10 Biopics That Actually Worked, and Why

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The movies that rose to the challenge of distilling an entire life onto two hours of film

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Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic J. Edgar is out on DVD today, following a fall theatrical run notable mostly for its lack of awards consideration. The film, and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio's leading role in it, had been the object of much presumptive Oscar buzz (hitting, as it does, multiple circles in the Oscar Venn diagram: slightly villainous, based on a real person, wide range of aging, secretly gay). But the film underwhelmed, for one very simple reason: We're just getting tired of biopics.

The biographical film portrait has been a venerable institution since the early days of cinema; Georges Méliès made a Joan of Arc biopic clear back in 1900. And while there have been scores of great ones, the tropes of the form (the birth-to-death chronology, the trials and triumphs, the romantic struggles, etc.) are so firmly established that the only biographical films that really make an impression anymore, it seems, are those that buck the trends and experiment, or at least futz with the form a bit. Here's a look at ten great biopics that made an impression, and some theories as to why.

This post also appears on Flavorpill, an Atlantic partner site.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

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Jason Bailey is the film editor at Flavorwire, and has also written for Slate, Salon, and the Village Voice.

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