-note characters and capture the audience’s attention. —Christine N. Ziemba


nowhere-boy.jpg 10. Nowhere Boy
Year: 2009
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
John Lennon taught the world that all you need is love. What the world may not realize is that he spent his entire childhood vying for it. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut feature film tells the story of a staggeringly bitter young John Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson—director and star have since married) struggling to make sense of the relationship with his happy-go-lucky mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and his tight-lipped caretaker Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), and ultimately with himself. What’s been called the “untold” story of John Lennon begins with a restless 15-year-old John grappling with his identity when he spots his free-spirited mother Julia (who gave John up in his infancy to be raised by her sister Mimi) in the background of the funeral for Mimi’s husband George (David Threlfall). John later discovers that Julia has lived around the corner from him with her husband and two daughters for the duration of his life. John and Julia’s secret relationship, filled with trips to the boardwalk at Blackpool and afternoon movies, plays out like a therapy session, with the audience witnessing such an intimacy between characters that watching these moments feel almost voyeuristic. An exhaustingly visceral look at a fascinating artist, Nowhere Boy is a portrait of the struggles of a boy from Liverpool who became the man whose music conquered the world. —Maggie Coughlan


bernie.jpg 9. Bernie
Year: 2011
Director: Richard Linklater 
Bernie is as much about the town of Carthage, Texas, as it is about its infamous resident Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the town’s mortician and prime suspect in the murder of one of its most despised citizens, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Unlike Nugent, Bernie is conspicuously loved by all. When he’s not helping direct the high school musical, he’s teaching Sunday school. Like a well-played mystery, Linklater’s excellent, darkly humorous (and true) story is interspersed with tantalizing interviews of the community’s residents. Linklater uses real East Texas folks to play the parts, a device that serves as the perfect balance against the drama that leads up to Bernie’s fatal encounter with the rich bitch of a widow. The comedy is sharp, with some of the film’s best lines coming from those townsfolk. —Tim Basham


dallas-buyers.jpg 8. Dallas Buyers Club
Year: 2013
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Despite some feel-good conventionality, Dallas Buyers Club succeeds thanks to its pragmatic view of its rather pragmatic hero. Inspired by true events, the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, who in the mid-1980s was living in Dallas and happily screwing every woman in town when a trip to the doctor uncovered that he was HIV-positive. A man’s man—in other words, a small-minded homophobe—Woodroof initially refuses to believe the diagnosis since he’s not gay, but after being told he has about 30 days to live, he focuses his energy on seeking out drugs that can help him survive. You walk away from Dallas Buyers Club not so much moved by the larger issues as you are by the simple, odd friendship forged by Woodroof and Rayon. These two accidental crusaders are heroes precisely because they never set out to be—they just wanted to stay alive.—Tim Grierson


kings-speech.jpg 7. The King’s Speech
Year: 2010
Director: Tom Hooper
Acting is a funny thing to judge. Often, the performances we most admire are those where actors stretch themselves the furthest by taking on roles with handicaps. Portraying the stuttering Prince Albert, who would become King George VI of Britain, Colin Firth maintains a constant aura of frustration. It’s not the way that a non-stuttering actor stutters that makes him believable, but the pitch-perfect emotional resonance of gifted actor. And while the performances of his co-stars—Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as the king’s Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue—aren’t highlighted by such an obvious physical obstacle, they’re both subtly brilliant. It’s the interplay between all three actors—and the brief scenes with Michael Gambon as King George V—that make Tom Hooper’s film such a joy to watch. —Josh Jackson


heaven_knows_what_poster.jpg 6. Heaven Knows What
Year: 2015
Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Harley (Arielle Holmes) is a young woman who’s as addicted to heroin as she is to her brutally apathetic boyfriend, Illya (Caleb Landry Jones). Aesthetically, the Safdies’ have made a picture of urgent, abrasive beauty. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams captures Holmes and her excellent supporting cast through a combination of tight close-ups and long shots that lend the film an air of removed intimacy. Ultimately, he’s almost as much the star of Heaven Knows What as Holmes, who matches up well with Jones, the film’s most notable professional actor. Cinema lets us engage with difficult subject matter through a veneer of security. But something like Heaven Knows What pierces that veil. By its very nature, it pushes the boundaries of our personal comfort. It’s clear we need more films like that. —Andy Crump


experimenter.jpg 5. Experimenter
Year: 2015
Director: Michael Almereyda
Watching Experimenter is to realize how little life is in most biopics. Which is odd: Despite being based on a real life, the standard biopic feels freeze-dried, narrative conventions calcifying the subject matter and strangling any spontaneity out of the material. Most such movies carry the stench of rigor mortis, but Experimenter is alive and alert from its first moment. Where other biopics seem to have made up their minds about their famous figures before the opening credits roll, this remarkable study of social psychologist Stanley Milgram remains curious, exploring and questioning his life, career and findings. The man’s work may be more than 50 years old, but a film about his work couldn’t be timelier—partly because of that work’s still-resonant lessons, and partly because writer-director Michael Almereyda has crafted a bracing, daring drama that extrapolates it into every crevice of modernity. Many biopics simplify great lives; Experimenter enriches and enlarges one. —Tim Grierson


lincoln.jpg 4. Lincoln
Year: 2012
Director: Steven Spielberg 
Steven Spielberg boasts one of the most accomplished bodies of work in American cinema and, to this day, steadily builds upon that dominant track record. From the breathtaking 3D action sequences of The Adventures of Tintin to the comic-yet-poignant reconciliation scene in War Horse, one doesn’t have to look back decades to find Spielberg’s particular genius at work. Still, for filmgoers either too young to have been bowled over by Spielberg’s transcendent initial decade or two—or for those who perhaps just take his signature style for granted—Lincoln shows just how good he is. Thanks to a strong cast and a smart story that’s historically, morally and politically rich, Lincoln is yet another of Spielberg’s many accomplishments. —David Roark


spotlight.jpg 3. Spotlight
Year: 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Always a director who’s drawn great performances from his ensembles—we’ll set aside the disastrous The Cobbler for a moment—actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy has made his best drama since his first, 2003’s The Station Agent, with this stripped-down depiction of the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual misconduct. Starring the likes of Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery, Spotlight is about nothing more than watching smart, passionate reporters do their job, digging into a story and using their savvy and moxie to bring it to the world. The cast lets its characters’ jobs fill in the backstory of their lives, and in the process Spotlight does what Zodiac, The Insider and All the President’s Men did before it: let us appreciate the difficulty and rigor required for good journalism. Special kudos to best-in-show Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, a ruthless bloodhound of an investigative reporter who may inspire a lot of impressionable high school juniors in the audience to take up the profession. —Tim Grierson


goodfellas-poster.jpg 2. GoodFellas
Year: 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Far from a typical shoot-em-up gangster flick, GoodFellas is in the details: the carefully chosen close-ups; the nuances in each character’s personality, plying at and defying stereotypes. Even scenes that involve murder and violence, though grotesque, aren’t flatly black-and-white—someone cracks a joke and then weirdly, somehow in that moment, you can still laugh. Those despicable situations are suddenly grayer, and a viewer can see past the monstrous things they commit to something that amounts to empathy for monsters. All of the small details come together, GoodFellas humanizing the gory story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his fellow made men, immersively making it much too difficult to distance oneself from him and his friends, casting the biopic’s protagonist and its villain as the same guy to kind of convince you to like him despite himself. —Anita George


schindlers-list.jpg 1. Schindler’s List
Year: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg 
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, so carefree and cocky at the beginning, so and concerned and determined in the middle, and so noble and humble at the end of the film. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are perfect in supporting roles. A host of unknowns give everything in their one moment on the screen. John Williams’s haunting score and Janusz Kaminski’s breathtaking black-and-white cinematography sparkle. 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. Oskar’s “I could have gotten more out” speech is almost too much to bear. —Michael Dunaway

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