12 of the best biopics in cinema: from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to 'Raging Bull'

Following the release of 'Mank', Gregory Wakeman looks at some of the other compelling real-life inspired movies

DF-02815_r – Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey.
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There are many reasons why David Fincher's Mank, which is released on Netflix on Friday, is already considered one of the front runners this awards season.

Not only has the coronavirus pandemic obliterated all of its competition, but The Social Network and Zodiac filmmaker is arguably the most lauded director of his generation to never be recognised by the Oscars.

The primary reason, though, is that Mank is based on a true story, and Green Book, Spotlight, Bohemian Rhapsody and 12 Years A Slave are just some of the biopics to have picked up Academy Awards over the past five years.

But which biopics are actually worth your time? We say take a look at these.

'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967)

One of the most important American movies ever made, Bonnie and Clyde helped to usher in a new era for Hollywood, as it broke many of the cinematic taboos that studios had long sanctioned. At the same time, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are utterly captivating as the devilish leading pair, while it also includes one of the greatest finales in movie history.

'Raging Bull' (1980)

The pinnacle of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's collaborations, Raging Bull is a visceral and utterly compelling look at the rise of Jake LaMotta's boxing career, and how his self-destructive behaviour destroyed it. Scorsese's direction is flawless, while DeNiro gives one of the greatest acting portrayals of all time, setting a bar that every other biopic actor has since failed to surpass.

'Amadeus' (1984)

Milos Forman transported audiences all the way back to 18th century Vienna with his virtuoso 1984 biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But rather than merely exploring the life of this musical prodigy, it is as much about composer Antonio Salieri and his rivalry with Mozart. Unfortunately, Amadeus is probably more fiction than fact, but that does not stop it being both stupendously entertaining and surprisingly deep, as it asks probing questions about talent and legacy.

'The Last Emperor' (1987)

With The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci was the first western director to film inside Beijing's Forbidden City. Bertolucci's epic yet intimate look at the life of Puyi is instantly elevated because of these locations. The film also benefits from the director's patient approach to the subject matter, which allows it to slowly hypnotise and captivate viewers. The 1988 Academy Awards committee were suitably impressed, too, as they gave the film nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

'Goodfellas' (1990)

Scorsese's blistering exploration of Henry Hill's rise through the New York underworld is one of the greatest gangster films of all time. It's also a hugely impressive biopic, as Scorsese expertly squeezes all of Hill's trials and tribulations into its 146-minute running time, which just breezes by.

'Malcolm X' (1992)

Spike Lee's epic biopic is the perfect combination of filmmaker and actor. Not only does Lee exquisitely weave the main elements of the activist's life, ranging from his criminal past, to his time in prison, conversion to Islam, and then his assassination, but it is led by Denzel Washington's finest performance to date. Which makes it all the more infuriating that Malcolm X only received two Oscar nominations in 1993 for Best Costume Design and Best Actor. But Washington lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman.

'Selena' (1997)

This biopic not only features Jennifer Lopez’s breakout role as the beloved Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez, but it also manages to present an energetic and poignant look at her heartbreakingly short career. It’s Lopez who really shines, though, as she displays all of the charisma and radiance that immediately turned her into a pop culture icon.

'Walk the Line' (2005)

The film's reputation has somewhat plummeted, after the 2007 comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story mercilessly poked fun at it and the entire biopic genre. But its impressive takings of $187 million from a $28m budget proved that audiences love to see talented actors bring famous musicians to life on the silver screen. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do an expert job as Johnny Cash and June Carter, and while it occasionally dovetails into melodrama, they're able to inject enough magic and showmanship into the film to make it feel special.

'Persepolis' (2007)

Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's sublime coming-of-age story amid the Iranian Revolution might be animated, but that does not make it any less powerful. Based on Satrapi's life and comic book, Persepolis was met with rave reviews upon its release, and co-won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

'The Social Network' (2010)

While Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's look at the complicated origins of Facebook was instantly acclaimed by critics, some people believed that its treatment of Mark Zuckerberg was quite harsh. However, Zuckerberg's recent exploits prove that Fincher and Sorkin were actually ahead of their time, while The Social Network simply gets better and better with each passing year.

'Straight Outta Compton' (2015)

While the first half of Straight Outta Compton easily eclipses its relatively mediocre second, the film's opening is so stirring and enthralling that F Gary Gray's story of California rap group NWA still firmly deserves to be recognised as one of the best biopics of the past 20 years. Especially since its leading trio of O'Shea Jackson, Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell provide incredible acting and musical performances, the latter of which help to elevate this film above most other biopics.

'Bohemian Rhapsody' (2018)

The film didn't only manage to eclipse Walk the Line's success, but it put up numbers that any superhero movie would be proud of. Rumours of a movie based on the life and talent of Freddie Mercury had swirled ever since his death in November, 1991. However, no one could have predicated its awards season success, which resulted in Rami Malek winning the Best Actor Oscar. Especially after it was met with only middling reviews. Critics failed to realise just how much joy it would bring to movie and music fans, who went to see Bohemian Rhapsody again and again, helping it to gross $904m worldwide.