Picture the ending of the standard-issue based-on-a-true-story film. Once the picture fades on a family’s final teary goodbye or the camera pans up from our hero(ine) in a moment of triumph, there’s a postscript. And then, the inevitable grainy home video or candid photo of the “real” main character, proof that someone in the casting office (or the hair/make-up department) did their job and brought you the closest facsimile of the real thing.
This may be the most common approach, but it doesn’t produce the best biopics. Good biographies recreate a moment; great ones evoke a sprit that reverberates through the current time.
The standout biographical films from the past two decades reflect the different ways that we commemorate figures of fame or infamy. Sometimes we devote three hours of our lives to understanding the sheer overindulgences of a posterboy for financial excess. Other times, we focus on the genesis of landmark artistic voices, whether they’re they honed on the banks of the Thames or in a recording studio somewhere in Torrance, CA.
These are singers, scientists, survivors, inventors, explorers, and criminals, all made more iconic through a version of their story put to film. Whether their time on screen is focused on a handful of pivotal moments or spread across a journey that spans generations, they are the centerpieces of stories expertly told.
(Though the 20 we’ve included below are live-action features, we’d be remiss not to single out a pair of animated biopics: “Persepolis” and “The Wind Rises.” You can read more about why we love them here, in our list of the best animated films of the last 20 years.)
I Shot Andy Warhol
Director Mary Harron’s first film wasn’t all that polished, but that’s more than appropriate for its depiction of Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor), who did indeed attempt to kill the famed pop artist in 1968. The film lets Solanas’ unhinged energy drive this funny, kinetic and tightly paced recreation of Warhol’s Factory scene, as well as the anger, frustration and possible mental illness that drove Solanas to violence. Taylor is simply riveting, supported by an amazing cast that includes Martha Plimpton, Stephen Dorff, and Jared Harris as Warhol. Most importantly, it serves as a reminder that sometimes the best biopics are the ones that spotlight lesser-known narratives. — Liz Shannon Miller
There are a few more musician-centric films to come on this list, but none with quite the same strange touches as Scott Hicks’ portrait of Australian pianist David Helfgott. Though Geoffrey Rush earned international acclaim for his portrayal of Helfgott, half of the film features Noah Taylor as a younger version of the man, from suburban phenom to London would-be protégé. And the film’s first act is filtered through the vicarious hopes of Helfgott’s father (Armen Mueller-Stahl), whose on-screen depiction morphs from determined patriarch to monstrous overseer. “Shine” is ultimately more about family than music, with a revolving door of side characters serving as ancillary family members (a Royal College of Music instructor here, the co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia there), all attempting to bolster Helfgott’s efforts to return from his aggravated mental health issues. It’s a common theme through these films that there’s some sort of price for artistic glory, but “Shine” is more concerned with bars than concert halls. When Rush erupts into a rousing rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” it’s a celebration of the talent that can freeze a crowd, but it makes sure to linger on the enjoyment that comes from those moments immediately after. — Steve Greene
Many biopics chronicle the trials and tribulations of the artistic process, but few are as insightful and detailed as Mike Leigh’s splendid “Topsy Turvy.” Centering around Victorian-era musical theater duo W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the film exposes the confrontational dynamics and brilliant inner workings of a creative partnership in a way that feels universal to the artistic experience, no matter the medium or the era. Leigh, a societal- and period-detail obsessive, fashions a rich exploration of Victorian politics and culture, but he never loses sight of the artistic geniuses at his center. He exclusively focuses on the 15 months the pair spent mounting their production of “The Mikado,” which would go on to become one of their most seminal works. They don’t know this, of course, and watching them push each other towards their masterwork is a crash course in the artistic process. — Zack Sharf
The story of Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) might not seem like a natural fit for director Michael Mann, whose best films usually feature tunnel-visioned criminals and the hard-driving cops who chase them. But Mann’s story is about Ali’s attempt to reclaim the heavyweight title in 1974’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight versus George Foreman and Smith’s somber, often quiet portrayal of Ali is a side of the boxer we aren’t used to seeing. Ten years after being banished from the sport for refusing to fight in Vietnam, Ali’s drive and dedication to overcome the isolation foisted upon him make the champ the perfect Mann character. Cutting back and forth between ’74 and the upheaval of the ’60s, Mann captures the difficult path Ali journeyed to re-emerge as both the title-holder and the beloved public figure we’d remember for the rest of his life. — Chris O’Falt
Catch Me If You Can
Catching Leonardo DiCaprio during the defining years of his entrenched stardom, Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” chronicles the life of Frank Abagnale Jr, famous for forging his way into millions of dollars as a fake pilot, doctor, and lawyer at the age of 18. Spielberg’s only film with DiCaprio avoids numerous biopic pitfalls, interweaving the various moving parts of a long story with expert, fluid pacing. Never slow and never boring, the film runs with a lively, rapid verve thanks to DiCaprio’s charm and innocence, the wise and charismatic Oscar-nominated performance of Christopher Walken, and composer John Williams doing what he does best with an extra layer of jazz. When reasons #4 and #5 to see a film are Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, you’ve got a quality film, whether it’s inspired by a true story or not. — Kyle Kizu
Up next: Four different centuries’ worth of pioneers