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Best 20 Biopics of the Last 20 Years

Let’s face it, most biopics suck. They are the quintessential zombie movie, famous actors of today dressed up like famous personages of the past, often going through the motions or doing ghastly impressions. These waxwork monstrosities often rack it up come the big awards ceremonies. We’re here to prove that there are some biopics that are still worth their salt. These are the best 20 biopics of the last 20 years.

marieantoinette20. Marie Antoinette (Dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Much of the chatter about director Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film concerned its soundtrack, a mixture of ‘80s and ‘90s alternative rock and pop that ran counter to the period drama onscreen. It proved to be an incredibly canny decision, as this Marie Antoinette is portrayed as the original New York club kid, burning money, breaking hearts and indulging in every kind of colorful treat placed in front of her. These youthful follies unfortunately had a tragic end with the rise of the French revolution, but for two hours that play out before that moment are a pastel-colored wonder of lavish spending and lazy days. – Robert Ham

che19. Che (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

Che both is and isn’t a biopic of its subject Anchored to Guevara across the Cuban and Bolivian revolutions to which he contributed, its real focus is nonetheless on the campaigns themselves and how a cult of personality relates to historical events that are at once forming and formed by the creation of such icons. Yet the film runs counter to conventional idolization. Hidden in the split between the rousing first part and the paranoid second is the insinuation that Che’s elevation from noteworthy comrade to undisputed leader is precisely what caused his other populist uprisings to fail. – Jake Cole

diving-bell-and-the-butterfly18. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007)

Horror flicks don’t scare me. But realistic and disturbing biopics like this scare the hell out of me. Julian Schnabel‘s film pulls its viewer directly into the head of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the magazine editor who at 43 suffered a paralyzing stroke that left him unable to move anything but his left eye. For much of the film, the audience is trapped in its subject’s head, escaping this claustrophobia only within Jean-Do’s fantasies. Jean-Do’s new life triumphs when he writes his story, blinking one eye for assistants to transcribe the letters he indicates, resulting in the memoir adapted for this film. What begins as a terrifying prospect becomes a victory, as the voice inside the paralyzed writer’s head is finally able to achieve his desperate goal: to communicate. – JC Macek III

pitt17. Moneyball (Dir. Bennett Miller, 2011)

This impressive if slight character study of general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) focuses on the 2002 Oakland Athletics’ experimental flirtation with sabermetric team building. Anchoring Beane’s life around a crucial moment in his professional history, director Bennett Miller gives sobering, meditative life to a Steve Zaillian script jacked up on reassuring Aaron Sorkin banter. The capable ensemble includes the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and a standout Jonah Hill, but Pitt’s Beane runs the show. Dialing down his magnetism to ever more laconic levels, his portrayal of a man on his last straw fighting against the entirety of accepted baseball methodology is as frustrating as it is inspirational. The film neither insults your intelligence nor falls back on tired biopic tropes, and thus gives credence to Beane’s gamble and to the struggle it caused. – Dominic Griffin

capote216. Capote (Dir. Bennett Miller, 2005)

Anchored by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar winning performance, this film, as gruesome as it is intellectual, focuses on its subject’s trip to Kansas to cover the grisly murder of a family. It was there that Capote found the inspiration for his greatest work, In Cold Blood. The author is spellbound by the lead suspect, and their relationship is the morally dubious centerpiece of the film. Director Bennett Miller’s gothic styling informs Capote’s character as much as the script itself, which reveals the life of Capote while interrogating the modes and methods of nonfiction storytelling itself. In the end, the subject is left more ambiguous, and more interesting, than he was before. What more could we want from a biopic? – Erica Peplin

lincoln15. Lincoln (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Reflecting our own times and political turmoil with no dearth of clever allusions and political inversions, director Steven Spielberg carefully crafted this story of the final months of Lincoln’s life and the machinations surrounding the constitutional amendment to free the slaves. For his unconventional but convincing performance, Daniel Day-Lewis, the most method of method actors, researched ear-witness testimony to the slain President’s speeches and modeled his voice accordingly. Sally Field, though eleven years older than Day-Lewis, portrays Mary Todd Lincoln (nine years her husband’s junior) well enough to receive universal acclaim and multiple awards and nominations.–JC Macek III

flynt14. The People vs. Larry Flynt (Dir. Milos Forman, 1996)

Woody Harrelson portrays the Hustler publisher as an undeniably sleazy guy that the audience is never once asked to like. His lawyer, well-played by Edward Norton, confesses that he’s not even sure he likes him. But director Milos Forman does the seemingly impossible and makes the audience sympathize with Flynt whether we like him or not. The film may be about freedom of speech, but when Flynt is shot and paralyzed outside of a courthouse and later finds his wife (Courtney Love) drowned in a bathtub, the audience can’t help but feel for him and get behind him for his next struggle. – JC Macek III

motorcyclediaries13. The Motorcycle Diaries (Dir. Walter Salles, 2004)

Before Che Guevara became a face on a t-shirt and a proponent for equality in Latin America, he took a motorcycle tour of South America. Marking this as the inspiration for the revolutionary’s lifelong cause, director Walter Salles’ travelogue-biopic is a road movie where the prevailing goal is to see how the other half live. It is a successfully romantic portrait of one of the 20th century’s most recognizable liberal icons as a charismatic med student whose journey captures all the joys of youth. The film imbues every aspect of his journey – the landscape, the people – with such nostalgic purity, it’s impossible not to see how these experiences imprinted on Guevara a profound worldview.—Katherine Springer

turner12. Mr. Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)

Most biopics fail because they’re too reverential, but this is not one of them. Through a series of vignettes, director Mike Leigh reveals the mid-late life of the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, warts and all. With puckered lips and furrowed brow, Timothy Spall waddles on screen and transforms into the lovably cantankerous Turner. The actor spent almost two years training as a painter in preparation for the shoot. Beyond his breathtaking art, the film reveals a son, a lover, an ex-lover and friend to thinkers, writers and inventors who were just as fascinating as he was. Turner’s paintings are whirling, sun-drenched vistas of cloud, sun and snow, and this film is an equally sublime portrait of life as it’s lived, both awesome and terrifying. – Erica Peplin

Private-Parts11. Private Parts (Dir. Betty Thomas, 1997)

The usual cradle to the grave approach to biographical films becomes more and more tiresome with every passing Oscar season, but when you apply that structure to a less prestigious subject, you get something like this. Based on his autobiography, shock jock Howard Stern brought his own life to the big screen, bringing along key members of his circle (like Robin Quivers) along to play themselves. This questionable casting dulls the division between fiction and reality, keeping the events of the narrative honest enough to ring true but elastic enough to stretch for comedy. Paul Giamatti’s vitriolic performance as Pig Vomit is memorable, but beneath layers of solipsism and puerile humor, Stern parlays his charisma into sub-Woody Allen levels of genuine resonance. It’s about as funny as you remember (not very) but considerably more touching than it should be. – Dominic Griffin

boysdontcry10. Boys Don’t Cry (Dir. Kimberly Pierce, 1999)

Pierce’s timely film recounted the life and death of Brandon Teena, a transgendered man who was the fatal victim of a hate crime. As played by Hilary Swank, Teena is a swaggering yet sensitive young woman fed up with life in rural Nebraska. She changes her name, stuffs a sock into her jeans and becomes the man she’s always known herself to be. Happiness follows as he falls in love with a nice girl (Chloë Sevigny), and their love is tender and quietly groundbreaking. When local men discover that Brandon is transgendered, they react with brutal violence, and Pierce thoughtfully reveals prejudice as a symptom of ignorance. Released before gay marriage and RuPaul’s Drag Race were commonplace, the film did something radical, conveying the complexity of gender identity through the devastating story of one man who was willing to be himself and the society that was too weak to handle it. – Erica Peplin

everlasting-moments-29. Everlasting Moments (Dir. Jan Troell, 2008)

This gorgeous, lyrical period piece from Swedish master Jan Troell tells the story of photographer Maria Larsson. After her husband, who struggles with alcoholism, wins a camera in a lottery, Larsson discovers that she’s a natural behind the lens, and ultimately finds solace in artistic expression. Narrated by one of Larsson’s daughters, the film is shot in rich sepia tones and moves and flows like a memory. It feels so personal it’s as if it were about Troell’s own family. – Seth Katz

americansplendor8. American Splendor (Dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)

Paul Giamatti had been working as a sideman in Hollywood productions from Big Momma’s House to The Truman Show for over a decade, but this wonderful narrative/documentary hybrid gave him his first great leading role. The film’s subject, Harvey Pekar, was an underground comics icon, a true everyman who wrote about his daily life. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini mix footage of the real Pekar with dramatizations of some of his best stories. Giamatti is brilliant, and Pekar’s presence, which includes narration, is wonderful; at one point he even notes that Giamatti looks nothing like him. – Seth Katz

Bernie_Jack_Black7. Bernie (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2011)

Jack Black has always committed to his parts, but usually with all of his copious energy on full display. Here, he compartmentalizes his flailing physical comedy into a keenly observed set of tics and vocal inflections that speak volumes about his character’s uptight, increasingly tense nature without telegraphing the act of violence on which the film hinges. One of Black’s more dramatic roles, the showcase it provides for his exquisite timing and thorough body language control may actually prove his comedic chops more than his most well-known work. – Jake Cole

carlosreview6. Carlos (Dir. Olivier Assayas, 2010)

Paced like a serial television series and partially conceived as one, this functions just as well as a standalone movie, the nearly six-hour length granting additional complexity to its familiar rise-and-fall structure. There’s a sustained sense of excitement across the film’s fast-paced early sections, as an ascendant Carlos commits high-wire acts of international terrorism, casting himself as a consummate superstar freedom fighter clad in sunglasses and leather. The pace slows as the dream of global revolution dies and the world transforms, and the burnt-out rock-star terrorist is left only with his own overwhelming narcissism. Director Olivier Assayas maintains an insistent focus on the porousness of borders and the interchangeability of ideologies, casting a single human life as a long series of economic transactions. – Jesse Cataldo

the-wind-rises5. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

The Studio Ghibli founder’s final film as a director charts the ascendance of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Japanese Zero fighter used at Pearl Harbor. The film’s subject is unusually controversial, for Miyazaki, but in essence, the story is not. Like his much-loved children’s films, The Wind Rises is a tale of transformation — and as this is a biopic, that transformation comes in the form of character development. Sadly, this development follows the arc of an idealist whose grows up to see his childlike dreams used for evil. That the director chose this story as his swan song makes it not just a provocative biopic, but a bittersweet metaphor for the compromises of the creative process. – Pat Padua

24-hour-party-people4. 24 Hour Party People (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2002)

Music and cinema are great collaborative arts often credited to a single creative director. So it’s appropriate that this electric retelling of the Manchester music scene and its major player Tony Wilson was the first of what is now a long and prolific collaboration between Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, Coogan is always recognizably himself, but was a natural to play the Factory Records Svengali, and if the narrative flags when Joy Division begets Happy Mondays, then so did the music business. This inventive film is a far better Ian Curtis biopic than Control. – Pat Padua

notthere3. I’m Not There (Dir. Todd Haynes, 2007)

Challenging the very label of biopic, director Todd Haynes captures the essence of Bob Dylan in an idiosyncratic and fluid portrait courtesy of no less than six actors. To call it non-traditional is putting it lightly. The voice of his generation is portrayed alternately by Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and, in the most straightforward impersonation of the living role, Cate Blanchett. Their characters embody aspects of Dylan’s life rather than chart specific linear events and, create a radical but nonetheless successful portrait of a wild and, frankly, mysterious life. –Katherine Springer

wolf-of-wall-street2. The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Scorsese’s biopics have never adhered to standard genre formulas, less focused on narrative than thematic and tonal cohesion, positioning the semi-tragic arcs of his morally conflicted antiheroes as secondary to the flow of inventively conceived, dynamically directed set pieces. Like Goodfellas, this is less a character study than a full-scale immersion into a fascinating world of corruption and vice. Here however the approach is pure adrenaline-fueled madness, eliminating any traces of melancholy, attacking the material with a sense of manic, amoral glee befitting its monstrous main character. –Jesse Cataldo

social-network11. The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher, 2007)

Even with Aaron Sorkin writing and David Fincher behind the camera, did anyone really expect a movie about the birth of Facebook to be one of the great biopics? This film about one of the all-encompassing technologies of modern life conveys the excitement of a young college student as convincingly as it depicts the infighting of the team who created a social media juggernaut. Everynerd Jesse Eisenberg grounds a consistently watchable cast. From sharp dialogue to evocative score to deft editing, the most banal and megalomaniacal of subjects got a more sensitive treatment than he probably deserved. It’s thanks to this film that the world will forever think of Mark Zuckerberg as a guy who’s just lonely at the top. – Pat Padua

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