Best Bio Pics -- One Path to Oscar GloryApr 23, 2001 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Biopics are one method of reaching for Oscar honors, as long as you do it about a Hollywood accepted historical person.
The biopic is one of Hollywood’s favorite film genres, as well done ones are often nominated for Academy Awards (or I should say that is the case IF the person is deemed socially correct). Don’t expect a biopic about someone as wacky as Robert Crumb to receive Academy annointment. By the way, I’m not including any documentaries here, so don’t look for Crumb, Hoop Dreams, or any of Errol Morris’ awesome films.
Instead, I’ll attempt to limit myself to films that attempt to render historically accurate biographical information. (my justification for not including Bonnie and Clyde, which I “forgot” about initially despite being a huge personal favorite, but Arthur Penn uses their characters much more for metaphorical purposes than historically accurate ones. There’s also Quills, which uses the Marquis de Sade for mainly metaphorical purposes)
Honorable Mention (or how to work another 5 titles into a top 10 list)
Searching for Bobby Fischer – Actually this is not about Bobby Fischer, but about real life chess player Josh Waitzkin when he was a child. It’s the best movie about chess ever made and gives some insights into the spirit of chess competition even though it plays a little loose with the actual facts about the characters involved.
Immortal Beloved – The second best biopic about a musical composer. I really love the transcendental moment with Beethoven staring up at the stars during the playing of the 9th, and Gary Oldman does a great job personifying the legendary composer.
Gandhi – While often tedious, the film does give insights to Indian politics and culture and about Gandhi, the public figure.
Malcolm X – The movie that Spike Lee should have received the Oscar for after being denied for even a nomination for his 1989 Do the Right Thing. Spike follows all the rules for Oscar – epic length film about a significant historical person, yet he receives no nominations for Best Director or Best Picture. Go figure.
Before Night Falls – A decent portrayal of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. One of the most difficult areas for film to paint are good biopics of creative artists, so give Julian Schnabel credit for making a good rendition (certainly better than Goya in Bordeaux or Total Eclipse)
Top Ten List
My personal favorite biography genre films, so write your own list when I forgot to mention one of yours (besides, I didn’t care much for Blow):
10. Chaplin – Being a film buff, I enjoy many films that illuminate the industry, and Chaplin remains the supreme film artist of the 20th century. Robert Downey does his best work here reproducing many of Chaplin’s routines and illustrating his professional and personal life through the ages.
9. Kundun -- No one uses the camera any better than Martin Scorsese, and the cinematography here is top notch as it chronicles the life of the Dalai Lama from childhood to his young manhood and escape from Tibet. Scorsese has always shown interest in religious matters and this film is much truer to the culture and spirit of the Dalai Lama and does a far better job of covering his life without desperately resorting to Brad Pitt to tell the story.
8. Basquiat – Julian Schnabel’s homage to homeless street artist Jean Michel Basquiat and his relationship to Andy Warhol and the Factory. The film contains some insights into the creative process and paints a few interesting images along the way. Give credit to the acting of David Bowie and Jeffrey Wright in bringing these two artists back to life.
7. Patton – George C. Scott becomes George S. Patton in this epic war film. You can learn a lot of WWII history through the film, but even better – you can gain insights into the complex and controversial poet warrior himself. For people who wonder whether the film is for hawks or doves, the answer is “yes.” Above all, Patton remains a character study.
6. Donnie Brasco -- I’m still thinking that I shoulda put Goodfellas here since it’s based on a real life story as well, but Scorsese’s film doesn’t make the biographical connection as plainly as this film does. And Donnie Brasco is a first rate insider view of the Mafia, based on the real life story of Joe Pistone (Donnie Brasco). If nothing else, see the film for the acting of the lead characters – Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. While Pacino has the Mafia bit down pat, Depp’s chameleon-like abilities make him totally believable in his role of the undercover FBI agent. You’ll even learn what “forgetaboutit” really means.
5. Braveheart – This film has done more for creating interest in Scottish history and for increasing attendance at various Highland games venues ever since its release. Mel Gibson had a real passion for the project, and the filmmakers actually did a great deal of research in putting it together. Of course, dramatic license is taken, but the film depicts William Wallace and the stubborn freedom seeking Scots effectively.
4. Ed Wood -- Perhaps my film interests are showing once again, but Tim Burton’s tribute to the “worst Hollywood director of all time” demonstrates a true love of cinema. Depp’s amazing performance in the title along with Martin Landau’s Oscar winning role as Bela Legosi make this worthwhile viewing, but the film actually illuminates a great deal about the film industry along with showing some intimate details about the infamous director.
3. Raging Bull -- Martin Scorsese’s brutal black and white portrait of Jake LaMotta is one of the best films to come out of the 1980’s. Starring supreme method actor Robert De Niro, who trained extremely hard to become a respectable boxer (so much so that one boxing writer declared that De Niro could have been ranked among the top ten middleweights after watching him spar), the film portrays LaMotta as a simple man with tremendous inner struggles that explode in the ring and within the home. Some of the boxing sequences remain very much like violent ballets bathed with bloody imagery.
2. Amadeus – By far the greatest biographical film about any musical artist, or any creative artist. Wondrous acting by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Salieri and Mozart highlight, as well as the sets in this fine period piece. But above all remains Mozart’s music -- incorporated into his life story so effectively that many new “converts” to classical music appreciation are won with just one viewing of Milos Forman’s film.
1. Lawrence of Arabia -- I was way too young to understand this great film when it was first released, as the history went right over my head. I just remembered the glorious desert landscape, and the feeling that it was something extraordinary. So when the re-mastered print returned to the big screen in the early 90’s, I saw it again in a Times Square theater and became thoroughly engrossed in the history and in Lawrence’s character.
Just the cinematography alone makes this great film stand above the heap of other biopics. Never before have the moods of the desert been captured so well, and the large scale travel scenes and battle scenes grant epic stature to the film. The cinematographer has fashioned my all-time favorite transition scene in the movies—the scene that transfers us from Lawrence’s Cairo office to sunrise on the Arabian Desert via a blown out match. To me this is the definitive epic biography, but there is also a smaller film that lies within. Against the grand scale of WWI history, also lies an intimate story about T.E. Lawrence.
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