THE LISTS: Top 10 biopics

Posted by · 4:20 pm · November 11th, 2008

It’s no real secret that the Academy is partial to the biopic. Big or small, intimate or epic, celebratory or critical, they never seem to tire of the allure of actors channelling real-life figures, past and present. Lately, in the performance categories in particular, biopics have been the surest route to voters’ hearts, with seven of the last nine Best Actress winners falling under the category, and Daniel Day-Lewis having just broken a three-year run of biopic winners in Best Actor.

The genre is no less prominent this year, with titles like “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Che” and “W.” all garnering varying degrees of awards buzz, for their star turns in particular. Meanwhile, from the arthouse, European titles like “Hunger” and “Il Divo” are significantly challenging the formal boundaries of the biopic, proving that the genre has far more adventurous terrain to cover than the solid, occasionally stodgy awards catnip the Academy frequently chooses to laud.

Back in August, I wrote a post about how I was wearying of Oscar’s devotion to the genre; in turn, after my unenthusiastic “Frost/Nixon” review, a friend said to me, “Well, you do hate biopics.” I really don’t. But I am a little bored of the more linear, prosaic examples of the genre that reduce the narrative to CliffsNotes highlights in order to showcase a performance. (Step forward, “Ray” and friends.)

Real life offers an infinite number of structural and cinematic possibilities, and it is the films that best take advantage of this fact that this week’s list is designed to celebrate. The ten films here take a wide range of approaches in portraying an equally diverse array of lives, but for me, they all pass the principal test of the great biopic: defamiliarizing the familiar. By creating living, breathing characters out of figures best known from history books and pop culture annals, they make real life as revelatory and surprising as fiction.

It’s interesting to note how few of the films I’ve chosen qualify as the Oscar-bait that biopics are widely perceived to be — we have four Best Picture nominees here, and only one winner. It was by no means a deliberate or elitist move on my part, but the fact remains that a lot of the most interesting and audacious work within the genre doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

The biopic is clearly maturing — as I was drawing up the shortlist for this piece, I was surprised by how recent many of my inclusions were, but it’s clear that filmmakers are getting more adventurous with time. For example, in the 1950s, a film like “La Vie en Rose” would have been made as a stolid music weeper in the “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” mold — today it comes in a considerably more fractured form, structurally and stylistically. It’s just one of several recent films, from “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” to “Marie-Antoinette,” to show that the biopic need never be safe cinematic territory. The following ten films prove that.

10. “American Splendor” (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, 2003)
An ingeniously intertextual account of the life and work of comic book author Harvey Pekar, “American Splendor” goes against the grain of nearly every other biopic of a creative being by revelling in its subject’s ordinariness. Riffing off Pekar’s own autobiographical comics, Pulcini and Berman brought their keen documentarist’s eye to Pekar’s unremarkable world of beige offices and supermarket checkouts, making as much dramatically of the absences in his life as his achievements. Anchored by a quicksilver performance from Paul Giamatti, this achieves the rare biopic feat of matching its subject’s individualism.

9. “Lenny” (Bob Fosse, 1974)
Unjustly neglected these days, Fosse’s devastating portrait of infamous standup comedian Lenny Bruce remains one of the most honest and disconcerting screen accounts of a performer’s insecurities. Bounding back and forth across Bruce’s career as he challenges laws of obscenity and loses himself to addiction in the process, the film achieves the difficult task of capturing what obviously made Bruce such a compelling public presence, but it succeeds most as a sad, doomed love story between Bruce and his stripper wife Honey. Dustin Hoffman was never more fiercely energized on screen.

8. “Sid and Nancy” (Alex Cox, 1986)
As rattling, abrasive and occasionally unpleasant as the music of the Sex Pistols, this rough-hewed study of the ultimate destructive rock’n’roll relationship — that between the Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his American groupie-turned-manager Nancy Spungen — marries merciless documentary-style filmmaking with the blackest streaks of humor imaginable. Beginning with Vicious’ police interrogation after stabbing Spungen to death, the film goes on to trace every abusive interchange that led him there, with extraordinary performances from Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb’s performances is extraordinary, fuelled by the repulsive magnetism of punk itself.

7. “Before Night Falls” (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
Seemingly intent on being the king of the impressionistic biopic, Julian Schnabel failed to move me with his glossy, self-regarding debut “Basquiat,” despite his personal affinity with the milieu at hand. Here, in shifting his focus from painting to poetry, Schnabel made a far more convincing statement about art’s capacity for individual and social change. As persecuted gay Cuban novelist-poet Reinaldo Arenas, it was Javier Bardem who garnered the most acclaim for the film, but what really sticks with me is the dream-like quality of Schnabel’s imagery, which serves Arena’s prose more vividly than the clickety typewriter sounds cluttering any number of other writer biopics.

6. “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (Werner Herzog, 1972)
One of the greatest studies of a historical figure ever made, and quite possibly the most insane. In taking on the story of Lope de Aguirre, the increasingly crazed Spanish conquistador leading a band of men in search of the fabled city of El Dorado, Herzog has admitted that the narrative was largely imagined, but that is of little consequence — as interpreted by Herzog and the great Klaus Kinski, this is an epic and exhaustive character study, filling in the human nuances and imperfections that history books cannot provide. Would that more biopics were this relentlessly cinematic, and this open to interpretation.

5. “Lawrence of Arabia” (David Lean, 1962)
An obvious selection, yes, but some films become standards for a reason. Few films can match Lean’s sweeping, complex valentine to T.E. Lawrence for sheer visual and aural majesty, but it remains first and foremost a performance showcase. Actors today tend to attract praise for fully immersing themselves in a true-life figure, but O’Toole interpreted Lawrence by way of his own onscreen personality, creating a figure as imposing and expansive as the myth surrounding him. Historians have taken issue with the accuracy of the portrayal, but this remains cinema’s most invigorating fusion of biopic and star vehicle.

4. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (Carl Dreyer, 1927)
I hesitated over whether or not to call this a biopic, given the constraints of its timeframe (it focuses solely on the last days of its subject’s life) and the near-allegorical nature of its characterisation, but the fact remains that when I think of Joan of Arc, it is actress Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s face, shorn of hair and infinite in expression, that I think of first. It is rare that a film has such a dominant hold on the popular conception of an iconic figure; the probing intimacy of Dreyer’s camera succeeds in making a saint disarmingly human, crafting indelible, wordless history.

3. “Bonnie and Clyde” (Arthur Penn, 1967)
The greatest biopics tell the story not only of the figures at their centre, but of the world around them. So it is here, as Penn’s startlingly angry, breathlessly romantic portrait of the iconic pair of bank robbers who terrorised the Midwest in 1930s reveals much about the social and moral failings of Depression-era America — and indeed, of the film’s own audience, as Parker and Barrow’s misguided rebellion tapped into a current of youth-driven change in 1967. We all know what’s coming, yet the outcome remains as tensely, stunningly executed as the finest turns of fiction storytelling.

2. “I’m Not There” (Todd Haynes, 2007)
Haynes had already gleefully circumvented the rules of the musical biopic with his Barbie-starring “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” but still we weren’t prepared for the structural coup he pulls here: a study of the life and times of Bob Dylan, in which Dylan himself is absent. Replacing Dylan with a series of semi-fictionalised alter egos — varying wildly in age, race and, arguably, gender — proves the most fitting way to accommodate the multiple creative phases and personae of its subject. Instead of one fascinating inhabitation, we get a gallery of them, with Cate Blanchett’s eerie, electrified “Jude” its crowning glory.

1. “Raging Bull” (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
It had to be. For raw, discomfiting intimacy, no biopic for me has yet matched Scorsese’s searing, immaculately crafted portrait of Jake La Motta, a figure so defiantly, fascinatingly unlikeable it’s a wonder the film got made at all — and more of a wonder still that the resulting work was so humanistic and non-judgmental. Reams have been written about the physical and psychological extremities of Robert De Niro’s performance — but the most perfect description I remember once reading stated that “his very breathing has the weight of dramatic incident.” In a genre plagued by fussy mannerisms and mimicking, that is the most one can ask for.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think are the greatest biopics of all time? Have your say below.

→ 38 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Featured · The Lists

38 responses so far

  • 1 11-11-2008 at 4:48 pm

    Zan said...

    Good list, I would probably put Passion at 2 instead of 4, just because it revolutionized the close-up. It was the first (I think) tour-de-force performance, soundlessly capturing Joan’s hopeless situation. I loved Dreyer’s angles as he shows all his authority figures at upward angles, indicating superiority and demonstrative condescension.

    I do agree with Bull at 1, simply because it’s lead performance is one of the best ever. Schoonmaker’s editing, especially the in-ring splicing with real life events, was masterful.

    Again, kudos on the list and on the inclusion of Before Night Falls. No Andrei Rublev? :)

  • 2 11-11-2008 at 4:52 pm

    John Foote said...

    Kind of shcoked that ‘Malcolm X”, “Nixon”, “Patton”, “A Cry in the Dark” and “W” did not make your list, but hey it is your list right? “James Dean” with James Franco was also very good, and full agreement that ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was brilliant — for the record I agree heartily with your number one choice — happy to see none of Richard (he who murders bio pics) Attenborough’s films are here — great bio waiting to happen? Ed Harris as legendary director-producer Cecil B. Demille.

  • 3 11-11-2008 at 4:53 pm

    John Foote said...

    And “Downfall” deserves a mention…Ganz was hypnotic.

  • 4 11-11-2008 at 5:00 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Andrei Rublev SO nearly made the cut, Zan — but it’s been an awfully long time since I saw it. Need to rectify that.

    And don’t read too much into the rank order — with great films like that, it can get a bit random! Only my #1 is really certain.

  • 5 11-11-2008 at 5:02 pm

    Agent69 said...

    IMO, Ed Wood is by far the best biopic EVER.

  • 6 11-11-2008 at 5:03 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    John: Yeah, it’s all so personal, isn’t it? I can see the virtues of several of the films you mention, but am not really moved by them. I did really like “A Cry in the Dark,” though.

    And “W.” wouldn’t come within a mile of my list, interesting as it is.

  • 7 11-11-2008 at 5:11 pm

    McGuff said...

    Keeping in mind that these things are personal, I was rather horrified to find “I’m Not There” so high on the list. Last year, it was one of my most anticipated pictures, and when I finally saw it, I walked away with absolute disappointment. Even while depicting some of the flaws or low points of Dylan’s life, the movie still seemed to be too much of a fanboy production. It was too clear that Haynes regarded Dylan as an idol, and I thought it really had an effect on the bottom line.

    Glad you found room for American Splendor. I caught it last year — one of those random 3 a.m. HBO movies that you watch out of insomnia — and really was impressed.

  • 8 11-11-2008 at 5:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Each to their own, McGuff — I thought “I’m Not There” was one of the most ingeniously conceived biographies I’ve ever seen.

    Before I get into further trouble, I should explain that the ruling criteria of the list was which films work most effectively and innovatively as biopics, not necessarily which are the best films. For example, I don’t necessarily think that “I’m Not There” is a better film than “Lawrence of Arabia,” but I think it might be a better biopic.

    I’m not sure if that made any sense. I’ll shut up now :)

  • 9 11-11-2008 at 5:39 pm

    Casey said...

    im not there at 2?

  • 10 11-11-2008 at 5:40 pm

    Daniel said...

    Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters would be my favorite.. though this is a pretty solid list.

  • 11 11-11-2008 at 5:48 pm

    Chris said...


  • 12 11-11-2008 at 5:59 pm

    Andrew L. said...

    In full agreement with I’m Not There being dubiously placed at #2. I’m still confused over the hoopla; an applause for concept and effort, but my god, what self-indulgent drudgery.

    Blanchett’s performance gets old after about 10 minutes (especially the party scene. that lingered on like a bad hangover).

    Bale and Franklin were the standouts, but even then, the movie just seemed like a bunch of vignettes cryptically tied together with Dylan sound clips.

  • 13 11-11-2008 at 6:10 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I would have included The Life of Emile Zola. A personal fave.

  • 14 11-11-2008 at 6:27 pm

    Chad said...

    Bonnie and Clyde is less a biopic and more a movie about a true story so I’m leaving it off.

    10. The Life of Emile Zola
    9. The Kid Stays in the Picture
    8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
    7. A Man for All Seasons
    6. Time Indefinite
    5. Raging Bull
    4. Ed Wood
    3. Lawrence of Arabia
    2. The Elephant Man
    1. The Passion of Joan of Arc

  • 15 11-11-2008 at 6:29 pm

    Mantas said...

    I agree with Andrei Rublev deserving a spot on here and of course the great Colour Of Pomegranates which I think is the best example of a biopic focusing less on the facts and trying more to capture the spirit of the subject at hand.

    Still this is a very good list and I understand what you mean by I’m Not There not being a better film but being a better biopic.

  • 16 11-11-2008 at 6:48 pm

    Joshua said...

    Glad to see Raging Bull at number one. Would have loved to see Malcom X and Good Night and Good Luck up there.

  • 17 11-11-2008 at 6:59 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’ll just come out and admit it: “Malcolm X” did nothing for me. One of Spike Lee’s least distinctive works, in my opinion, though of course he’s made far worse films.

  • 18 11-11-2008 at 7:20 pm

    McGuff said...

    Interesting to me that “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” which had such supporters in their respective years, haven’t drawn a mention in this thread. John stated some well-voiced problems with “Walk the Line” in a different thread of late, but I rather liked the movie, and absolutely loved Reese Witherspoon in it. I didn’t care for “Ray” as much.

    And when “Man on the Moon” came out, my hopes were that it would be worthy of mention on a list like this. While I liked the movie, it’s clearly not in this realm.

    Guy — Understand the criteria completely, and I think that helps further explain the I’m Not There ranking. A friend of mine that loved the movie said it seemed to him more a poem than a story, which was a notion I kind of enjoyed.

  • 19 11-11-2008 at 8:01 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Not bad choices but a few I’d definitely have at least considered:

    Citizen Kane (even if its only sort of one)
    Yankee Doodle Dandy
    Lust for Life
    The Lion in Winter
    Anne of the Thousand Days
    The Great White Hope
    Coal Miner’s Daughter
    Born on the Fourth of July

  • 20 11-11-2008 at 8:53 pm

    N8 said...

    I know you can’t stand “Gandhi”, Guy, but I’m going to be heralding this movie ’til the day I die!

  • 21 11-11-2008 at 9:43 pm

    Zac said...

    It’s Renee Marie Falconetti, by the way. :)

    I agree with your #1 choice. Did you limit yourself to one per director, because I wonder if Goodfellas could’ve qualified.

    I’m not sure what my Top 10 would be. I’ll have to look over my DVD collection to see.

  • 22 11-11-2008 at 9:53 pm

    Scott Feinberg said...

    I agree with Kris–the scene with Joseph Schildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus being freed is one of the most powerful in any film.

  • 23 11-11-2008 at 10:14 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “The Aviator” is a must.

    And “Amadeus.”

    And “8½” if that counts?

  • 24 11-12-2008 at 1:46 am

    The InSneider said...

    Haven’t heard anyone mention The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Pretty great biopic right there.

  • 25 11-12-2008 at 2:12 am

    Glenn said...

    Some biopics that people haven’t mentioned that I am incredibly fond of:

    “The People Vs Larry Flynt” – It’s a shame Courtney Love decided to go back to being a drug hound because her performance here is one of my all time favourite examples of acting. The film is a marvel, too.

    “The Elephant Man” – a film such as David Lynch’s biopic could have easily been a sentimental dirge, but it earns the tears that inevitably fall (and fall they do!) Same goes for Lynch’s “The Straight Story”.

    “Silkwood” – one of my favourite films from the ’80s and Streep is stunning (and to not mention Cher is a crime)

  • 26 11-12-2008 at 2:41 am

    Eunice said...

    I agree with Glenn. ‘Silkwood’ is a fine biopic, and a great film in itself, independent of any knowledge about the story, and after I saw it, I was also suprised with Cher’s acting prowess. I’d also have included ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Man on the Moon’, but I completely agree with the high rankings for ‘I’m Not There’ (the concept is novel and it’d be interesting to play with it for other biopics) and ‘Raging Bull’.

    I’d nominate ‘Out of Africa’, especially because of the weight Streep had to carry during the film and the way she dissolves completely into Karen Blixen, but I don’t think long scenes with little else but wildlife and the landscape interest a lot of people. Oh, and ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ too, if only for emotional impact.

  • 27 11-12-2008 at 4:55 am

    John Foote said...

    “Amadeus” is less a bio than a “what if” movie — based on Peter Shaffer’s play, the film explores what might have happened had these two men encountered one another — there is nothing historically that states Salieri tried to work Mozart to death — I liked the biographical facts within the film, the personality traits, but this cannot be considered a biography…can it?

    And “Gandhi” might just be the most over rated film to ever win the Oscars for best picture…one year after it was released it looked old fashioned and stodgy, wile “E.T.” and “Tootsie” today looked every bit as good as they did back then — man talk about robbery…

  • 28 11-12-2008 at 5:42 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, I wouldn’t call “Amadeus” a biopic either. Terrific film, though.

  • 29 11-12-2008 at 8:30 am

    Ronn said...

    There are many but just to name a few of my favorites that I would have to list would include…

    Ed Wood
    The Doors
    A Beautiful Mind
    The Aviator
    The Assassination of Jesse James
    Raging Bull

  • 30 11-12-2008 at 10:39 am

    Bing147 said...

    Amadeus may not really be based on many facts, but then, neither is Aguirre.

  • 31 11-12-2008 at 10:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    True, and I agree that Aguirre’s biopic status is on the tenuous side, but hell — I really wanted an excuse to include it. I still think Aguirre tries to find a truth to its character amid the fiction, why Amadeus’ narrative is strictly hypothetical.

  • 32 11-12-2008 at 10:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    * WHILE Amadeus’ narrative is strictly hypothetical.

    Why does my typing always go to pot in the comments section?

  • 33 11-12-2008 at 1:15 pm

    Casey said...

    you dont think Amadeus tried to explore it’s leads’ souls? i think foreman created an excellent character study with or without accurate plotlines

  • 34 11-12-2008 at 1:52 pm

    emad said...

    if jesse james counts as a biopic, i would place it on top of my list, despite being a diehard scorsese fan.
    “walk the line” anyone?great film, great performances(phoenix was robbed that year) and about a great artist.

  • 35 11-12-2008 at 2:24 pm

    Mike said...

    Im Not There gets an A for effort and style but overall I was not impressed with it and did not see why it had so much praise…

  • 36 11-12-2008 at 2:37 pm

    Mantas said...

    I think Amadeus purposefuly takes its characters and applies some modern stereotypes on them like making Mozart basically a 18th century rock star. It is not the films intention at all to explore to be a biography or an exploration of its characters intsead it creates a work of fictions using real life historical people and events.

    At least thats my take on it.

  • 37 11-13-2008 at 4:14 pm

    Chad said...

    Ray and Walk the Line are the worst of Hollywood.

  • 38 11-13-2008 at 4:54 pm

    Patrick F. said...

    Good list. I’d be tempted to add Badass! and 24 Hour Party People to the list.