In Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) plays real-life writer Mark O’Brien, a man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity. The movie has been buzzed about in awards circles all year, and the early reviews from the Sundance Film Festival promise that The Sessions delivers a powerful and touching tale inspired by a true story. With the release of The Sessions coming this weekend, and with the reactions from the “secret screening” of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln dominating the web last week, it seems as good a time as any to take a look at and rank the ten greatest biopics ever made. Have a look at my rankings after the jump, and feel welcomed to leave your own top ten in the comments section following.
Before we start, I want to specify that I am not including “fringe” biopics like The Sound of Music or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, which have an abundance of “Hollywood” touch to them. It’s hard to find a biopic that isn’t told from the filmmaker’s own personal biases, let alone one that doesn’t use the liberties of Hollywood to make the film more entertaining, but it seems it is the nature of the beast. So proceed as you will for your own list, but I’m going to try to stick with the more historically accurate accounts that have been portrayed in film.
10. The Elephant Man (1980) – Joseph Merrick (renamed John Merrick for the film)
David Lynch’s most accessible film stars John Hurt as John Merrick, a hideously disfigured man in Victorian-era England who is relegated to being a side-show freak attraction until a doctor (played by Anthony Hopkins) saves him, and in the process uncovers an intelligent and caring man beneath the surface.
9. My Left Foot (1989) – Christy Brown
Daniel Day-Lewis burst onto the scene playing the cerebral palsy stricken Christy Brown, an artist/author who learned to communicate through the use of his left foot. In return for his powerfully inspiring performance, Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award.
8. Malcolm X (1992) – Malcolm X
Norman Jewison was originally intended to direct the movie, but Spike Lee took over once he finally convinced Jewison that only a black director should helm such a project. Malcolm X sparked many altercations even during its production, which is a fitting ode to the charismatic and controversial figure the film portrays. Denzel Washington gives what is probably his career-best performance as the iconic civil rights leader.
7. Patton (1970) – General George S. Patton Jr.
George C. Scott gives a mesmerizing performance as “Old Guts and Glory” himself, and the tone of the film is set from the iconic opening scene in which Patton delivers an inspiring speech to his new recruits in front of an enormous American flag. The film details Patton’s march through North Africa into Italy during World War II.
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – Jeanne d’Arc
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film depicts the final torturous hours of Joan’s (played flawlessly by Maria Falconetti) life, as she stands trial for heresy. Falconetti’s performance is one of the single greatest I’ve ever witnessed in a film, as words were unnecessary to convey the physical and mental tortures the martyr went through.
5. Goodfellas (1990) – Henry Hill
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book “Wiseguy,” Martin Scoresese’s film chronicles the rise of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and leads to his eventual role as a mob informer.
4. Amadeus (1984) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Milos Forman’s elaborate costume drama was based on a play by Peter Shaffer, and tells of the rivalry between the world’s most famous composer (Tom Hulce) and his envious counterpart, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).
3. Raging Bull (1980) – Jake LaMotta
Martin Scorsese’s violent and compelling masterpiece details the rise and fall of one of the most memorable characters in boxing lore, Jake LaMotta. It also happens to deliver Robert De Niro’s career best performance as the volcanic, legendary boxer. De Niro’s spectacular method acting (he gained 60 pounds for the role!) earned him his second Academy Award.
2. Schindler’s List (1993) – Oskar Schindler
In the worst of times, greedy industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) transforms into an improbable humanitarian when he manages to save over a thousand Jews from annihilation at the hands of Nazi Germany. Steven Spielberg’s film is not only his masterpiece, but his most personal film.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – T. E. Lawrence
To me, the pinnacle of all biopics is David Lean’s epic – and near-perfect – film, Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole (in his first starring role) gives one of the greatest performances ever as Major T. E. Lawrence, an inscrutable British officer tasked with bringing freedom to the warring Arab tribes, and establishing an organized system of government. The breathtaking cinematography by Freddie Young, majestic Maurice Jarre score, and incredible performances from such legendary actors as Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quinn contribute in making this not only one of the greatest biopics, but also one of the greatest movies ever made, period.
What do you think the ten greatest biopics are?
Tags: Amadeus, Ben Lewin, Biographical film, biopics, Goodfellas, John Hawkes, Lawrence of Arabia, Malcolm X, Mark O'Brien, My Left Foot, Patton, Raging Bull, Schindler's List, The Elephant Man, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Top 10 Biopics