Biopic can sometimes feel like a bad word. It can often mean that the film it describes is dry and perfunctory. Biopics are among the most standardized of genres, telling a conventional story of a person’s life. Sometimes, though, biopics can be extraordinary. They can use the characteristics of a single person to say something about a moment in time.
Good biopics can be many things. Sometimes, they deviate from the standard formula, and choose to hone in on only a few moments in a person’s life. Other times, they can be interested in what the story of a single person says about the history that surrounds them, and about the world we live in today. The best biopics often do both, and use sharp dialogue and convincing performances to tell a person’s story, without reciting their biography. With all that in mind, here are the 15 Best Biopics of the Decade.
15 American Sniper
The tragic story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history, is one that made extraordinary amounts of money at the box office almost immediately. American Sniper sweeps viewers up in its story of a soldier’s struggle, and reminds us of what happens to those who choose to serve their country. While there are several outstanding and intense scenes depicting Kyle’s accomplishments in battle, the most harrowing scenes come from his more intimate moments.
Kyle is forever changed by his experiences in combat, and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is a careful look at his struggle to leave the battlefield mentally once he has physically come home. It’s these moments that make the experience of being a soldier so intensely personal. Few movies are interested in the experiences a soldier faces after the war is over, but Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle creates a powerful portrait of a man who suffers everywhere he goes.
Jackie Robinson was a trailblazer, and his trail was a narrow one. 42 tells the story of the first African-American Major League Baseball player, and the strength it took to break that barrier. Brian Helgeland's film has no qualms about depicting the scene that surrounded Robinson. He was openly stigmatized by all sides, and was forced to play when many didn’t want him to. What’s also true is that Robinson had to choose whether to lash out or remain restrained, and let his talents speak for themselves.
Robinson took the latter option. He decided not to roll around in the mud that surrounded him on all sides. He proved that he could be better than those who opposed him, and he did it by proving himself. He had to work twice as hard, and his efforts meant half as much to the bigots that surrounded him. Still, Robinson became an admirable figure precisely because he didn’t let that stop him. Robinson persisted, and that’s why we know his name today.
13 Steve Jobs
Aaron Sorkin turned the normal biopic formula on its head. Instead of taking us through every moment in the life of Apple founder Steve Jobs, we get three key moments, and they are framed in parallel. Each moment takes place backstage before a critical product launch for Apple, and each one gives us insight into the enigmatic leader of the company. Ultimately, the movie’s take on Steve Jobs is that his brilliance is often mitigated by arrogance, but also that he’s a sensitive and caring man.
The structuring of Steve Jobs makes it feel like a stage play, and the ruthless and constant dialogue gives you a sense of how fractured and haphazard the world Jobs inhabited must have been. Jobs has often been a hard man to capture, although several films have tried. Steve Jobs does it best in part because the film acknowledges that there’s something unknowable about him. Jobs is an enigma, but Steve Jobs does its best to study him anyway.
12 The Imitation Game
Alan Turing had such a full life, it’s shocking that no one made a movie about him before 2014. The man invented the first computers, helped put an end to World War II, and was eventually sentenced to chemical castration because he was gay. Any one of these things would be more than enough to tell a compelling narrative, and the fact that they stack on top of one another only makes the film better.
Benedict Cumberbatch is remarkable in the lead role, bringing conflicted life to a character who wasn’t defined by his genius or his sexuality. Turing is a sweet man, and he’s also brilliant. The decision at the crux of Morten Tyldum's film, one which is ultimately about looking for the greater good through a mathematical lens, is given life by Cumberbatch's subtle expressions. Turing lived a long and tortured life, and The Imitation Game honors every part of his legacy.
11 Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Compton tells a story rooted in experiences. The history of N.W.A.’s formation is one of unrest and unease, and the movie positions it as a clear response to the war on drugs and police discrimination, two particularly timely themes in 2015, when the film was released. Of course, the story is plenty compelling on its own, as we learn about the dynamic between the members of the group, and about what ultimately drove them apart.
F. Gary Gray's film features a strong ensemble cast, including O'Shea Jackson Jr., who portrays his real-life father, Ice Cube. Paul Giamatti appears as a music producer on two separate entries on this list, and this is one of them. Here, his meddling tears N.W.A. apart, and gives us the sense of what life becomes for the group after they’ve disbanded. The film’s look at the struggles the group continues to face well into their success gives audiences a sense of the difficulties of fame, and the way these difficulties are complicated by issues of race.
10 The Fighter
David O. Russell’s first rebound film, The Fighter ostensibly tells the story of boxer Micky Ward, but it’s really the story of a family. The film follows Micky through his personal and professional life as a low-level boxer. For much of the film, the focus is truly on Christian Bale’s Dicky, a crack addict and former boxer who tends to suck up most of the attention available from their family.
In someone else’s hands, The Fighter could have become a pretty standard boxing movie, another film focused on an underdog who wins his big match. In Russell’s hands, the film becomes much more. Suddenly, it’s about an unloved son who never got a chance to be the star. It’s an intimate look at a working family that is bizarre and hilarious as it is sweet. Every member of the cast is perfection, and they combine to create a film that is sweet, silly, and uplifting. Micky would be proud.
Based on an autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi, who also directs the film, Persepolis tells the story of a young girl who comes of age against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The only animated entry on this list, Persepolis does something that only the best biopics can; it tells an intimate, personal story while giving audiences an accurate sense of the world that surrounds that story.
Because the work is autobiographical, Persepolis is filled with the kind of rich detail that can be hard to produce out of thin air. Every moment of the film feels real and lived in, and the experiences of its characters are unique and honest. Persepolis creates a world that is wholly unfamiliar to most viewers, and invites us to understand it on a deep and meaningful level. Pair that with a touching story, and Persepolis becomes endlessly watchable. Animated true stories are a rare beast, but when they come along, they’re almost always surprising and delightful.
8 The King's Speech
Considering its subject matter, it may be surprising that The King’s Speech is largely defined by its sweetness. This is the kind of film that makes you feel warm as you watch it. There are no climactic battles, and the conflict is intimate and deeply personal. The film focuses on King George VI, the man who ascended to the English throne just as World War II was breaking out. Unfortunately for this monarch, he has a speech impediment that keeps him from communicating effectively.
The film tracks his progress after he hires an unconventional speech therapist to help him deal with the problem. Buoyed by wonderful performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, Tom Hooper's film soars as it tells the story of a sweet, gentle man overcoming a debilitating problem that brings him constant shame. The climactic scene, in which King George is asked to give a simple address, is wonderfully fulfilling, as is the rest of movie.
7 Love and Mercy
Love & Mercy is another biopic that chooses to narrow its focus. We follow Brian Wilson, the genius behind all of The Beach Boys' best music, through both the '60s and '80s. In the '60s, he’s played by Paul Dano, and he’s just a kid whose beginning to discover his own mental illness. In the '80s, he’s played by John Cusack, and in the hands of Paul Giamatti’s sniveling music producer, who chooses to keep Wilson sick in order to maintain control over him.
Meditating on genius and mental illness, Love & Mercy is among the best biopics of this decade precisely because director Bill Pohlad is able to focus so keenly on what’s happening in Wilson’s head. Everything about Love & Mercy is perfectly pitched, and its ultimate message is one of sweetness and serenity. This is absolutely a film about the words in its title. It’s an enormous comfort, and a gorgeously executed biopic.
Foxcatcher is a tragedy, but it’s also a remarkably taut film. If you don’t know the story going in, the ending will undoubtedly shock you. What’s really remarkable about the film, though, is the tension that director Bennett Miller maintains throughout. From moment one, the story of wrestling brothers is full of loneliness and complex psychology. It's also the story of the strange millionaire who takes a keen interest in wrestling in spite of his own awkward body.
This film is really about the complex and completely unique relationships between each character. Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo all give remarkable performances, and each is asked to do something very different. Foxcatcher is a movie about isolation, and about the relationships we forge to stave off a feeling of crippling loneliness. It’s not a typical sports movie. There’s no uplift here, and there’s definitely no satisfaction. Foxcatcher is dark, weird, and introspective, and it’s all the better for it.
5 12 Years a Slave
Slavery is the biggest stain on American history, and it’s brought to startling life in 12 Years a Slave, the story of a man who is sold into it against his will. It’s among the most brutally honest films you’ll ever see. Filled with astonishing performances, and anchored especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, the film is careful to depict the horrors of humanity in full. Unlike most films about slavery, there are no saviors here.
Some of the slave owners are more benevolent than others, but all of them treat their slaves as property, and the movie makes it clear that that is always a sin. Michael Fassbender’s wholly malevolent Epps, a slave owner who is cruel to his slaves, is also romantically obsessed with one in particular-- the delicate Patsey. It is a fascinating and realistic depiction of what a horrifying slave owner might be like. Although Solomon eventually returns to his family, we understand that many did not gain freedom. Slavery is a crime Americans are still trying to pay off, and Steve 12 Years a Slave makes that abundantly clear.
Selma is a powerful movie. It’s about Martin Luther King Jr. and his historic march on Selma, but it’s also about the persistence of racial discrimination in America, and about the ways we are still reckoning with that problem today. The problem with biopics set in the past is that they can sometimes feel removed from the world around us. Selma uses familiar imagery to reveal the ways in which the past it presents is startlingly relevant to the present.
David Oyelowo gives a dazzling performance as MLK, a figure who is remembered as a legend, but is startlingly practical throughout Selma. The day-to-day operations of the civil rights movements required frequent sacrifices and even more frequent compromises. What’s most remarkable about Selma is Ava DuVernay's depiction of the quiet strength of the civil rights movement in the face of frequent violence. The strength of those who stood up to bigotry deserves a story of its own.
3 The Wolf of Wall Street
Jordan Belfort is despicable. That’s the basic premise of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that chooses to revel in one man’s debaucheries for almost three full hours. Martin Scorsese’s film is at turns hilarious and terrifying, and its reflections of our modern excesses and desires could not be more timely or poignant. In so many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie about this time in history, one in which the rich get to the top by ripping off those below them.
What’s brilliant about the film is the way Scorsese chooses to entrance you in its worldview. There are moments of genuine sympathy for Belfort in the film, and it’s easy to see how enticing his world is. It’s true, of course, that the film harshly condemns him in the end, but in its final moments, it also attacks us. It reveals the desires that drive all of us, and shows us what happens if we simply indulge them.
Politics is definitely a touchy subject right now, but pretty much everyone is in agreement that Abraham Lincoln did a pretty good job. Exactly what Lincoln did so well is on full display in Lincoln, a movie that does what many of the best biopics do, and chooses to narrow its focus. Steven Spielberg's film follows Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment.
What’s so remarkable about Lincoln is the intimate look at the man himself at its center. Daniel-Day Lewis’ portrayal is already legendary, and that reputation is well-deserved. As depicted here, Abraham Lincoln was a masterful politician capable of teaching warring sides how to work together. Lincoln abolished slavery through sheer force of will, but it’s a lesson many today could learn. Lincoln is remembered as a great president in part because of the things he accomplished and the values he maintained. Lincoln makes it perfectly clear the effort Abe put into doing all that.
1 The Social Network
The Social Network begins with a scene that has nothing to do with Facebook. It’s about a disconnect between two people. One of them would go on to found Facebook, and the other only has two or three more scenes in the entire film. In spite of this, the scene perfectly establishes the dynamic at the core of The Social Network. This is a film about a man who connected the world, but found himself completely isolated. He created an entire social experience, but he’s alone.
That dichotomy is at the core of David Fincher's film, and it’s a large part of what makes the film such an unequivocal masterpiece. The breakout performances from Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg make the film all the more emotionally resonant, and the story at its center is one of power and greed, but also one about what it means to really connect with someone else. The Social Network perfectly captures both this decade, and the figure at its center.
Do these movies make your list of best biopics from 2000-2016? Let us know in the comments.