The Top Ten Biopics

With Amelia, Coco Before Chanel and Bright Star surfacing this year after we've just put away I'm Not There and Public Enemies, the Movie Mistress has decided to make a tribute to Biographical Pictures, or, as we in the era of shortening everything like to call them, biopics. Because there's nothing more exciting than watching an actor reinterpret someone else's life to make them more human. I apologize that I didn’t really include any earlier biopics, like The Three Faces of Eve (one of my favorites) or Amadeus, but there are so fucking many that the ones I picked are just my favorites, even though I might have more favorites not on the list (and I mean A LOT more). So before you turn to HBO and watch Claire Danes as Temple Grandin, think back to these ten in no particular order:

1. La Vie En Rose (2007)

One of my favorites. I have never seen an actor capture someone's life in a biopic better than Marion Cottiard did with Edith Piaf. It astounded me when I found out that all of her singing was dubbed by recordings of Piaf herself! She embodies the character so well that you can't tell she's faking. That is talent. I also love the jumping around, even though it took me about three times of watching to figure out what parts of her life go where. But isn't that how we remember things anyway? I'd think that if I was dying, I would not remember my entire life in order, and I would save the worst memories for last. 

2. Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story (2001)

Okay, so I know this was an ABC made-for-TV movie, but if you've ever seen it, the little six year old that plays Shirley Temple is so close to the actual actress it's creepy. Shirley Temple Black had to make the final approval of who would play herself in the movie, and it definitely paid off. This movie is super realistic for a movie musical, highlighting both the fact that Black never really made a comeback and also the loneliness that came along with being a child star. I honestly have seen this movie a bunch of times and it never gets old. Seriously.

3. Mommie Dearest (1981)

This movie may have been called campy, overdone, and ridiculous, but it holds a pretty special place in my heart in terms of biopics. I am in awe of the child actor who played Joan Crawford's daughter. That kind of acting in a film has got to cause some psychological problems later on, however small. Watching her take being screamed at in the bathroom was almost as bad as Mo'Nique shoving her granddaughter off of her lap in Precious. I am a pretty big John Waters fan, and in my book, this one is one of his best. It paints a realistic picture of abuse before Child Services, and demonstrates the way that parental control pretty much stays with you for your entire life whether you want it to leave or not. 

4. Walk the Line (2005)

I didn't know anything about Johnny Cash before I watched this film, and now because of I've found out that he led a pretty remarkable life, both as a musician and a civilian. I know the movie mainly just focused on his issues with cocaine, but I kind of wish that it had spanned his entire life, or at least started at the end and flashed back to the beginning. I only say this because he kept playing and writing music for his entire life, and to say that he had a “heyday” isn’t entirely true. Example: It would have been interesting to watch him cover "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails and then flash back from there. Nevertheless, the acting was wonderful, and the soundtrack was great for a biopic about rock and roll.

5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Color! Con-artists! di Caprio! The 1960s have never looked better. This star-studded (I mean, Tom Hanks, Leonardo di Caprio, Amy Adams, AND Christopher Walken?!? Granted, it was AA before she became famous) cast directed by Steven Spielberg is the closest to perfect a biopic can be (and I’m pretty harsh on films normally). It focuses on Tom Hank’s obsession so well that rather than have the movie be about Frank Abagnale or Carl Hanratty, it starts to be about the thrill of the chase, which is way more interesting. And yet you still find out more than you ever wanted to know about our main characters! I am in fucking awe.

6. Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Okay, so it never says specifically that this is David Bowie and Iggy Pop, but… it’s totally David Bowie and Iggy Pop. I’m counting this as a biopic. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and this movie is no exception. He and Ewan McGregor make a great pair, and the two of them combined with sexuality, drugs, and awesome musical numbers make this a sweet ride. I love the video designed after "Satellite of Love."

7. Julie and Julia (2009)

This isn’t a biopic, per say, but Meryl Streep as Julia Child can’t be ignored. I enjoyed her scenes waaay more than Amy Adams’ cooking woes. If I get anything out of this movie, it’s that Julia Child was a badass. Who knew that cooking used to be a man’s profession? Or that there was no way for American women to easily cook French recipes (well, looking at the French, that’s totally believable)? I loved watching her struggle her way to the top, and, when Julie Powell says in the movie, “Julia Child hates me!” My immediate response was, “Good.”

8. Milk (2008)

“I know you’re angry! I’m angry.” There is no line more powerful in a biopic. Even though you know exactly what is going to happen at the end of the movie (One, because this person existed, and two, they told you during the opening credits), this movie is riveting nonetheless. My one gripe about it is that James Franco was totally robbed of Best Supporting. I know people think his part was pretty forgettable, but to me, watching him cry was totally worth it.

9.  A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Classic biopic, starting with a strange 17-year-old Russell Crowe (because, really, nothing important happens before you go to college), and ending with a seventy-something Russell Crowe, this movie manages to tell a simple story of one man’s life with plot twists, suspense, and excitement. Who would have thought that the life of a bat-shit crazy mathmatician could be this interesting? Really! And I absolutely adore Jennifer Connelly as his wife. Their relationship is loving, yet maintains a strained realism that is apparent through every stage of their marriage. It’s hard to say exactly what the movie is about without giving away the twist (although, by now I think most people already know), so I’ll just end with “it’s a really fucking good biopic.”

10. The Aviator (2004)

I’m not sure if it was this movie or Catch Me If You Can that got Leonardo di Caprio out of the Titanic slump, but either way, this was the first movie I saw him in as a real actor. I know that sounds terrible, but you know it’s true. In Romeo + Juliet, he was “that kid from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and in for a while after Titanic, you couldn't look at a picture of him without getting Celine Dion blasting in your head. But in the Aviator, he was Howard Hughes. I mean, how the fuck can you forget him bashing his head over and over against the mirror with jars of piss lined up all over the place? This is not cute little Jack Dawson. Admit it- how many people saw this movie and then looked up everything else he had done? I know I did. The Basketball Diaries probably got a surge of requests at Blockbuster back in 2004 (too bad it didn’t help and they’re still obsolete). Which reminds me that there’s yet another biopic that didn’t make it onto the list.



The Movie Mistress


  1. Fuck yea on picking Mommie Dearest and making a list not full of predictable and obvious choices. I was involved in a tournament of biopics last summer with four other people and they just kept voting for all the in your face pics. It was really annoying and made my opinions felt void. What was the point of the exploring a list with such depth as a tournament when they were just going to opt for AFI's top choices anyway.

    Love your list and your commentary!

  2. Thanks! Yeah, there are so many out there that it's really hard to make a list of just ten. I'm a fan of bio-pics that were famous but didn't quite make it to blockbuster stature- ex: DeLovely, Blow, Running With Scissors are some of my favorites that didn't make the list.

  3. Great list. I've only seen La Vie En Rose, Walk the Line, Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator but you've convinced me to give the others a go. I've had Julie and Julia on DVD for a couple of days now and I really must find the time to watch it. And the millions of others I have piled up... Loved La Vie En Rose. It was the first of Marion Cotillard's films that I had seen and I thought she was incredible. Walk the Line was also the first Joaquin Phoenix film I liked (I didn't think much of Signs and Gladiator). I think musical biopics are always difficult but Walk the Line deserved all its praise