Biopics are the tomatoes of cinema. Whether one calls them bio-pics or bi-opics, they’re a staple of every awards show. Actors with Oscars in their eyes don gobs of make-up, wigs, fatsuits, and fake accents in service of juicy roles that often define their careers. Or, in Faye Dunaway’s case, ruin them. The path of the biopic is a tricky one, though, since they can be as formulaic as a 1940s’ western. For all the spinning newspapers and trips to rehab, though, voters and audiences are generally addicted.
To mark the occasion of another hotly anticipated biopic that’s an early favourite for awards later this year, Baz Lurhman’s Elvis, That Shelf polled its writers to determine the best biopics of all time. The list inevitably skews contemporary since the biopic is a relatively young genre. Sure, it has some roots in classic cinema and handful of studio hits from the 1960s and 1970s, but the 1980s arguably birthed the awards-baiting biopic as the studios fashioned movies for adult audiences that could capitalize on prestige to attract crowds. And in all honesty, few of the early biopics have aged well.
This list features biopics that have the genre formula down to a T and others that truly defy convention. There are Oscar winners and nominees galore, and a handful of Meryl Streep movies to keep readers satisfied. Criteria for the poll defined a biopic as the dramatization of the life of one or two people. This means that spoofs, faux biopics, or films that draw loose inspiration from figures without overtly referencing them, and therefore films like Walk Hard, Zelig, or The Devil Wears Prada, were ineligible, as were films that focused more an historical event than the person at its centre. (ie: Malcolm X and Ali are biopics, but One Night in Miami is not.) In cases in which a curious choice received multiple votes, however, we generally let it slide.
Here are That Shelf’s picks for the 25 best biopics of all time: thatshelf.com/the-25-best-biopics-of-all-time-ranked/