The Top 20 Biopics of All Time

Traditionally, biopics have been one the most favourite genres for the Oscar Jury members. Almost every year, amongst the Oscar nominees, you will find movies based on some real life character. And almost every year most of these manage to pick up awards. I believe it’s the unique experience of watching history unfold through the eyes of an interesting/eccentric character who, in some way, helped shape it, that makes biopics such great dramatic experiences. No wonder many of the movies on my list of 20 of the best biopics of all time are multiple award winning movies.

Now I am biased towards movies about art and artists, and against war and gangster movies. I believe that explains why I haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia and Patton, two movies which would be on anybody’s list of ten best biopics of all time. Perhaps that also explains why Goodfellas is so low in the ranking and why 9 out of these 20 movies are about artists.

Also my idea of a biopic is a traditional one, where the highlight of the movie is the personality on which the movie is made rather than any event or circumstances surrounding him or her and which covers the most important periods of the person’s life. That explains why recent wonderful movies like The Social Network or The Kings Speech are not there in this list.

For your benefit, all the movie titles are linked to the respective IMDB page. The respective movie posters have also been taken from IMDB.

Here is the line up.

1. Gandhi:Perhaps it’s because I’m an Indian or because I’m simply enamored by the charisma of the great man on whom this multiple Oscar winning Sir Richard Attenborough masterpiece is based, but this movie is, according to me, the best biopic ever made. Mahatma Gandhi, whose philosophy is as misunderstood by the current Indian generation, as it was influential in shaping world history, gave mankind an infallible weapon of resistance. He united the millions of impoverished Indians against the mighty British Empire, and made his own life an example of his principles. Attenborough’s version of Gandhi is an affectionate but perceptive view of the man and changed the way the world viewed Gandhi and India. The ensemble cast of Ben Kingsley and the then newcomers, Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey, Aleqye Padamsee, Martin Sheen and others fully justified Attenborough’s vision through their performance.

2. Amadeus: This movie is a tribute to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Motzart, the greatest western musical genius that ever lived and is perhaps, the best movie made on an artist. What makes this movie great is not only the beautiful portrayal of Motzart’s passion for his music and his tragic life, but also the jealousy of Antonio Salieri, a contemporary composer who found it unfair that God should bestow upon Motzart, a womanizer, boundless talent and not him, who had dedicated his life to His service. Salieri knew he could never have Motzart’s talent, but couldn’t help himself admiring his divine music.

3. Chaplin: Another great biopic from Richard Attenborough, this movie established Robert Downey Jr as one of the most talented actors of our times. Playing the enigmatic Charlie Chaplin and replicating his histrionics on screen is a herculean task which Robert did so wonderfully that at times you would forget that you are watching him and not the real Chaplin himself. The greatness of this movie lies in not just chronicling the events of Chaplin’s life but also in showing the profound sense of loss that he carried with himself to his grave in spite of being the most iconic and successful American Film celebrity of his generation and being recognized and respected worldwide. He found himself a prisoner of his own persona as a comic star. He wanted to use his power and fame to make a difference to the world around him by making serious political films, but couldn’t do so because to the world he was only a “Little Tramp”.

4. Ed Wood: Isn’t it ironical that a movie made on the life of the “worst director of all time” becomes one of the best biopics of all time? But then director Tim Burton and his favourite actor Johny Depp both specialize in depicting weirdness perfectly on screen. Edward D. Wood Jr., on whose life the movies is based, was a cross dressing dreamer without much of a sense or understanding of film making but who dreamt of making masterpieces like his idol, Orson Welles. It is this tragically hilarious character of Edward Wood and his team of whackos that makes this movie so compelling. You would be so appalled at the sheer lack of regard that Ed Wood had for aesthetics or production values that it would be difficult for you to control your laughter, specially when Wood himself was blissfully unaware of his mediocrity.  With movie titles like Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 from the Outer Space, Bride of the Atom, Wood and his movies were voted the worst ever in Hollywood, but have since developed their own cult following for their unintentional humor.

5. Braveheart: This feisty Scottish Ballad is Mel Gibson’s best till date. The story of William Wallace, the Scottish rebel who leads an uprising against the cruel English ruler Edward the Longshanks, Braveheart, true to its name, is full of vivid imagery of bravado and has a background score that creates a yearning for the Scottish life of fun and frolic. The extreme violence and mayhem in the war scenes is contrasted against the slowness of rural life and a man’s love for his country and his people.

6. Aviator:  According to Entertainment Weekly, “Martin Scorsese made a Sprawling, messy film for a sprawling, messy man.” Nothing could describe the film better.  Howard Hughes, on whose early life the movie is based, was an aviator, an engineer, a film producer and director. He was also a man suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, which was the reason for much of his eccentricity.  Everything that Hughes did was grandiose, from futuristically designed aircrafts, to his movies, to his romances with stars like Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner. According to Scorsese this film is made in evolving colors, from two tone Technicolor, to three-tone to the modern day color by the ending sequences of the film.  That speaks a lot about the technical brilliance of the film. Though not obsessive, Scorsese is as much a perfectionist as the subject of his movie.

7. Raging Bull: The film that shot Martin Scorsese to worldwide fame also boasts of Robert De Niro’s career’s best performance. Scorsese’s portrayal of the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta, the emotionally self destructive middle weight boxing champion during the fifties, is perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of American cinema and fetched De Niro an Oscar. True to the name of the film LaMotta was a prizefighter who was unstoppable in the ring. But the same rage that made him a champion in the ring made him an outcast in real life. Unable to control his outburst of rage he pushed himself away from every person he cared about. Scorsese brought to life this irony with graphic images of violence in black and white with an intentionally disturbing background score that will leave you stunned by the time the final credits roll over. A classic portrayal of self destruction through anger and violence.

8. A Beautiful Mind: John Nash, on whose life this movie is based, wasn’t any less an artist than a painter or a musician. Only, his tools were not colors or paint brushes, but numbers. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie is brilliant in it’s depiction of the schizophrenic mind of Nash (play equally brilliantly by Russell Crowe). To understand how a schizophrenic mind can be called a beautiful mind you have to understand that there is only a thin dividing line between genius and madness. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech. You can clearly see a man who didn’t quite understand the world except numbers and who found redemption in the “mysterious equations of love”.

9. Kundun: If you thought Martin Scorsese only made great gangster movies, you need to watch Kundun. After The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun (meaning “the presense”) is Scorsese’s second attempt to demystify a religious figure. Based on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, this movie is breathtaking in its visual depiction of the Tibetan life. With a background score that is as disturbing as inspiring, Kundun is a mystical meditation and follows the life of The Dalai Lama from his birth to his appointment as the spiritual leader of Tibet, his rise and adulthood, to the Chinese oppression of Tibetans and finally his exile to Dharamashala in India.  Watch this movie for the great visuals, trance like music and the Buddhist philosophy. It will grab your heart and soul.

10. Pollock: Directed by Ed Harris, Pollock is a classic portrayal of the so called “tortured artist”. Based on the life of one of America’s most famous abstract painters Jackson Pollock (played by Ed Harris himself), I found this movie breathtaking for it’s depiction of the way Pollock painted his masterpieces, and tragic for it’s depiction of the way Pollock destroyed his boundless talent and eventually his life, by remaining a slave of alcohol. Watch this movie to understand the artistic process and the way an artist’s mind works.

11. Walk The Line: Based on the life of country music legend Johnny Cash, Walk the Line is a must watch for two reasons, the awesome music of Johnny Cash and Risse Witherspoon, who played the role of June Carter, Johnny’s muse, savior, wife and companion. It’s a treat to watch Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Carter sing duets like the way they would probably have been sung by the real Cash and Carter. While on one hand there is the high of Cash’s music on the other hand is the darkness of his drug abuse that led to his divorce with his first wife and his fall as a performer, a fall that almost threatened to end his life and career. But June’s love and dedication saved his life and eventually helped him overcome his addiction.

12. The Last Emperor: Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece on the last emperor of China, Pu Yi is both beautiful and tragic. Beautiful for it’s accurate depiction of the eastern magic, and tragic for it’s chronicle of the life of a man, who, even though is the hero, was controlled all his life by others. IMDb’s description of the storyline reads thus, “A dramatic history of Pu Yi, the last of the Emperors of China, from his lofty birth and brief reign in the Forbidden City, the object of worship by half a billion people; through his abdication, his decline and dissolute lifestyle; his exploitation by the invading Japanese, and finally to his obscure existence as just another peasant worker in the People’s Republic.”

13. Frida: Frida chronicles the life of Frida Kalho (Salma Hayek), a Mexican female artist and revolutionary, and her complex but enduring relationship with Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Salma Hayek is gorgeous and scintillating as Frida, who battled a crippling injury to become one of the most famous Mexican painters and along with her mentor and husband Diego took the American art world by storm. She also had a brief affiair with the Bolshevik revolutionary and Lenin’s trusted aide, Leon Trotsky. The highlight of the film is the mercurial temperament of Frida, her struggles with her pain and her complicated relationship with Diego, a great painter and an incorrigible womanizer. Watch the film for a heady mixture of art, unbridled passion and a slice of history.

14. Ray: Jamie Foxx gave his career’s best performance in this movie as the blind musical genius Ray Charles, not only depicting his brilliance as a singer but also portraying his struggle with his inner demons. One the one hand Ray became a legend by making Jazz mainstream, inventing soul and making country music popular like never before, on the other hand he himself kept struggling with his drug addiction and his family problems. A great portrayal of the troubled musical legend.

15. Malcolm X: Malcolm X was to the American civil rights movement what Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was to the Indian Independence Movement. Netaji openly opposed the non violence philosophy of Gandhiji and Malcolm X did the same against the tactics of Martin Luther King Jr. who was clearly inspired by Gandhi in his non violence approach. Spike Lee’s version of the life of the controversial Black Nationalist leader, played brilliantly by Denzel Washington is not without it’s faults, but great nevertheless. Perhaps the best scenes in the film are the explosive speeches given by Malcolm X, who even in real life was a great orator. Having heard an actual speech by the real Malcolm X, I can tell you that Denzel’s version is the closest it can get to the real thing.

16. Goodfellas: Another masterpiece by Martin Scorsese and one of the best Gangster movies alongside The Godfather series, Goodfellas chronicles the Mafia life through the eyes of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), who, since his childhood wanted a “career” as a gangster. It is this non judgemental and matter-of-fact attitude towards gangsters that is the hallmark of Scorsese. He is not interested in making his audience Judge his characters. To him they are like any other professionals, just going about their everyday life. People are so used to seeing black and white characters in Gnagster movies that GoodFellas will come as a blast of fresh air. Power packed performances from Robert De Niro, Liotta and JoePesci, this movie is a must watch not just for the aficionados of film noir but also for the reluctant admirers like us. Murder and mayhem on screen couldn’t get more stylish or funnier than this.

17. Kinsey: If the American society today, considers itself sexually liberal, much of the credit for that goes to a man called Alfred Kinsey. A biologist by profession, he lived in an era when grown up men and women in American Universities were taught in class that oral sex and masturbation caused a plethora of diseases! This gross misinformation and Frued’s research on sexual behavior inspired Kinsey to shift his focus from Gall Wasps to humans which resulted in the kind of sexual research that created sensation in America. Kinsey experimented with all that was taboo in American society in the 20s (initiating many of his experiments in his own bedroom with his own wife) and published his findings in 1948 in the book “Sexual Behavior in Human Male,” perhaps the first recorded works that addressed sexual issues scientifically. Liam Neeson did a wonderful job as Kinsey, so did Laura Linney as his wife. The movie deserves credit for recreating a period which underwent a revolution of sorts in the realm of sexual awareness.

18. Man on the Moon: “Allo, my name is Andy Kaufman, and this is my movie,” thus starts the cinematic version of the life of one of the most eccentric and original comedians in the history of American entertainment industry. But Andy didn’t think he was a comedian, he was just a “song and dance man.” And to drive home his point he made it a point to never crack a joke. But how does a comedian make people laugh if he doesn’t say any jokes? By orchestrating elaborate hoaxes, that both appalled and entertained people. Jim Carrey, deservedly got all the acclaim for immersing himself in the role of Andy and if Andy, in real life, was really what Jim portrayed it on screen, nobody else would have done justice to the role.  Man on the Moon indeed!

19. Basquiat: Another great movie based on the life of an artist, another movie that beautifully explores an artist’s mind and his creative process. Basquiat tells the story of the American graphiti artist Jean Michel Basquiat, who once lived in a cardboard box in a public park and who after being associated with Andy Warhol, rises to superstar status in New York’s commoditized art world. Having achieved everything “at the ripe old age of 24,” Basquiat probably didn’t see much of a point in life and succumbed to heroin overdose soon after. Like the man on whom the movie is based, Basquiat is weird, meditative and creatively inspiring.

20. My Left Foot: One of the most inspiring films I have ever seen, My Left Foot is a celebration of the indomitable human spirit. It tells the story of Christy Brown who, having born with cerebral palsy and having control of only his left foot, belied all expectations and used his left foot to read and write and eventually became an acclaimed Irish author and artist. Heartfelt performances by Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker as Christy and his mother who nurtured and inspired him with her love and dedication. Perhaps the most touching moment of the film is when young Christy after an enormous struggle, writes his first word with his left foot, “Mother”.


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