And into our Marvel Universe came a cascading moonbeam over foggy terrain. Then a woman, blonde, and draped in pearls, crushed the dark grass beneath her feet as she walked over it. She was on a moonlit mission to reconnect with her simpler, faraway youth – back before she was legendary British royal “Princess Diana,” back when she was merely, perfectly “Spencer.”
Is there room in modern cinema for the poetic biopic? According to Oscar nominee and April 9th birthday girl, Kristen Stewart, who stars in the 2021 film Spencer, there is indeed room. Poetry is everywhere. It’s in a tearful gaze, a gorgeous gown, and even a drop of blood. Call Spencer a wondrous “anti-biopic” or historical fiction “acid-trip.” Call it beautifully subdued cinematography that illuminates a sorrowful “fable from a true tragedy” as listed at the film’s opening. Whichever your pick, Spencer proves that audiences still love a good story about a famous person.
The biopic genre has been around since the dawn of moviedom, and it comes in all wonderful shapes and sizes. But what are some other biopic treasures? Let’s give these millennial flicks a go. Turns out they star some of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors.
12 Films To Watch If You Liked Spencer
1. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Though this list isn’t a ranking, top billing must go to recent golden statuette Oscar winner Jessica Chastain in her Oscar-winning role. Here’s a cautionary tale of religion, where Jessica Chastain is phenomenal as 1970s and ‘80s notorious televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker – wife of even more notorious televangelist Jim Bakker. Scandal, crucifixes, and Mrs. Bakker’s trademark spider-black eyelashes abound, alongside trendy ‘80s shoulder-pads and fur coats.
Jessica Chastain could’ve easily rested on costume, make-up, and plot to carry this biopic through. But no. She brings so much to this character, imbuing her with warmth, empathy, which in turn garners sympathy from the audience. This film takes off in flight, taking us up into the dizzying clouds of ‘80s excess and promise, which ultimately makes the Bakkers’ downfall that much more tragic. Congrats to Jessica Chastain on her dazzling 2022 Oscar.
2. House of Gucci (2021)
Earning mixed reviews, House of Gucci boasts a positively illustrious cast (think Lady Gaga, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, just to name a few) and Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott of The Martian (2015) fame. It’s a veritable 1980s and ‘90s fashion opera, chronicling the infamous Italian fashion powerhouse family called the Guccis, and one member in particular, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). No spoilers (though you might already know the ending, as biopics are unsurprisingly created due to public attention and interest), but House of Gucci takes us down a deceitful, shadowy path.
No matter how stylish those designer duds are, similar to Spencer and its depiction of cloudy dynamics within the English royal family, House of Gucci reveals its own dark familial underbelly. If you like fashion, if you like an all-star cast, this movie is worth a watch.
3. Lincoln (2012)
What do you get when you pair one of the greatest actors of all time with one of the greatest directors of all time? Cue Lincoln. Three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis plays the titular nineteenth-century American President, and he’s directed by the one and only Steven Spielberg of historical fiction flick Schindler’s List (1993). In Lincoln, these two bring the biopic genre to “next level” status. It’s a slow-moving film, so settle in. Lincoln takes its time. But it’s definitely a must-see. Daniel Day-Lewis is downright uncanny as legendary President Abraham Lincoln. (Are we sure that real-life President Lincoln isn’t making a heavenly cameo here?)
Daniel Day-Lewis earns his third well-deserved Oscar. But most importantly, this story of President Lincoln’s struggle to navigate a severely divided America, fractured at its North vs. South seam due to colonial slavery, is handled beautifully, bravely well.
4. The Iron Lady (2011)
Enter another living legend, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep. Streep shines as iconic British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s. This film is particularly memorable for its off-screen buzz, as it’s the movie that earned Streep that shimmering third Oscar. Accolades aside, it’s a solid film that gives a glimpse into this female politician’s amazing life, starting from childhood all the way through to her golden years. It hits all the right notes, and whether you’re a fan of Thatcher or not, you’re better for watching this film and understanding her psychology – at least the psychology according to Hollywood.
Overall, this film is shot well. The pacing feels comfortable, which can sometimes be tricky with biopics trying to cover decades and decades of a person’s life. And in the end, you tend to feel smarter, politically speaking of course.
5. Darkest Hour (2017)
Staying “across the pond” in England, here’s a spine-shivering film. Oscar-winning provocative powerhouse Gary Oldman stars as World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It’s those “dark days” when the German Nazis are overtaking continental Europe, and they’ve set their sights on crossing the English Channel to invade the United Kingdom. It’s serious stuff, and Darkest Hour skillfully balances high stakes historical drama with entertaining cinema. A tough balancing act? It is indeed, but Darkest Hour triumphs.
In addition to excellent acting, it has superb art direction, costumes, and cinematography. The scene is truly set to watch this highly consequential drama unfold. Classic lines in history and this film – “We shall fight on the beaches… in the fields… in the streets… We shall never surrender!” Darkest Hour earned Gary Oldman his richly-deserved Oscar.
6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Here’s a soothing balm of a biopic. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays mythical TV children’s show host Fred Rogers. This film dramatizes the unlikely real-life friendship that blossoms between Fred Rogers and a tough, troubled Esquire magazine journalist. Clever, touching, and sprinkled with ambient Mister Rogers TV love (which includes toy train, puppets, and sweet little neighborhood dioramas), A Beautiful Day still has enough realistic grit to prevent it from being saccharine. Therein lies its strength.
Tom Hanks is believable as the beloved TV icon, and he adds a welcome complexity to his character which is, after all, a big goal of the biopic. An audience wants to peek behind the curtain to see the true person that could be worthy enough to have a biopic made about them. Tom Hanks earns his Mister Roger’s trademark green cardigan.
7. Amelia (2009)
Aviation lovers everywhere, here’s your flick. Who on the planet doesn’t know about the mysterious 1937 disappearance of famous aviator Amelia Earhart? Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank dons that super-cool flying jacket, scarf, and goggles, and takes our imagination into flight as we get to witness what this extraordinary aviator’s life and final journey were truly like. Hilary Swank, known for her brilliant, chameleon-like prowess in inhabiting characters as diverse as a young transgender in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and courageous female boxer in Million Dollar Baby (2004), both of which earned her Oscars, is awesome in Amelia. She gives us a real sense of the real person (again, that would be “real” according to Hollywood), and we get swept away.
We’re back in the 1930s, and we’re right in that cockpit with Amelia, sailing through those white clouds and wishing we could turn the hourglass of fate.
8. Rocketman (2019)
Switching gears, but still staying up by those fluffy clouds and shining stars, here’s a “musical” biopic about the extraordinary 1970s rock star Elton John. Rocketman is a breath of fresh air, even though it doesn’t steer clear of tough topics. Relative newcomer Taron Egerton of The Kingsman movies is wildly good as the famous, and famously troubled, rock star. Inventive in its narrative structure, and not lacking in its gorgeous flamboyance, Rocketman doesn’t disappoint. It even did well at awards season, picking up numerous awards – most notably an Oscar for Best Original Song for Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for Taron Egerton.
Grab your favorite snack, and go along for this musical adventure. It’s fun, surprising, and pulls at your heartstrings (á la those melodious drum chords). Rocketman aims for the stars, and it gets there.
9. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Here’s another great “musical” biopic. Cue “legendary to infinity” Freddie Mercury (aka lead singer of the “legendary to infinity” rock band Queen). Rami Malek of TV’s Mr. Robot (2015-2019) earns an Oscar for his brilliant, triumphant, and touching portrayal of the rock front-man whose life was cut short by AIDS in 1991. Similar to Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody nails the “musical” biopic, skillfully balancing narrative, song, and cinematic pizzazz. This movie could’ve gone in many directions, namely sad and tragic. But instead, it’s wildly uplifting and a true treasure for Queen fans, and non-fans for that matter, too.
If you’re in the mood for amazing music, a gasp-worthy performance by Rami Malek, look no further. Bohemian Rhapsody is really and truly “rhapsodic” in both its glory and defeat. As the song goes, “It this the real life… is this just fantasy… caught in a landslide…”
10. Milk (2008)
This serious movie earned Sean Penn his second Oscar. He portrays California politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, whose assassination in 1978 still sends shivers down our collective consciousness. Milk was the first openly gay person to win public office in California, and his groundbreaking achievement was unfortunately eclipsed by his tragic death. Sean Penn’s transformation into Harvey Milk is visually stunning, and he inhabits this character with an ease that, similar to other Oscar winners on this list, is almost uncanny.
Is that really Sean Penn on the screen, or instead Harvey Milk giving a heavenly performance? Penn is mind-bogglingly good, and we’re successfully taken into his protagonist’s world – filled with both his personal hopes and struggles, but also society’s hopes and struggles. Growth isn’t always easy, but this film, released on the 30th anniversary of Milk’s passing, shows us how far society has thankfully come.
11. The Social Network (2010)
Where would the world be without Facebook? And who knew that the social media king was originally called “The Facebook” by founder Mark Zuckerberg? We know this interesting tidbit thanks to this brilliant film. You don’t get much better than director David Fincher of Fight Club (1999) fame, who weaves a compelling tale of Harvard misfit Mark Zuckerberg (played well by Jesse Eisenberg). The real-life Facebook had a rocky start, but this movie is a smooth, tight, riveting drama that is thoroughly engrossing.
Receiving a handful of accolades, The Social Network is well-crafted modern chaos. After all, Facebook was borne by young millennials duking it out for popularity, acknowledgement, money, and the rest. And the end result was highly consequential, as social media is now a dominant piece of modern society affecting us all. Get a front row seat. But be prepared for moral questions.
12. Soul Surfer (2011)
Rounding out this biopic list is the tearjerker, family-friendly film called Soul Surfer. A relatively obscure gem starring excellent actors like AnnaSophia Robb in the main role, then Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, Soul Surfertugs at the heart. It’s about Bethany Hamilton, an up-and-coming teenage surfer in Hawaii who is severely injured in a shark attack. She loses one of her arms, and it’s doubtful if she’ll ever lead a so-called “normal” life again, let alone get back in the water and surf. Full of blue waves, tropical breezes, and one brave, brave young woman, this film is sweet without overdoing it. It’s also inspirational, without being preachy.
The performances have good pitch, and you get the feeling that the real-life story is strong enough to lend credence and believability to this spiritual, faith-based drama. Soul Surfer is a feel-good favorite.
Biopics abound! And these are just a handful. Whether poetic and arthouse-vibing like 2021’s Spencer starring new Oscar darling Kristen Stewart, or whether a tightly wound documentary-feeling drama like The Social Network (2010), biopics truly get our attention. After all, we’re all human, and who doesn’t like a story about humans? (Sorry to you, HAL, the computer from 1968’s sci-fi masterpiece flick 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe sci-fi will be front and center in the next genre-inspired movie list?) Through biopics, we see a vast, colorful spectrum of both humans and the human condition. It’s safe to say that, as long as there are humans and movies, there will be that magical, spirited, awe-inspiring biopic.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.