Real life is often more fantastical than the stories that are told in movies, so it makes sense that many of the greatest films of all time are biopics. Incredible biopics like Schindler’s List and Malcolm X have the power to tell inspiring stories about real figures from history. Not every biopic is necessarily based entirely accurate; in fact, many of the best biopics are only loosely based on real events. Still, the stories at their center are rooted in something true, making them even more compelling.
While recent biopics like The Social Network and Oppenheimer have drawn significant critical acclaim, some biopics haven’t received enough credit. With so many coming out every year, it’s logical that a few fly under audiences’ radars. These biopics remain unfairly underrated, whether because they were eclipsed by other major releases or maybe because their subject matters were too unyielding for mainstream audiences.
10 ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ (2015)
Director: Edward Zwick
Pawn Sacrifice takes the impossible task of making chess exciting and shows the strategy that top players use to best their opponents. Tobey Maguire gives one of the best performances of his career as the genius chess champion Bobby Fischer, whose face-off with the Russian player Borris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) came during the height of the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Maguire shows how both genius and chaos affected Fischer’s strategies; it’s an eccentric performance that couldn’t be more different than his role in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.
Chess is a subject that is rarely depicted in detail in the film, but Pawn Sacrifice fleshed out the nuances in the game long before The Queen’s Gambitbecame a blockbuster hit on Netflix. The film excels at showing the strategy that goes into the game, and how both Fischer and Spasskys’ obsessive personalities drove them to success. Director Edward Zwick captures the political tension of the Cold War era, and Pawn Sacrifice deserves more credit for its depiction of nationalistic loyalties.
- Release Date
- September 16, 2015
Watch on Hulu
9 ‘The Dig’ (2021)
Director: Simon Stone
What responsibility does a society have to preserve its past? The Dig explores a fascinating true story about the English landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who discovered the remains of Viking-era artifacts on her property. In order to preserve the precious relics, Pretty hires the quirky archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate her property. Brown is forced to work quickly as Pretty’s property is swept up in the chaos of World War I. Although The Dig was released directly on Netflix, the film’s gorgeous visuals and examination of ancient architecture warranted theatrical distribution.
The Dig is a powerful celebration of the importance of celebrating art and why certain human achievements are bound to stand the test of time. The film is underrated because the story of Brown’s discovery is still relatively unknown, as the novelty of his excavation was overshadowed within the context of World War I. Netflix does not often do enough to generate interest in its films, and The Dig certainly deserved better than to be dumped onto the streaming service with little marketing.
Watch on Netflix
8 ‘The Duke’ (2022)
Director: Roger Michell
The Duke drew inspiration from a fascinating true story as it took a different perspective on the heist movie genre. The film follows the retired, unemployed British bus driver Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) as he steals a precious painting from the National Gallery in London. Bunton’s premise is simple: if pensioners can’t pay for the painting, then the National Gallery has no right to show it. While The Duke explores the more damning economic circumstances that forced Bunton to take radical action, Broadbent’s endearing performance turns the film into a crowd-pleaser.
Although the charming performances by Broadbent and Helen Mirren may suggest that the film is a light comedy, The Duke is a rather poignant study of class differences and wealth disparity without entering eat-the-rich movie territory. The actual story itself is unusual, and The Duke transforms it into a compelling adventure where fact seems stranger than fiction. While sadly not a breakout critical hit, The Duke is a subversive take on the heist genre.
Rent on Amazon Prime
7 ‘Life’ (2015)
Director: Anton Corbijn
James Dean was a movie star like no other. Despite having only three film roles ever, Dean left an indelible impact on popular culture and the rise of Hollywood stardom. The 2015 biopic Life examines the last few weeks of Dean’s life and features an incredible performance by the underrated Dane DeHaan as the beloved Hollywood “bad boy.” The film explores the tender relationship between Dean and photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who took the iconic photos of Dean in New York City.
The film shows how unprecedented Dean’s success was and how unexpected his popularity truly was. Capturing an icon like Dean was no easy task; his performances in Rebel With A Cause, Giant,and East of Eden are so iconic that it would be challenging for any actor to capture his charisma. However, DeHaan’s more sensitive depiction of Dean’s internal struggles with his own stardom makes Life an underrated story of celebrity fanaticism. DeHaan’s own underappreciated status was a large reason behind Life‘s lack of mainstream success, but the film is worthy of finding an audience, even now, 8 years after its premiere.
Watch on Amazon Prime
6 ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ (2018)
Director: David Wain
A Futile and Stupid Gesture takes a creative slant on the nature of biopics with its almost entirely fictitious recount of events. Although in real life, the National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney died at a young age, A Futile and Stupid Gesture features an older Doug (Martin Mull) explaining the antics of his youth. Will Forte stars as the younger Doug, who worked to found the infamous humor publication alongside his longtime friend Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson).
While not necessarily accurate to true events, A Futile and Stupid Gesture reflects the spirit of Doug and his impact on the comedy world. The film was one of the earlier biopics released by Netflix; thus, outside a brief release at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the film was released with little to no fanfare as another of its movies-of-the-week. This is disappointing, as the rapid-fire humor that director David Wain added gave A Futile and Stupid Gesture the potential to be a breakout hit had it been released theatrically.
Watch on Netflix
5 ‘Boy Erased’ (2018)
Director: Joel Edgerton
The queer coming-of-age film Boy Erased explores the horrific nature of gay conversion therapy camps and the dehumanizing effects they have on young adults that are discovering their identity. Lucas Hedges gives one of his strongest performances as Jared Eamons, a teenager who was sent to a conversion camp by his pastor father, Marshall (Russell Crowe). Jared fears talking to his parents about the truth when he discovers the horrific tactics the camp employs. Joel Edgerton shows a tremendous amount of skill as a director; the actor-turned-filmmaker also has a terrifying role as the conversion camp’s lead counselor, Victor Sykes.
Boy Erased is not an easy film to watch, but it treats its critical issues with the respect that they deserve. While it’s definitely a « message movie, » Jared is an endearing character, and Hedges’ performance generates a lot of empathy. Despite its award-season-friendly release date, Boy Erased failed to score any Oscar nods for its its excellent screenplay and the terrific performances from Hedges, Edgerton, Kidman, and Crowe.
Watch on Netflix
4 ‘Rush’ (2013)
Director: Ron Howard
Director Ron Howard delivered one of his best films in years with the 2013 biopic Rush. The film examines the infamous rivalry between the Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The two men were complete opposites of each other; Hunt enjoyed indulging in the excesses of his victories, and Lauda was more quiet and sensitive. However, the film shows that both men were drawn together by their mutual love of the sport.
Although the racing sequences are electrifying, it’s the emotional performances from Hemsworth and Bruhl that make Rush so impactful. The film received decent critical attention, especially for Brühl’s work – one of the best performances in any Ron Howard movie. However, Rush was only a moderate commercial success, and conversation around it died as soon as Brühl failed to secure an Oscar nomination. Time has been kind to the film, but it’s still not considered anywhere near Howard’s best movies, even though it should be.
- Release Date
- September 2, 2013
Watch on Netflix
3 ‘The Finest Hours’ (2016)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Between Dumb Money and I, Tonya, director Craig Gillespie has proven that he has a knack for telling true stories about underdogs. Gillespie’s 2016 adventure film The Finest Hours examines one of the most dangerous rescues in the history of the Coast Guard. The First Mate Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and the volunteers Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Richard P. Livesey (Ben Foster) faced horrific weather as they led a rescue to save the crew of the oil tanker SS Pendleton off the coast of Cape Cod.
The Finest Hours is a celebration of the working-class heroes who saved lives. Although 3D is often used as a gimmick, The Finest Hours uses the medium to its advantage to make the rescue sequences feel more immersive. Gillespie shows how each member of Webber’s team contributes to the mission and highlights what each of the characters takes away from their experiences. Alas, The Finest Hours never stood a chance, being buried at the box office by Kung Fu Panda 3 and failing to receive any major nominations. Gillespie’s future successes have also kept it from rising in prominence.
Watch on Disney+
2 ‘The End of the Tour’ (2015)
Director: James Ponsoldt
The End of the Tour tells the story of the famous writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The film examines the relationship between Wallace and the Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) during one of the last publicity tours of his career. They share profound conversations about the futility of life, the nature of writing, and what success really means. Although Segel is best known for his comedic work, he gives an astounding dramatic performance that captures Wallace’s reclusive nature.
Wallace’s work isn’t necessarily for everyone, but The End of the Tour is surprisingly accessible. It’s a celebration of the qualities that all writers share, as Wallace and Lipsky discover that they have more in common with each other than either of them initially suspected. A24’s wild success with films like Everything Everywhere All at Once has eclipsed its smaller efforts, including The End of the Tour. However, it is among the most underrated movies from A24 and among the most profound films that the distributor has ever released.
the end of the tour
- Release Date
- July 31, 2015
Watch on Hulu
1 ‘Barry’ (2016)
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Not to be confused with the acclaimed HBO crime comedy series of the same name, the 2016 Netflix biopic Barry tells the story of a young Barack Obama (Devon Terrell). The film chronicles his upbringing in New York City and his studies at Columbia University. Surprisingly disconnected from any of Obama’s politics, Barry is simply a great story about a young man finding his identity during one of the most influential periods of his life. It’s a testament to Barry’s strong writing and performances that it would work as a standalone coming-of-age story, away from the shadow of its larger-than-life subject.
Barry may have been overshadowed because it was released the same year as another young Obama biopic, Southside With You, with both films canceling each other out. They are both worth watching, but Barry excels at showing how the intersection between race, politics, and history impacted Obama’s social development. Barry is an underrated coming-of-age story that didn’t receive enough credit for its objective depiction of Obama’s adolescence, and it’s due for a reevaluation.
- Release Date
- September 10, 2016
Watch on Netflix
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