Reel Lives: The Most Critically Acclaimed Biopics Ever Made

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Join us as we go on a journey through the very best biographical films of all time, from Amy Winehouse’s inspired-but-short life, all the way up to epic battles in the desert. Newsweek

Julian Assange has had one. So have Muhammad Ali and Mark Zuckerberg. Ned Kelly has had many—and another is in the pipeline.

Biographical films, sometimes referred to as biopics, have been around since the dawn of cinema—Ned Kelly’s 1906 biographical depiction is cited as the world's first ever full-length narrative feature film.

And it seems like Hollywood is only becoming more enamored with biopics. A third of the films nominated for Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars were based on true stories, and recent box office smashes such as 2014’s American Sniper, which tells the story of a real-life Navy SEAL sniper, have proven audiences’ desire for biographical filmmaking.

Not every biopic is a hit with critics. All Eyez On Me , a 2017 biopic of rapper Tupac Shakur, was criticised for being flat and uninspired, despite the lead actor Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s uncanny resemblance to the late rapper.

So what are the magic ingredients for making a good biopic? Metacritic have listed the most critically acclaimed biographical films ever made, and the results are certainly interesting. Of the top 10 movies, half were made in the last ten years, suggesting we’re living through a golden age of biopics.

Despite these new challengers, a number of classics continue to do well with critics. Steven Spielberg's haunting 1993 biopic of Oskar Schindler, Schindler's List, is still held up as one of the best examples of its genre.

Some films on the list are more leftfield. Waltz With Bashir (2008) is an autobiographical animation from Israeli director Ari Folman, and examines the slippery nature of trauma and memory in conflict zones.

As well as the Metacritic score, which is calculated using an average, weighted score from respected film writers, we’ve also included a User Score where a film has received a sufficient number of reviews by regular cinema-goers.

Join us as we go on a journey through the very best biographical films of all time, from Amy Winehouse’s inspired-but-short life, all the way up to epic battles in the desert.

01 Amy
50. Amy (2015, A24). Metascore: 85. User score: 8.3. Directed by: Asif Kapadia. Starring: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Mark Ronson. Summary: Archival footage and personal testimonials present an intimate portrait of the life and career of British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. A24
02 The Pianist
49. The Pianist (2002, Focus Features). Metascore: 85. User score: 7.7. Directed by: Roman Polanski. Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay. Summary: A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Focus Features
03 Before Night Falls
48. Before Night Falls (2000, Fine Line Features). Metascore: 85. User score: 6.7. Directed by: Julian Schnabel. Starring: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olatz López Garmendia. Summary: A richly imagined journey into the life and writings of the brilliant Cuban author and exile Reinaldo Arenas. Fine Line Features
04 The Beaches of Agnès
47. The Beaches of Agnès (2009, Cinema Guild). Metascore: 86. User score: 7.0. Directed by: Agnès Varda. Starring: Agnès Varda, André Lubrano, Blaise Fournier. Summary: Agnès Varda explores her memories, mostly chronologically, with photographs, film clips, interviews, reenactments, and droll, playful contemporary scenes of her narrating her story. Cinema Guild
05 The Straight Story
46. The Straight Story (1999, Buena Vista Pictures). Metascore: 86. User score: 8.4. Directed by: David Lynch. Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jane Galloway Heitz. Summary: An old man makes a long journey by lawnmower to mend his relationship with an ill brother. Buena Vista Pictures
06 42 42 Up
45. 42 Up (1999, First Run Features). Metascore: 86. User score: 8.6. Directed by: Michael Apted. Summary: Director Michael Apted revisits the same group of British-born adults after a 7 year wait. The subjects are interviewed as to the changes that have occurred in their lives during the last seven years. First Run Features
07 Dog Day Afternoon
44. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Warner Bros.). Metascore: 86. Directed by: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Penelope Allen. Summary: A man robs a bank to pay for his lover's operation; it turns into a hostage situation and a media circus. Warner Bros.
08 The Murder of Fred Hampton
43. The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971, Facets Multimedia Distribution). Metascore: 86. Directed by: Howard Alk. Starring: Skip Andrew, Edward Carmody, James Davis. Summary: Fred Hampton was the leader of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. This film depicts his brutal murder by the Chicago police and its subsequent investigation. Facets Multimedia Distribution
09 Lincoln
42. Lincoln (2012, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures). Metascore: 86. User score: 7.5. Directed by: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn. Summary: As the American Civil War continues to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
10 Gregory Crewdson- Brief Encounters
41. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012, Zeitgeist Films). Metascore: 87. User score: 6.7. Directed by: Ben Shapiro. Starring: Costanza Theodoli Braschi, Gregory Crewdson, Samantha Ressler. Summary: Photographer Gregory Crewdson’s 10-year quest to create a series of haunting, surreal, and stunningly elaborate portraits of small-town American life — filmed with unprecedented access. Zeitgeist Films
11 Grizzly Man
40. Grizzly Man (2005, Lions Gate Films). Metascore: 87. User score: 7.3. Directed by: Werner Herzog. Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog. Summary: A devastating and heartrending take on grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzlies in Alaska. Lions Gate Films