Top 10 Biopics of All-Time: Reel Life

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With the trailblazing story of Jackie Robinson hitting theaters in the form of 42 starring Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman, Movie Fanatic looks back at Hollywood and their love affair with the biopic and narrows down the rich history of telling true stories.

From Tinseltown's early days through today, what makes a good story is always the root of making a movie. What better way to ensure a terrific tale than by presenting one that is already written. The life story has the potential to hit all of the emotionally powerful notes in film, from humor, romance, tragedy and triumph. So without further ado, we present the Top 10 Biopics of All-Time!

10. Catch Me If You Can
Who says a biopic has to be heavy on the drama? Steven Spielberg let us know that bringing a person’s life to the big screen can be great fun filled with laughter and an overall joy of life.

Leonardo DiCaprio Catch Me If You Can

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the real-life con man, Frank Abagnale Jr., who the FBI would eventually use to help catch other con men. Before his nineteenth birthday, Abagnale had stolen millions of dollars! Tom Hanks was impeccably cast as the dry federal agent charged with bringing him to justice. Regardless of the biopic subgenre, Catch Me If You Can is film fun at its finest.

9. La Vie en Rose
Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of French singer Edith Piaf and a life that seemed custom made for a motion picture. The title refers to the signature song by the singer whose tragic life is embodied in every frame of La Vie en Rose.

The film is told in a series of vignettes that are revealed to be later memories of the singer as she lies on her death bed. From harsh life beginnings on the streets of Paris through her dealing with the death of her soul mate in a plane crash, the film does about a solid of a job as a biopic can do in capturing the fullness that is a life.

8. The Pursuit of Happyness
Will Smith starred with his real life son Jayden in the true tale of a man who is left with raising his son when his mother disappears. Smith’s Chris Gardner was homeless while he was trying to make a life for himself as a stockbroker. The film heartbreakingly and inspiringly follows a year in the life of Gardner as he trains for his profession while trying to raise his son without a roof over their heads.

Try to watch The Pursuit of Happyness scene where someone tries to enter the room in the train station where they are spending the night without completely balling your eyes out.

7. A Beautiful Mind
The 2001 Ron Howard Best Picture Oscar-winning film told one of those stories that you would think we had all heard, but somehow fell through the cracks. Russell Crowe earned an Academy Award nomination for his work in A Beautiful Mind as mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, and his struggles with mental illness. Jennifer Connelly was spellbinding as his long-suffering wife, and she too took home Oscar gold.

6. Lawrence of Arabia
Some could argue that telling the story of Lawrence of Arabia was almost impossible. The vast scope and weight of the story of T.E. Lawrence would scare off most filmmakers, which is why epic filmmaker David Lean could not have been a better choice to helm the project.

Peter O'Toole Lawrence of Arabia

And when it comes to fate aligning for a biopic to come together, who can argue that Peter O’Toole did not give the performance of his decorated career as the British man living in Northern Africa during World War I?

5. Malcolm X
Speaking of directors born to make a biopic… Spike Lee was put on this earth to tell many stories. But, many believe that his greatest gift will always be the biopic Malcolm X. With so much known about the civil rights leader, Lee was confronted with an issue that many filmmakers have when attempting to tell someone’s true tale. There is so much information, and so much of it important, to distill and condense into a two-hour concise narrative.

Lee did that and more with Malcolm X, and he could have had no better partner in the creative effort than Denzel Washington in the title role.

4. Schindler’s List
The 1993 winner for Best Picture had a long road to the silver screen. The story of Oskar Schindler had been flirted with for decades since he personally saved the lives of thousands of Polish Jews through his selfless and harrowing acts during World War II. But yet again, it was a filmmaker coming along at the right time and that director was Steven Spielberg.

Also, can you imagine the story of Schindler without the actor who played him, Liam Neeson, as well as Ralph Fiennes in the role of the Nazi sadist who was determined to break through Schindler’s secret?

Liam Neeson Schindler's List

Schindler's List is one of this writer’s favorite movies of all-time, but in full disclosure, it is so powerful and painful to watch, it has not been seen more than once.

3. Citizen Kane
Although not billed as a biopic, we all know that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the story of William Randolph Hearst and how the publishing icon built his empire. From its opening that launched the mystery of Rosebud and what on earth it was through his building of Xanadu, Citizen Kane is one of the most perfect films of all-time. And it is clearly one of the best biopics as well. 

2. Raging Bull
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have a long documented history of creating brilliance. Their work telling the wild true story of boxer Jake LaMotta not only required a lot of De Niro (learning boxing and getting into the physical shape of a boxer and then gaining 50 pounds to portray the man later in life), but also Scorsese as a filmmaker.

The director had to make his Raging Bull someone who audiences would identify with, even though his story was larger than life. They both triumphed and in the process crafted a piece of work that this writer believes will be thought of in the same breath as Citizen Kane.

1. Amadeus
Milos Foreman’s masterwork about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is astonishing on so many levels. First and foremost, with Amadeus, Foreman chose to frame Mozart’s extraordinary life through the eyes of his rival, Antonio Salieri. What better way to provide an insight into a musical genius than by the man who was driven mad by his fellow composer’s gifts.

Tom Hulce Amadeus

Tom Hulce embodied Mozart to its fullest, right on down to his legendary cackle. And F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri was equal parts Mozart confidant, adversary and it is hinted… the man who sealed Mozart’s fate. It was Salieri who got the iconic composer the gig of writing that Requiem. Many believe it was the pressure to create the perfect piece that killed Mozart.

Honorable mentions: The Social Network, Ghandi, The Blind Side, Ed Wood, Goodfellas, Rudy, Bonnie and Clyde, The Hurricane, Erin Brockovich, The Elephant Man, Bugsy, My Left Foot and Walk the Line.

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