When you think about it, it’s pretty strange to market a movie as “based on a true story,” considering a portion of the audience might know the ending before they even step in the theatre. Of course, the same can be said about any film based on a novel. In the case of a biographical film, or biopic, there’s a mild intellectual appeal in seeing a movie that’s based on the facts. In a way, it’s entertaining oneself while—hopefully—learning something in the process. And the appeal shows: the following ten movies all fall within the 500 highest-grossing films of all time, and the majority have gotten a boatload of critical acclaim in the process—with two of them nabbing Oscars for Best Picture.
10. Public Enemies, 2009 – $214,104,620
Directed by Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Ali), Public Enemies depicts the rise and sudden, bloody fall of notorious bank robber John Dillinger—slyly portrayed by Johnny Depp—as well as the formative years of the FBI. In contrast to the usual flare of gangster films of decades past, Mann approached the movie’s numerous action sequences with his trademark attention to realism, making extensive use of digital photography and high frame rates that made the action sequences look like something out of a documentary. Mann’s docudrama received largely positive reviews, with the late Roger Ebert singling out Depp’s performance as Dillinger for being original rather than drawing on previous movie gangsters, though Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail criticized Mann for “trying to do too much.” While Public Enemies grossed only $97.1 million domestically, according to box office website The Numbers, it made more than double that worldwide.
9. Captain Phillips, 2013 – $217,800,897
Directed by Paul Greengrass, who filmed The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips depicts the 2009 incident where the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama was captured by pirates in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, as well as the daring rescue executed by the U.S. Navy. Captain Phillips received generally positive praise, focusing mainly on the performances of Tom Hanks—who portrays the eponymous captain—and Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirates’ leader Abduwali Muse. Abdi in particular was recognized for his work, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and receiving a BAFTA for the same. The thriller has done quite well in theatres, earning over $106 million domestically and more than twice that worldwide.
8. The Social Network, 2010 – $224,920,315
One of the biggest films of 2010, The Social Network depicted the formative years of social media giant Facebook, following the company’s founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin from their days at Harvard to the dissolution of their business partnership. The film was directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom), who brought his typical rapid-fire dialogue to the project. The biopic was universally acclaimed, though it was criticized by Zuckerberg, among others, for the dramatic liberties that had been taken. The Social Network was an Oscar frontrunner for 2010, and received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Jesse Eisenberg), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. Of these, it won Oscars for Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Original Score, the last of which was the first composed by Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross.
7. Erin Brockovich, 2000 – $256,271,286
Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 docudrama focused on the crusade of law firm assistant and single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), who helped to organized a major class-action lawsuit against an energy corporation whose poor waste-handling likely tainted the water supply of the small Californian town of Hinkley, resulting in chronic medical issues for its citizens. The biopic was quite a success, netting $126.6 million in North America and $130.7 million in other countries. The film was quite well-received, with Roberts’ performance singled out as one of its greatest strengths, and it ultimately netted Robert her first Oscar for Best Actress. Not all reactions were positive, however, with a piece in The New York Times highlighting criticisms made by the scientific community who reacted negatively to their portrayal.
6. American Gangster, 2007 – $266,465,037
From Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, Public Enemies is set primarily in 1970s New York City and centres on the rise to power of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), one of the first major African-American gangsters in the modern era and who revolutionized the distribution of heroin in the drug trade. The biopic also focuses on his rivalry and eventual cooperation with Newark detective—and later lawyer—Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), with whom Lucas helps to bring down myriad corrupt members of the New York Police Department. American Gangster made a fair dent in the box office, with Box Office Mojo noting that at the time it had the largest opening weekend for any film either Washington or Crowe had starred in. Though it enjoyed a decent amount of praise, the DEA took issue with how members of their organization were portrayed near the end of the movie, with three former agents taking distributor Universal Pictures to court over what they saw as defamatory depictions. The suit was ultimately dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge, according to ABC/Reuters.
5. The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006 – $307,077,300
In a dramatic turn by Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness depicts the hurdles faced by single father Chris Gardner in his attempt to provide for him and his son while homeless. It was a surprise success, beating out expected hits like Eragon and Charlotte’s Web in its opening weekend, and was shown for free in Chattanooga, Tennessee to help encourage the city’s homeless population, according to the Associated Press. The Pursuit of Happyness was fairly well-received, though critics at Variety, The Los Angeles Times and The St. Petersburg Times docked marks for over-sentimentality and a lack of dramatic thrust.
4. A Beautiful Mind, 2001 – $313,542,341
Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic focused on brilliant Princeton mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe, in his second appearance on this list) who battled paranoid schizophrenia while making strides in such fields as governing dynamics. The film particularly centred on his belief that he was assisting the U.S. Department of Defense in decrypting enemy codes, as well as the toll his condition had on his work and family life. It was a great success at the Oscars that year, winning Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsman), Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly) and Best Picture. It was a critical success as well, with Roger Ebert awarding it a full four stars, though issue was taken with the specific portrayal of Nash’s illness, as well as Goldsman’s whitewashing of the mathematician’s past, such as an affair, according to The Boston Globe.
3. Schindler’s List, 1993 – $321,306,305
Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic told the story of German factory owner Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who is moved to protect the Jewish prisoners of Nazi concentration camps after witnessing war atrocities by employing them as workers and thereby bringing them under his care. Schindler’s List was one of the first major portrayals of the Holocaust in cinema. It received overwhelming critical acclaim while in theatres and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, ranking #7 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 list. It was the first of Spielberg’s films to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, and he netted his first Best Director Oscar as well. Combined with the success of Jurassic Park, released a few months earlier, 1993 was a very good year for the director.
2. Catch Me If You Can, 2002 – $352,114,312
Another Spielberg contribution, Catch Me If You Can depicted the life of con man and impostor Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) along with his pursuit by FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). It received a large amount of praise, with Roger Ebert commending DiCaprio’s performance, and according to Box Office Mojo it was the 11th highest grossing film of 2002.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013 – $389,570,000
The highest earning biopic on this list also the most recent, having been a major contender at the 86th Academy Awards. Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is the debauched portrayal of the rise of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who made an absolutely insane amount of money through corruption and fraud on Wall Street. Critically acclaimed, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter), Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), though won none. It also holds the distinction for most uses of the f-word in a non-documentary feature, according to Plugged In.