From Harriet Tubman to Judy Garland: 10 films based on real people to watch out for this year

From movie icons to war whistle-blowers, kidnapping astronauts, Mob hitmen and a comedy Hitler, here are the shocking real-life stories about to hit the big screen

From left: Tom Hanks is Fred Rogers - A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood; Natalie Portman Lucy Cola - Lucy In The Sky. Keira Knightley is Katharine Gun in Official Secrets. Sony Pictures / Fox Searchlight / IFC Films
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Films based on real people are in vogue right now. From Renee Zellweger portraying American actress Judy Garland, to Tom Hanks playing US TV personality Fred Rogers, and plenty in between, these are the films you need to see.

00331-Official Secrets  -Photo Nick Wall.RAF

Keira Knightley is Katharine Gun

Official Secrets (October)

"So, you work for the British government," says an interrogator in Official Secrets. "No, I work for the British people," fires back Knightley's Gun. "I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people."

Gavin Hood directs Knightley in this real-life story of the whistle­-blower who risked everything to expose government deceit before the Second Gulf War. Gun was, as per the screenplay's original title, The Spy Who Tried To Stop A War, a translator who leaked an email from the US National Security Agency asking the British intelligence services to help make the case for war, despite not having found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The memo suggested they would do this by gathering dirt on any UN countries who might vote against an invasion. A film about Gun's story was long overdue and is as timely as ever.

This image released by Netflix shows Eddie Murphy in a scene from "Dolemite Is My Name." (François Duhamel/Netflix via AP)

Eddie Murphy is Rudy Ray Moore

Dolemite Is My Name (October)

What kind of man would be extraordinary enough to tempt Eddie Murphy back to the kind of movie he used to make? Rudy Ray Moore, that’s who.

Twenty years after the release of Bowfinger, Dolemite Is My Name has Murphy leave his animated donkey behind to make another comedy about the madness of Hollywood. Murphy plays Moore, who was an ambitious but unsuccessful former army singer in the late 1950s. After failed attempts as an RnB singer, a dancer and even a magician, Moore found his groove in the 1960s as a stand-up comedian, with his signature "kung-fu fighting" character of Dolemite leading him into the movies.

The result is part The Disaster Artist, part affectionate, hilarious tribute to a sheer force of nature, as well as being a long-­overdue return of the Murphy we know and love.

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in 'Judy'.  

Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland

'Judy' (November)

Set in 1960s London but swinging back to earlier chapters in her life, Renee Zellweger stars as one of the most famous actresses of all time.

The film catches up with Garland in the twilight of her career, a $4 million (Dh14.7m) tax bill leading her to go to the UK for a sold-out residency at a London nightclub that might just solve her financial woes. It's 1968, the same year Garland said in a TV interview that she was "the queen of the comeback. I'm getting tired of coming back, I really am. I can't even go to the powder room without making a comeback". A year later she was dead. She was 47.

Worked to the bone by a brutal Hollywood system – in Judy we flash back to Garland being called ugly by producer Louis Mayer on the set of 1939's The Wizard Of Oz – she had taken pills since becoming a child actress. For all her timeless magic on the screen, Garland lived a painful reality, much of which Zellweger captures.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon play Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby in 'Ford V Ferrari', an Oscar front-runner. Disney.

Christian Bale and Matt Damon are Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby

Ford v Ferrari (November) 

Meet the racing movie that's not really a racing movie. Yes, this Oscar front-runner's track sequences are spectacular, but underneath all the burning rubber lies a beautiful story of a forgotten friendship.

Bale plays Miles, a British racing driver whose name you should have heard of but probably haven't – for reasons this story will reveal. Damon is Shelby, the racer-turned-­engineer still synonymous with classic cars such as the Cobra and Mustang.

In 1966, when James Mangold's stunningly realised film is set, both Miles and Shelby were chasing their last shot at sporting immortality. And they got that chance when Henry Ford II recruited them to invent a car that would beat his bitter rival, Enzo Ferrari, in the dangerous 24 Hours of Le Mans race. A battle began that would claim lives and test relationships, resulting in the birth of the renowned Ford GT40, and a mighty fine movie to boot.

Cynthia Erivo is Harriet Tubman, the woman who escaped slavery in 1849. Courtesy Focus Features

Cynthia Erivo is Harriet Tubman

Harriet (November)

Kasi Lemmons's film tells the story of Tubman, the woman who escaped slavery in 1849 and then returned to free 300 slaves in 19 increasingly treacherous trips using the Underground Railroad.

Erivo, who wowed in both Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, delivers another star performance in the lead role, showing power and complexity. Whether that performance will translate into Oscar glory will likely depend on how the Academy feels about the movie's aesthetic choices. The real-life Harriet suffered from seizures – that she perceived as divine visions – after a plantation owner fractured her skull when she was 12.

Many of the stars of 'The Cave' are real-life divers who were involved in the rescue mission.  

The real rescue team is the rescue team

The Cave (November)

"It was really very emotional for some of them, because it was absolutely real," The Cave director, Tom Waller, told The Sydney Morning Herald before the film had its premiere at South Korea's Busan Film Festival this month. The story follows 12 boys and their football coach who got stuck in the labyrinthine Tham Luang cave system, in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, in June last year. A year later, Waller's film is ready, after the director recruited, in an eerie mathematical coincidence, about a dozen of the actual rescuers to play themselves.

In real life, the boys were trapped for nine days, after a sudden storm flooded the passageways and escape seemed impossible. Thai rescue diver Saman Gunan died while trying to bring air tanks to the stranded group.

The Cave is the first of three movies telling the story, with Netflix and Universal both expected to follow suit soon. Certainly, Waller's film has a terrifying authenticity. It also filmed its exterior shots at the Tham Luang site.

Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino ) Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran). Courtesy Netflix

Robert De Niro is Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran

The Irishman (November)

"I heard you paint houses." So goes the phone call between Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Sheeran in Martin Scorsese's latest mob classic.

Hoffa, of course, isn't interested in decorating. Unless, maybe, it's the walls of his rivals, with their own blood. A powerful American labour union leader with connections to organised crime, Hoffa would disappear on July 30, 1975. He was declared legally dead seven years later.

Sheeran's father, meanwhile, was a house-­painter from Philadelphia. But after the Second World War – during which, Sheeran claimed, his ability to assassinate people without remorse grew – he started working for the Bufalino crime family.

Scorsese's epic clocks in at about three and a half hours and traces the collision of these real-life forces. As such, much of the talk so far has focused on the de-ageing technology used on the actors to allow them to look younger on screen when necessary, entirely missing the point in the process.

After it received a rapturous reception at the New York Film Festival, it is ready to be released in theatres and on Netflix (who stumped up its $140m budget).

Tom Hanks could win another Oscar in his role as beloved US television personality Fred Rogers. TriStar Pictures

Tom Hanks is Fred Rogers

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood (December)

One American institution plays another in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, as Hanks takes on beloved US TV personality Rogers.

Rogers hosted the preschool series Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, from 1968 until 2001, explaining the world to children across the US in their own terms, no matter what the subject matter. "He was not somebody who shied away from painful topics. He believed in telling kids the truth," director Marielle Heller told Variety. "He did an episode on assassination after Bobby Kennedy was shot. He did a whole week on divorce."

Rogers may be far less well-known outside the US, but Hanks's intimate portrayal – "Everyone we talked to who knew him said that when you talked to Fred, you felt like the most important person in the world," Hanks told Variety gives him a good chance of earning a third Best Actor Oscar. You should probably take a tissue to the cinema. "I read the script and wept," Heller said.

Natalie Portman plays astronaut Lucy Cola in 'Lucy In The Sky'. Disney

Natalie Portman is Lucy Cola

Lucy In The Sky (December)

Noah Hawley's feature debut was originally titled Pale Blue Dot, after the astonishing picture of the Earth that the Voyager 1 space probe took in 1990, from six billion kilometres away (Google it).

Much like that picture, Lucy in the Sky looks at our place in the universe and ­specifically that of Cola (Portman), an astronaut who returns to terra firma forever changed by her time among the stars.

Though the name is fictional, Portman's Cola is based on real-life astronaut Lisa Nowak, the Nasa engineer whose life unravelled to the point that she attempted to kidnap US Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman – the girlfriend of her former partner, William Oefelein – in Florida in 2007. In the car with Nowak on the 1,400km journey from Houston to Orlando to commit the crime were latex gloves, a black wig, a pistol, pepper spray, a hammer and an eight-inch knife.

One item that Nowak packed – adult nappies, so she wouldn't have to stop to go to the toilet en route – will not be included in the film, no matter how much the media were fascinated by the detail at the time. "People said, 'There's no diaper and I'm not OK with that,' and I thought it said more about them, really," Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter. "What is it that makes you want that detail, that makes you want to reduce her to a punchline again?"   

Taika Waititi plays Adolf Hitler, Jojo Rabit's imaginary friend. Fox Searchlight Pictures

Taika Waititi is Adolf Hitler

Jojo Rabbit (January)

 Hitler in a comedy-drama? You read that right. Not only that, but Jojo Rabbit last month won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, putting it on track for further success at the Oscars.

The unlikely premise from director Taika Waititi (Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok), centres on a German boy during the Second World War whose imaginary friend is Hitler (Waititi).

The “anti-hate satire”, that also stars Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell, is a glorious, resonant, pitch-blackly comedic coming-of-age story. But that’s not to say it was always easy to find that balance on set.

"We were shooting a river­side scene and I was trying to communicate with the camera crew on the other side," Waititi told IMDb. "I was dressed up as that idiot [Hitler] … with the moustache and everything … and I was shouting at them. 'Why can't you guys get it right? Why can't you follow simple orders?'"

He rolled his eyes at the memory. That's what happens when you try to cast everyone in town as Hitler and they all turn you down. "I had to play him myself," Waititi told The Hollywood Reporter. "Everyone said no and I don't blame them. Who wants to see themselves as Adolf Hitler on a poster?"