Last month we took a look at the somewhat odd, but not unwelcome, increase in films based on factual events. 221 such films have been released since 2000; 200 were released in the century before that.
That piece has inspired this piece, which takes a more trivial look at the trend through simply glancing back over the last fourteen years and showcasing the best in biographical films (or biopics as they’re more commonly known) since we all survived the Millennium Bug.
10. Rush – James Hunt & Niki Lauda
Ron Howard (no stranger to biopics; see No. 6) delivers a high octane thrill-ride across the years of Formula 1 drivers Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry. Quite aside from the beautifully-shot racing sequences, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are dead ringers for Hunt and Lauda, and make you care about the characters. Hunt may be a debauched boozehound but by God he’s charming, and Lauda is an endearing and relateable figure in spite of his aloofness. By the time we arrive at that fateful race day at Nurburgring, there is an instant air of apprehension and worry for our leading men, even though we know exactly what is going to happen. Kudos Howard, for creating suspense where there really shouldn’t have been any.
9. Good Night, and Good Luck – Edward R. Morrow
Now here’s one you might not be expecting, or have even heard of. Directed by George Clooney and starring the inimitable David Strathairn as veteran journalist Morrow, Good Night, and Good Luck details the conflict between Morrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy during the latter’s Communist witch-hunt in 1950s America. Morrow and his team, if you hadn’t guessed, were highly critical of McCarthy’s methods. Shot in colour on a greyscale set then graded into black and white, this is a gorgeous, intelligent, unique gem of a movie. There’s also a great message in there about the importance of television.
8. The Aviator – Howard Hughes
This might be higher up our list if it wasn’t so darn long. Scorsese pushes the concept of a biographical film to its limits by attempting to cover pretty much every moment in Hughes’ life. He succeeds at that, though at the cost of our waning attention spans. On the other hand, the clever filming styles demonstrating at which point in history we are by emulating the film technology of the period, and the performances from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda stop you from leaving. There is literally so much to see in this film, and it is perhaps the first on our list where we get a real in-depth look at the subject. If you have a spare four hours, and you’re a fan of Scorcese/DiCaprio collaborations, do take a look.
7. Bronson – Charles Bronson
Before he was beating up Batman as Bane, Tom Hardy was beating up prison officers as Britain’s most notorious prisoner Charlie “Fucking” Bronson. It’s directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, and his trademark highly stylised approach to filmmaking is evident here (there are traces of Drive, especially in the music choices). What sets this biopic apart from the rest is the leftfield narrative device: Hardy breaks the forth wall, guiding us through the story of his 30+ years behind bars, but occasionally these scenes will alter. One minute he is in what appears to be a cell, and could be dictating his tale to a journalist or psychiatrist; the next he is up on stage in heavy make-up performing to a large audience. It’s like a perverse version of Oh What a Lovely War!. It’s also the dog’s bollocks. The real Bronson loved it, and you will too.
6. Frost/Nixon – David Frost & Richard Nixon
Ron Howard’s second entry on this list is the mostly fictional dramatisation of the interviews between (at this point down on his luck) journalist David Frost, played by Britain’s Chameleon-in-Residence Michael Sheen, and former President of the United States Richard Milhous Nixon, played by Frank Langella. It was in these interviews that Nixon famously admitted to his role in the Watergate scandal (“I’m saying when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!”) and what we are effectively watching is a two-hour-long swordfight between two masters. The film is based on the play of the same name, which also starred Sheen and Langella – the two of them embodying their characters completely, but never to the point of parody. There’s great support from the likes of Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones and Kevin Bacon, and you get a real sense of authenticity. If you like The West Wing, American politics, or anything Michael Sheen has done, then this is the biopic for you.
5. Charlie Wilson’s War – Charlie Wilson
The best thing about this film is that Tom Hanks is in it playing a liquor-loving, womanising Texas congressman. The second best thing is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the yin to Hanks’ yang in the form of the disgruntled CIA agent who helps Wilson pull off his mission: providing support to the Afghan people during the Soviet War in Afghanistan without the US or Soviets finding out. The third best thing is Julia Roberts, who is sadly underused as Wilson’s occasional lover and accomplice Joanne Herring. Whilst a little tonally unsure – the comedic moments sometimes jar a little with the heavier drama – this is one heck of an enjoyable film. Aside from the three key performances mentioned above, the story itself is fascinating and largely unknown to anyone under the age of 25. A good biopic should educate you as well as entertain and Charlie Wilson’s War does both by the bucketload. Finally, as you would expect with anything written by Aaron Sorkin, the satire is laid on a little thick. Yes Aaron, we get it! Thank you.
4. The King’s Speech – Prince Albert, the Duke of York/King George VI & Lionel Logue
The first of two Royal entries on our list, this film about Bertie Windsor’s fight against his speech impediment won its director, screenwriter, and leading man an Oscar each as well as countless other plaudits. Colin Firth is brilliant, but Geoffrey Rush steals the show as the future King’s unorthodox speech therapist. There’s humour, there’s reflective moments, the whole thing is beautiful to look at thanks to Danny Cohen’s cinematography, and each and every cast member delivers. The crowning moment is of course the climax of the film, where George VI delivers his speech to the nation, guided by Logue, to the stirring tones of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (added before the composer scored the music by editor Tariq Anwar and kept in after the fact because it just fit so damn well). It really is nine minutes of cinematic excellence. Just try to get past Timothy Spall’s OTT Churchill.
3. The Social Network – Mark Zuckerberg
The movie about Facebook. In the Age of Facebook this was always going to do well, and Zuckerberg himself has apparently said he had wished filmmakers had at least waited for him to die before going ahead with it. Unlike the last two entries on our list – which, through picking a short period of time to cover in their subject’s lives, allowed for a far more intimate, and by extension rewarding, study of them – The Social Network covers the rise, and rise, and seeming fall of Zuckerberg, from the creation of The Facebook, right up to the point where he is left with, ironically, no friends at all. How much of this is true, and how much of this is created for the all too obvious “lesson” the movie is teaching is up for debate, but we do get a good insight into what went on behind the scenes of the creation of Facebook, and it’s a fascinating story of intrigue, backstabbing and being rejected by girls. Almost Shakespearean really. It’s very funny in places too, and uses Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King to great effect. Directed with his usual aplomb by David Fincher and starring Jesse Eisenberg in the role he was born to play, The Social Network will leave you feeling like Facebook isn’t that social after all, and perhaps you should call your old friend from school you haven’t spoken to in years and say hi or something. Also: Justin Timberlake.
2. The Queen – HM Queen Elizabeth II
Well, of course The Queen was going to pop up. This film is the best example on our list of a biopic taking a small section of a subject’s life and presenting that to us, the viewers. In this case, we get a week in 1997: the week that Princess Diana died, the week that the Queen’s (and the Royal Family’s) entire way of doing things was radically altered thanks to public opinion and Alastair Campbell. OK, Tony Blair too. It is hard not to watch this film and immediately want to be friends with Liz; you feel quite sorry for her, and Helen Mirren very effectively plays her as the 71-year-old woman that she is. She makes her human. Thanks to it being from the Queen’s perspective, we also don’t have to deal with any sensationalist or tacky nonsense about the car crash in Paris; just a telling, carefully daubed, portrait of a person having to adapt, who perhaps isn’t quite sure how to, or why she must. Michael Sheen does a spot-on Tony Blair, and James Cromwell is a delightfully crotchety Prince Phillip. One more thing: wait for the bit where Her Majesty simply says “Mummy?” when needing to speak to the Queen Mother. Heartbreaking stuff. Give that woman an Oscar! Oh, they did? Well good.
1. Downfall – Adolf Hitler
Not a week this time, but a single night pretty much. It is the final days of WWII and Hitler is holed up in his bunker along with various cronies as they await the inevitable. Germany has lost the war, the Allies are approaching, and the Führer is hours away from committing suicide. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you would have seen the countless parody videos of that scene, where he is informed that his troops won’t be enough to hold off the allies and that Berlin has effectively fallen. It’s a powerful scene, with a career-topping performance from Bruno Ganz, one of the best on-screen Hitlers in history. Of course there are other films about those last days and hours in the bunker, but what sets Downfall apart is the way it doesn’t end when Adolf exits stage left; rather, it continues with the lives (some of them not much longer) of those left behind. The generals, the assistants, even the citizens of Berlin who – tragically – are stuck between Nazi death squads and Soviet troops, both determined to mow them down with bullets. It is a bleak film, naturally, and you feel no sense of pride or urge to cheer when Hitler’s body is unceremoniously dumped in a shallow grave and set alight. It is, however, a triumphant film, and the best biopic of the last ten years. No other leaves you feeling quite the same way, or resounds so profoundly.
Do you agree with our list? Have we missed your favourite, or simply got it horribly, horribly wrong? Let us know in the comments below.