Great biopics are hard to come by—great biopics available to stream are even more scarce. We dug through the most popular streaming services to find you the best biopics currently available to watch now. From a small village in India to 1970s San Francisco, these biopics will inspire, entertain, and teach.
Neruda’s director may call the film an “anti-bio”, but he still manages to create a compelling narrative about a man beloved both in his home country of Chile and around the world. Neruda only takes a slice of Pablo Neruda’s life as inspiration: It follows the poet after he attempts to avoid arrest after giving a virulently anti-communist speech. Luis Gnecco stars as Neruda; Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Mozart in the Jungle) plays the police chief in pursuit.
Julie & Julia
The “Julie” side may be somewhat lackluster, despite Amy Adams’s best efforts, but the “Julia” half of this biopic is easily worth your time. The charming interplay between Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, playing Julia and Paul Child, will remind you what true affection looks like, and the delightful insight into the creation of Child’s iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is only strengthened by the film’s interest in 1950s France.
Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning turn as Harvey Milk has become one of the most beloved renderings of a political figure in recent years. Milk, who was the first openly gay person elected to a public office in California, was assassinated in 1978, along with the mayor of San Francisco. Although Milk was only in office for about 11 months, his impact was greatly felt, especially among the LGBT community in San Francisco. What could have been a trite tale is heightened by Penn’s incredible performance and a well-tuned script.
Before he was the Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman took a turn as Jackie Robinson, the iconic baseball player. 42 takes place during the 1945 baseball season, as Robinson progressed through the minor leagues into the Majors, where he became the first black professional baseball player. Heightened by the performances, particularly Boseman and Harrison Ford as the manager who signed Robinson, 42 is a great film to watch with the family.
The King's Speech
Colin Firth won his first Oscar for portraying King George VI in this crowd-pleasing biographical drama. The current queen’s father, King George VI never expected to be king. His older brother, David, ascended the throne as Edward VIII in 1936. As a young and healthy man, his abdication less than a year later stunned the nation–and younger brother Albert. Albert underwent a crash course in politics and speech. The heir apparent suffered from a stutter that was rather far from regal.
Steven Spielberg’s take on the iconic president doesn’t just deliver a portrait of a man–it also digs deep into how the compromises that make our democracy possible are hammered out. The screenplay, based loosely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and written by Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner, humanizes one of the most dramatic moments of American history, with incredible performances from Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), and Lee Pace (Congressman Fernando Wood) anchoring the film.
Spielberg’s biopic is a classic of the genre. Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party, became disillusioned with the party as they began the full-scale efforts of the Holocaust. Soon, he’d dedicated his life and wealth to saving Jewish people by employing them at his factory. Schindler’s List won seven Academy Awards and has been beloved since its debut.
Golden arches dot the world, signaling the presence of one of nearly 40,000 McDonald’s franchises. But what do you know about how a small hamburger stand became the world’s second largest private employer? The Founder explores how one slightly less than ethical man transformed a humble stand run by two brothers into an empire. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch take on the McDonald brothers in this satirical biopic.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett do some of their all-time best work in this biopic about aviation pioneer and Hollywood eccentric, Howard Hughes. If your taste in Leo movies runs anything like ours, you’ll find yourself pretending that he won the Oscar for The Aviator rather than The Revenant.
This true story will break your heart. Based on Saroo Brierly’s autobiography, A Long Way Home, Lion tells the story of how five-year-old Saroo accidentally fell asleep on the wrong train as a child, eventually arriving in Kolkata, 1,500 miles from his small hometown in India. Since Kolkatans speak Bengali, not Hindi, Saroo was unable to find his way home. Eventually, he was adopted by an Australian family, but Saroo never stopped looking for his mother, brother, and village.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
In this unusual serial killer drama/biopic, Disney star Zac Efron takes on the role of Ted Bundy. Told primarily from the perspective of Bundy’s longterm girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), during his trial. Bundy represented himself in a grandstanding appearance. Bundy’s eventual wife, Carole Ann Boone, also makes a major appearance in the film, played deftly by Kaya Scodelario.
Meet 15-year-old John Lennon. We’ll admit, Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t look much like the future Beatle, but it cannot be denied that the feeling of Lennon is easily captured by the curly-haired heartthrob. Although the beginnings of The Beatles are chronicled in Nowhere Boy, the film is much more about Lennon himself, and delves into some of the things that made him known as the most controversial band member–and not just for his political views.
Adam McKay has made his name on movies portraying several sins, so it’s no wonder his latest is called Vice. Following the reign of former Vice President Dick Cheney, this film shows just how one man bent an entire administration to his will over the course of eight years. Starting with Cheney’s work in the Nixon administration, Vice has an able cast of stars who take on their real-life inspiration with aplomb.
A film about a man overcoming his injuries from the Boston Marathon bombing would seemingly be ripe for a trite, feel-good take on how nothing can bring a man down unless he lets it. Instead, Stronger is a careful, considered tale of how media attention can make recovery even harder, of love and poor decisions, of growth and setbacks. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany shine in this 2017 biopic.
In 1966, In Cold Blood was first published–an instant true crime classic, it cemented Truman Capote’s status as literary celebrity. This deeply felt film follows Capote as he interviews the men who massacred the Clutter family as they await their death row sentences. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance is one for the books, but Catherine Keener’s turn as Harper Lee is not to be overlooked.
Far from a straight biopic, I, Tonya glories in its subjects’ utter lack of objectivity. Following Tonya Harding’s life and career as a professional figure skater, and centerstaging the attack on Nancy Kerrigan that ended Harding’s career. Smashing together comedy, documentary-style filming, and biography, this film is a wild ride from start to finish.
Claire Danes plays Temple Grandin, an animal science expert and autism advocate. Born in 1947, Grandin was diagnosed with ‘brain damage’ at two. Her mother later realized that her child more likely suffered from autism. Grandin’s story admirably avoids clichés that have made other tales of individuals ‘overcoming disabilities’ less than palatable.
A Quiet Passion
This 2016 Emily Dickinson biopic will slowly draw you in until you can’t look away from Cynthia Nixon’s deeply felt performance as the iconic poet. Dickinson’s life is, in some ways, inherently uncinematic—she withdrew from society and did not receive any great acclaim during her life. Nevertheless, Nixon and director Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea) manage to create a propulsive and immersive narrative.
This story of a girl and her dog transcends its premise thanks to a military setting and a stunning performance from Kate Mara. Megan and her military working dog, Rex, were deployed in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Although military dogs are typically not allowed to be adopted, Megan petitioned repeatedly to become his owner. Their story is one of hope and love.
Colin Warner’s story was first told in an episode of This American Life in 2005. Imprisoned and wrongly convicted of a 1980 murder, Warner spent 21 years in jail–11 of which came after the actual killer signed an affidavit saying that he was responsible for the killing. Lakeith Stanfield’s breakout role, this film brings home the horror of getting caught in a justice system that can be blinded to the truth.
Featured still from "Vice" via Annapurna Pictures.