Biopics are one of my favorite movie categories because they profile true stories about a historical figure that has usually led a fascinating life. Life can be a bit monotonous at times as we live our ordinary lives and it is through these biographies of amazing life stories that we can breakout of that daily grind.
Some of the biggest Academy Award winning films have been biopics including films like The Last Emperor (1987) - 9 Oscars, Amadeus (1984) - 8, Gandhi (1982) - 8, Patton (1970) - 7 and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - 6. More recently, we have seen biographies win multiple Academy Awards in The Aviator (2004) - 5, The King's Speech (2010) - 4, The Social Network (2010) - 3 and Milk (2004) - 2.
This ranking of the best biopics of all time is a blended average of all the member rankings of the biographies category on Rankography top ten movies. Please let us know your feedback at the end of this biopics lens.
All rights reserved. Copyright 2011 Rankography
10. Malcolm X (1992)
One of Denzel's Most Transformative Roles
In 1992, Denzel Washington had already been an actor for 16 years and yet he was still relatively unknown when he took on the lead role in one of the best biopics. It certainly helped that Denzel actually looked quite a bit like Malcolm X at the same age, but it was Washington's acting that literally transformed him into the famous political activist. Even people that had studied Malcolm X were amazed at how completely Washington was able to mimic his mannerisms, voice and cadence in this biography.
Whether or not you believe in his politics, one cannot deny the dedication and leadership ability of Malcolm X. He was born Malcolm Little and lost his father to the Ku Klux Klan as a child. After a brief life as a gangster, Malcolm X converted to the Nation of Islam and became a powerful leader for Elijah Muhammed. While initially advocating violence against white oppressors, X later converted to a Sunni Muslim and changed his philosphy and anti-white teachings. Ultimately, he was assassinated most likely by members of his former Nation of Islam group.
This is a fascinating biographical movie that is beautifully acted by Washington, Angela Basset as his wife and Al Freeman, Jr as Elijah Muhammed. The film was nominated for 2 Oscars including Denzel for Best Actor. Unfortunately, he lost that year to Al Pacino's for Scent of a Woman in what may the the worst Oscar decision of all time.
If you liked Malcolm X... - You might also like American Gangster
9. Ali (2001)
A Powerful Man and a Powerful Biographical Film
Ali is the biography story of Cassius Clay (Will Smith), an Olympic Gold Medal boxer who went on to become a legendary heavyweight boxer. However, this is not merely a boxing story because Clay was a bigger than life personality and an intelligent, political Black leader. He joined the Nation of Islam and became a good friend of Malcolm X. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali to abandon his original slave name.
For this role, Will Smith had to gain about 40 pounds of muscle and basically transformed his body. It was one of his first dramatic roles that was not an action film and he definitely proved he can handle dramatic roles. The cast also includes a deep roster of top actors including Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jada Pinkett Smith and LaVar Burton. The film was nominated for 2 Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Smith.
This is one of the best sports biographies ever and a truly great American sports stories. It is hard not to admire Ali, the boxer and Ali, the man.
If you enjoyed Ali... - You might also like The Pursuit of Happyness
8. Schindler's List (1993)
How One Many Saved so Many Others and their Future Generations
This outstanding Steven Spielberg film is a biography of Oskar Schindler during World War II. This film has an award-winning cast portraying dramatic and difficult events in world history. Schindler (Liam Neeson) starts the film as a cold, greedy industrialist, but through the war he is transformed with the help of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), a member of the Judenrat (Jewish Council). This amazing true story chronicles his humanitarian efforts to save as many Jewish lives as he can through his industrial munitions factory.
This astonishing biopic provides a horrific, yet realistic depiction of the Holocaust and Nazi brutality. The entire cast is outstanding with Ralph Fiennes, Kingsley and of course Neeson. The film won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.
Is one of the best biographies ever and a poignant movie that portrays the triumph of the human spirit in the face of truly abominable conditions.
7. Raging Bull (1980)
DeNiro Perfectly Captures the Rage of Jake LaMotta
While both Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro did a great job of bringing Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) to life in Raging Bull, this film is one of the most disturbing biopics I have ever seen and not a movie that I wanted to see more than once. LaMotta was a famed prizefighter during the 1940s, but ultimately this biography is story about a violent man who was so riddled with self esteem issues that he ends up alienating all of his friends and family.
The scenes of violence against Vicki LaMotta (Cathy Moriarity) were particularly disturbing. LaMotta seemed to destroy everything that was good in his life through violence and self down. He becomes estranged from his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), after beating him senseless for falsely assuming he had an affair with his wife. DeNiro was absolutely terrifying in his portrayal of this rage filled man and he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role.
I hope I have adequately described this film. If you can handle violence and the disturbing tendencies of a man who has completely lost control, then it is a film worth watching. However, if you are sensitive to these issues, you may want to steer clear of this biography.
If you liked Raging Bull... - You may also like The Hurricane
6. The Social Network (2010)
The Fascinating Founding Story of Facebook
This biography had a dream pairing, David Fincher as Director and an Aaron Sorkin script, they did not disappoint. The pairing was well suited for the Facebook story. Sorkin's fast-paced intelligent dialogue was perfect for the high energy pace of both coders and a start-up environment, while Fincher's dark cinematic qualities enhanced the bitter struggle behind this famous social media company.
I had read both of the books prior to seeing this biopic; The Facebook Effect by David Fitzpatrick which was sanctioned by the company and The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich providing a different perspective. So I had a pretty good feel for the arguments on both side of the dispute. I felt the film did a good job of remaining impartial in the dispute while still creating a highly entertaining movie. It was particularly entertaining to watch some of the early coding sessions and inspirational moments that led to many of the features we take for granted everyday.
It is hard not to cheer the Capitalist system when you see an entrepreneurial story like this. Despite the name of one of the books, there was nothing accidental about the founders success. They made a lot of very smart steps along the way to create this epic company. And one of the best lines from the films rings true to me, "If you were the inventors of facebook, you would have invented facebook!"
Great film, very different biopic and entirely entertaining.
5. Ray (2004)
Foxx is Transformed into Ray in this Great Biopic
Well I thought Jamie Foxx was a comedian, oh yeah and a hip-hop singer, so I did not expect much from his as an actor. Wow, I could not have been more wrong. Once you see one Jamie Foxx movie, you will want to see all of his movies. Give up the laughs and the music, Jamie, because your true calling is on the Silver Screen. I liked Ray so much that I immediately watched The Soloist and The Kingdom and I was just amazed at Jamie Foxx' skill.
Ray is the biopic of Ray Charles' (Jamie Foxx) life from his childhood and his degenerative eye disease through the end of his epic music career. It is a compelling story about the man, the experiences that shaped him and the soul music he created for the world. However, this biography movie is also about the man's imperfections and his weaknesses that reeked havoc on his family and his marriage.
I highly recommend you check out both of the two great biopics starring Jamie Foxx, Ray and The Soloist. You will not be disappointed with either film.
4. A Beautiful Mind (2001) **Spoiler Alert**
A Fascinating Biographical Movie about Mental Illness
One of my favorite biographies, A Beautiful Mind is the fascinating story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician who develops schizophrenia as a young graduate student and his struggle to deal with the disease. What was most amazing about this film was its perspective, as it was the first film that I can remember that looked at mental illness from the inside.
Directed by Ron Howard this fascinating biography reveals the extent of mental illness as we learn that several of Nash's friends and associates are actually figments of his schizophrenic imagination. For the first time, I could truly empathize with schizophrenic people that we have all encountered talking to themselves or imaginary people. We are shown first hand just how real those 'imaginary people' are in the mind of person suffering this debilitating mental illness.
Through the assistance of his wife, Alica Nash (Jennifer Connelly), Nash is able to control his disease and lead a relatively normal life. It is a powerful film and one of the legendary biographies about mental illness.
A Beautiful Mind was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four of them, including the well deserved Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress Oscars.
If you liked A Beautiful Mind... - You may also like The Soloist
3. Gandhi (1982)
A Fascinating Man, Story and Film
Probably Ben Kingsley's greatest film, Gandhi is an epic biography about an English attorney of Indian descent who started a non-violent protest campaign against Indian racism in South Africa after being thrown off a train for riding in first class. After the success of that campaign he is returns to Indian as a hero and takes up the non-violent campaign to gain Indian's independence from British rule.
What a fascinating story and beautifully acted film, but what really set the movie apart was the educational quality inherit in the film. I did not know the true Gandhi story before seeing this biographical film and it is education that we could all use.
Kingsley is absolutely brilliant in this role and won the Best Actor Oscar for this role and Director Richard Attenborough was superb at creating the tone and mood of the film. Kingsley was not the only great cast member in this biography; also included were Candice Bergen, John Gielgud, Martin Sheen and Daniel Day-Lewis. This amazing film won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
2. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
The Biography of a Cunning Con Artist
Catch Me If You Can is an incredible biopic about Frank Abagnale, Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio) who conned his way through an astonishing number of careers (and paychecks) including, airline pilot, doctor, legal prosecutor and history professor. Frank Jr is particularly tormented by his parent's divorce and his mother's affair with another man. In the film, this pinnacle moment profoundly affects young Frank and leads him to create fake personas in order to lead the life he would like to lead. His charming personality allows him to get away with these impersonations.
Abagnale is tracked by FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who develops a healthy respect for Abagnale and his cunning ability to elude capture. DiCaprio, Hanks and Christopher Walken, as Frank Sr, are all excellent in this biopic. It is a paradoxical film, for while he is a criminal we develop a fondness for Abagnale and root for him to escape capture. The hotel room scene when Abagnale actually cons Hanratty is cinematic genius.
The movie should stand the test of time as one of the best biographies of all time.
1. The Aviator (2004)
An Engrossing Biopic about the reclusive Howard Hughes
The Aviator is a biopic film about Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), the legendary director and aviation industry magnate. The movie follows Hughes early years during the 1930s and 1940s and the beginnings of his germ phobias, stemming from his mother's obsessions with cleaning during early polio epidemic.
This biography is a fascinating look into the early years of Hughes life. Hughes led an amazing life from building his father's tool company into the international corporation, Hughes Aircraft Co, which ultimately made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Along the way he became a maverick film producer and produced several movies, including Scarface and Hells Angels. He was a pilot and foresaw the future of air travel. He acquired and expanded Trans World Airlines, one of the leading early players in air travel.
DiCaprio and the film were both nominated for Oscars.
The Aviator is one of 4 films in which DiCaprio and Director Martin Scorsese have teamed together and this film won 5 Oscars (nominated for 11), including Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett). Scorsese and DiCaprio combined brilliantly to build robust characters. Leonardo portrays a highly complex Hughes from relationships with several Hollywood starlets to his obsessive personality regarding both germs and perfection. You feel compassion for the character while also being repulsed by his crazy behavior. It is an engrossing story that provides a glimpse into early Hollywood and Hughes' life.
If you liked The Aviator... - You might also like There Will be Blood
A Chance to Vote for the Best Biography Movie
Do you love Biopics ? - Are biographies one of your favorite genres?
Rankography (author) on September 18, 2014:
Thanks for the comment.
saifhayel on September 18, 2014:
Amazing list of movies, i watched all of them, although the aviator is one of my favorite movies, i think a beautiful mind should be no.1
Niktravelfit on June 23, 2014:
Another great lens from you, thanks for sharing.
movieshornet on November 22, 2013:
Can I suggest Into The Wild?
Best adventure/drama/ biography movie to me
Joebeducci on October 29, 2013:
What an awesome list op movies! I saw almost all and I loved them! Into the Wild is my favorite of all time I think, what a beautiful movie, so underrated.
anonymous on August 20, 2013:
i 100% disagree with your comment on 'scent of a woman'. although denzel washington gave a terrific performance, al pacino's potrayal of frank slade was so heart-wrenching and incredible. it was a tough call and both of them deserved it equally. bottom-line is it wazn't the worst oscar decision ever made as you're saying. could have gone either ways. denzel anyway won 1 for training day.
anonymous on April 20, 2013:
Now this is a tough group to rank, I would be going back and forth and all are excellent choices and I have loved all except I haven't seen The Social Network...yet. You always do such excellent reviews and you did it again here! :)
FamilyBeachVaca on January 21, 2013:
Denzel Washington so embodied Malcolm X that I am never able to watch the assassination
veronicatarantino on November 15, 2012:
I've seen them all except for Raging Bull..I have to see it then
raelcalu on July 14, 2012:
Loved the movie A Beautiful Mind, sad thing Russell Crowe didn't win for that role, he is far more better than Denzel...Capote is also great...I didn't know that American Gangster is a biopic...La Vie En Rose is also a good one, Marion Cotillard is a winner.
Thanks for this share, great lens.
anonymous on May 13, 2012:
Never knew that Schindler's List was a biopic! Stupid me! :))
Somehow I seem to have missed the Aviator! The rest is history! :))
Tugee on March 18, 2012:
A little surprised to see Gandhi on this list, but it is a good one.
PamelaU on March 10, 2012:
Interesting lens. The recent Genghis Khan biopic, Mongol, is also a fave of mine.
sarahrk lm on January 24, 2012:
I loved Social Network.
Inkhand on January 01, 2012:
My favorite biopic is A Beautiful Mind. An interesting lens.