Amelia nears its landing in theaters not without its fair share of Oscar ambitions. The Academy loves true stories and if that story can tug on heart strings, all the better. Because it really happened! Now cry! Below I've compiled a list of some Academy Award-nominated biopics that happen to be favorites of mine. I based the list solely on the quality of the film and my feelings toward them. Suffice it to say, this is not an evaluation based on historical accuracy. So it goes.
Let's start out with the most problematic entry. Ali, the movie, has issues. It's a little too long. At times it's a little too slow. But it still remains a favorite of mine because its high points are at a level most films never even sniff. Ali opens and closes beautifully with a director on top of his artistic game. In between are moments of brilliance and some very strong performances. I realize this is a flawed film, but I can't pretend I don't love it. I do.
Milos Forman's very entertaining film (based on Peter Shaffer's play) is about Mozart and the man (as this story goes) who grew to despise him for not meeting his personal expectations. How could Mozart -- a great artist -- be such a foul, tactless human being? This eats at F. Murray Abraham's Salieri, envious of Mozart's talent and angry at God for not giving that divine musical talent to a more morally deserving soul, such as himself. Salieri may have been one of the earliest historical figures to say to God, Oh, so it's like that, huh?
Harvey Pekar is one miserable fellow who lived in a small but extraordinary world. In that world he lived, and what he didn't live he made up in his series of comics with artists like R. Crumb. I went to see this in the theater and didn't care for it. A couple years later in a hotel room I did. Fact and fiction play happy together in Pekar's comic series and so it goes in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's film. I'm not sure how the real Harvey Pekar and the real Joyce Brabner and the real Toby Radloff appearing throughout the movie as themselves doesn't disrupt the drama played out by the actors portraying them (Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander, respectively), but it doesn't. It works perfectly.
Martin Scorsese's fantastic look at the life of Howard Hughes features a career-best performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. Hughes' ambition was only outmatched by his mental illness. Unlike Ali, Hughes' romantic tangles are interesting and key to understanding who the guy really was and where he was going. At three hours it moves pretty briskly, mostly because of the film's adventurous spirit. I respect a lot of movies on this list but I love this one.
Mel Gibson's highly entertaining and emotional epic is violent fun. I'm on the edge here, I realize. The film is clearly interested in the legend of William Wallace more than anything, but Gibson is a very good director. The battle scenes were unlike any other at the time, and James Horner's score is a classic. And if your eyes didn't well up when Wallace gets it in the end, go back to your planet.
This is the version of Ed Wood's life I want to believe. No, it's the world I want to live in. It's so undeniably sweet and blissfully naive and a whole lot of fun. Johnny Depp would get at least an Oscar nomination for this level of work in 2009. In 1994, Johnny Depp was just some weirdo.
The life of T.E. Lawrence was given the big screen treatment, and the result is one of the greatest and most beautifully shot films I've seen. This is one of my favorite movies and I didn't really appreciate how good it was until about ten years ago. I watched it as a kid but I mostly watched my father watching it. Then it was back to the G.I. Joes (Damn you, Sommers! Damn youuuuuuuuuuuu!)
This is on the list more for Denzel Washington's powerhouse performance than anything else. Spike Lee made a fine film with some very strong moments, but I still wish this movie did it for me in a bigger way than it does. It might be time for another watch.
Probably the most underrated entry of Oliver Stone's filmography. This movie is a flat-out masterwork. Stone went after something very grand but very appropriate here. Anthony Hopkins manages to overcome a pretty poor imitation of Nixon and deliver what I consider one of the great performances of his career. The cast from top to bottom is excellent. John Williams delivers another thunderously good score. But of all the films on this list, this is one of the most successful at getting the essence of the subject; or at least depicting a clear image of Stone's perception. It's big, Shakespearian stuff here, but it works completely on that level. We follow Nixon -- as we did Charles Foster Kane -- from a young boy to a man. And we follow that man through his successes and his inevitable self-destruction.
Here is an epic performance by Robert De Niro. Much like Nixon, this is a tale of a guy who couldn't get out of his own way. A Mama Luke if there ever was one, Jake La Motta had the talent but not the head for success. So many of these stories end in alienation. You see it in the movies and you see it in real life. So many contenders, not enough true champs.
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Dre writes for Film.com weekly. Email him!