90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

May 30, 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.  

21. Frost/Nixon (2008)

best

8.8

Country

France, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Ron Howard

Actors

Andy Milder, Clint Howard, Eloy Casados, Frank Langella

Moods

Sunday, True-story-based

A relevant and deeply entertaining movie that only has the appearance of being about politics. In reality, it is about television, and one brilliant journalist’s pursuit of the perfect interview.  Richard Nixon stepped away from the public eye after the Watergate scandal, and was counting on a series of interviews three years later to redeem himself. His team assigns an unlikely reporter to sit in front of him, a British reality TV host named David Frost. Both men have everything to gain from this interview by going against each other, as Frost tries to extract a confession of wrongdoing in Watergate that Nixon never gave.  Who will win? The master manipulator or the up-and-coming journalist? Frost / Nixon was originally a play, and this adaptation is full of drama and boosts great dialogue.

22. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

best

8.7

Country

Czech Republic, Germany, United Kingdom

Director

Edward Berger

Actors

Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Albrecht Schuch, André Marcon

Moods

Action-packed, Challenging, Dark

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

23. The Disaster Artist (2017)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

James Franco

Actors

Adam Scott, Adwin Brown, Alison Brie, Amechi Okocha

Moods

A-list actors, Easy, Funny

A hilarious and smart comedy that is almost impossible to hate. It doesn’t matter if you liked The Room or not; or if you’ve even heard of it, you will find The Disaster Artist extremely enjoyable. Same applies for James Franco, it’s irrelevant if you think he’s the hottest man walking or a complete waste of screen-time – this movie is better approached without any preconceived ideas. It follows the true events surrounding Tommy Wiseau’s making of The Room, a movie so bad it actually became a worldwide hit. Tommy’s character, played by Franco, is 100% mystery. He pops out of nowhere and does and says things that contain little to no logic. Capitalizing on this, the movie is both absolutely hilarious and intriguing from beginning to end.

24. Quiz (2020)

best

8.6

Moods

A-list actors, Binge-Worthy, Challenging

For a show about a multiple-choice quiz, this miniseries about the cheating scandal that struck UK TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is thrillingly, juicily open-ended. In 2001, bumbling Major Charles Ingram (Matthew Macfadyen) won the top prize with a sensational performance, but broadcasters ultimately decided to pull the episode from the air after noticing an apparently convenient pattern of coughing during taping.

Director Stephen Frears plunges us right into the nail-biting tension of Charles’ final questions; it feels as if we’re really watching live event TV. Macfadyen and Sian Clifford (as Charles’ wife Diana, a former contestant herself) give masterfully cryptic yet human performances, while Helen McCrory (as their barrister) flips everything we thought we knew on its head in a showstopper of a courtroom scene. But the most impressive thing about Quiz is playwright James Graham’s writing: not only does the script play up the ultimate campiness of this intrigue (no one died, after all), but it also weaves in commentary on television’s appetite for “entertaining falsehoods.” What saves Quiz from feeling manipulative itself is how masterfully the mystery is balanced on a knife edge — it’s a stunning exercise in ambiguity that never stops being gripping, teasing us with its reminder that, sometimes, there is no final answer.

25. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Kimberly Peirce

Actors

Alicia Goranson, Alison Folland, Brendan Sexton III, Caitlin Wehrle

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Raw

Kimberly Peirce’s first–out of only three—film was a smashing success, mostly due to her dedication to the subject matter. Peirce spent years researching the life and tragic death of Brandon Teena after reading an article about him in The Village Voice. She felt a particular kind of kinship as a queer person herself, and wanted to construct a story out of real facts that would put the spotlight on love and the desire for connection, and not that much on the violence which dominated the public discourse. In Falls City, Nebraska, the director conducted interviews with Lana Tisdale (Brandon’s girlfriend) and her mother, while attending the ongoing trial. She took years to cast the lead and from hundreds of cis women, lesbians, and trans people, she chose the unknown actress Hilary Swank, who went on to win the Best Actress Academy Award (and the irony of that is not lost on us). The film features fantastic performances aplenty and very raw storytelling, visualized by neorealist style and low lighting. Direct references were the films of Martin Scorcese and John Cassavetes, but Boys Don’t Cry has its own blend of beauty and cruelty to take pride in.

26. The Rider (2018)

best

8.5

Country

United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Chloé Zhao, Female director

Actors

Brady Jandreau, Derrick Janis, Greg Barber, Mooney

Moods

Raw, Sunday, Suspenseful

This is quite the movie. It’s based on the true story of Brady Jandereau, an ex-rodeo star who suffered from an injury that took him away from riding horses. This is the best part, in the movie, he actually plays himself. His friends in the movie are his real-life friends. And the horse taming scenes are real wild horses being trained (by him). The line between reality and the filmmaking process is so thin here. An absolutely mesmerizing movie, directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao. The Rider. Don’t miss it.

27. Flee (2021)

best

8.5

Country

Denmark, Estonia, Finland

Director

Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Actors

Behrouz Bigdeli, Belal Faiz, Bo Asdal Andersen, Daniel Karimyar

Moods

Discussion-sparking, True-story-based

When Amin sits down for a tell-all interview about his troubling past, his memories come to life in vivid animation. Sometimes they are sweet and intimate, like when he recounts his time as a playful boy in a much freer Afghanistan. But often, they’re marred by the unbelievable horrors of refugee life. Now a successful academic and soon-to-be husband, Amin discovers the inescapability of his status and identity, the reality of which continues to threaten his safety to this day.

Relevant and vital, Flee sheds some much-needed light on an often-overlooked phenomenon. More than just displaying factoids and numbers, it relays the specific unease and constant vigilance that comes with fleeing one’s home. But as Amin’s story, it is also richly detailed and wonderfully personal; for all its harsh exposés, the film leaves enough room for Amin’s stirring realizations about love, identity, and sexuality.

28. The Long Day Closes (1992)

best

8.5

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Terence Davies

Actors

Anthony Watson, Ayse Owens, Leigh McCormack, Marjorie Yates

Moods

Challenging, Raw, Slow

This poetic memoir by the late director Terence Davies opens with a tracking shot that takes us down a rainy, dilapidated Liverpool street, finally settling on the wet staircase of a roofless house as three audio tracks morph into one another: a Nat King Cole song, dialogue from a movie, and, finally, a boy calling for his mother. Just as we hear the latter, the shot of the exposed staircase dissolves, taking us into the past to reveal the owner of the voice sitting in the same spot — only now, the stairs are dry, the roof restored. 

The scene perfectly encapsulates the film: it’s a dreamlike pool of sensory recollections from that lonely boy’s childhood, assembled according to the strange logic of memory. Music and movie dialogue echo across the film as we watch snapshots from Bud’s (Leigh McCormack, playing a proxy of Davies) early years. Though most of the memories radiate warmth — Christmases with family, euphoric cinema trips — a note of melancholy tinges these blissful recollections. Callously cruel schoolmates, desperate church prayers, and instantly rueful stolen glances jar against the nostalgia and let us know that something dark is coming. Intensely, painfully intimate, this is one of the best and most unbearably sad evocations of memory in cinema.

29. 24 Hour Party People (2002)

best

8.5

Country

United Kingdom

Director

Michael Winterbottom

Actors

Andy Serkis, Chris Coghill, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Lestuzzi

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Funny

Here’s a biopic that focuses on capturing the feel of the era it depicts, rather than all the facts — and is all the better for it. 24 Hour Party People takes the same punk approach to storytelling as its subjects did to music, playfully throwing off the dull constraints that often make based-on-a-true-story movies feel like uninspired celluloid translations of a Wikipedia page. 

In the film’s opening scene, Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us directly and semi-spoil the movie’s ending. But it doesn’t matter, because the ride is so fun: we’re taken on an immersive trip through the heyday of the Manchester music scene: the births of Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays, and Wilson’s Factory Records label and legendary Hacienda nightclub, an incubator for acid house and rave culture. The era’s hedonism is brought to life by the movie’s frenetic editing, documentary-style cinematography, and strobe-heavy visuals. For all its onscreen anarchy, though, the movie remarkably never feels loose or self-indulgent. Its irreverence is grounded by the ironic filter of the meta filmmaking, which frequently breaks the fourth wall to draw attention to its own conceits. A refreshing rejection of biopic tropes, but also a thrilling transportation into and evocation of the Madchester era.

30. Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows (1998)

best

8.5

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Paul Jay

Actors

Bob Marella, Bret Hart, Brian James, Brian Lee Harris

Moods

Discussion-sparking, True-story-based

This is maybe the last Montreal Screwjob documentary the world will ever need, but in other respects, it’s an incredibly insightful look at the increasingly raunchy late ‘90s WWF through the eyes of the straight-laced Bret “The Hitman” Hart. We get insights into his bond with his sadistic dad Stu Hart, his priorities when caught between a WWF and WCW bidding war, and his loyal fans who in crowd interviews can be described as the coherent and smarter section of the audience. But what makes this one of the greatest and most important pro wrestling documentaries of all time is its divine timing, getting into Bret’s headspace talking about his future before leaving WWF, hearing his wonder before any of the unfortunate events shortly after.

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