90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

July 17, 2024

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Every now and then, a movie will come up with such incredible feats and unimaginable plot twists, you’ll swear it couldn’t be more unrealistic. Only in the movies, you think, can two murderers be spared for their vaudeville act or a person’s memory be reset each day. But just before the credits roll, a notice flashes onscreen: the events you just saw, outrageous as they may seem, were based on a true story. 

Sometimes, the announcement doesn’t even make it in the film and you find out, mouth agape, after the fact. Other times, you come in knowing that this is all true—it’s a biopic after all, or a docudrama—but you leave in fervent disbelief that any of this transpired in real life. Whatever the case may be, it’s undeniable that it takes a special kind of skill to make a movie out of actual events. So below, we’ve gathered the best movies you can watch right now that have their roots in reality.  

1. Fruitvale Station (2013)

best

9.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Ryan Coogler

Actors

Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Thought-provoking

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

2. The Intouchables (2012)

best

9.6

Country

France

Director

Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache

Actors

Absa Diatou Toure, Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi, Alba Gaïa Bellugi, Anne Le Ny

Moods

Challenging, Funny, Intense

A wealthy paraplegic needs a new caretaker. His choice is surprising — an ex-con down on his luck. Both of their lives are changed forever. Based on a true story, it is funny, touching, and very surprising.  It will have you rolling on the floor laughing one minute and reaching for your hankie the next. Intouchables is one of those perfect movies, that will easily and instantly make anyone’s all-time top 10 list.

3. Love and Mercy (2014)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Bill Pohlad

Actors

Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Brian Wilson, Carolyn Stotesbery

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Sunday

If you’re a fan of the Beach Boys’ legacy, or you want to find out more about Wilson, the person, this movie will give you what you need. It has been widely praised as being true to the facts – even by Bryan Wilson himself. But thanks, in part, to the incredible writing by Oscar-nominated Oren Moverman and the work of director Bill Pohlad, this is much more than a fact-based fictionalization of a famous musician’s biography. It is a singularly convincing account of the artistic process and the effects of mental illness.

Love and Mercy tells the tale of two Bryan Wilsons: the first of a young and slightly square-looking musical pioneer in the 1960s, when Wilson was working on Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ most ambitious and ground-breaking album. Paul Dano’s performance here is nothing short of perfect. And, second, the tale of the tormented, middle-aged Bryan Wilson, played by John Cusack, during a time when he was under treatment for his deteriorating mental health in the late 1980s. The juxtaposition of these two very different people and the brilliant performances of Cusack and Dano will completely absorb you and change the way you look at things. A unique and beautiful film!

4. The End of the Tour (2015)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

James Ponsoldt

Actors

Anna Chlumsky, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Jason Segel

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Mind-blowing, Smart

A hot summer night, around 2 a.m. You’re outside talking with a close friend about life, happiness, and the human condition. That quality and depth of conversation, which you reach at best a couple of times a year is present throughout the 106 minutes of The End of the Tour.

In the case of this movie, you become the witness of five days of conversation spent between two fine writers: the once-in-a-generation American author David Foster Wallace and best-selling Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, as they travel the US during the 1996 publicity tour for the former’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Twelve years later Wallace will commit suicide.

Like a good podcast, the James-Ponsoldt-directed road movie makes you feel being part of a deeply personal conversation of the kind you would have with a long-time friend. At times, it can feel like eavesdropping on a genius at work. This effect is helped along by a flawless Jason Segal, who delivers an award-worthy performance as DFW. The fierce intelligence exuded by Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky is also nothing short of amazing. As they stuff their faces with junk food, their conversation is insightful, immediate, and unpretentiously relevant, making The End of the Tour a rare and important film.

5. Return to Seoul (2022)

best

9.5

Country

Belgium, Cambodia, France

Director

Davy Chou

Actors

Guka Han, Heo Jin, Hur Jin, Kim Dong-seok

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Lovely

In both documentaries and films, adoptees meeting their biological parents for the first time is an event often painted in a sweet light. Never mind the child’s mixed feelings about it or the tragic reality that caused the split in the first place—it’s a reunion between family members, so it must be unequivocally special. In Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou doesn’t just debunk that myth, he subverts it by making the adoptee, Freddie, as unapologetically complex and emotionally enigmatic as possible. She resists affection but wallows in loneliness. She craves reinvention but stays in the same place for years. She’s in constant motion while being absolutely stuck in life. In other words, she’s a realistic embodiment of a person struggling to find some semblance of home. Chou displays an intimate understanding of the foreign experience, and he couples it with captivating cinematography, a rousing soundtrack, and fantastic performances across the board to make a daring, inventive, and thoroughly exciting film. 

6. The Imposter (2012)

best

9.3

Country

UK, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Bart Layton

Actors

Adam O'Brian, Adam O' Brian, Adam O'Brian, Alan Teichman

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Dramatic, Intense

Simply titled The Imposter, this film by English documentary maker Bart Layton tells an unbelievable tale. Any plot summary doing this film justice has to err on the side of brevity, which is why it will be only one line long: this is the story of Frederic Bourdin, a serial imposter nicknamed “The Chameleon”, who at one time claimed to be the missing son of a family from Texas. The film is so well-shot that it is hard to tell fact from fiction at times and it will force you to remind yourself that this is in fact real life. Expect twists and turns at every corner and brilliant storytelling from real people. If Christopher Nolan created a 48-hour story, it would pale in comparison to this film.

7. No Dogs or Italians Allowed (2023)

best

9.2

Country

Belgium, France, Italy

Director

Alain Ughetto

Actors

Alain Ughetto, Ariane Ascaride, Bruno Fontaine, Christophe Gatto

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Emotional

With cardboard houses, sugar winters, and broccoli trees, No Dogs or Italians Allowed at first seems lighthearted, playful, and not too serious. Alain Ughetto casts himself asking his grandmother Cesira about his family, but we only see his hands moving and interacting with the characters as if he was crafting clay model miniatures. However, the whimsical approach sugarcoats the very tragedies that struck his family– from the multiple wars to the discrimination they’ve faced as immigrants– with excellent animation and puppetry that feels much more lifelike than 3D CGI. In telling his family’s story, Ughetto also retells 20th century European history, reframing the worldwide events and movements through a personal perspective.

8. The Look of Silence (2015)

9.1

Country

Denmark, Finland, France

Director

Joshua Oppenheimer

Actors

Adi Rukun, Amir Hasan, Amir Siahaan, Inong

Moods

Challenging, Discussion-sparking, Intense

A follow-up/companion piece to the award-winning The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence is another compelling documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer. Both films aim attention at the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, when the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. While the first film’s focus was on the culprits and on providing facts, the second one lets us meet the victims. One victim in particular: a soft-spoken optician named Adi Rukun, who meets with various members of the death squad who murdered his elder brother Ramli, under the guise of giving them an eye test. As he questions them about the killings, the murderers, again, show little remorse and eagerly provide the lurid details to the many executions. It’s a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical mass killings, along with the insidious propaganda that provokes them, and continues to justify them to younger generations. A testament to the power of cinema to remember the forgotten.

9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

best

9.0

Country

France, United States of America

Director

Julian Schnabel

Actors

Agathe de La Fontaine, Anne Alvaro, Anne Consigny, Emma de Caunes

Moods

Challenging, Emotional, True-story-based

Directed by celebrated artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who won an award in Cannes for it, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of the Parisian journalist and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of 43. Paralyzed almost completely by what is termed locked-in syndrome, his left eye was the only part of his body that he was still able to move. In a Herculean effort, Bauby learned to blink in an alphabet code that eventually enabled him to communicate. The film alternates between Bauby’s interaction with his visitors and caretakers (including painstakingly dictating his memoir, the titular Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) and dream-like fantasies and memories of his life prior to paralysis. The title alludes to this juxtaposition: the diving bell representing his final state of isolation, akin to a deep-sea diver under a bell, and the butterfly as a symbol for his blinking eye and the freedom he has in his mind, dreams, and imagination. Shot from Bauby’s perspective, we see what he sees. Be it his divorced but loyal wife and his family visiting him, or his old father, played by Max von Sydow, which is probably the scene in this fascinating movie that will make you lose it and weep like the rest of us.

10. The Sea Inside (2004)

best

9.0

Country

France, Italy, Spain

Director

Alejandro Amenábar

Actors

Adolfo Obregón, Alberto Amarilla, Alberto Jiménez, Alberto Jiménez

Moods

Dark, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

There are movies that leave you matured after you finished watching. You mature because you are forced to walk in someone’s shoes and confront yourself with issues that you are not affected by. The Sea Inside is one of those movies –⁠ and won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for it. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who you might know as the director of The Others, it tells the true story of Ramón Sampedro’s decade-long fight for the right to end his own life. After he became quadriplegic after a diving accident, he was confined to the same bed in the same room for 26 years, except when he visited the hospital. Not an easy subject to say the least but Amenábar helps the fascinating story along with stylish directing, while Javier Bardem delivers a stellar performance to go with it. Thanks also to Ramón Sampedro’s sunny real-life nature, this heart-wrenching watch also has plenty of uplifting moments.

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