Stranger than fiction: amazing movie biographies

Fact is stranger than fiction

While most movies are based on some kind of truth, there's nothing quite like a biopic. Whether it's bringing some of the most famous individuals in the world to life, or telling a stranger-than-fiction story on the big screen, film biographies interest us just a little bit more because they're real. We've picked some of the best movie biographies around, which tell the tales of icons, heroes and celebrities in all their glory... and shame.

By Total Film staff

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball is a winning combination of baseball and Brad Pitt. The film tells the story of Billy Beane and his theory that the American sport could be successfully played based on computer-generated analysis. Jonah Hill joins Pitt on the pitch as business associate Peter Brand, who helps Beane to prove his idea. Both actors were nominated for an Oscar for their part in the film, which was widely praised by critics.

The Pianist (2002)

Director Roman Polanski adapted a memoir by Polish composer Wadysaw Szpilman of his time living as a Jew during WWII in Warsaw in the Oscar-winning The Pianist. French actor Adrien Brody gives a tortured performance as Szpilman, and his grief is palpable. If you can hold it together to make it through this sad, but spectacular film, it's more than worth it.

Into the Wild (2017)

Emile Hirsch trudges through the wilderness in this biographical film about free spirited traveller, Christopher McCandless and his explorations across North America and Alaska. Written and directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild captures McCandless love affair with nature and how his life becomes more enriched because of it. Be warned, this touching account will have you reaching for the tissues.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Sex, drugs and suits, oh my! The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the rise and fall of stockbroker, Jordan Belfort, who paired business dealings with hookers and cocaine. This is the fifth film from the Scorsese-DiCaprio love-in, and sees DiCaprio on top form as Belfort, leading some to suggest he might bag that elusive Oscar. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be, but this film is still well worth the three hour runtime.

Rush (2013)

 You don't need to be a Formula One fan enjoy Ron Howard's cinematic thrill ride. Chris Hemsworth gets behind the wheel as renowned racing car driver and infamous Lothario, James Hunt, whose fast-paced lifestyle was almost more famous than his career. The film dives into Hunt's turbulent relationship with competitor Niki Lauda (Daniel Brhl), who became severely disfigured after a racing accident almost killed him. A far superior version of Fast and Furious.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Studio bosses were not content to give Apple mogul Steve Jobs just one movie outing. Two versions of the computer genius have been made within the past two years; the panned version starring Ashton Kutcher and this stunning adaptation starring Michael Fassbender. If there's any confusion about which one you should be watching, director Danny Boyle's version had Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Supporting Actress. Enough said.

The Imitation Game (2014)

With a heavyweight cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, at its core, The Imitation Game is the unravelling story of Alan Turing. A closeted homosexual who cracked the Enigma code during World War II, this isn't a happy-go-lucky tale, but we doubt you'll regret watching it. Leading man, Cumberbatch even admitted that playing Turing had such an emotional effect on him that he broke down into tears when filming wrapped.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything tells the tale of a clever young man who falls in love and then finds out he has motor neuron disease. James Marsh's film captures the heart-breaking moments Stephen Hawkins' body gives up on him, while his mind remains sharp, with stunning skill leaving audiences around the world in awe. Eddie Redmayne's impressive performance, both physically and emotionally, helped him win the Best Actor Oscar over his more experienced peers in this beautiful biopic.

Ed Wood (1994)

Unsurprisingly, Tim Burton's Ed Wood is a whimsical affair, shot entirely in black and white and tells the story of the director’s relationship with actor Bela Lugosi. Johnny Depp leads a superb cast, including Bill Murray and Patricia Arquette, and although it suffered a $12 million loss at the box office, critical acclaim and two Oscars don't lie.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Don Cheadle steals the show as hotel owner Paul Rusesabagina who helped house thousands of refugees inside the walls of his hotel, during the 1994 massacre in Rwanda, which saw one million Tutsis murdered. Dubbed the 'African Schindler's List', Hotel Rwanda deals with harrowing subjects, such as genocide and political corruption, while also capturing the power of human kindness through Rusesabaginas story. We dare you not to be moved.

The Last Emperor (1987)

With nine Oscar wins, The Last Emperor is nothing short of epic. The movie depicts the life of Chinese Emperor Puyi, from his time on the throne as a small boy, to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communist Party of China. The filmmakers faced all sorts of restrictions during filming and security was so tight that when actor Peter O'Toole forgot his pass he was turned away from the set. None of this stopped the cast and crew making an excellent film though.

The King's Speech (2010)

In 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated the throne and ran off with American socialite Wallis Simpson. His replacement was Edward's shy and stuttering brother, King George VI, who could barely string a sentence together and became almost mute in public. Geoffrey Rush steals the show as wacky speech therapist Lionel Logue, who coaches the King (Colin Firth) through his affliction. Expect a lot of funny noises coming from Firth and Rush who bounce off each other brilliantly in this four time Oscar winner.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

A scarily skinny Matthew McConaughey shed the pounds to play AIDS sufferer Ron Woodroof in the two time Oscar winning Dallas Buyers Club. Woodroof smuggled unauthorised drugs into Texas to treat his symptoms, and set up a refuge where others diagnosed with the disease could join him. McConaughey's drastic weight loss and Jared Leto's intense method acting made headlines, with director Jean-Marc Valle saying he never really met the real Leto, he only knew his character Rayon. Wow.

Walk the Line (2005)

If you're looking for a toe-tappin' musical with singalongs aplenty then this isn't the movie for you. James Mangold's film biopic brings to life Country legend Johnny Cash's addiction to drugs and his agonising on/off relationship with singing partner June Carter. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sang every note in the film, giving an authenticity to their performances, which garnered a boatload of praise. The film was nominated for five Oscars, with Witherspoon picking up the gong for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

Capote (2005)

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote, an author who formed a deadly alliance with a murderer on death row. Having starred in many supporting roles up until this point, Hoffman was finally given the limelight and took home a long overdue Oscar for his efforts. In 2006 Toby Jones also played Capote in another movie biopic, but the film was overshadowed by its predecessor.

Milk (2008)

No, this isn't about a dairy based drink. Sean Penn delivers a moving performance as the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, Harvey Milk. With an all-star cast attached, including Josh Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch and director Gus Van Sant at the helm, the movie was applauded for retelling Milk's triumphant, yet tragic, story. Movie bosses decision to cast Penn paid off, with the film bagging two Oscars.

The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network recounts the events that set in motion the creation of Facebook, and exposes Mark Zuckerberg's supposedly underhand drive to succeed. Jesse Eisenberg stepped up to play the socially awkward and geeky billionaire opposite a young Hollywood cast including Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer and Andrew Garfield. David Fincher's shrewd portrayal of the billionaire won three Oscars.

Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese's Oscar winning Goodfellas is one of the director's most memorable creations. Based on Nicholas Pileggi's non-fiction book Wiseguy, the film follows criminal Henry Hill's complicated relationship with the Brooklyn mob. Watch out for one of cinemas most seat squirming scenes, when Joe Pescis Tommy DeVito lays into Ray Liotta's Hill screaming, I make you laugh? I'm here to f****** amuse you?, before cracking into hysterics. Awkward.

Schindler's List (1993)

Liam Neeson puts in a shrewd performance as the famous German businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved thousands of Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Steven Spielberg attempted to pass the project onto his colleagues Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, but they didn't feel up to the challenge, and in the end Spielberg pulled it off. Schindler's poignant story set the bar for Neeson who tackled the role with conviction, resulting in an Oscar nomination.

Malcolm X (1992)

American Muslim minister and human rights activist, Malcolm X is played by none other than Denzel Washington in this movie biography of his life. Director Spike Lee has joked that both he and Washington would have fled the country if the film had fell flat, but fortunately for the pair it had quite the opposite reception, with Washington bagging an Oscar nod for his performance.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can is the true story of light-footed Frank Abagnale Jr., an 18-year-old who successfully conned the state out of millions of dollars by posing under different identities. At the time, a fresh faced Leonardo DiCaprio was carving out a reputable career in Hollywood. The actor's charming performance as Abagnale is perfectly matched by Tom Hanks portrayal of dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

After the critically acclaimed Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen was tasked with directing 12 Years a Slave. The film recounts the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor bagged the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Northcup, but Michael Fassbender's sinister performance as slave owner Edwin Epps is also worth a watch.

The Elephant Man (1980)

Two time BAFTA winner, The Elephant Man is the heart-breaking tale of severely disfigured man in the 19th Century. New to the directing scene with only one feature film under his belt at the time, David Lynch emerged as a forerunner in eccentricity. John Hurt gets under the skin of the downtrodden and deformed Joseph Merrick, who's living in shame as part of a Victorian freak show, until Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) swoops in to save his abused soul.

Raging Bull (1980)

One of many collaborations between Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull charts the impressive, almost-undefeated 14-year career of '40s boxer Jake LaMotta. De Niro was inspired by LaMotta's story on the set of the Godfather Part II, but the project didn't get approved until 1980. De Niro transformed his toned physique to play the bloated boxer in his later years as a comedian by gorging on sugary snacks.


Fact is stranger than fiction