Back To Black

SOME OF THE GREATEST STORIES IN FILM are drawn from history. There’s something about a story based on true events that can immediately endear it to viewers, especially when those events took place within living memory and evoke a resurgence of nostalgia. Whether they retell tragedy or triumph, biopics almost always attract audiences keen on seeing famous artists, activists and historical figures brought back to life on the big screen. The Academy clearly loves them too. Since 2002, 14 of the 22 Oscars for Best Actor have gone to an actor portraying a character based on a real person.

That’s not to say that biopics are always good, however. Let’s be honest, more often than not, biopics kind of suck. The genre frequently relies and preys on the existing adoration attached to the subjects of their films, while rehashing the same played out story structure with minimal creativity. And let’s not forget that if you’re at least passingly familiar with the life of the main character, you’ll know exactly how the story will go.

The latest famous figure to receive the biopic treatment is Amy Winehouse. Back To Black – named after the singer’s final studio album – premieres today. Starring Marisa Abela, the film is a retelling of Winehouse’s life and times, from her earlier years as a struggling young artist to the height of her fame after the success of her second album – while also exploring the tumultuous relationship that inspired her work.

Whether or not Back To Black will reach Oscar darling levels of success or fade into obscurity like so many other films of its genre remains to be seen. But to set the bar, we’re breaking down the few diamond in the rough biopics that have managed to break away from the standard of recycled tropes to deliver inspired, engaging and frequently idiosyncratic films that retell well-known stories without feeling like they’re simply regurgitating a Wikipedia article.

Here, the best biopics of all time, ranked from 15 to 1.

What are the best biopics of all time?

15. Ferrari

2023 was such a huge for movies – and for biopics, as you’ll see further down this list – that a fantastic film like Michael Mann’s Ferrari flew completely under the radar and didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. Ferrari documents the challenges faced by automotive mogul and creator of the iconic prancing horse, Enzo Ferrari, as he wagers his business and family’s integrity on a treacherous race across Italy to avoid bankruptcy. Adam Driver and Penelope Cruz deliver showstopping performances, while one of the few faults we can find is Shailene Woodley’s atrocious – and borderline offensive – Italian accent.

14. Napoleon

Best Biopics

No, not Ridley Scott’s middling historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix. The original Napoleon is a masterpiece from 1927 directed by Abel Gance. By reading through these rankings, you’ll quickly learn that biopics tend to skew towards the lengthier side of the runtime spectrum, but none stray as far from cinematic standards as Napoleon. The film has a monstrous runtime of 330 minutes. $10 to anyone who can sit through that without a bathroom break.

13. I, Tonya

Best Biopics

I, Tonya centres on controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, showcasing her rise to fame, the notorious attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, and the ensuing media frenzy. The film offers an unorthodox take on the saga, delving into Harding’s rough upbringing and tumultuous relationships with her mother and ex-husband. Margot Robbie delivers a captivating performance which earned her a maiden Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

12. Elvis

Elvis (2022) - IMDb

Two years ago, Elvis had audiences all shook up with a three-hour, up and down, extravagant retelling of the King of Rock’s journey to the top. Austin Butler’s devoted method acting landed him a Golden Globe, which he accepted while maintaining a twinge of Elvis’ iconic accent. Butler recently admitted to hiring a dialect coach to help snap him out of his obsession and exorcise his Elvis demon. The film has its faults – which we’ll get to in due course – but Butler’s commitment to the part alone is reason enough to watch it.

11. Ray

Ray' Review: Movie (2004)

Jamie Foxx shined in his portrayal of legendary musician Ray Charles, capturing the essence of the man behind the sunglasses. Ray navigates Charles’ triumphs and struggles, from his humble beginnings in the racially charged American South to his rise to global stardom. The film not only celebrates Charles’ unparalleled talent but also serves as a poignant tribute to his enduring legacy, reminding us of the impact he had in shaping the landscape of modern music.

10. Rocketman

Rocketman' Editor Chris Dickens On Editing Taron Edgerton as Elton

Musicians are popular fare for biopic directors, and this is our third consecutive singer. Set against the backdrop of Elton John’s ascension to international fame in the 70s and 80s, Rocketman explores the complexities of John’s personal struggles, including but not limited to: his troubled relationship with his parents and his battles with addiction and identity. Taron Egerton delivers a memorable performance as the suitably flamboyant singer, capturing both his larger-than-life on-stage persona and vulnerable off-stage moments.

9. Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette - Little White Lies

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette offers a glimpse into the life of the ill-fated titular French queen. Set in 18th-century Versailles, the heavily stylised punk-rock reinterpretation intricately weaves together the personal and political facets of Marie Antoinette’s doomed reign. As she so often does, Coppola breathes new life into a well-documented figure, repositioning Marie Antoinette as a tragic figure of revolution and as a woman entrapped by her royal duties.

8. Priscilla

That’s right, two consecutive Sofia Coppola films. Both have very little between them in regard to quality. Ultimately, we’ve given Priscilla the higher slot for its role in deconstructing the romantic mythology surrounding Elvis Presley, which was established a year prior thanks to the singer’s own biopic. Starring Cailee Spaeny, Priscilla takes a far more balanced approach to the problematic relationship between Elvis and Priscilla Presley – which we’ll remind you began when Priscilla was only 14 years old, a fact that Elvis carelessly glosses over.

7. The Aviator

The Aviator (2004) directed by Martin Scorsese • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

The first Martin Scorsese-directed film to appear on our list, but it won’t be the last. The Aviator chronicles the soaring highs and depressing lows of aviation pioneer and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Played with trademark intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hughes’ obsession with his ambitious endeavours is documented with exacting precision, capturing the man’s genius, his struggles with mental illness, and the effect of the pressures of fame and fortune.

6. Amadeus

Amadeus : Jacob Burns Film Center

Amadeus captures the life and genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through the lens of his enigmatic rival, Antonio Salieri. As Salieri, a talented composer in his own right, becomes consumed by envy of Mozart’s divine talent, Amadeus explores the relationship between ambition, jealousy and the pursuit of artistic immortality with a refreshing blend of historical accuracy and theatrical flair.

5. The Social Network

The Social Network' 10 Years Later: A Grim Online Life Foretold - The New York Times

The Social Network details the rise of Facebook and the journey of Mark Zuckerberg from college student to tech titan. Helmed by acclaimed director David Fincher and written by the celebrated Aaron Sorkin, the film illustrates the complexities of friendship, loyalty and greed against the backdrop of the moral dilemmas that accompany entrepreneurial success.

4. Raging Bull

Revisiting the Violence and Style of Martin Scorsese's “Raging Bull” | The  New Yorker

On balance, Jake LaMotta (the man dubbed the ‘Raging Bull’), may be one of the lesser known subjects of a biopic on this list. Conversely, Raging Bull is one of the most celebrated biopics of all time, redefining what a biographical film could be and laying the groundwork for the future of the genre. Raging Bull shows how LaMotta’s rage, jealousy and self-destructive tendencies ultimately derailed his pursuit of greatness in boxing – as opposed to a lack of talent. The film also landed Robert De Niro his second Oscar, and his only win in the Best Actor category from five nominations.

3. Malcolm X

Spike Lee on His '90s Movies and the Fight to Make Malcolm X

In the early stages of his directorial career, Spike Lee exclusively focused on comedies and musicals. Then came the revolutionary Malcolm X, which retells the story of one of the most influential figures in the American civil rights movement. Denzel Washington’s powerful portrayal of Malcolm X captures his evolution from a troubled youth to a charismatic leader. The film offers a – appropriately, for a man of his conviction – nuanced exploration of Malcolm X’s ideologies, including his early advocacy for black empowerment through the Nation of Islam, his disillusionment with the organisation, and his eventual embrace of a more inclusive vision of human rights.

2. Oppenheimer

Best Biopics

Call it recency bias if you will, but we’re firm believers that Oppenheimer has already established itself as one of the greatest biopics of all time, and that the film will only get better with age. In the unlikely event that you’ve already forgotten what the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture a month ago is about, here’s a refresher. Oppenheimer showcases Robert Oppenheimer’s role in creating the atomic bomb, and later, his inability to cope with the consequences. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of the brilliant yet morally complex physicist netted him his first Oscar in one of the best performances in recent memory.

1. Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia | Plot, Cast, Awards, & Facts | Britannica

It’s been more than 60 years since the release of Lawrence of Arabia and no biopic has come close to surpassing it, in our esteemed opinion. The film is the historical epic of all historical epics, capturing the grandeur of T.E. Lawrence’s journey from inexperienced British officer to war hero. Lawrence became the de facto leader of Arab tribes in an uprising against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and was later a proponent of Arab independence and self-determination upon the war’s conclusion. While nearly four hours in length, Lawrence of Arabia is captivating from start to finish, backed by an iconic score, revolutionary cinematography and masterful performances.

The film can be counted among the favourites of numerous celebrated directors, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. Spielberg in particular credits the film with cementing his love for filmmaking and his desire to be a director, saying “The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia I walked out of the cinema halfway through because I was stunned and speechless.” Argue all you want, but there is hardly a more reputable determiner of quality than Spielberg.


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