Although many biopics are formulaic enterprises, hitting familiar beats as the subject rises and falls and falls in love and writes that really popular song, they’re a vital element of the entertainment industry. Biopics allow filmmakers to humanize our myths, mythologize our contemporaries, re-evaluate history at a fundamentally human level and catalogue our present so that future generations can understand what the hell we are going through. It’s been an entire decade full of great biopics, too many to fit in a conventional list, but when all is said and done, we have to call these the 10 absolutely essential films in the genre from the 2010s.
Runners-Up: "127 Hours," "Behind the Candelabra," "A Dangerous Method," "Dolemite Is My Name," "Jackie," "Mr. Turner," "Rocketman," "Southside With You," "Straight Outta Compton," "The Wind Rises"
10. "Stan & Ollie" (2018)
Earnest, bittersweet and oh, so very funny, Jon S. Baird’s biopic about famed comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, played to perfection by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, takes place at the very end of their careers. Older, not in great health, and still famous but long since passed over in Hollywood, they reunite for one last tour, telling jokes and improvising gags just so they don’t have to dig up the grievances of the past. “Stan & Ollie” nimbly recreates Laurel & Hardy’s comedy routines, and makes them just as humorous as ever, while digging deeper into these master vaudevillians' personal dramas. You’ll laugh until you cry, and you may well cry your eyes out.
9. "Get On Up" (2014)
Tate Taylor’s raucous film about soul music legend James Brown doesn’t play out like other biopics. It careens ecstatically between the most amazing, bizarre and frequently unsympathetic moments in the musician’s life, as though the filmmakers can’t believe they were allowed to put so many unbelievable episodes in just one film. Chadwick Boseman is phenomenal as Brown, the late, great Nelsan Ellis is captivating as Bobby Byrd, and the eclectic editing keeps the film’s energy at dangerous levels.
8. "Fighting With My Family" (2019)
The life of professional wrestler Paige, played to perfection by Florence Pugh, becomes an inspiring biopic from writer-director Stephen Merchant. “Fighting with My Family” takes Paige, born Saraya Knight, from her working-class and rowdy wrestling family to the main stage at the WWE, and deftly tackles the issues of identity, and the phobia of success, that emerge from Paige’s sudden, meteoric rise. An absolutely delightful supporting cast includes Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Paige’s parents, Jack Lowden as the brother whose dreams don’t come true, and an impressive Vince Vaughn as a matter-of-fact coach with an invaluable perspective. It’s inspiring, it’s funny, it’s fabulous.
7. "Big Eyes" (2014)
Tim Burton reteams with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the writers of his acclaimed biopic about notorious filmmaker Ed Wood, for a very different real-life story. “Big Eyes” tells the tale of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose artistic career and signature style was usurped by her manipulative husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), leading to a bizarre courtroom battle. “Ed Wood” was about naive artistic optimism, but “Big Eyes” is the work of filmmakers who understand what it’s like to lose your life’s work to a soulless marketing machine, and it feels deeply personal in every scene. Adams gives one of her best performances, and Waltz is absolutely terrifying.
6. "I, Tonya" (2017)
Tonya Harding went from being one of the most talented athletes in the country to a worldwide punchline, after her husband ordered an assault on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Or maybe it was nowhere near that simple. Craig Gillespie’s film doesn’t just tell Harding’s story, it drastically reframes it and makes her -- in a complicated but convincing way -- once again the hero of her own narrative. Her underdog struggles, her abusive family, and her own brash personality infuse “I, Tonya” with a whirligig dynamism that compels and, sometimes, repels in equal measure. Margot Robbie is dynamic as Harding, Allison Janney earned her Academy Award for playing her disappointing mother, and Sebastian Stan is the perfect lout as her troublesome husband.
5. "12 Years a Slave" (2013)
Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is a potent biopic, with an aesthetic that places the audience within the horrifying world of American slavery in the 19th century. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and sold from one plantation owner to the next, encountering all manner of tortures and evils along the way, for a dozen horrifying years. Some of the supporting performances seem broad, especially Michael Fassbender's, but then again, the people being portrayed had the freedom to be as broadly terrible as they wished. McQueen envelops the audience in an ugly and unforgivable era, with no escape in sight. It’s as intense an experience as a biopic can be.
4. "Christine" (2016)
Rebecca Hall gives one of the best performances of the decade in Antonio Campos’ insightful, riveting and despair-fueled biopic of TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who famously killed herself on live television in 1974. “Christine” details the events that led to Chubbuck’s death, highlighting her sexist workplace, the increasingly superficial news industry, her isolated social life, and her failing health, all of which coalesce into a miasma of depression and loneliness that culminates with a shocking moment of clarity. Campos’ film sympathetically and tragically paints the thin line between reality and perception, and sensitively pulls the audience into a mindset that is uncomfortable but vitally important to comprehend. “Christine” pulls no punches and hits hard.
3. "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)
The opulence, decadence and absolute moral decay of American capitalism takes center stage in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and disgraced Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort is the shining star. Belfort swiftly trades what few bits of soul he has, as he rises to financial power in dodgy scams, and Scorsese alluringly illustrates the shiny products and sexy parties he received in return. Scorsese’s film is the pinnacle of excess, with stunningly outlandish work from Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort; in his orgiastic, drug-induced foolishness, DiCaprio turns in a physical comedy performance worthy of the silent stars. Of course, like many of Scorsese’s films, the sins are visited back on the sinner, but the “Wolf” reminds us at the end that no amount of cautionary tales will prevent future generations from short-sighted, amoral, selfish pursuits.
2. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (2018)
Unflinching and unflattering, Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is one of the great modern films about economic struggle and moral compromise. Melissa McCarthy stars as author Lee Israel, who writes biographies that don’t sell, and turns instead to forging correspondence between famous figures to make a living. The conflict between obvious fraud, undeniable need and a set of victims who, arguably, can afford to be duped makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” an intellectually stimulating drama. Heller’s willingness to portray Israel and her only friend, and smarmy partner in crime, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), at their worst -- for extended periods -- practically dares you to judge them for doing their best and protecting their egos.
1. "The Social Network" (2010)
It’s incredibly difficult, not to mention dangerous, to mythologize the living, because although time has been kind to David Fincher’s razor-sharp biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, it hasn’t necessarily been kind to Zuckerberg himself. To “The Social Network’s” credit, Aaron Sorkin’s exceptional screenplay is always quick to celebrate its hero's genius and even quicker to make him look like a massive and unrepentant a-hole. Jesse Eisenberg gives an iconic performance as the college student who invented Facebook and, allegedly, bilked just about everyone he knew in the process. He’s selfish, sexist and rude, but hey, at least he writes great code. “The Social Network” incisively captures the ease which which life can turn into work and then, just as easily, into an interminable defense of your actions, whether or not they are defensible. Beautifully photographed and scored, incredibly acted, and just about smart as movies get.