Question of the Week: What’s your favorite biopic(s)?

A biographical film, or biopic (/ˈbɵpɪk/; abbreviation for biographical motion picture), is a film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or people.

JeannedArcThis week I saw two press screenings (The Butler and Jobs) that are both based on real-life characters. So I thought I’d blog about one of Hollywood’s favorite genre [or is it sub-genre?]. There are a plethora of biopics getting made every single year. I mean, if you look at this list of biopics in Wikipedia, the number is in the thousands, dating all the way to the year 1900 with short, silent film Jeanne d’Arc by Georges Méliès — clearly Joan of Arc is a popular subject that’s been filmed time and time again. Just in 2000s alone, there are nearly 500 biopics in just one decade! I think biopics have become a favorite for actors to portray, perhaps because they tend to be popular come award season. A bunch of actors have won Oscars portraying real-life characters, as Daniel Day Lewis did most recently playing President Lincoln.

Obviously, just like any genre/sub-genre, there are good and bad biopics, and there’ll never be a shortage of them in the years to come. I for one don’t mind them, especially when the subject matter are intriguing and even inspiring. I prefer biopics that focus on a certain period of the person’s life instead of an overarching biography, just because it’s so challenging to do the latter and make it compelling. I’m excluding documentaries for this post, as it’s kind of a whole different genre entirely.

If I were to choose my top 10 favorites from what I’ve seen, it’d probably look something like this (in no particular order):

  1. Schindler’s List (1993)
  2. Veronica Guerin (2003)
  3. Ray (2004)
  4. The Insider (1999)
  5. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  6. Elizabeth (1998)
  7. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
  8. Amazing Grace (2006)
  9. The Queen (2006)
  10. Walk The Line (2005)

5 Honorable Mentions: Amadeus, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Nowhere Boy, The Aviator

I say ‘favorite’ because a large part of how well we receive a biopic is how much we care about the subject matter. I mean, I’m fascinated by royal families (esp. British), but I know some people don’t and they probably aren’t going to be keen on films about them. Of course another big thing is how well we think the actors portray the real-life persona on screen, physical resemblance notwithstanding. Keep in mind I haven’t seen some of the essentials like Gandhi, Citizen Kane, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ragging Bull, etc.

So my question to you two-fold… do you like Biopics and which ones are your favorite?

89 thoughts on “Question of the Week: What’s your favorite biopic(s)?

  1. You see, I do not like Walk the Line. In my opinion that is the quintessential boring biopic. It has everything that makes biopics uninteresting and unoriginal. The childhood beginnings, the chronicling of pretty much every part of his life, the rise and eventual fall due to a vice (and this is even the most overused vice, drugs and alcohol), and some sort of redemption. Its colour-by-numbers.

    Lincoln, on the other hand, takes a segment of his life and focuses on its importance, shedding off all the other weight that comes with biopics. The Queen does a good job of this as well.

    1. I hear ya Ian, I think what I like about that film is the relationship between Johnny and June. I didn’t know anything about them but I was quite absorbed by their story.

      Haven’t seen Lincoln yet, I did hear from some folks that it’s rather boring though. As for The Queen, well I do love monarch movies AND Dame Helen Mirren 😀

  2. Funny you should mention biopics. There’s a certain Phenomenal 5 written and ready on this very subject. Lets just saying we have one very big agreement! 😉

    Oh, and you MUST see Citizen Kane! It’s one of those films that truly deserves its “classic” label!!!

    1. Hey, we’re kindred spirits! Are you gonna watch The Butler or Jobs this weekend? I’m curious which film will make YOUR top 5, I think I have an inkling.

      Yeah, I will eventually 😀

      1. Not sure about my movie watching this weekend. I’ll be keeping the kids while my wife is with her mom at the hospital. Jobs is a toughie for me. Kutcher REALLY gets on my nerves so I just don’t know! 🙂

        1. Hi Keith! I’d recommend The Butler instead of Jobs, it’s more of a rental. I can’t stand Kutcher either so yeah, that’s a detriment to the film though he’s not as terrible as I thought.

  3. Oh, I love biopics! My favorite is probably Frost/Nixon but that’s a very focused biopic, kinda like The Queen which I also love it only details a short period of time. Schindler’s List and Elizabeth are also among my favorites. Another ones I liked are Frida and Grey Gardens

    1. Man, that’s another good one I haven’t seen yet, and we both love Michael Sheen 😀 I have to look up Grey Gardens, not sure I’ve heard of that one before. What’s the subject about?

      1. Oh, you gotta see Frost/Nixon, it’s such a terrific movie. Grey Gardens is actually a real documentary made about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric aunt and cousin, whose house fell into ruin because they couldn’t afford it and they lived there in horrible conditions, refusing to do anything about it. HBO made a TV movie about that with Jessica Lange and Drew Berrymore and it’s just fantastic.

    1. Hi Brenda! I was going to put down The King’s Speech, but I ended up picking Elizabeth instead, there are fewer female-centric biopics out there.

    1. Hi Alex! Nice to see a fellow Veronica Guerin fan! Yes it’s extremely underrated, I should actually review it one of these days. Ciaran Hinds was good in it too, another underrated actor. Blanchett is just sublime!

  4. Great topic! I really have to see more biopics! La Vie en Rose with Marion Cotillard is the first to come to mind. Her performance is just stunning!

    I love Walk The Line for Joaquin Phoenix (because I’m a big Johnny & June fan), but the movie relies way too much on their son’s version of who they are. Vivian Cash and Johnny’s father are really ill-represented, so I sorta cringe when I see the hype for the movie. :/

    1. Hi Katy! Glad to see you joining the discussion. Yet another punt for La Vie en Rose, I better watch that soon!

      Oh I didn’t know that about Walk The Line, I suppose biopics could be quite one-sided. I suppose as a big fan of the subjects you’d have a totally different take on the film. I do think Joaquin was phenomenal, and what a voice!

      1. Thank you Ruth! It’s definitely an amazing movie – and Marion’s performance is one of a kind! 🙂

        Some biopics can be. Sometimes I guess it shows that everyone’s perspective of events are different. Joaquin was definitely my favorite part and did a great job with his voice, I agree!

        1. Hi again Katy! Yeah I definitely need to see Marion’s performance. It’s interesting how ppl like Joaquin and Ewan McGregor (in Moulin Rouge) turns out to have such an amazing voice, yet they’re not in a band or anything.

  5. What a great question! Agree with most of your list and with LA VIE EN ROSE. I cry every time I see VERONICA GUERIN. CHAPLIN has got to be on my list somewhere. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. I don’t know how factual it is, but CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND is pretty good.

    1. Hey thanks Paula, glad to have you join in the discussion! Well I definitely put La Vie en Rose and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND on my to-watch list. Glad to have someone else vouching for Guerin 😀

    1. Y’know, I was considering that but I was actually more enamored by Blanchett’s performance than DiCaprio’s and she’s already listed twice here, he..he..

  6. PrairieGirl

    I LOVE biopics! So many fascinating people, so little time ;-). Rufus Sewell is wonderful in The Last King (also called Charles II: The Passion and the Power). And then there is James Purefoy in Beau Brummel… oh my, his sleek costumes (and the shedding of them too!).

      1. PrairieGirl

        Well, RS and JP always spring to mind first, of course, no surprise to you!

        BTW, I have The Sapphires to watch this weekend… which is, I’m pretty sure, is a bio pic… looking very forward to it. I’ve heard lots of raves about it.

        Actually, one of the best bio pics I’ve ever seen is Roger Rees in God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale (1986). The synopsis on Netflix sums up this dedicated and extremely courageous man:
        “Roger Rees stars in this dramatization about the life and times of 16th century Brit William Tyndale. Known as the “Father of the English Bible,” Tyndale worked tirelessly to translate and publish an English Bible during an era when prayers uttered in English were outlawed. His work angered King Henry VIII, the Pope and other authority figures, forcing Rees to keep moving to avoid capture as he continued on with his mission.”
        We take the Bible for granted. It’s almost unimaginable that there was a time when it was against the law for ordinary people to have access to it in English. This is a film I’m going to see again.

        1. Oooh, enjoy The Sapphires!! It’s a lovely film. Oh my, that one about William Tyndale sounds like a great one to see. I haven’t even heard of it, so thanks for mentioning that Becky. Yes you’re right we take Bibles for granted, but even to this day there are still some countries that banned them 😦

  7. Ted S.

    Not a big fan of biopics since most of the time filmmakers would over dramatize the real person or events, but of course they had to do it to make the film more interesting. I do love these films that based on real person though:

    -The Insider
    -The Social Network (not exactly the most accurate story about Facebook but damn it’s such a great movie.)
    -Lawrence of Arabia (again not the most accurate of what happened with Lawrence’s life but another great film.)
    -The Aviator (I read a lot about Howard Hughes and I though this film did a great job of capturing his life, wish they show the darker side of Hughes’ life.)

    1. Aha, THE INSIDER. Yep, that’s a great one. Among other things that make it great, Russell Crowe completely disappears in his character…I forget I’m watching an actor.

    2. Yeah, some biopics are certainly overly-dramatized and too sentimental. That’s why War Horse is not on my list 😉 I agree about The Social Network being a great film but I think they didn’t care much about accuracy, ahah.

      OMG, epic fail on my part for not including The Insider on here!!! I’m actually going to swap that out as that one DESERVES to be on my top 10 list, I don’t know how that slipped my mind!! So thanks Ted and Paula!

      1. Ted S.

        Ha ha yeah, I was kind of surprised that I didn’t see The Insider on your list there since I know you’re a big fan of that movie.

      2. Ted S.

        And oh yeah, had Fincher and Sorkin stayed truer the real life story of Zuckerberg and Parker, the movie would’ve been way too boring. Well maybe it would’ve been interesting to see what Parker spent on his $10mil wedding, lol.

  8. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    For the big screen, I’ll stay with ‘Patton’ with George C. Scott delivering an unafraid, barvuro performance. Same for Gregory Peck as ‘MacArthur’.

    Also like ‘The Aviator’. For being a very glitzy, glamorous, un-Scorcese, Scorcese flick. Though my favorite is James Cagney as George M. Cohan in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.

    While on the small screen, Gary Sinise has surprised with both ‘Truman’ and ‘Wallace’. While Randy Quaid made a very memorable Lyndon Baines Johnson in ‘LBJ: The Early Years’.

    1. Hello Jack! Man, I wish I had seen MacArthur then I’d have GP on the list 😀 I know Patton has been on many sites’ top 10 list also. I have to check out those from Gary Sinise, I like him s an actor, but didn’t even know he did those films! Thanks as always!

    1. Hi Nick! I had never thought about fictitious biopic, but yeah there are certainly quite a few of them. I think if I were to have such a list I’d probably have Ben Hur and Forrest Gump on there 😀

    1. Hi Cindy! Glad to hear you like biopics too. I updated the post and added 5 Honorable Mentions so yeah The Aviator is on there 🙂 I like Julie & Julia but not so much that they’d make my list though.

  9. ninvoid99

    Bio-pics are very tricky to do and it’s not one of my favorite genres because sometimes they take a lot of dramatic liberties and always delve into many cliches. Then there are those like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Amadeus” that works. For me, I would go for something that was very radical as far as how it was approached in the genre. That would be “I’m Not There”. A film about Bob Dylan in his many incarnations played by six people with Cate Blanchett being the best as the Electric Dylan persona Jude Quinn.

    1. Yeah indeed very tricky to do, but they sure are popular aren’t they? You’d think Hollywood would be better at making them as they have so much practice but that’s not the case, ahah.

      I originally had Amadeus on my top 10 but had to move it to Honorable Mention as I had a brain freeze and forgot The Insider, which is utterly underrated but so brilliant.

      Man I still have to see I’m Not There as I adore Blanchett and a lot of the actors portraying Dylan.

  10. A Beautiful Mind, of course. The Insider features a great performance by Crowe, but as an all-around movie, ABM blows it out of the water. Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose and RDJ in Chaplin are also brilliant performances.

    I will forever be dreaming of a real Taylor/Burton biopic starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe, but now you’ve got me shopping for a Spencer Tracy to play opposite Blanchett’s Hepburn. Hmmmm. 🙂

    1. I like A Beautiful Mind, but The Insider actually affected me more. I think I like Mann’s direction more than Howard’s in general. I still need to see La Vie en Rose and Chaplin.

      Wow, Zeta-Jones and Crowe would’ve killed it, though I think Gerry Butler has a physical resemblance to Burton too, but obviously he’s a lesser actor. Man, it’d be tough to find someone who can match Blanchett as Hepburn.

  11. Nice picks Ruth! I like biopics, but it seems like there are more mediocre ones than good ones. Some of my favorites are Casino, Citizen Kane, Schindler’s List and Lawrence of Arabia.

    1. Yeah I agree Josh, but there are some real gems too. I didn’t know Casino was a biopic, that’s one I still need to see, along with Citizen Kane, obviously 😀

  12. Not so much a biopic in the truest sense of the word, but Immortal Beloved, with Gary Oldman, is a ripper about Beethoven. If you’ve not seen it, I can highly recommend it based on Oldman’s performance alone – although the rest of the film is pretty darn good, especially the music.

    Special mentions to Lawrence Of Arabia (with everyone else, it seems) and The Queen, for something more recent. Mirren slays it in that film.

    1. Oh I’m glad someone mentioned Immortal Beloved!! That’s one of my fave Gary Oldman roles, Rodney. I love classical music too so yeah, that’s one of the highlights surely. I LOVE Dame Mirren and she made The Queen so sympathetic… even relatable at times.

  13. Hi Ruth, I would say I like good biopics about interesting characters, I was interested in seeing Lincoln and Ghandi as I’m interested in the people but in both cases the central performances are the most memorable things about those two. Lawrence of Arabia I saw because, being a film fan, I thought I should and was immpressed, not necessarily by the character of Lawrence but by the scale and grandeur of the production. I would include Forrest Gump in my list (if he was a real person) as it is a good example of how to make a good biopic. That might be an alternative list, best biopics of fictional characters; The Third Man? (Harry Lime). I was surprised that you dindn;t add Ghandi or Citizen Kane to you list until I read your note at the bottom. I’m not sure I would classify CK as a biopic as it feels so fantastical, even other worldly, even though it’s supposed to based on a real-life press magnate. I think Schindler’s list is more a biopic of a nation and that Schindler was a way into the holocaust for Spielberg but it’s a classic nonetheless. I’ve only seen the first half of Amazing Grace but I’d like to see the rest, BC is good in it. As an aside my wife and I recently got into Sherlock (another fictional biopic) with BC and MF and we love it, can’t wait to see the second series. I started reading the novel that ‘A study in Pink’ is based on (A Study in Scarlet) but I think I prefer the new incarnation of Holmes and Watson. Nice post Ruth.

    1. Hi Ronan, glad to see you man, been a long time 😀 Yes LoA’s a true epic in terms of story and scale, it’s an incredible feat by David Lean & co.

      Since people mention fictional biopics, that’ll be my follow-up question coming later today 😀

      I LOVE Amazing Grace, there’s a scene with John Newton who penned that hymn that’s very powerful and moving. I think you’d appreciate that Ronan. It’s a great film for Easter… or any season 😀

        1. Oooh, sounds fun! Where is KZ exactly? Wishing you and Irina a lovely holiday, hugs to you both. Thanks for taking the time from your time off to visit 😀 God bless you!

  14. Ya know, I haven’t seen Schindler’s List. I’ve had it to watch for ages but just haven’t felt in the mood to watch it. That’s pretty shameful, I know! There’s a few biopics that spring to mind that I like – A Dangerous Mind, Raging Bull, Hunger, Capote.

    To try and add to the discussion, do you think you think a biopic has to be about a real-life person or do you think you can have a biopic on a fictional character? Or is that a different genre once more?

    1. Oh you should give that a watch Chris. It’s beautifully-filmed and oh-so heart-wrenching. Another mention for Dangerous Mind, very cool, we need more female-focused biopics 😀

      GREAT question about fictional biopics. I’d think that’s a different genre as straight biopics should be based on a real person. But there are certainly quite a few of those, so stay tuned for a follow-up post 😀

      1. As far as I’m concerned that was the only acting performance that Hayden’s ever done. lol.

        Just to give you a heads up Ruth, Chopper is a little rough in the violence department although it is a true life prison film. All I can say is that I hope you’re a fan of Van Gogh.

        Did you ever see Shine… the biopic about pianist David Helfgott? A great performance from Geoffrey Rush who relearned the piano for the part. Unfortunately Helfgott’s piano skills in his later years were a bit overstated in the film and there’s was a question about how domineering the father actually was in real life.

        1. Ahah, too funny! I reckon he’s all right in Life as A House too actually.

          Ok, duly noted about Chopper.

          No I haven’t see Shine, not sure why as I love Geoffrey Rush! I definitely need to check that out and also The Pianist.

  15. Brittani Burnham

    That’s funny that you post this, someone asked me this the other day, and I could barely narrow it down, there’s so many I’ve enjoyed. Walk The Line, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, The Aviator, it just goes on and on.

  16. What a fantastic post! On your list, I’ve only seen Elizabeth, Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda, and Amazing Grace — they are all great. Amazing Grace is one of my all-time favorite movies. It always gets me pondering the question of whether we could have peacefully handled the abolition of slavery here in the U.S., as they did in England, if only our politicians had handled thing differently. The hostility and immaturity among our elected leaders, surrounding that volatile issue, was insane, according to Civil War-era history lessons I’ve done with my kids.

    1. Thanks Steph! I’m sooo glad to hear you love Amazing Grace too. It’s such a crucial moment in human history, and I love the scenes with John Newton as well. I always cry when I hear Chris Tomlin’s version of Amazing Grace, he’s one of my fave Christian recording artists. Interesting you brought up the Civil War issue, as that’s a prevalent issue in the next film I’m reviewing 🙂

  17. I love Biopics. A movie’s… likability goes up for me if I find out it’s ‘based on a true story’. Although it didn’t with ARGO. However, I do feel that a lot of people expect a literal, year by year story of that person’s life when they watch one, not realizing that it is a movie, and has to have a beginning middle and end, even if that person’s life never worked/works that way. It must be dramatized or taken liberties with to fit into the medium of films. Which is why there’s an ‘inspired by’ or ‘based on’ tag in the disclaimer, and not claiming to be factual retellings of certain situations.

    HOTEL RWANDA remains my most favourite one, more so because of the personal reaction it invoked when I saw it years ago. ( )
    MACHINE GUN PREACHER was the most surprising, as I didn’t know it was based on real events, until after the movie.
    THE AVIATOR was the movie that made me not dislike Leo D.
    I’m a sucker for any ‘true’ sports movie too.

    1. Hello Shah, thanks again for the share man! Y’know I actually don’t like it when they do a year by year or even decade by decade of a person’s life. I feel that they need to be more creative instead of following a linear format. Yep, some liberties should be taken so long as it didn’t change the essence of the story itself.

      I love Hotel Rwanda, I was a basket case w/ that one. Glad you mentioned Machine Gun Preacher, it was a hugely underrated film but Butler did a terrific job there.

  18. Rich

    I remember finding MILK very moving. I know that was the year everyone wanted Mickey Roarke to win Best Actor for THE WRESTLER, but I’m glad Sean Penn took it. I remember leaving the theater and dialing up a lesbian friend of mine because I had to tell her how much I loved MILK. Unfortunately, she wasn’t home, but the feeling still lingered.

  19. Melissa Bradley

    Great topic. I love biopics some of my faves include Milk, Lady Jane, Song of Bernadette, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Lincoln, Our Lady of Fatima, Beneath Hill 60, Glory and Sweet Dreams.

  20. Nice list Ruth. Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, Gandhi, Goodfellas and the Criterion Collection’s version of The Passion of Joan of Arc would be at the top for me.

    Hmm… here’s a few of my favorite I’d put in there that weren’t mentioned:

    Ed Wood – My favorite Depp film.
    Erin Brockovich – I don’t normally like Julia but with Soderberg’s direction she nailed it. Albert Finney was great also.
    Glory – Denzel’s finest moment IMHO.
    Shattered Glass – It’s about Stephen Glass the reporter who wrote for The New Republic and made up most of his articles even going as far as creating fake websites, business cards and fake phone numbers, Hayden Christensen has never been better. Seriously. Great supporting turns by Hank Azaria and Peter Sarsgaard.
    Chopper – An unrecognizable Eric Bana, early in his career, plays Mark “Chopper” Read Australia’s most notorious inmate. Bana got noticed big time for this performance..
    The Elephant Man – Mel Brooks matching this material to David Lynch was inspired indeed.
    The Insider – Personally i think’s it’s Michael Mann’s best film. Lisa Gerrard’s haunting score was a highlight.
    All The Presidents Men – Considering you know the outcome this is still so riveting to this very day.
    The Social Network – As someone who doesn’t use Facebook I loved this movie even if they filled in a lot of the story telling blanks. Love him or hate him Aaron Sorkin can write.
    United 93. – It was an amazing high wire act that Paul Greengrass pulled off. The families of the victims couldn’t have been more proud of finished product. Watching the actors meet the families of the characters they were playing, in the dvd extras, was truly moving.

    Bonus – Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. As a musician this one resonates deeply with me. It’s an experimental film about the eccentric, genius, pianist Glenn Gould. As the titles states it’s simply “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”. When I say genius I mean he almost never practiced on the piano, preferring to study music by reading it rather than playing it. When I say eccentric I mean he gave up performing live at the ripe old age of 31 because he preferred the control of the studio. Also he uncontrollably, unconsciously hummed when he played to the point that the studio engineers had to try to mix it out during his studio recordings. Gould’s recordings of Bach were so revered that one of his performances of the Prelude and Fugue in C major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier was chosen for inclusion on the NASA Voyager Golden Record by a committee headed by Carl Sagan. The disc of recordings was placed on the spacecraft Voyager 1, which is now approaching interstellar space and is the farthest human-made object from.Earth.(wiki) I included video of him playing J.S.Bach’s Partita #2 just to show why would someone would be inspired to make a film about him. All that said,.. Lassie is not impressed (the 2:15 mark). lol.

    1. WHOAH! I love the smorgasbord of recommendations here Dave, I don’t expect any less from you 😀 There are a few on my to-watch list already, esp. Chopper. I did see Shattered Glass, perhaps Hayden Christensen’s best performances?

      Never heard of Glenn Gould, I actually never saw a biopic about pianist before. Thanks for the clip!

  21. It’s funny, until I saw “The Insider” on your own list I have to admit that I’ve never even thought of it as a biopic. I’m not sure why that is. It’s just so urgent and brilliant and so often with the best of the best movies I never think of them in terms of genre. Or something. I don’t know. Anyway, yeah…”The Insider” would be #1 for me all the way.

    1. Hi again Nick! Y’know I can see why you didn’t see it as a biopic. I initially didn’t either until a couple ppl here mentioned it and I was like, hell-o?? How could I have left that out?! I actually took out Amadeus and put that under Honorable Mentions as The Insider HAS to be in my top 10, it’s brilliant in every way. I’m so happy you agree 😀

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