14 Best True-story-based Movies On Max (HBO Max)

Staff & contributors

They say art imitates life, especially in the case of movies that are based on a true story. Whether you’re interested in historical events or iconic biopics, here are the best true story-based movies and shows to stream now.

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley, Chad Michael Murray, Chris Riedell, Christina Elmore, Denzel Worthington, Destiny Ekwueme, Joey Oglesby, John Burke, Jonez Cain, Keenan Coogler, Kevin Durand, Laurel Moglen, Liisa Cohen, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Melonie Diaz, Michael B. Jordan, Nicole Maxali, Noah Staggs, Noah Zavala, Octavia Spencer, Robert Ajlouny, Ruben Rivera, Ryan Coogler, Tamera Tomakili, Trestin George, William Armando

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: R

An inspired by true events tale about an elderly Irish woman trying to find the child she was forced to give up many years earlier. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and, though the base story is a tragic one, his special brand of very subtle, wry wit is apparent in the dialogue throughout. Judi Dench plays the mother who had kept her “sinful” past a secret for fifty years and, being Judi Dench, I don’t need to bother going on about her exemplary talent, suffice to say she’s charming beyond measure in the role. Steven Frears directs, as usual, deftly, and keeps the story compelling scene after scene, intensifying the emotions inherent to each, whether they be heart-warming, comedic, or outright enraging. Whoever decided to let Steve Coogan have his way with the script, it was a brave and wise choice and together this cast and crew have produced a wonderful and important piece of cinema.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Amber Batty, Amy McAllister, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Cathy Belton, Charissa Shearer, Charles Edwards, Charlie Murphy, Elliot Levey, Florence Keith-Roach, Frankie McCafferty, Gary Lilburn, Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood, Mare Winningham, Marie Jones, Martin Glyn Murray, Michelle Fairley, Nicholas Jones, Nika McGuigan, Paris Arrowsmith, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe, Sara Stewart, Sean Mahon, Simone Lahbib, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Steve Coogan, Wunmi Mosaku

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: PG-13

A hilarious and smart comedy that is almost impossible to hate. It doesn’t matter if you liked The Room or not; or if you’ve even heard of it, you will find The Disaster Artist extremely enjoyable. Same applies for James Franco, it’s irrelevant if you think he’s the hottest man walking or a complete waste of screen-time - this movie is better approached without any preconceived ideas. It follows the true events surrounding Tommy Wiseau’s making of The Room, a movie so bad it actually became a worldwide hit. Tommy’s character, played by Franco, is 100% mystery. He pops out of nowhere and does and says things that contain little to no logic. Capitalizing on this, the movie is both absolutely hilarious and intriguing from beginning to end.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adam Scott, Adwin Brown, Alison Brie, Amechi Okocha, Andrew Santino, Angelyne, Ari Graynor, Bob Odenkirk, Brett Gelman, Brian Huskey, Bryan Cranston, Cameron Brinkman, Casey Wilson, Cate Freedman, Charlyne Yi, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Corey Weber, Danny McBride, Dave Franco, David DeCoteau, Dree Hemingway, Dylan Minnette, Eliza Coupe, Eloho Josephine Okujeni, Erin Cummings, Frankie Ponce, Frederick Keeve, Greg Sestero, Hannibal Buress, Ike Barinholtz, J.J. Abrams, Jacki Weaver, James Franco, Jason Mantzoukas, Jason Mitchell, Javi Sánchez-Blanco Boyer, Jenna Curtis, Jerrod Carmichael, Jessie Ennis, Joe Mande, John Early, Jolie Mitnick Salter, Josh Hutcherson, Judd Apatow, June Diane Raphael, Kara Gibson, Kate Upton, Katherine Neff, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Oxford, Kether Donohue, Kevin Smith, Krista West, Kristen Bell, Lauren Ash, Lizzy Caplan, Megan Ferguson, Megan Mullally, Melanie Griffith, Nathan Fielder, Nicole Gordon-Levitt, Paul Scheer, Peter Gilroy, Phillip E. Walker, Ramona Tibrin, Randall Park, Ricky Mabe, Ron Saylor, Seth Rogen, Shane Ryan-Reid, Sharon Stone, Slim Khezri, Steven Liu, Sugar Lyn Beard, Tamzin Brown, Taylor DeVoe, Tom Franco, Tommy Wiseau, Tudor Munteanu, Vincent Marinelli, Xosha Roquemore, Zac Efron, Zach Braff, Zhubin Rahbar, Zoey Deutch

Director: James Franco

Rating: R

Sometimes you can just tell a movie means way too much to the people who made it. That makes me want to watch it more than once, which is what I wanted to do with The Tale. But while I think it's such an amazing movie and everyone should watch it, I don't think I can stomach a second watch.. It is based on the director/writer Jennifer Fox's own story - recounting her first sexual experience at a very young age. It's about the stories we tell ourselves to deal with trauma, and in that sense, and with utmost honesty, it invites grief and closure for similar experiences. A powerful movie led by a powerful performance by Laura Dern as Jennifer.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, TV Movie

Actor: Chelsea Alden, Common, Daniel Berson, Deana Deatherage, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Emily Sandifer, Frances Conroy, Grant James, Gretchen Koerner, Isabella Amara, Isabelle Nélisse, Jaqueline Fleming, Jason Ritter, Jenson Cheng, Jered Meeks, Jessica Sarah Flaum, Jodi Long, John Heard, Juli Erickson, Katie Fairbanks, Laura Allen, Laura Dern, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., Madara Jayasena, Madison David, Matthew Rauch, Mobin Khan, Noah Lomax, Paul Riley Fox, Pixie Hankins, Rebecca Chulew, Ricki Bhullar, Russell Bradley Fenton, Scott Takeda, Tarek Bishara, Thom Bishops, Tina Parker, Vincent Washington

Director: Jennifer Fox

Rating: Not Rated

, 2018

This true story of a white-supremacist and the civil rights unit that tried to stop his group was so gripping. 

You might recognize the title from the Oscars ceremony, as a shorter version of Skin (same director but different actors) won the Academy Award for Best Short Film. 

The longer movie provides much more time for the characters to develop, and room for more of a commentary on the current political situation in the U.S.

Fun fact: see that scary man in the picture? That’s Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell who went through a transformation for the role, including always wearing a device to pull his ears closer to his head because they were “too cute”.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ari Barkan, Bill Camp, Cecil Blutcher, Colbi Gannett, Daniel Henshall, Danielle Macdonald, Jaime Ray Newman, Jamie Bell, Jenna Leigh Green, Joanna Herrington, Justin L. Wilson, Kylie Rogers, Louisa Krause, Maliq Johnson, Mary Stuart Masterson, Michael Villar, Mike Colter, Portia, Rob Figueroa, Rob Giumarra, Russell Posner, Samantha Jones, Seán Cullen, Vera Farmiga, Zoe Colletti

Director: Guy Nattiv

Rating: R

, 2016

Here’s a based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama that transcends the limits of its genre by virtue of an incisive and unexpectedly prescient script. Twenty years before 2016 sent us hurtling through the looking glass and into a post-truth era, the idea that you could deny the facts as you pleased teetered terrifyingly on the brink of legitimacy when author David Irving (a suitably odious Timothy Spall) brought a UK libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an academic whom he claimed had defamed him for calling him exactly what he was: a Holocaust denier.

The case was complicated by the fact that, at the time, the UK placed the burden of proof on the defendant — in other words, Lipstadt’s hotshot legal team needed to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence demonstrating this. Denial captures that terrifying farcicality and the defense’s cleverly counterintuitive strategy: not allowing Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors to speak. If that sounds unsatisfying — this is the rare courtroom drama with no grandstanding speech from the protagonist — that’s the point, something the film’s title cleverly alludes to. Perhaps unexpectedly, Denial’s relevance has ballooned since its release, a fact that might hobble its hopeful ending but that only makes the rest all the more powerful.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Cruttenden, Alex Jennings, Amanda Lawrence, Andrea Deck, Andrew Scott, Caren Pistorius, Daniel Cerqueira, Edward Franklin, Elliot Levey, Harriet Walter, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Ian Bartholomew, Jack Lowden, Jackie Clune, Jeremy Paxman, John Sessions, Lachele Carl, Laura Evelyn, Mark Gatiss, Max Befort, Mick Jackson, Nicholas Tennant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Paul Bailey, Paul Hunter, Pip Carter, Rachel Weisz, Sally Messham, Sara Powell, Sean Power, Timothy Spall, Todd Boyce, Tom Clarke Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Will Attenborough, Ziggy Heath

Director: Mick Jackson

Rating: PG-13

Biographical documentaries tend to depict exceptional people– people who are so great that everyone wants to know about them, and people who are so terrible that they serve as a warning. Great Photo, Lovely Life depicts a serial sexual abuser in photojournalist Amanda Mustard’s family, able to get away with nearly all his crimes each time he skips over state lines. It’s not an easy film. It’s deeply uncomfortable. There are certain interviews that will trigger anger, despair, and bewilderment over how someone so evil can remain out of bars all his life. Great Photo, Lovely Life doesn’t provide any easy, comforting sequence as a balm to sexual abuse survivors around the world, but it’s an urgent reminder of the consequences of maintaining silence.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amanda Mustard

Director: Amanda Mustard, Rachel Beth Anderson

Although it opens on Janet Frame’s first steps as a baby, this Jane Campion-directed biopic of the celebrated New Zealand writer doesn’t take an exhaustive approach to its subject’s life. We frequently only learn of milestones — the many awards she won, the death of her mother — later on and in passing. In a beautiful gesture that feels like a tiny righting of the many wrongs done to Janet, it’s her perspective that guides the film. 

That embedded approach also makes the emotions that come with her heartbreaking yet uplifting story more profound. And there is much heartbreak here: alongside the several tragic losses Janet experienced as a child, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young woman and spent eight harrowing years in psychiatric hospitals. Throughout all of this, she wrote fiction and poetry, work that saved her life in more ways than one: as well as being a rare constant source of joy, it won her a literary prize just days before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, prompting her doctors to reconsider. Neither Campion nor Janet allowed this experience to define her, however, and the film empathetically grants her real moments of joy and choice throughout — making for a deeply sensitive and uplifting watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexia Keogh, Alison Bruce, Alistair Douglas, Andrew Robertt, Brenda Kendall, Brian Flegg, Celia Nicholson, Collette Cooper, David Letch, David Stott, Edith Campion, Elizabeth McRae, Faye Flegg, Fiona Kay, Francesca Collins, Gerald Bryan, Iris Churn, Jessie Mune, Jim Rawdon, Julia Calvo, Karen Fergusson, Katherine Murray-Cowper, Kerry Fox, Kevin J. Wilson, Lilian Enting, Mark Clare, Mark Morrison, Martyn Sanderson, Melina Bernecker, Natasha Gray, Paul Norell, Peter Needham, Robert Jayne, Ruth Dudding, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Sheryl Stewart, Tiffany de Castro, Timothy Bartlett, Willa O'Neill

Director: Jane Campion

Rating: R

When thinking about one’s family, we tend to remember our parents as parents, and rarely as people of their own. Ethel & Ernest, based on Raymond Briggs’ beloved graphic memoir of his own parents, instead focuses on two ordinary spouses in extraordinary times, sharing some of the day-to-day moments that show their affection, but is clearly marked by the times they’re in, materially and politically. The watercolor design is a cleaner, more modern update of the original illustrations, while Briggs’ handwritten speech bubbles still retain their character through Jim Broadbent’s and Brenda Blethyn’s voices. It’s just a loving, but still honest, depiction of one’s parents, one that makes you think about your own.

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Alex Jordan, Brenda Blethyn, Duncan Wisbey, Gillian Hanna, Harry Collett, Jim Broadbent, June Brown, Luke Treadaway, Pam Ferris, Peter Wight, Raymond Briggs, Roger Allam, Simon Day, Virginia McKenna

Director: Roger Mainwood

Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, and Ray Romano star in this true story of a big academic corruption case. Hugh Jackman is (of course) excellent as a successful and dedicated superintendent with a complicated personal life. However, when a curious student with the school journal starts digging around in a project he promotes, she uncovers what will become the largest public school embezzlement in the history of the U.S. 

The performances stretch the story to its full potential, as this movie would be nothing without its incredible cast. It should be watched for the acting. Eventually, it suffers from a problem common to all movies based on newspaper articles: the story can be told in a single article.

Genre: Crime, Drama, History, TV Movie

Actor: Alex Wolff, Allison Janney, Annaleigh Ashford, Brent Langdon, Brian Sgambati, Catherine Curtin, Darlene Violette, Dina Pearlman, Doris McCarthy, Finnerty Steeves, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gino Cafarelli, Giuseppe Ardizzone, Halle Curley, Hari Dhillon, Hugh Jackman, Jeremy Shamos, Jimmy Tatro, John Scurti, Jorge Chapa, Justin Swain, Kathrine Narducci, Kayli Carter, Larry Romano, Natasha Goss, Pat Healy, Peter Appel, Rafael Casal, Ray Abruzzo, Ray Romano, Rene Ojeda, Robert 'Toshi' Kar Yuen Chan, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Stephen Spinella, Steve Routman, Victor Verhaeghe, Welker White, Will Meyers

Director: Cory Finley

Rating: TV-MA

There are a few instances that prove the merit of one’s friendship, and one of those instances is a roadtrip. Withnail and I is considered one of the greatest British comedies of all time, but there’s a certain melancholy to it, as two unemployed actors have gone on holiday due to an offer from one of their uncles, though this offer doesn’t come without strings, which the titular “I”, Marwood, whose name is never mentioned, has only found out on the trip. As the holiday goes wrong, with the two making the worst of every new situation, the two share somewhat of a dysfunctional, slightly homoerotic relationship, as Withnail deals with everything in the most drunken, unserious manner, and Marwood anxiously realizes how much he’s outgrown their friendship. The film’s humor may be a tad too dry for those outside the country, but cult favorite Withnail and I still resonates with its endlessly quotable lines, memorable scenes, and its bitter understanding of how life can diverge.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Anthony Wise, Daragh O'Malley, Eddie Tagoe, Irene Sutcliffe, Llewellyn Rees, Michael Elphick, Michael Wardle, Noel Johnson, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths, Robert Oates, Una Brandon-Jones

Director: Bruce Robinson

Rating: R

If you're a fan of musical theater of any kind, Topsy-Turvy pays tribute to that notoriously tricky art form with a stunning attention to detail and a dedication to telling its story without any unnecessary drama whatsoever. It's hard not to get swept up in the humor, entertainment, and simple joy found in the writing process and in rehearsals of entire scenes. Come for the Oscar-winning costumes and makeup, stay for the wonderfully old-timey musical numbers, the brilliantly grounded performance from Jim Broadbent, and the sense of satisfaction of just watching everything finally come together to thunderous applause.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History, Music

Actor: Adam Searles, Akemi Otani, Alison Steadman, Allan Corduner, Andy Serkis, Angela Curran, Anna Francolini, Ashley Artus, Ashley Jensen, Bríd Brennan, Cathy Sara, Charles Simon, David Neville, Debbie Chazen, Dexter Fletcher, Dorothy Atkinson, Eiji Kusuhara, Eleanor David, Eve Pearce, Francis Lee, Gary Yershon, Gemma Page, Geoffrey Hutchings, Heather Craney, Jim Broadbent, John Warnaby, Jonathan Aris, Julia Rayner, Julian Bleach, Kacey Ainsworth, Kate Doherty, Katrin Cartlidge, Keeley Gainey, Kenneth Hadley, Kevin McKidd, Lavinia Bertram, Lesley Manville, Lorraine Brunning, Louise Gold, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Mary Roscoe, Matt Bardock, Matthew Mills, Mia Soteriou, Michael Simkins, Michelle Chadwick, Monica Dolan, Naoko Mori, Nicholas Boulton, Nicholas Woodeson, Nick Bartlett, Paul Barnhill, Paul Rider, Richard Attlee, Richard Coyle, Roger Heathcott, Ron Cook, Rosie Cavaliero, Sam Kelly, Sarah Howe, Shirley Henderson, Sophie Duval, Stefan Bednarczyk, Steve Speirs, Sukie Smith, Teresa Gallagher, Theresa Watson, Timothy Spall, Togo Igawa, Vincent Franklin, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

A dramatic recreation of the last 10 years in the life of famed pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas), told primarily from the perspective of his young lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film follows from naive young Thorson’s early introduction to Liberace through his 6-year romance and live-in relationship with the celebrated luminary. Coming from a broken home and multiple foster families, Thorson finds newfound comfort in the fawning adoration and financial protection that Liberace provides to him, as they quickly become lovers and confidants. Much of the story re-enacts their often stormy, behind-the-scenes affairs in candid fashion—including the lengths to which Thorson alters himself physically to conform to Liberace’s standards. Both Douglas and Damon are excellent in their roles, with Douglas in particular providing a striking recreation of Liberace in both appearance and mannerism. He truly embodies the role, and provides the viewer with a genuine glimpse into the personal life of “Mr. Showmanship"—replete with all of his passions, concerns and insecurities. It’s an intimate depiction of a real-life May-December relationship, told with striking honesty, and ending with a remarkably touching tribute to Liberace in all of his campy yet sincere glory.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam J. Kassel, Amber Lee Ettinger, Anna Wendt, Anthony Crivello, Aussie Guevara, Austin Stowell, Ayesha Orange, Barbara Brownell, Becca Sweitzer, Boyd Holbrook, Brandon Henschel, Brian Blu, Brittany Perry-Russell, Bruce Ramsay, C.J. Stussi, Cal Rein, Casey Kramer, Cassandra M. Bellantoni, Cassidy Noblett, Charles Moniz, Charlotte Crossley, Cheyenne Jackson, Corey Eid, Dan Aykroyd, David Dustin Kenyon, David Koechner, Debbie Reynolds, Deborah Lacey, Dominique Kelley, Eddie Jemison, Eric Zuckerman, Ferly Prado, Fielding Edlow, Francisco San Martin, Garrett M. Brown, Greg Baine, Gregg Atwill, Gregory Niebel, Harvey J. Alperin, Hugo Pierre Martin, Jane Morris, Jason Williams, Jerry Clarke, Jimmy Scanlon, Joe Filippone, Johnny Carson, Josh Meyers, Kass Connors, Kc Monnie, Kelli Erdmann, Kelly Allen, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Kristin Lindquist, Krystal Ellsworth, Lance Patrick, Lenny Jacobson, Lisa Frantz, Matt Damon, Max Napolitano, Meredith Ostrowsky, Michael Douglas, Mike Jerome Putnam, Mike O'Malley, Natacha Bachour, Nellie Sciutto, Nick Lanzisera, Nicky Katt, Nikea Gamby-Turner, Pat Asanti, Patty Chong, Paul Borst, Paul Reiser, Paul Witten, Peggy King, Rachael Markarian, Randy Lowell, Richard Allan Jones, Rick L. Dean, Rob Lowe, Roby Schinasi, Ryan Novak, Scott Bakula, Shaun T. Benjamin, Stephanie Maura Sanchez, Thure Riefenstein, Timothy Skyler Dunigan, Tom Papa

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: TV-MA

Alexandra, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, has been working as an documentary filmmaker for HBO for more than 20 years now and the theme of her newest work does not surprise. Turning the camera on several Jan Sixers, she asks them about that day, and whether their belief in Trump and the conservatives has changed following their jail time. Her way of being in the film, though, is very present: physically and with her voice. Pelosi places herself not just as an interviewer, but as an interlocutor, probing their statements and more often than not exclaiming "You still believe in X?!" in one way or another. The Insurrectionist Next Door is colloquial, it's comedic tragedy with a hope to bridge the gap between two opposing political beliefs: a synecdoche for America as a whole.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Alexandra Pelosi

Rating: PG-13