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10 Best Oscar-Nominated Biopics of All Time, Ranked


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Summary

  • Biopics dominate the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards, as they capture the attention of the Academy and audiences worldwide.
  • “A Beautiful Mind,” “Elvis,” “Gandhi,” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” are outstanding biopics that have been nominated for Best Picture.
  • These biopics stand out due to their unique storytelling, powerful performances, and their ability to delve into the lives of lesser-known real-life figures in an engaging and emotionally impactful way.

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The Oscars, also known as the Academy Awards, are perhaps the most prestigious award show in the movie calendar. The ceremony is often watched by millions of people across the world and is seen as the highest form of honor a film, filmmakers, actors, and actresses can gain. It’s far from easy for a film to win one Oscar, let alone multiple. However, once a film enters the nominations list, it has won something simply because being a nominee means that the film has been regarded as one of the best of the year, and people will be eager to watch it.

If there is one genre of movie the Academy loves more than any other, it’s biopics. There are plenty of reasons for this. A filmmaker has to take a lot into consideration regarding casting and also how to tell a person’s life story. Do they narrow in on a key moment in a person’s life or show their birth and early childhood all the way to their deaths? The Academy loves biopics for acting nominations because it is a clear easy way to label a performance good if it is “accurate”. Biopics have dominated the Best Picture race, but which are the ones that truly stand out above the rest? Here are the best biopics that were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Update February 16, 2024: In honor of Oppenheimer finally arriving on Peacock, this article has been updated with even more great biopics that were nominated for Best Picture and where you can stream each title.

10 A Beautiful Mind (2001)

2001’s A Beautiful Mind tells the tale of a less well-known real-life figure. Directed by Ron Howard, it stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, who becomes embroiled in a broad conspiracy, which begins to take its toll on his mental health and his understanding of reality. The film is inspired by Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography of the mathematician, and also stars Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, and Christopher Plummer. A Beautiful Mind proved to be a financial success, managing to earn an impressive $316 million worldwide on just a $58 million budget. Meanwhile, it also garnered critical acclaim and found itself nominated for eight Oscar nominations, four of which it went on to win.

What Makes It Great

The film’s focus on a lesser-known real-life figure is part of the reason A Beautiful Mind is so good. It’s free of the predictability of other biopics, and instead offers something that is more interesting, educational, and unpredictable. As the title suggests, it’s a beautiful film that manages to handle its subject matter of mental health and schizophrenia with surprising sensitivity and sophistication. As a result, it is an emotional and heartbreaking watch. Additionally, Crowe excels here in the role of Nash, deftly portraying the man’s troubled nature and doing so with dashes of charisma and eccentricity. Add to that a solid supporting cast, a gorgeous score by James Horner, and more than a few clever directorial choices by Howard, and with A Beautiful Mind, you have a powerful biographical drama that is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. Stream on Fubo

Related:Best Biopics Ever Made, Ranked

9 Elvis (2022)

Elvis - 2022

Elvis

In Baz Luhrmann’s first film since 2013, we get a look at the life of the legendary rock and roll star, Elvis Presley. Tom Hanks and Austin Butler star.

Release Date
June 24, 2022

Read Our Review

Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 epic musical biopic, Elvis, was a hit with both critics and audiences when it was released in theaters, and went on to be nominated in eight categories at the 2023 Academy Awards. Set over a 40-year period, the film tells the story of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from his childhood and early years in the music industry to his mainstream success and eventual death. As well as focusing on his career and his relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the movie also gives a glimpse into the star’s personal life and his marriage to Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge). For his role in the film, Butler worked hard to get Elvis’s famous voice and mannerisms just right and, as a result, didn’t see his family for three years.

What Makes It Great

Elvis is a big, brash spectacle of a film that works as a treat for the senses. Similarly to Lurhmann’s other projects, it’s a stunning piece of cinema, with gorgeous cinematography and lavish production design and a frantic high space editing which makes it one of the best-looking and thrilling biopics ever made. For all its gimmicks and tricks, however, the film is ultimately a well-told story about success and standing out from the crowd. Additionally, Butler’s committed and accurate lead performance ensures the movie is filled with heart, charm, and pathos. While not everything about it works – Hank’s perplexing take on Colonel Tom Parker for a start – Elvis is, nevertheless, an energetic and entertaining jukebox musical biopic that stands out from the crowd. Stream on Prime Video

8 Gandhi (1982)

gandhi

gandhi

Release Date
November 30, 1982

Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Sir Ben Kingsley in the title role, 1982’s Gandhi takes an honest look at the life of one of India’s most famous figures, Mahatma Gandhi. The film predominantly focuses on Gandhi’s later years, during which he attempted to maintain peace between the Muslims and Hindus of India during the time of the partition. Though it centers on Gandhi himself, the film’s significance lies in the fact that it highlights a crucial event in South Asian history that is rarely depicted in Western media. At the 55th Academy Awards, the film received eleven nominations and ended up winning eight in total, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor.

What Makes It Great

The success of most biopics is determined by the strength of the lead performance, and Gandhi is no different. Here, Kingsley delivers a towering, career-best performance that carries the rest of the film on its shoulders. It’s an astonishing turn by the British actor, who manages to humanize and make fallible a figure who has been overly glorified over the years. He inhabits the character in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else doing a better job. Furthermore, with a well-written script by John Briley and some thoughtful direction by Attenborough, Gandhi is an epic and beautifully told film that, for many years, served as the gold standard of biographical movies. Rent on AppleTV+

7 Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

Released in 1980, Coal Miner’s Daughter focuses on the life of country music singer Loretta Lynn, who had great success in the late 60s and early 70s with hits such as “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl”, “The Pill”, “One’s on the Way”, and the titular “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. Acclaimed actress Sissy Spacek portrays Loretta in the film, which depicts the singer’s humble beginnings in a childhood defined by poverty, to her rise to stardom, and acquisition of the moniker, the “First Lady of Country Music”. As well as Spacek, the film also stars Tommy Lee Jones as Doolittle Lynn, Loretta’s husband, and Beverley D’Angelo as fellow singer, Patsy Cline. In total, Coal Miner’s Daughter received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Spacek, which it ultimately won.

What Makes It Great

Coal Miner’s Daughter was far from the first biopic to focus on a musical star. However, it feels like the one that got the template right, and that would, ultimately, inform many biographical films that came after it. Aside from this, it’s also just an incredibly well-made and focused film that, despite being over 40 years old, still holds up well today. A big reason for this lies in the way in which the film captures Loretta’s struggles as a wife, a mother, and a woman who has to juggle numerous roles. This is an interesting and enduring take, and one that stands out from the more clichéd “price of fame” takes of other musical biopics. Furthermore, with a powerhouse performance by Spacek, a solid script, and inspired direction, Coal Miner’s Daughter is an often-overlooked biographical drama that deserves more love. Rent on AppleTV+

Related: 11 Best Biopics About Musicians

6 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Based on the 1853 slave memoir of the same title by Solomon Northup and set in the middle part of the nineteenth century, 12 Years a Slave focuses on Northup’s life from a free African American man to a slave, following his abduction by two white men. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, the film is brutally honest in its portrayal of slavery. With a supporting cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti, 12 Years a Slave was met with widespread acclaim when it was first released in theaters in 2013 and went on to win three Academy Awards in from nine nominations, including Best Picture.

What Makes It Great

12 Years a Slave stands out from others on this list in that its protagonist is someone whose name is mostly unknown to most people. Northup wasn’t a famous musician or a political figure, instead he was just a normal man who was subjected to over a decade of slavery which, unfortunately, was far from uncommon at the time. This makes his story all the more interesting, however, because Northup’s story represents that of so many African Americans who endured similar ordeals. This, combined with the film’s raw and honest look at the history of slavery in America, means that the film is an educational and enlightening one that should be watched by all. With stunning performances, beautiful story-telling, and excellent direction, 12 Years a Slave may be a difficult watch, but it’s definitely worth it. Stream on Hulu

5 Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Lincoln

Release Date
November 9, 2012

Steven Spielberg is no stranger to biopics, and, as 2012’s Lincoln proves, the acclaimed filmmaker is one of the best when it comes to telling stories of real-life people and true events. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, the film chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s time in office as the President of the United States, specifically his efforts to liberate slaves with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, all while the Civil War rages on. Based on the 2005 biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the movie features an all-star cast that also includes Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, and Tommy Lee Jones. A favorite among critics, Lincoln scooped up 12 Academy Award nominations in total, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Day-Lewis, which it ultimately won.

What Makes It Great

The notion of a film centered on the life of one of the key figures in American history at the most crucial point in his life, was surely a daunting one when Spielberg first took on the project. Fortunately, the renowned director, along with Day-Lewis and everyone else who worked on Lincoln, managed to pull it off and create something that is both grand and ambitious while also being personal and intimate. It’s an insightful film that’s rich in detail and filled with nuance, and that shines with the amount of thought and dedication that was put into making it. Method actor, Daniel Day-Lewis has proven time and time again why he is generally considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, but his performance in Lincoln is on another level. He leaves any shred of his own self behind and fully becomes the character he is playing. It’s remarkable to watch and, ultimately, is the thing that makes the movie the masterpiece it is. Additionally, some excellent supporting turns by Field and Lee Jones, some stunning cinematography, and a rich script make Lincoln one of the best historical biopics of the 21st century. Stream on Paramount+

4 Oppenheimer (2023)

Read Our Review

One of the most recent biographical films to receive an Academy Award nomination, Oppenheimer was a massive hit with both audiences and critics when it was released in the summer of 2023. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan and based on Kai Bird’s 2005 biography, American Prometheus, the film revolves around the life and career of the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), and his involvement in the Manhattan Project and the creation of nuclear weapons. Told in a non-linear narrative style, the film hops between many different periods of Oppenheimer’s life, including his time as a student, his relationship with his wife Katharine and mistress Jean Tatlock, and the security hearing that questioned the physicist’s loyalty to his country. The film’s ensemble cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Kenneth Branagh, among many others. Thanks, in part, to the cultural phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer”, Oppenheimer grossed over $950 million at the worldwide box office and earned a total of 13 Oscar nominations.

What Makes It Great

Oppenheimer is an epic movie in story, scale, length, and talent. With it, Christopher Nolan manages to tell almost the entire story of one man’s career by boiling it down to its key narrative beats and, despite being three hours long, it never feels anything other than engaging. It’s a masterfully crafted piece of cinema, complete with gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema, an enchanting score thanks to Ludwig Göransson, and impressive direction from Nolan himself. Furthermore, with a career-best performance by Murphy, who conveys Oppenheimer’s feelings of guilt and confusion with apparent ease, and strong supporting work from the likes of Downey Jr. and Blunt, Oppenheimer is a game-changing biographical drama deserving of all the recognition it has so far gotten. Stream on Peacock.

Related: 15 Must-Watch Oscar-Winning Movies Based on Books

3 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

They rarely make films like Lawrence of Arabia anymore. The 1962 epic tells the real-life story of T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), a maverick British Army Lieutenant whose rebellious nature gets him sent to the Ottoman provinces during World War I. In time, Lawrence gains the trust and support of many of the warring Arab tribes, and successfully leads them in a conflict with the Turks. The film, which was based on Lawrence’s own autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was directed by David Lean, and also starred well-known talents, such as Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif in supporting roles. Lawrence of Arabia was ultimately nominated for 10 Academy Awards in total, seven of which it went on to win.

What Makes It Great

At almost four hours long and shot on Super Panavision 70 mm film on location in the desert, Lawrence of Arabia is epic in every proportion. However, despite its lengthy runtime and ambitious set pieces, the film’s story is a surprisingly focused and simple one that essentially boils down to one man’s meditative journey. That’s not to say it’s not exciting – it certainly is – but the film manages to combine its action sequences and dramatic settings with complex ruminations on war and allegiance. Plus, it features a stellar cast who all deliver comitted and powerful performances, with O’Toole and Guinness, in particular, leaving a lasting impression. Combine all of that with breathtaking vistas, a stirring soundtrack, and an adventure-filled plot, and you have a groundbreaking historical biopic that still holds up all these years later. Stream on The Criterion Channel

2 Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus

Amadeus

Release Date
September 19, 1984

Runtime
160

Adapted from Peter Shaffer’s stage play of the same name, Amadeus puts a unique spin on the traditional biopic formula. Set at the end of the 18th century, the film revolves around the life and work of the famous Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played in the movie by Tom Hulce. The twist is that the whole story is the account of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a fellow composer who went from idolizing Mozart to viewing him with bitter jealousy. The film is, therefore, a more fictionalized depiction of Mozart’s life that plays on the biases of its unreliable narrator. Amadeus proved to be popular when it came around to award season, and managed to earn itself eight Oscars in total.

What Makes It Great

Biographical films have a habit of being formulaic, predictable, and overall a bit samey. Not Amadeus, though. Milos Forman’s 1984 hit is anything but predictable, offering a bold and inventive take on the historical biopic genre. Witty and charming, yet not lacking in heart, the film is a highly enjoyable watch, with everything from the cast to the music, to the production design to the script coming together to create an intelligent and utterly mesmerizing piece of cinema. Both Abraham and Hulce excel in their respective roles, and both bounce off one another wonderfully. Meanwhile, Simon Callow, Elizabeth Berridge, and Roy Dotrice make up a strong supporting cast. Few biopics are as good as Amadeus, and even fewer are as provocative and full of interesting ideas. Rent on AppleTV+

1 Schindler’s List (1993)

Not only is Schindler’s List widely regarded to be one of the best movies of all time, it also has all the elements necessary for a perfect biopic. An adaptation of the 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark, the film follows the story of how Oskar Schindler saved Jewish refugees from the Holocaust during the final days of World War II. Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, in a role that would earn him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Carolone Goodall, and Embeth Davidtz make up the film’s supporting cast. Schindler’s List was the recipient of seven Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture and Best Director for Steven Spielberg.

What Makes It Great

Schindler’s List is a phenomenally powerful movie that sticks with you long after watching it. Like 12 Years a Slave, the film doesn’t sugarcoat its subject matter and instead offers an honest and unblemished portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust. Neeson is truly breathtakingly good in the lead role, but he’s also supported by some excellent turns by Kingsley and Fiennes, with the latter, in particular, giving a truly chilling performance. Moreover, with this film, Spielberg reminds the audience why he’s one of the best and most acclaimed storytellers on the planet, delivering a masterpiece of a film that’s as gripping as it is poignant. Despite being over 30 years old, the film is still rewatched and still very much well-regarded to this day. Dark, terrifying, heavy, beautiful, and tender all in one, Schindler’s List is undoubtedly the best Oscar-nominated biopic of all time. Stream on Showtime

The Iron Claw was a great biopic that failed to get an Oscar attention this season, check out it and many more films that failed to land a nomination this season in our video below.

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