The top 10 biopics that you need to watch

From Lincoln to Gandhi, here are the top films telling the lives of real people

4. The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933 (Available on DVD)


A huge hit across the pond when British films rarely troubled the rest of the world, Alexander Korda’s bawdy Tudor romp defined the enduring image of the gluttonous monarch, played with gusto but also pathos by Charles Laughton.

Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are ignored, as the story kicks off with his third wife Jane Seymour and runs through to Catherine Parr. But the voters didn’t care – it became the first non-Hollywood film to win an Oscar.

5. The Queen, 2006 (BFI Player)

Uniquely among royal biopics, writer Peter Morgan (The Crown) and director Stephen Frears dared to depict a living monarch in their focused slice of palace life. It takes in Tony Blair’s election and the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, when the Oscar-winning Helen Mirren’s wily Queen must save the out-of-step monarchy from oblivion. It also works as a biopic of Blair, forever imprinted on our minds as a much more sympathetic Michael Sheen.

6. Selma, 2014 (9pm Good Friday, BBC2)

David Oyelowo was robbed of the best actor Oscar in 2015, not even getting a nomination, for his stoutly convincing and multilayered turn as civil rights legend Martin Luther King. Director Ava DuVernay’s heartfelt tribute concentrates on Dr King’s marches in Alabama in 1965, with Tom Wilkinson anything but a caricature as President Johnson.

7. Lincoln, 2012 (iTunes)

Daniel Day-Lewis is incapable of phoning it in, but he truly inhabits the president to the tip of his stovepipe hat. Focusing on the days leading up to a decision on the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, Tony Kushner’s script does not shy away from complex political dialogue, and Steven Spielberg pulls another impressive slice of history out of his hat.

8. Steve Jobs, 2015 (Monday Sky Drama/Romance)

Writer Aaron Sorkin can make anything interesting, even the life of a computer genius. He did it with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and he does it here with Apple’s Steve Jobs, played by a much-too-handsome Michael Fassbender. Three product launches illustrate his bumpy career and latter psychological decline, and it’s all directed with operatic showmanship by Danny Boyle.

9. Amadeus, 1984 (iTunes)

Arguably the greatest movie about classical music ever made, thanks to director Milos Forman’s playfulness on a grand scale and the bottomless, helium-laugh energy of Tom Hulce as Mozart. Peter Shaffer’s stage play gets an $18 million facelift for the big screen and Oscars were handed round like crackers. The music’s pretty good, too.

10. Lust for Life, 1956 (iTunes)

Biopics of painters often struggle to capture their subject’s genius (see Mr Turner), but Kirk Douglas gives such an immersive performance in Vincente Minnelli’s gorgeous film, he makes you believe those canvases are all his own work.

AND THE WILDCARD… Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, 1987 


Bizarre, eerily kitsch student-film debut of the subsequently Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Carol). He charts how the tragic, middle-of-the-road singer succumbed to anorexia using a cast of hand-held Barbie dolls on scale-model sets.