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Culturefly’s Best & Worst: Biopics

Culturefly’s Best & Worst: Biopics

By its very definition, a biopic is the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and into the lives of those eternally defined as important and influential, be they politicians, artists, athletes, or film stars.

When done correctly, few films have the ability to hold so much power. A truly brilliant biopic has the ability to create an intimate bond between the audience and its subject, affording us the opportunity to build a personal connection with the famous people that fascinate us and involve us in a world far removed from our own.

On the other hand, no film has the ability to so effortlessly stir such strong feelings of anger and frustration as a badly made biopic. These are the films that are driven by exaggerated characterisation and a flagrant disregard for reality, taking real-life stories and merely turning them into reel-life.

This week heralds the release of Grace of Monaco, a film already infamous for the endless torrent of negativity it received from both critics and audiences when it opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival. What better opportunity to journey back through cinematic history, and bring you a list of both the best and worst films this most intriguing of genres has to offer.


The 10 Best

10. Ed Wood (1994)


The Subject: This hilarious and heart-warming film is a testament to the eponymous film director, considered by many to be the worst in Hollywood.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Following on from what remains their finest collaboration to date, Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s brilliant biopic is a rich study of this prolifically awful director. Depp’s titular performance is mesmerizing, as is Martin Landau’s Oscar winning turn as Bela Lugosi. However, it’s Burton and the writers, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, who deserves the highest praise, for creating a film filled with admiration for Wood’s enthusiasm and determination to realize his moviemaking dream.

9. I’m Not There (2007)


The Subject: Reflecting on the life of one of the world’s greatest living musicians, I’m Not There explores the mind of Bob Dylan from 6 different aspects of his iconic career.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Todd Haynes’ achieved something particularly special with I’m Not There. As director & co-writer, he was able to delve deep in to Dylan’s psyche and the meaning of his lyrics; bringing the musician to life on the screen through 6 different characters. The meticulously well-observed performances, from Richard Gere’s aging drifter to Cate Blanchett’s humorous and headstrong aesthete, effortlessly combine to make a haunting ode to Dylan’s fascinating life and times.

8. Malcolm X (1992)


The Subject: A blisteringly powerful portrait of Malcolm Little, who went from being a small-time criminal to a human rights activist intent on holding America accountable for their crimes against African-Americans

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Spike Lee’s epic and enthralling drama is not only iconic for managing to encapsulate many of the key events that defined Malcolm X’s extraordinary life, it’s also celebrated for its astonishing central performance. As well as being a dead ringer for the African-American activist, Denzel Washington injects Malcolm with all the soul and passion necessary to tell this incredible true story.

7. Behind The Candelabra (2013)


The Subject: Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir, Steven Soderbergh’s final cinematic release is an honest and heartfelt exposé of the final 10 years of Liberace’s life.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Ignore the fact that the Americans deemed the film ‘too gay’ for a cinematic release and bask in the brilliance of this often hilarious and regularly heartbreaking drama. Soderbergh not only takes a peek in to the life of the legendary pianist, he wholly encompasses Liberace’s world, painting a vivid portrait of loneliness that’s driven by the dazzling performances of Michael Douglas & Matt Damon.

6. The Queen (2006)


The Subject: Examining the sequence of events that followed the unexpected death of Princess Diana, from the point of view of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Trying to bring to life a character everyone knows of, but few know about is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. However, with Stephen Frears’ assured direction, Peter Morgan’s skilfully written script, and Helen Mirren’s powerful central performance, The Queen was able to tell a challenging story without ever stumbling in to the realms of melodrama or caricature.

5. Monster (2003)


The Subject: A visceral recreation of Aileen Wuornos’ life, a Florida prostitute who became a serial killer.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Named by Roger Ebert as the third best film of the noughties, Monster has been highly lauded for its unflinchingly brutal depiction of Wuornos’ murderous crime-spree. At the heart of this is Charlize Theron’s transformative performance. Wearing layers of make-up and prosthetic teeth, Theron was almost unrecognisable when you saw her on the screen. However, while the make-up and costume is key, it’s her spellbinding embodiment of Wuornos’ complex personality and distinct mannerisms that the film is deservedly remembered for.

4. The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network

The Subject: A tale of friendship and loyalty in the digital age; The Social Network tells of how Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, and how it led to his best friend Eduardo Saverin eventually suing him having been forced out of the business.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

It’s a tale that’s almost too incredible to believe; could two Harvard graduates really have been able to redefine 21st century communication with a program created from the computers in their dorm room? Driven by a malevolent performance from Jesse Eisenberg and Aaron Sorkin’s relentlessly versatile script, this is a film thatdares to make some astute comments on the nature of wealth and power.

3. Schindler’s List (1993)


The Subject: Based on the novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’, this is the incredible true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

The Holocaust remains one of the most brutal and upsetting aspects of Nazi persecution and Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg and vividly shot in black and white, captures the horror and inhumaneness of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews through a story that’s seared with a poignancy and subtly infused with a sense of hope.

2. Raging Bull (1980)


The Subject: The story of boxer Jake LaMotta; an Italian American middleweight boxer whose destructive tendencies made him a star in the ring, but pushed away all those who stood by him outside of it.

Why Is It One Of The Best?

Named by Culturefly last week as being Martin Scorsese’s best film, Raging Bull is a hard-hitting exposé of a man with an uncontrollably destructive nature. Robert De Niro’s seminal performance drives the story, while Scorsese’s natural ability to blend ferocious violence with a fascinating character study highlights why he is considered one of the true masters of his craft.

1. Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)


The Subject: The incredible story of T.E. Lawrence, a British Military leader who fought on the Arabian Peninsula during World War 1 and found his loyalties conflicted.

Why Is It The Best?

Rightly considered to be one of the best films ever made, Lawrence is an epic example of the hypnotic magic that film is capable of creating. Its vast sweeping shots of the endless desert are visually breathtaking, its knowledgeable script is consistently enthralling, and Peter O’Toole’s influential performance remains one of the finest ever to be seen on the screen.

10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)


The Subject: Telling the story of mathematician John Nash, who endures the hardships of seeing his life crumble around him after he begins to develop paranoid schizophrenia.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

That this film won Best Picture at the Oscars should surprise no one, for there highlights the film’s problem. Though its distortion of the truth is cinematically forgivable, the film’s sugar-coating of Nash’s psychological descent is never anything more than lazy and melodramatic.

9. De-Lovely (2004)


The Subject: Covering the complete life and career of composer Cole Porter; from the first time he met his wife Linda Lee Thomas, to his death in 1964.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Despite starring the normally reliable Kevin Kline, this story of Cole Porter’s life consistently lacks some much-needed energy. Indeed, the only time you begin to even see the flicker of a spark is during the musical numbers, which are interjected in amongst the monotonously lifeless narrative.

8. Domino (2005)


The Subject: Detailing the life of Domino Harvey, the daughter of actor Lawrence Harvey who became an LA bounty hunter.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

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Sadly, this is one of the few setbacks in director Tony Scott’s filmography. While this could have been a hard-hitting exposé on a life few of us know nothing about, Domino turns out to nothing more than a fanciful depiction of a violent life, with hollow characterization and an incomprehensible narrative.

7. J. Edgar (2011)


The Subject: An examination of both the professional and personal life of J. Edgar Hoover, who was head of the FBI for nearly 50 years.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Though covered with so much makeup that his face regularly shines, Leonardo DiCaprio admirably tries to explore the darker elements of Hoover’s psyche throughout Clint Eastwood’s biopic. However, a script that’s as colourless as the grey suits he continually wears thwart any of his attempts.

6. The Conqueror (1956)


The Subject: The story of how Mongol chief Temujin battled the Tartar armies and eventually became the Mongol emperor Genghis Kahn.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Put quite simply, the image of cowboy John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn is one that’s almost impossible to wipe from your memory. The film received a critical panning for its glorified depiction of the Mongol’s battles with the Tartar armies and for it’s bizarre central casting choice and rightly so.

5. W. (2008)


The Subject: Chronicling the life and presidency of George W. Bush Jr., from his alcoholic adolescence to his invasion of Iraq.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Was there really any chance of a film about one of America’s most infamously stupid presidents being any good? While Josh Brolin turns in a performance that regularly borders on caricature, the rushed script fails to ever do anything more than simply document Dubya’s infuriating life of luxury.

4. Alexander (2004)


The Subject: Dramatizing the conquests of the King of Macedonia, who conquered many lands while always under the watchful eye of his dominant mother.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Alexander The Conqueror is one of the most universally known historical figures, yet this film fails in just about every way to add to his legend. Instead you get a wildly miscast Colin Farrell acting alongside Angelina Jolie in panto mode, performing a story that essentially becomes a turgid tale of a complicated mother/son relationship.

3. Amelia (2009)


The Subject: A look at the life of legendary pilot Amelia Earhart, who vanished while flying over the pacific ocean during an attempt to fly around the world.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

Given the status that Earhart’s memory commands, you have to wonder what was going through director Mira Nair’s mind. The laboured pace of the story is marred even further by the director’s sickly sweet awe of her eponymous heroine; Earhart’s character had far more depth and definition when played by Amy Adams in Night At The Museum 2.

2. The Doors (1991)


The Subject: A chronicle of the eponymous rock band and their lead singer Jim Morrison; who went from being a grad student to a superstar, before dying an untimely death at the age of 27.

Why Is It One Of The Worst?

In all honesty, Val Kilmer’s performance is not a problem; in fact it’s entirely laudable. The problem is director Oliver Stone, who lazily tells his story with generic characterization and constantly becomes distracted with exaggerated comments on society’s mind-set at the time.

1. Diana (2013)


The Subject: Focusing on the last two years of the life of the “People’s Princess”, which saw her divorced from Prince Charles and engage in a secret love affair with heart surgeon Hasnat Kahn.

Why Is It The Worst?

There is quite literally not one redeeming feature to be found in this truly horrific dramatization of the Princess’ final years. Naomi Watts may look the part, but she fails to inject any sort of humanity in to the role. Meanwhile the script lazily dispenses with all drama and intrigue, in favour of wooden dialogue and a frustratingly generic love story.

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