90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

90 Best Movies Based on True Stories

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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.  

50. A Hijacking (2012)

7.9

Country

Denmark

Director

Tobias Lindholm

Actors

Abdihakin Asgar, Amalie Ihle Alstrup, Andre Royo, Clancy Brown

Moods

Thrilling, True-story-based

A Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The pirates demand millions of dollars in ransom and from there on, a psychological drama between the pirates and the ship owner develops, as they negotiate the price for the ship and its crew. A really great thing about this film is the fact that it doesn’t get tangled up in the weepy feelings of the families back home – but instead focuses on the shrinking hope of the ship’s crew and the psychological consequences of the brutal negotiation, that drives the ship owner to the edge of madness. Inspired by a true story. Brilliantly acted.

49. Man on Wire (2008)

7.9

Country

UK, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

James Marsh

Actors

Annie Allix, David Forman, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau

Moods

Inspiring, Mind-blowing, Thrilling

Man on Wire is a true technical masterpiece. You can almost feel the director telling the cameraman what angle to choose, or thinking about the questions that will generate the most resounding answers. However, this does not diminish the story this documentary tells one bit. It’s one that is glorious, riveting, and fun. It’s one where you feel like an insider to a world lived on and below wires, with high-stake risks. Hopefully the edge of your seat is comfortable, because this is where the movie will keep you till the very end.

48. The Swimmers (2022)

best

8.0

Country

Turkey, United Kingdom

Director

Sally El Hosaini

Actors

Ahmed Malek, Ali Suliman, James Floyd, Kinda Alloush

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

The Swimmers tells the true story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini (played by fellow sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa), Syrian swimmers trained to compete at the Olympics. When their athletic goals and overall safety are threatened by the increasing presence of war, the girls decide to take a chance and migrate to Europe, where they hope to live out their dreams and reunite with their family someday.

The Swimmers is a touching family drama that does right to center on the love and tension between the siblings. Yusra and Sara’s relationship perfectly encapsulates the envy and resentment but also the deep love and loyalty that are present in every sister bond. It’s tender in these moments, but it can also be equally searing—as a refugee drama, it chillingly tracks the complicated and inhumane processes of fleeing one’s country for a safer future.

47. The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020)

best

8.0

Country

Belgium, Cyprus, France

Director

Female director, Kaouther Ben Hania

Actors

Anissa Daoud, Christian Vadim, Darina Al Joundi, Husam Chadat

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Sunday, Thought-provoking

Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s new movie is about an arrogant European artist who tattoos a Syrian man’s back, essentially turning the man’s body into artwork. 

The man, as a commodity, is able to travel the world freely to be in art galleries, something as a simple human with a Syrian passport he couldn’t do. Seems unlikely? It’s based on a true story.

But Ben Hania is not really interested in the political statement aspect of this unlikely stunt. Instead, she looks at what this would do to a human-being, to the man’s self-esteem, his relationships, and the turns his life takes. It’s a fascinating movie.

46. Dark Waters (2019)

best

8.0

Country

United States, United States of America

Director

Todd Haynes

Actors

Abi Van Andel, Aidan Brogan, Amy Morse, Amy Warner

Moods

Dramatic, Thought-provoking, True-story-based

Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, and Tim Robbins star in this well-executed and eye-opening drama based on a true story. Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a successful corporate lawyer in New York. He is visited by a distressed farmer from his hometown in Cincinnati whose cows have been developing strange behaviors and diseases. Robert decides to take on this case in what will become one of the biggest class-action lawsuits in the country: the use of cancerous chemicals by the company that commercializes Teflon (the stuff in pans). Excellent acting in an incredibly frustrating but necessary story that will trouble you more than any other legal thriller you have watched in the past: prepare to be outraged (and throw away your pans).

45. Apollo 11 (2019)

8.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Todd Douglas Miller

Actors

Buzz Aldrin, Deke Slayton, Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell

Moods

Instructive, Sunday, True-story-based

What makes Apollo 11 stand out is its sharp minimalist approach, allowing the archival footage of the mission to the moon to speak for itself. It’s stunning to think that at one point or another we had collectively seen a bulk of the footage in this film, and yet somehow let it lay dormant until the moon landing had been reduced to black and white stills in our collective imaginations. Not only does this film reinvigorate the moon landing with the power that it once held, but it does so in a way that is more thrilling than anything the Marvel CGI wizards could muster. The vibrant score adds a layer of ferocious tension, while the breakneck pace gives the feel of a rollercoaster ride. If there is any fault to find here, it is most definitely with the film’s MAGA style yearning for a time and place that never existed. Spare us the teary-eyed patriotism and the clips of Nixon, a disgraceful criminal, and vile racist, yammering on about the world becoming one. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic example of why most biopics should just be documentaries and why the fanatical fear of spoilers is a tad silly. Spoiler alert: they land on the moon.

44. Official Secrets (2019)

best

8.0

Country

China, Switzerland, UK

Director

Gavin Hood

Actors

Adam Bakri, Andrew Marr, Angus Wright, Brett Allen

Moods

Instructive, Suspenseful, True-story-based

Keira Knightley stars in this incredible true story of an Iraq War whistleblower who remains relatively little-known in the U.S. Katharine Gun was working for the communications office for the British government when she received a memo in the months leading to the war that showed that the U.S. requested illegal wiretapping assistance from the U.K. on U.N. diplomats. In a heroic act, she chooses to share this memo, hoping that it would stop her government (then led by Tony Blair) from going to war. Spoiler alert: didn’t happen, but this decision, which first seemed like a personal sacrifice, has severe implications on her family as the government finds out that she was behind the leak. A compelling political mystery of a case that deserves much more attention than it once got.

43. Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)

best

8.0

Country

Denmark, Finland, Sweden

Director

Janus Metz, Janus Metz Pedersen

Actors

Anders Berg, Bjorn Granath, Bob Boudreaux, Colin Stinton

Moods

Inspiring, True-story-based, Uplifting

Shia Laboeuf and Stellan Skarsgård star in this true story about one of the greatest tennis matches in history: the 1980 Wimbledon final. The movie dissects what drives both competitors (one played by Laboeuf and the other by Sverrir Gudnason). Their personalities, considered opposites, are studied through their paths and how they got into tennis. All this leads to that one match, in this beautiful story of dealing with competition and fear of failure. Don’t stop watching when the credits roll, read what they say!

42. American Animals (2018)

best

8.0

Country

UK, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Bart Layton

Actors

Al Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner

Moods

Gripping, Suspenseful, Thrilling

This crazy heist movie is told in a very original way. Because it’s based on a true story, the movie (with actors and a story) is sometimes interrupted by the people it’s about. The opening scene even reads: “this movie is not based on a true story, it is a true story”. Two friends decide to rob their local library from rare books worth millions. They’re driven by money but also by wanting something different than their monotonous everyday lives in Kentucky. The need for a change is a big theme in this movie, but the story and the way it’s told never cease to be breathtakingly thrilling. American Animals stars amazing actors like Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Evan Peters (Kick-Ass), and many more; but perhaps equally as notable is the director: Bart Layton, who is fresh from his amazing 2012 sleeper-hit The Imposter.

41. King of Devil’s Island (2011)

best

8.0

Country

France, Norway, Poland

Director

Marius Holst

Actors

Benjamin Helstad, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Frank-Thomas Andersen, Kimmo Rajala

Moods

Action-packed, Dark, True-story-based

This gorgeous Scandinavian movie is based on a true story and stars the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard.

He plays the governor of a strict youth correctional facility in Norway in 1915. The arrival of a feared kid kickstarts events that are very famous in Norway but little-known elsewhere: an uprising within the facility that will eventually require the army to get involved. A strong movie with stellar (Stellan) performances.

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