7 Best Biopic Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Here’s a biopic that focuses on capturing the feel of the era it depicts, rather than all the facts — and is all the better for it. 24 Hour Party People takes the same punk approach to storytelling as its subjects did to music, playfully throwing off the dull constraints that often make based-on-a-true-story movies feel like uninspired celluloid translations of a Wikipedia page. 

In the film’s opening scene, Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us directly and semi-spoil the movie’s ending. But it doesn’t matter, because the ride is so fun: we’re taken on an immersive trip through the heyday of the Manchester music scene: the births of Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays, and Wilson’s Factory Records label and legendary Hacienda nightclub, an incubator for acid house and rave culture. The era’s hedonism is brought to life by the movie’s frenetic editing, documentary-style cinematography, and strobe-heavy visuals. For all its onscreen anarchy, though, the movie remarkably never feels loose or self-indulgent. Its irreverence is grounded by the ironic filter of the meta filmmaking, which frequently breaks the fourth wall to draw attention to its own conceits. A refreshing rejection of biopic tropes, but also a thrilling transportation into and evocation of the Madchester era.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music

Actor: Andy Serkis, Chris Coghill, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Lestuzzi, Danny Cunningham, Darren Tighe, Elizabeth Kelly, Enzo Cilenti, Fiona Allen, Helen Schlesinger, John Simm, John Thomson, Kate Magowan, Keith Allen, Kenny Baker, Kieran O'Brien, Lennie James, Margi Clarke, Mark E. Smith, Martin Hancock, Naomi Radcliffe, Neil Bell, Paddy Considine, Paul Popplewell, Peter Gunn, Peter Kay, Ralf Little, Raymond Waring, Rob Brydon, Ron Cook, Sean Cernow, Sean Harris, Shirley Henderson, Simon Pegg, Smug Roberts, Steve Coogan, Toby Salaman, Tony Wilson

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rating: R

There are a striking number of similarities between Priscilla and director Sofia Coppola’s earlier offering, Marie Antoinette: both revolve around 14-year-old girls hand-picked to be partners to more powerful men in long-unconsummated relationships, and both girls are emotionally cut adrift and forced to live in gilded cages. But where Coppola’s Barbie-pink historical biopic is punkily anachronistic and riotous, Priscilla is a far more muted affair. There are no wild parties at Graceland as there were at Versailles; instead, Priscilla’s emotional isolation, thousands of miles away from her family, is made disconcertingly clear in shots of the infatuated teenager (played by Cailee Spaeny) anxiously ruminating alone in endless lavish rooms while the decade-older King (Jacob Elordi) plays away. Elvis’ emotional manipulation of Priscilla is conveyed subtly but inescapably — and the full sickening, insidious effect comes to the fore thanks to Spaeny’s astonishing performance. Based on Priscilla Presley’s own memoir, this is a bubble-bursting biopic, and it’s so compelling and painfully immersive that we never feel, even for a moment, like we’re watching the B side — instead, Spaeny and Coppola convincingly assert that this was the real story all along.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alanis Peart, Ari Cohen, Cailee Spaeny, Conni Miu, Dagmara Domińczyk, Dan Abramovici, Dan Beirne, Deanna Jarvis, E. Fegan DeCordova, Gwynne Phillips, Jacob Elordi, Jorja Cadence, Josette Halpert, Kamilla Kowal, Kelaiah Guiel, Kelly Penner, Luke Humphrey, Lynne Griffin, Mary Kelly, Olivia Barrett, R Austin Ball, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Sarah Dodd, Stephanie Moore, Stephanie Moran, Tim Dowler-Coltman, Tim Post

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rating: R

I’m Not There is an unusual biopic in that it never refers to its subject, Bob Dylan, by name. Instead, Todd Haynes’ portrait of the singer mimics his constant reinvention by casting six separate actors to play as many reincarnations of the same soul. It’s an ingenious spin on a usually stale genre, one that liberates the film from the humdrum restrictions of a literal retelling of Dylan's life.

If there’s anyone who warrants such an inventive approach to biography, it’s Dylan, whose public and private personas are so numerous that it’s only by angling six different mirrors at him that Haynes can hope to catch some of his essence. Impressionistic editing toggles freely between these vignettes, each visually distinct: from the 11-year-old Woody Guthrie-obsessive (Marcus Carl Franklin) and the black-and-white Super 16mm-shot poet (Ben Whishaw) to the aging cowboy outlaw (Richard Gere), all by way of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett’s incarnations. To be sure, this is a somewhat challenging film, reflecting, in places, the enigmatic surrealism of Dylan’s lyrics and his refusal to be pinned down to one thing. But, as Blanchett’s embodiment says, “Mystery is a traditional fact,” and that’s no more true than of Dylan, making Haynes’ film a fascinatingly fitting spiritual biopic.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Alison Folland, Andrew Shaver, Andrew Simms, Angela Galuppo, Arthur Holden, Ben Whishaw, Benz Antoine, Bill Croft, Bob Dylan, Brett Watson, Bruce Greenwood, Cate Blanchett, Catherine Colvey, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Bale, Craig Thomas, Danny Blanco Hall, David Cross, David Gow, Dennis St John, Dominic James, Don Francks, Emmanuel Schwartz, Eric Newsome, Eugene Brotto, Fanny La Croix, Garth Gilker, Gordon Masten, Graham Cuthbertson, Greg Kramer, Heath Ledger, Holly Uloth, Ivan Freud, Jane Gilchrist, Jane Wheeler, Jason Cavalier, Jennifer Rae Westley, Jesse Todd, Jessica Kardos, Jim James, Jodie Resther, Joe Cobden, John Koensgen, Julianne Moore, Kathleen Fee, Kim Gordon, Kim Roberts, Kris Kristofferson, Kristen Hager, Kyle Gatehouse, Kyle Switzer, Larry Day, Leif Anderson, Leigh Ann Taylor, Lina Roessler, Lisa Bronwyn Moore, Lorne Brass, Maggie Castle, Marcus Carl Franklin, Marie-Julie Rivest, Mark Camacho, Matt Holland, Matthew Boylan, Matthew Harbour, Melantha Blackthorne, Michelle Williams, Nathalie Girard, Noel Burton, Patrick Costello, Paul Cagelet, Paul Johnston, Paul Spence, Pauline Little, Peter Friedman, Phyllis Gooden, Pier Paquette, Pierre Leblanc, Pierre-Alexandre Fortin, Richard Gere, Richard Jutras, Richard Robitaille, Richie Havens, Rob Burns, Roc LaFortune, Sharlene Royer, Shawn Baichoo, Steve Godin, Susan Glover, Terry Haig, Thiéry Dubé, Tim Post, Trevor Hayes, Tyrone Benskin, Vito DeFilippo, Wyatt Bowen, Yolonda Ross

Director: Todd Haynes

Rating: R

, 2023

After winning Oscars for their documentary work, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin make their narrative feature debut with Nyad. The move to narrative fiction isn’t a monumental jump for the director duo, whose cinematic documentaries (among them Free Solo and The Rescue) play like nerve-shredding action thrillers and intense human dramas. Nor does Nyad’s subject — another extreme feat of human daring and endurance — make this feel a million miles away from their most famous works.

The most obvious departures from the directors’ documentary strengths — Nyad’s flashbacks and hallucination scenes, for example — do sometimes highlight their newness to narrative filmmaking, however. These scenes feel shallow and therefore disconnected from the movie’s otherwise deeper treatment of its subject, just as the performances dip into outsized cliches at times. Mostly, though, Nyad manages to float above the trap of trying too hard to be an inspirational sports drama thanks to its confrontation of Diana’s prickly personality. This flips the film’s perspective onto that of Diana’s team (including her coach and former girlfriend, played by Jodie Foster), who ultimately suffer the consequences of her stubbornness. That refusal to submit to hagiographic impulses gives the film a documentary-like edge of truth, making the rousing moments here feel genuinely earned.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Anna Harriette Pittman, Annette Bening, Carolyn McCormick, Diana Nyad, Eric T. Miller, Erica Cho, Ethan Jones Romero, Garland Scott, Jeena Yi, Jodie Foster, Johnny Solo, Karly Rothenberg, Katherine Klosterman, Luke Cosgrove, Marcus Young, Melissa R. Stubbs, Nadia Lorencz, Rhys Ifans, Stephen Schnetzer, Tisola Logan

Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin

Rating: PG-13

As biopics go, Cassandro skews towards the conventional. It follows a template familiar to anyone who has seen a life-story movie about the underdog climbing up the ranks thanks to their unmatchable heart and talent. But it’s also a template that’s elevated by Bernal’s wonderful performance and Roger Ross Williams’ careful and naturalistic direction. Save for a few melodramatic moments, many parts of Cassandro feel fresh and authentic, not least of which is Saúl's heartwarming relationship with his mother Yocasta (Perla De La Rosa). It’s unapologetic joy is another element that sets it apart: instead of being punished for his flamboyance and cheer, Saúl is rewarded for it. This seems like a rare triumph in LGBTQ+ stories, and on that merit alone Cassandro deserves to be seen. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bad Bunny, El Hijo del Santo, Gael García Bernal, Joaquín Cosío, Julieta Ortiz, Leonardo Alonso, Mark Vasconcellos, Perla de la Rosa, Raúl Castillo, Roberta Colindrez

Director: Roger Ross Williams

Rating: R

, 2023

An unsung hero of the civil rights movement gets the customary Oscar bait treatment in this biopic. Though he was instrumental in organizing the historic March on Washington — which helped force the US government to enshrine civil rights — gay Black activist Bayard Rustin isn’t the household name his peers are. In an inversion of that narrative, figures like Martin Luther King appear here as supporting characters to Colman Domingo’s Bayard.

Domingo’s energetic, commanding performance holds the center of the film, but he’s ill-served by the formulaic approach to storytelling that unfolds around him. More than a few scenes feel like they were written, directed, and performed with an eye to making awards ceremony clips, giving the film a disjointed, self-aware air. And yet, for all the limits of its by-the-numbers approach, Rustin does manage to pack in glints of insight. By virtue of who he was, Bayard will never not make for a compelling central figure — so even lackluster filmmaking can’t sap this inherently radical material of all its power. Though not without its flaws, then, the film is valuable for the light it sheds on the polarising effect Bayard's identity as a gay Black man had within the movement and the intersectional depths he nevertheless brought to it. 

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Adrienne Warren, Aml Ameen, Audra McDonald, Ayana Workman, Bill Irwin, Carra Patterson, CCH Pounder, Chanel Minnifield, Chris Rock, Collin Antrim Miller, Colman Domingo, Cotter Smith, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dan Sauer, Daniel Johnson, Frank Harts, Glynn Turman, Grantham Coleman, Gus Halper, Hope Clarke, Ivan Moore, Jeff Hochendoner, Jeffrey Wright, Johanna McGinley, Johnny Ramey, Jordan Aaron Hall, Jules Latimer, Kevin Mambo, Lilli Kay, Maxwell Whittington-Cooper, Michael Potts, Rashad Edwards, Robert F. Kennedy, Scott Deal, Zuri Starks

Director: George C. Wolfe

Rating: PG-13

Sweetwater has a precious story in its hands, along with a sparkling cast of tried-and-true actors and a generous budget that allows them to go all in with the movie’s 1950s setting. But the parts are far greater than the sum here, because all together, Sweetwater is a mess. It promises to be a biopic about Clifton but fractures into many other things. During its duller parts, it’s a white savior story about basketball owners, and during its more vibrant parts, it’s a snapshot of the Harlem Globetrotters during their humble beginnings. The basketball matches themselves are playful and exciting to watch, but for every game, there is an overdramatic scene that cranks up the notch on sappy music and predictable dialogues. Often, it also feels like director Martin Guigui went to the Green Book School of Anti-prejudice, given his extremely elementary portrayal of racism and his preference for the white characters over the Black characters. Sweetwater isn’t watchable, but it’s a shame that the star of the film had to share the spotlight with less interesting personalities. 

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Ashani Roberts, Billy Malone, Cary Elwes, Dahlia Waingort, Delijah McAlpin, Eric Etebari, Eric Roberts, Ernest Harden Jr., Everett Osborne, Gary Clark Jr., Jason Sklar, Jeremy Piven, Jim Caviezel, Jim Meskimen, Kevin Pollak, Mike Starr, Paul Hipp, Preston Galli, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Ri'chard, Wayne Federman

Director: Martin Guigui