February 17, 2021
This past weekend I ventured out to the theater to see Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. There were seven people in the theater and all of us appeared to adore the film. I’d call it the best film I’ve seen in the last year or so. It’s a love story, a political story, a spy story, an art film, a period piece and an unconventional biopic.
The film tells the story of the final years of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hammond’s life. It’s a beautifully shot and edited movie that features incredible performances by Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, both of whom should be nominated for Oscars for their work. I also think the movie deserves nominations for Best Cinematography (Sean Bobbitt), Best Director (Shaka King), Best Supporting Actress (Dominique Fishback), and Best Picture, but could also see it getting completely shut out. It truly is a special film, a wholly American story told at the highest level of artistry.
On that note, I thought that I’d use this week’s column to put together a list of my 10 favorite biopics ever.
A lot of people don’t like biopics. In fact, most of the movie snobs I know avoid them. Why? Because they’re usually cheesy impersonation pieces that duck much of the “real” (i.e. less glamorous) events in a person’s life. Mostly, they tend to be corny and overly sentimental.
But there are some great biopics out there (including Judas, which would probably make this list if I were to be less cautious about recency bias). Here are my favorites.
10. Marie Antoinette
After making her name with the excellent one-two punch of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola was pretty much given the keys to the castle for Marie Antoinette. Boy, did she (and her then-muse Kirsten Dunst) run with it. It’s a pink-splattered punk rock period piece about the pitfalls of class divide and has gained a reputation as an oddball masterpiece.
Milos Forman directing a fantasy film about a fictional rivalry between Antonio Salieri (an incredible F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart, that also manages to be something of a biopic for Mozart. That’s a heck of an elevator pitch. Also, if it matters to you at all, Amadeus is often considered to be one of the best films ever made, recently ranking as the 53rd best film on the AFI list.
8. The Social Network
I’m not sure I agree that this one is a proper biopic, but that’s the consensus in the film world. I’m also not sure that I think this movie is as good as the critics think it is, but yeah, it’s solid. Best film so far of the current century? Nah, but certainly a relevant, Shakespearaian story made by an absolute master.
This very straight forward Harvey Milk biopic serves as proof that Van Sant, when he wants to, can make prestige films for the masses. Sean Penn gives a powerful, Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk, but Van Sant is the star.
6. I’m Not There
A true art film that’s as unlikely as anything the film’s subject, Bob Dylan, ever did. Here we have a handful of this generation’s best actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchette, Heath Ledger, etc.) embodying an abstract version of the Dylan character (which itself is a creation by Robert Zimmerman) at different periods in his life. It’s one of the great modern soundtracks and one of the most successful modern art films.
5. Raging Bull
Like the No. 1 pick on this list, I don’t feel as if Raging Bull is a movie that needs any further endorsement. If you’ve somehow not seen this tragedy about the boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro in an Oscar-winning performance), then you might be reading the wrong column. Cinema just might not be your thing.
4. The Elephant Man
David Lynch has had a weird career. He made maybe the best art film ever (Eraserhead). He made perhaps the most stylized film of the 1980s (Blue Velvet). He made the movie a lot of critics think is the best film of the current century (Mulholland Drive). He made THE cult TV show of all-time (Twin Peaks). And he made, among other curiosities, a Disney film about a guy riding a tractor (The Straight Story). And, aside from maybe The Straight Story, all those projects were odd. Along the way he also made a relatively straightforward historical biopic about Joseph Merrick that received eight Oscar nominations and could have easily set Lynch on the path of prestige filmmaker. It’s a beautiful black-and-white nightmare.
3. American Splendor
A personal favorite, this film tells the story of outsider comic writer Harvey Pekar, known for his comic series American Splendor. With Paul Giamatti in the lead role, Pekar himself makes appearances in the film, breaking the third wall by offering color commentary. It’s a film I watch at least once every year, and enjoy very much every time, one of the great underdog films of all-time.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
In my opinion, Wolf is not just the most enjoyable film on this list, but one of the most exciting viewings in modern cinema. Beautifully crafted by Scorsese, the film features an all-time-great lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as the sleazy, low-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort in an incredible comment on greed, excess, class divide, and capitalism. If you’ve somehow not seen this truly insane masterpiece, I’d recommend leaving work right now so you can go home and watch it immediately. That’s how much fun Wolf is.
1. Malcolm X
Do I need to say anything about this one? This is one of the great American films ever made. If you’ve never seen it, well, you should fix that.
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