Generally speaking movies based on real life, be it a person or an event, face an up hill battle as they deal with the conflicting truths about reality — reality happens at a pace that is too slow for a movie and, when the unbelievable happens in reality, the surprise of it can never be matched by a film because it is the slow pace of reality, the years of experiencing things as they are, that makes those things so unbelievable and amazing. We are shocked when the Red Sox come back to beat the Yankees after being down 3 games to none because we have spent a life time watching the Red Sox loose and the Yankees win. Without that life time of knowledge (and for us Red Sox fans heartache) what is it other than an exciting victory and trite underdog story? So, too many films based on real life fall short because they either don’t feel real (Rob Roy, Hoffa) or they can’t live up to the reality we already know (World Trade Center, nearly every sports movie) or they feel too much like homework (The Reagans, The Kennedy’s). However, every so often a movie will get it right. They will hit that perfect note where the reality behind the story gives added power and depth to the movie, when fiction and reality work together to make something more compelling than either could do on their own. Here are the ten best such films available on Netflix:
10. Anastasia (1956)
The real life story of Anastasia was one of the great mysteries of mid 20th century Europe. Did the daughter of the Tsar of Russia die with her family during the revolution or did she escape? If she escaped where was she, where had she been? Years later a young woman was presented as being Anastasia to the royalty of Europe. She was the right age and looked the part but was eventually exposed as a hoax, or was it? Members of various royal families believed until her dying day that she was the Russian princess in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Ingrid Bergman stars as Anastasia, or the woman chosen by the Russian ex-patriots to be Anastasia so they might collect the millions of dollars offered for her return, and takes a character that in lesser hands could be pathetic and imbues her with a dignity that makes you believe she could be something more after all. Definitely worth watching for her performance alone.
Talk about crazy stories, this is the tale of a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany who, after being separated from his family at the beginning of the war, survives by pretending to be a German of Arian decent and he eventually becomes one of the Hitler Youth. When the war ends he has survived and he is reunited with his family. How close is this film to the reality on which it is based? Probably not very, but it is still a compelling and tense portrait of survival.
8. The General (1998)
Brendan Gleeson is one of those actors who never gets enough credit. Maybe it is because in hollywood fare he has always played supporting roles (Lake Placid, Safe House, the Harry Potter movies, etc.) that are memorable but rightly don’t overshadow the leads. Here he is the star and man, what a star he is. As Martin Cahill, a real life Dublin folk hero, thief and gangster who had a habit of stealing from the wealthy and giving much back to the poor, Gleeson owns this movie. As Cahill you fear him, you like him, you see his flaws and respect his choices. I don’t have any idea what the real Cahill was like, but if he was anything like Gleeson’s Cahill I can see why he became the stuff of legend (check out the clip to see what I mean).
7. Capote (2005)
Is Philip Seymour Hoffman incredible as Truman Capote? Of course he is, he’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and he is almost always amazing. What makes this movie really good though is the way the rest of the cast play off of Hoffman’s Capote. Be it Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, Capote’s long time friend and sometime assistant (before she wrote and published To Kill A Mockingbird) or Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, the murderer at the heart of the story that became In Cold Blood, the interactions with Capote tell us more about the man than the man ever does himself.
6. Becket (1964)
Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and John Gielgud, honestly do I need to say anything else? Of all of the “grew up best friends and ended up on opposing sides of a conflict as adults” movies this one really stands above the rest. Peter O’Toole plays Henry II and Richard Burton plays Thomas Becket, who would now be called Saint Thomas Becket as he died a martyr for refusing to allow the King to exert control over the Catholic Church in England (it is a little more complex than just that, but that is the gist of it). The movie is told in flashbacks as Henry II remembers his friend and how his friend changed as he came to God.
5. Brian’s Song (1971)
In Stripes Bill Murray famously asks his troops at the start of his motivational speech “who cried when old yeller died?” Honestly, to a group of men who are now in their 40’s the question should be “who cried when Brian Piccolo died?” Not when Piccolo himself past away but at the end of the movie Brian’s Song. I freely admit that I have seen Brian’s Song somewhere near 50 times over the course of my life and I have cried each and every time. Just watch this clip and tell me you don’t well up a little…
4. The Last Emperor (1987)
The true story of the last emperor of China, who was worshipped at birth by a billion people and whose life ended as just another peasant in the new People’s Republic of China. Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece follows a life from beginning to end and keeps you riveted all the way through. Also, this may be one of the most beautifully filmed movies in history.
3. Searching For Bobby Fisher (1993)
A fascinating story about what an exceptional child should do, should he be exceptional above all else or be a child first and foremost. The real Bobby Fisher went for exceptional and turned into a crazy and generally horrible human being. Josh Waitzkin decided to stay a kid in spite of so many who wanted him to strive to be something more (or less if Bobby Fisher’s life is any indication).
2. The Untouchables (1987)
Did you know David Mamet (pulitzer prize winning writer of Glengarry Glen Ross) wrote the screenplay? Of course this is a story that had and has been told many times by many different people but somehow with Mamet’s screenplay and the direction of Brian DePalma this version feels fresh and unique and simply right.
1. Breaker Morant (1980)
During the Boer War three Australian lieutenants are ordered to execute their prisoners only to find that they are the one’s put on trial for their war crimes and not the men who gave them their orders. Breaker Morant is the lawyer who fights to see these men don’t become mere scapegoats for an army that is trying to hide what they became during the war. Breaker Morant has brought me an odd kind of joy for years. I was enthralled when I first saw it in the theaters in 1980. I have loved recommending it to so many who have not seen it and always smile when they inevitably tell me how great they thought it was. And now I get the great pleasure of writing about it again, hopefully converting a few more, this is a film that deserves to no be forgotten.
- Quills, Zulu, Torra Torra Torra and Bottle Shock were the four hardest movies for me to leave off the list.
- The King’s Speech, Gandhi, Hotel Rawanda, My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father are all big time oscar winner that are available in this category but did not make my list.
- Two lesser known movies that weren’t top ten worthy but are still worth seeing (and you may have never heard of them) are The Krays and Downfall