People, without fail, always enjoy a good story, particularly when that story is based on actual people and events. There is something special about accompanying real people and their successes, as well as the obstacles that life throws at them. Biopics allow for us viewers to step into the shoes of someone else and live vicariously through them for a few hours, for better or worse. They also inspire and encourage us to live our lives in a similar fashion, also for better or worse. Biopics are, rightfully so, one of the most popular genres in modern cinema, and this trend will continue as long as humanity craves artistic retellings of society’s most interesting people.
Here is, by my opinion, the top five biopics ever put to film.
Honorable Mentions: Downfall, The Elephant Man, Patton, Walk The Line, A Beautiful Mind, Gandhi, The Aviator.
5) Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole in the titular role and directed by David Lean, is a 1962 epic chronicling the life of T.E. Lawrence. T.E. Lawrence is most widely known for his role in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and escapades in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. Lawrence of Arabia is, quite simply, considered one of the greatest films in history. Besides the incredible acting by the lead, Peter O’Toole, the film is praised for its breathtaking sense of scope and epic, and its visuals are some of the most influential in cinema. The film has influenced many of the greatest working directors today, including Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg. Lawrence of Arabia lives on today as a critical detailing of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
Amadeus, starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce and directed by Milos Forman, is the story of Antonio Salieri (Abraham) and his pleading for forgiveness for having killed one of history’s greatest composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce). The film takes place across several decades, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and jumps between Salieri telling his tale about his life as a composer and relations with Mozart and the time when Salieri is an old man recounting his story. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Abraham, and is consistently placed in critics’ lists for greatest films of all time.
3) Raging Bull
Raging Bull is a sports biopic directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. The film follows LaMotta’s rise as a star in boxing, as well as his wrathful and destructive relationship with himself and his family. Taking place during his boxing prime, as well as his overweight later years, the film encompasses much of the tortured boxer’s violent life. It is a sad, and often savage, film, but is also a striking portrayal of a man at war with himself as much as his opponent in the ring. Raging Bull is considered one of De Niro’s, and Scorsese’s, greatest films, and is widely acknowledged as the greatest sports biopic ever produced.
2) Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes and directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of the life and heroic exploits of German businessman Oskar Schindler (Neeson). Schindler is best known for saving over a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by giving them jobs in his various factories. He risked his life and depleted his fortune in an effort to save the Jewish refugees, sparked by his witnessing of them being industrially massacred by the Nazi SS. Schinder’s List is a devastatingly emotional film, and details a very dark time in human history that should be forever remembered for its horrors.
Goodfellas is an American crime biopic directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro. The film follows the rise and fall of Irish-Italian gangster Henry Hill (Liotta), who serves as the film’s narrator, and spans from 1955 to 1980. The film details the respect, wealth, and power that accompanies being a member of organized crime, as well as the violence, lying, and imprisonment that also follow that illicit profession. What makes Goodfellas the greatest biopic of all time, besides the flawless and energetic camera work, soundtrack, acting, and direction, is that the film feels alive. It perfectly situates you in this gangster’s life, and catapults you along with him on his tremendous highs as well as suffocating you with his inescapable lows. Goodfellas is a story not just about crime and the life of a gangster, but also the story of the American dream and what it means to obtain wealth, fame, and most importantly, respect.