20 Biopics Worth WatchingBreaking News
tags: film, biography, popular culture
Every Oscars season brings new surprises: first-time nominees, snubbed Hollywood veterans, a list of honorees spanning blockbusters to indies. But one kind of movie is always a contender: the biopic. A true-story film is one of the most reliable forms of awards catnip; seven of the past 10 winners for Best Actor in a Leading Role were nominated for their portrayal of a real figure, sometimes a well-known celebrity, such as Freddie Mercury or Winston Churchill. The movies housing those performances tend to be functional to a fault. But some biographical films break the form and attempt something artistically challenging while also telling their protagonist’s story. Here are 20 of my favorites.
Tick, Tick … Boom! (2021, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Jonathan Larson’s musical Tick, Tick … Boom! was autobiographical when he first performed it in 1990. But the version that Miranda brought to screens more than 30 years later is even less coy about the fact that the central Jon character is Larson, while conceding that the story depicted is true “except for the parts Jonathan made up.” Tick, Tick … Boom! is about Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) striving to break out in New York’s theater scene, but it’s more broadly a work about the tricky act of balancing ambition and sanity in the arts world. The film acknowledges that Larson tragically died before receiving wide recognition for his musical Rent, but that’s part of what makes Tick, Tick … Boom! such a compelling watch: Miranda pairs that sad awareness with the vibrant, yearning energy of Larson’s original text.
Shirley (2020, directed by Josephine Decker)
Another biopic that mixes fiction with fact, Shirley is a portrait of the author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), set around the time she was writing her second novel, Hangsaman, published in 1951. Decker’s dreamy film sees a married couple arrive at Bennington College and get sucked into Jackson’s tempestuous relationship with her preening husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg); together, the two writers are an entrancing nightmare—Shirley’s alcoholism and agoraphobia clash with Stanley’s philandering and social pomposity. Moss’s performance is particularly energetic and raw, representing both the haunted nature of Jackson’s storytelling and the author’s own troubled life.
A Hidden Life (2019, directed by Terrence Malick)
After several years spent working on abstract projects such as Knight of Cups and Song to Song, the philosophical maestro Malick turned his attention to a real-life subject for his next film: Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler after being conscripted. It’s a Malick movie, so A Hidden Life is filled with striking scenery and a voice-over narration questioning the relationship between God and man, between free will and fate. Malick’s ongoing fascination with the natural world, which he can represent better than practically anyone, is paired with stunning imagery of storm clouds gathering and the industry of war corrupting the peaceful Austrian mountains. Still, the personal fortitude of Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is the film’s strongest element.