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Ten of the Best: Biopics

Ten of the Best: Biopics

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X

2017 saw the release of some fascinating biographical cinema, including Rebel in the Rye, with Nicholas Hoult as author JD Salinger, and The Greatest Showman, featuring Hugh Jackman as circus impresario P T Barnum. Here, we list the top ten biopics of all time, based on both critical acclaim and popular opinion.

10. Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington Malcolm X 1992
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X

Director Spike Lee never saw anyone else for the starring role of Malcolm X than Denzel Washington, and he plays the part to perfection. The film spans the life of a man raised in violence and persecution, who drifts into a life of crime, before the relationships he builds in prison lead him to reinvent himself, becoming a Nation of Islam preacher and fierce critic of White America. Lee clearly strives for a multi-dimensional character, showing more than the angry and embittered firebrand; Washington delivers this, demonstrating his prodigious talent. Brilliantly scripted and with a strong supporting cast including Al Freeman Jr and the prolific Delroy Lindo, the film deals with the subject of black oppression, but the message is not angry or exclusionary. Despite criticism from Nation of Islam members for Lee’s portrayal of Malcolm X, the film garnered significant praise, being labelled ‘one of the great screen biographies’ by Roger Ebert and holding 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

9. Capote (2005)

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Capote
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote

The late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman took on one of his seminal roles, portraying the writer Truman Capote as he writes his best-known work, In Cold Blood. He won universal praise for his part; Capote’s own biographer wrote that Hoffman had “done more than portray Truman. For the length of the movie he has resurrected him.” This acting masterclass brings to life a remarkably unsympathetic character, who travels to rural Kansas to get the scoop on a quadruple murder, using charm, lies and manipulation to achieve his ends. Hoffman won a litany of awards for his part as Capote, including Academy Award for Best Actor. The film itself was subject to ‘universal acclaim’ according to Metacritic and is considered among the best of the biopics for good reason.

8. The Elephant man (1980)

Elephant Man (1980)
John Hurt as the Elephant Man

David Lynch’s dramatized biopic tells the tale of John Merrick, a man living with severe physical deformities in London in the late 1800s. A sympathetic look at the brutal mistreatment and exploitation of Merrick, played by John Hurt, the film follows him from freak show attraction to object of interest in high society, and back again. It is an absorbing and tragic depiction of life for those on the periphery of Victorian society. Anthony Hopkin’s kindly Dr Treves adds some much-needed kindness to a harsh narrative and balances the film’s message. Renowned for the quality of the prosthetics used to transform Hurt into Merrick, the film led to the introduction of the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won BAFTAs for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Production Design.

7. Downfall (2004)

Downfall Bunker Scene
The famous Bunker Scene in Downfall

The fact that Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in his final days has spawned a thousand YouTube parodies is a testament to the incredible power and venom he lends to the part of the raving dictator. The claustrophobic and intense setting for this film is Hitler’s bunker in the Reichstag, in the final days of the war as the Red Army closes in. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film closely follows a number of historical accounts and is a fascinating insight into Hitler’s final days. The film’s German dialogue means Ganz’s Hitler is arguably the most real and believable in cinema; many brilliant British actors have had their turns, but the frenzied and guttural German spewed by Ganz truly brings Hitler to life. Although not a winner of any major film awards, Downfall is rated at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a score that indicates ‘universal acclaim’ on Metacritic.

6. The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network

A truly landmark piece of biopic film-making, The Social Network takes as its centrepiece not the life of one individual, but the inception and rise of the social media phenomenon that is Facebook. Never taking one consistent point of view, the film follows a number of narratives, involving each of the key players in Facebook’s meteoric ascent to global giant. A great script and fast-paced dialogue highlight the powerful intellects of the key players. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, with support from Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. Their real-life counterparts have been careful to state that the film is highly dramatized, distancing themselves from some of the more sensational aspects. Nonetheless, The Social Network was a rousing success, winning four Golden Globes and becoming only the third film in history to sweep the “Big Four” critics’ awards.


5. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind Russel Crowe

Ron Howard’s telling of the life of John Nash, provides a fascinating and disturbing insight into the terror and confusion of the schizophrenia sufferer. Nash, played by Russell Crowe, is a brilliant mathematician with a promising career when his life begins to unravel and is subsumed by paranoia and hallucination. Crowe’s portrayal moves from quiet and ponderous to frenetic and agitated, as he captures the double-edged sword that was a mind like Nash’s. Camerawork that places you in the role of Nash provides a snapshot of his powerful intellect, while plot twists involving feature characters help underline the intensity of his delusional illness. Despite some criticisms about inaccuracies in the account of Nash’s life, A Beautiful Mind won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and has been widely praised for its insight into mental illness.

4. Schindler’s list (1993)

Schindlers List

The epic story of Oskar Schindler, a German business owner who saved more than a thousand Jews from the holocaust, as told by Steven Spielberg. The horrors of the holocaust are laid bare, in black-and-white, as we watch Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, transform from charismatic and ambitious industrialist to repentant humanist, increasingly focused on saving the lives of others, spending his amassed riches to do so.

Ralph Fiennes’ turn as the brutal and pitiless death camp commandant Goeth is chilling, perhaps most because of its historical accuracy. Flashes of colour are used symbolically in certain scenes, which Spielberg later stated were a comment on the failure of the allies to intervene in the holocaust, despite their knowledge of it. Schindler’s List was widely acclaimed and won no less than six Academy Awards, it’s 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes puts it in rarefied air.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Raging Bull
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

Scorsese’s biopic of the great Jake ‘The Snake’ Lamotta charts the rise of the boxing legend, from the streets of the Bronx to middleweight champion of the world. Raging Bull’s gritty and intense cinematography matches Lamotta’s fighting style; he fought hard and lived hard- it is the human drama of his life as much as the fantastic writing and directing, that makes Scorsese’s masterpiece so compelling.

Shot in black-and-white, the stripped-back quality of much of the setting focusses the attention on star turns from De Niro and Pesci, producing some truly captivating and intense cinema. Despite Scorsese admitting to not being a boxing fan, the fight scenes were carefully choreographed with help from Lamotta himself and are impressively close in their representations of his great ring wars. Raging Bull features in dozens of credible ‘best film’ lists; Roger Ebert lists it among his ten greatest films of all time. It won Academy Awards for Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Editing while being nominated for six others.

 2.  Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus 1984

Amadeus consistently features among the greatest biopics of all time; indeed, it tops the list on IMDB. A highly sensationalised telling of Mozart’s rivalry with lesser-known composer Antonio Salieri, Amadeus was directed by Czech-born Milos Foreman, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fame. The film is told from the perspective of the aged Salieri, who recounts his jealousy of the young upstart Mozart and his relentless campaign to see him laid low. Foreman conveys a passion and reverence for the genius of Mozart which is reflected brilliantly through the prodigious talents of the stars, Tom Hulce and F Murray Abraham.  Terms like ‘lavish’ and ‘stunning’ are often used with reference to Amadeus, and rightly so, there is seemingly no expense spared with costume or scenery and the film captures the opulence of Classical European royal court. Amadeus earned a raft of awards, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.


  1. Goodfellas (1990)


Topping off our list is the ‘movie of the century’ according to Esquire. Goodfellas charts the rise and fall of Henry Hill, one of the most renowned mafiosos turned government witness and is another all-time great by Martin Scorsese. Starring and narrated by Ray Liotta with a powerful supporting cast including De Niro and Pesci, there is a vitality and energy about Goodfellas that makes it utterly compelling. Brilliantly scripted and including the use of innovative tracking shots (including perhaps the most famous in cinema history), the vibrant visuals convey the seductive appeal of life in the mob, while the uncompromising violence is a stark reminder of the risks. Goodfellas won an Academy Award and a host of BAFTAs, before being selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress as “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”.