Biopics or biographical biopics have been popular since the days of yore when biopic-making was fighting for its place in world as an art form. They are popular still, with the people as well as biopic-makers. Like all other novel things, biopics have become clichés. They have become a sure shot formula for big bucks and Oscar nominations. Leonardo DiCaprio would know.
Biopics can be as realistic as 127 hours, a historical hogwash like Bonnie and Clyde, dandy like the Wolf of Wall Street, sad and dark like the Schindler’s List or subtle and bright like A Beautiful Mind. These are all big biopics with a great legacy and numerous awards. But there have been a number of small but brilliant biopics which have found their way to cult status and cinephiles’ collection. Here is a list of 10 not so popular but beautifully made biopics after 1990, which bring on screen lives and deeds of remarkable people with great artistic finesse.
10 Epic Biopics after 1990’s
1. Kafka (1991)
Ostensibly a biopic, this crime thriller by Steven Soderbergh ventures from real into surreal seamlessly throughout the biopic. Set in Prague, it tells the story of young Franz Kafka, the insurance agent and throws him into the world the writer Franz Kafka created in his works. A world where people turn to insects, harmless looking guys are anarchist mercenaries, where things are evil for no reason.
It was a box office disappointment, but since then it has become a cult biopic, buoyed by its brilliant execution and style. If you are familiar with Kafka, you will love this tribute to the master. If you are not then it is a good biopic about one of the greatest and most influential writer in history.
2. Persepolis (2007)
A reference to the historical city of Persepolis, this coming of age drama biopic is the only animated feature in this list. Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel of the same name, it is a coming of age story of a girl against the backdrop of Iranian revolution. The biopic has been rendered simple black and white animation that captures the cruel and terrifying realities of world and the protagonists’ disconnect with it, humanely and beautifully. It won a Cannes’ jury award in 2007 and was nominated for Academy award for best animated feature where it lost to Ratatouille.
The fictionalized biographical account of Michael Gordon Peterson who spent most of his adult life in jail and almost 30 years in solitary confinement, and later started a career as a boxer with the name Charles Bronson. Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn with a meagre $230,000, it stars Tom Hardy in the titular role.
The biopic does not try to rationalize the behavior of the protagonist who was famously described by prison authorities as a “loose cannon”. The plot moves between the reality of a common post office robber to the alternate reality of hardened uncontrollable Bronson, with wit and dark humor blurring the line between comedy and horror.
4. Almost famous(2000)
The biopic is based on writer and director Cameron Crows’ experiences with touring with bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman brothers band, Led zeppelin and others as a teenage correspondent for Rolling Stones. It tells his personal stories of coming of age, falling in love, and meeting his heroes through the lead character of William Miller.
The biopic is a funny, offbeat bittersweet ride through personal triumphs and tragedies of the rock-gods perform and the places where they live their starry lives. A fun-filled, well-made biopic with a great storyline; it is a must watch even though it was a box office bomb at the time of its release.
5. La vie en rose (2007)
Cine buffs love this one. The haunting, melodious voice of Edith Piaf in her famous song ‘je, non regretterien’ forms the bulk of the background score of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Marion Cottilard who was the female lead of Inception, plays the titular role of Edith Piaf in the biopic “la vie en rose” named after one of her greatest works. Coincidence much, eh?
Marion Cotillard won an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for this French and Canadian biopic directed by Olivier Dahan. The biopic chronicles the life of gifted Piaf from her childhood in a brothel in Normandy, to her success in New York City to her drug addiction and then to her sudden end of a stellar career. The biopic has been shot brilliantly, and Cotillard is fabulous as the talented, tragedy prone singer, who dedicated her life to entertaining others through her trials and tribulations.
And yes, the biopic ends with a marvelous performance of ‘Je, non regrette rien’.
6. The people vs Larry Flynt (1996)
This biographical drama chronicles the rise of Pornographic magazine (read Hustler) publisher and editor Larry Flynt, and his court battle with Reverend Jerry Falwell (U.S. Supreme court case Hustler magazine vs Falwell).
Woody Harrelson plays the lead role alongside Courtney Love and Edward Norton in this Milos Forman biopic. The story which debates morality and freedom of speech through a story inspired by real life, was a critically acclaimed, box office debacle, which brought its directors and actors many accolades.
The biopic presents Larry Flynt as a defender of free speech inconsequential of moral dogmas and society. As he says to a group of Anti-pornography activists, ‘Murder is illegal; you can still take a picture of it and win a Pulitzer prize. Sex is legal; you take a picture of it and may end up in jail.’
Years later, it is counted among a great cult biopic by cinephiles. And, why not Governments around the world are still putting bans on pornography.
7. Hunger (2008)
This was before Michael Fassbender became Magneto, and Steve Mcqueen wowed the world with 12 years a slave. But, this mercurial director’s first biopic, with his favorite actor in tow is a cinematic wonder nonetheless.
Through his signature still shots, minimalistic style and stark imagery Mcqueen captures hunger and history, and merges them into a visual imagery that stays with you for a long time. Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, the IRA volunteer and MP who led the second IRA hunger strike in the Maze Prison, chronicling the buildup and eventually Sands’ death. The biopic is now famous for an unbroken 17 minute sequence where a priest played by Lian Cunninghum tries to convince Sands to give up. Sight and Sound magazine voted it the best biopic of 2008 . Mcqueen won the prestigious Camera d’or at Cannes for the first time biopicmakers where the movies’ premiere saw both walk-outs and standing ovations.
8. Lords of Dogtown (2005)
What did Heath ledger do before he was The Joker? Well, he appeared in lots of small budget independent biopics and he was phenomenal in one of them. Ledger plays the surfboard designer Skip Engblom in this biopic and he was praised by critics and people who knew Skip for how ‘eerily’ he nailed the real character’s mannerisms and physical presence. Maybe, Mr. Ledger made that deal with Satan after all.
Watch the slickly made and edited biopic for its flamboyant characters that surf around Venice beach and watch it again for Ledger!
9. Frida (2002)
This movie shares many attributes with the life of the amazing woman it portrays. Crowded with passion, spontaneity, gaiety and a lightness of feet, it tells the story of the one of the most ideal, deep delving artists the world has ever seen.
The Frida Kahlo in the biopic, splendidly essayed by Salma Hayek is nonchalant but sensitive, flighty but rooted, as real as she was surreal, always painting her beautiful uni-browed Mexican face with a tinge of haughtiness and carelessness. Frida makes the art, the biopic, the artist and the story all become one. This woman lived a majestic life worth more than any cinematic experiences.
10. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
We save the best for the last. Two young men take a road trip on motorcycle through Latin America before their graduation. The motive is what normally constitutes as motive for road trips by young men. “Who gives a damn? Let’s have some fun”.
At the end of the journey, our protagonist Ernesto Guevara, becomes a militant revolutionary who would inspire thousands across the world and grace millions of t-shirts only to be confused with Bob Marley ( Yes, that happens a lot!)
The critically acclaimed biopic, which opened with a standing ovation at Sundance is a must watch. The plot says it all. And, the Che Guevara t-shirt feels cooler to wear after you have watched this movie!