The 15 best movies based on true stories on Netflix

Braveheart

Photo via Paramount Pictures

Sometimes real life is even more fantastic than fantasy.

Need a little inspiration from some people who seemed larger than life? Check out these movies based on true stories currently streaming on Netflix—then go out and live your best life.  

1) Lovelace

In 1970, a woman named Linda Lovelace became an international sensation by introducing the blowjob onscreen. Deep Throat grossed over $600 million worldwide, yet Lovelace made only about $1,250. Lovelace traces the life of its namesake, Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried), through ages 25 to 30. After being persuaded by boyfriend Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) to star in Deep Throat, Lovelace eventually becomes an anti-porn feminist and women’s rights advocate. The film also portrays the violence and exploitation Lovelace experienced, both from Traynor and from the industry. —Clara Wang

2) Spotlight

Spotlight is a drama of the old-school model, bringing into comparison gems such as All the President’s Men. It follows the Boston Globe's Spotlight team as it exposes the numerous cases of child abuse and molestation by clergymen covered up by the Catholic church in Boston. The Boston Globe went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, and the scandal ran so deep that the Archbishop of Boston was forced to step down. If you care about journalism, it's a must-watch. —C.W.

3) Fruitvale Station

Oscar Grant was a young black man shot in 2009 by Bay Area Transit System police officer Johannes Mehserle. The movie begins with actual footage of Grant and his friends being detained by the police in Oakland, California, before his killing. It takes us through the last day of his life, from arguing with his girlfriend to his worries about feeding his daughter. In the post-credits scene, title cards show that Grant’s death sparked a series of riots across the country, and the incident was recorded by several witnesses through cellphones and cameras. The police officer who shot him served an 11-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter. —C.W.

4) Frida

The love story of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is one of the most passionate and famous romances in the art world. Frida captures artist Frida Kahlo’s love of life and living, despite being in constant pain due to several crippling injuries. Kahlo meets Rivera as a young girl when Rivera was already famous—equally for his carnal appetite as for his art. They become friends, then lovers. Frida’s paintings reflect her loneliness in a world of excruciating physical pain, but her life illustrates her overwhelming vitality. —C.W.

5) The Big Short

Adam McKay’s The Big Short is not the best film about Wall Street. It’s not even the best film about Wall Street this decade (that honor would have to go to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.) But what makes The Big Short a standout entry in this subgenre is its unparalleled desire to educate. McKay inserts many a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (see: Margot Robbie,) never straying too far from his comedic routes. But his screed on the mechanisms that led to the collapse of the credit and housing bubble remains didactic throughout, always seeking to inform the public who were affected and scold those who let it happen. The Big Short is self-aware regarding the liberties it takes, to the point where the movie’s meta streak can be overwhelming. Fortunately, an ensemble including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and many more do their best to keep the audience entertained through a mass of technical jargon. This is preachy film, but not one without a sense of humor. After all, what can you do sometimes other than laugh in the face of tragedy? —Chris Ostendorf 

6) Chaplin

Best known for his role as Dr. John Hammond in the Jurassic Park franchise, Richard Attenborough was also a notable director of biopics. His most famous film is probably the 1982 epic, Gandhi (for which he won a Best Director Oscar), but film nerds may also be interested in checking out 1992’s Chaplin. Although Attenborough’s portrait is hagiographic in a way his real life subject didn’t deserve, the movie is still an interesting watch for anyone who’s ever been curious about the titular silent film star. It’s a standard biopic, and it makes the standard biopic mistake of trying to cover Charlie Chaplin’s whole life from birth to death. But Attenborough includes a few creative flourishes, such as the occasional stylistic reference to Chaplin’s own work. Above all else, though, the main reason to check out Chaplin is Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role. For anyone who’s become unable to see Downey as anything other than Iron Man, Chaplin is a reminder of the considerable range possessed by this unique performer. Like the man he’s playing in Chaplin, Downey is a one-of-a-kind talent, and Attenborough’s film, which he received an Oscar nomination for, is an early indication of the superstar Downey was waiting to become. —C.O.

7) Braveheart

Mel. Gibson’s flowing locks alone are enough reason to watch this war epic that scooped Gibson five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Loosely based on real-life Scottish warrior William Wallace, Braveheart tells the story of Wallace rallying the Scottish in an insurrection against the British. He ends up dying on the rack in one of the most famous death scenes in cinema (and in history). —C.W.

8) The Imitation Game (2014)   

The Imitation Game isn’t that different than any Oscar candidate in any given year. It’s a true story about a British man who overcomes incredible difficulty to triumph against all odds. Except in The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn’t triumph in the end, not really. He cracks the Germans’ enigma code, effectively ending WWII and winning the war for the allies. But as a homosexual man living in the first half of the 20th century, his own ending is far from happy. Of course, the movie downplays Turing’s sexuality for most of its runtime. But like the man himself, The Imitation Game would not be what it is without its tragic ending. It’s a movie that falls peril to the “inspirational” Oscar clichés, undoubtedly. But by telling the most painful part of Turing’s story among with the more triumphant moments, it manages to give the man some of the justice and credit he so desperately deserves. —C.O.

9) All Good Things

All Good Things is not particularly special, save for the fact that it inspired HBO’s The Jinx, the outstanding 2015 miniseries about Robert Durst. Here’s how the story goes: In 2010, All Good Things was released. Although only “loosely” based on Durst’s life, it fascinated him enough that he supposedly even paid an unexpected visit to the movie’s set. Following the release of All Good Things, Durst contacted director Andrew Jarecki to tell him he was a fan. Already an acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Capturing the Friedmans,) Jarecki began working on a project that would get Durst’s take on the events the movie dramatized, direct from the source. That project became The Jinx, and the rest is history.

All Good Things does have some good performances in it. Almost no one could believe Ryan Gosling as a young Robert Durst (except, maybe, Robert Durst,) but Gosling, never not excited to play a creepy character, goes all in. And Kirsten Dunst does some of her best work as the wife of a man she realizes too late is not who he pretends to be. But above all else, All Good Things is a fascinating entry into our culture’s recent obsession with the true crime genre, if for no other reason than it may have eventually helped catch the criminal it depicted. —C.O.

10) Philomena

Philomena is a nice movie. It’s the kind of movie you can watch with your mom. But despite its decidedly tender nature, it’s not a fluff piece either. The film follows the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and her 50-year quest to find the son she gave up after being sent to a convent as a young woman. Aiding her in this mission is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script), the same journalist who followed Philomena’s story in real life too. The movie takes a sad turn towards the end, but it’s ultimately all the better for it. Philomena’s story is inspiring not in spite of the tragedy she faces, but because of it. —C.O.

11) Beginners

Unlike the other films on this list, Beginners is not based on the story of a person who changed the world or even received national attention. Instead, it’s a more intimate and personal true-life tale, inspired by the relationship between the movie’s director and his dad. Just as in Beginners, filmmaker Mike Mills’ elderly father came out as gay following the death of Mills’ mother and five years before his own passing. This relationship is depicted onscreen by Ewan McGregor, playing the gloomy Oliver, and Christopher Plummer, whose performance as Oliver’s frail but newly adventurous father Hal earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The movie also contains a great turn by Inglorious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent, playing Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, whose as instrumental in Oliver’s journey as his father is, not to mention one of the best dog performances of the past couple years (looking at you here, Cosmo). Heartbreaking but also life-affirming, Beginners is an onscreen reminder that it’s never too late for any of us to start living our truth. —C.O.

12) J. Edgar

J. Edgar Hoover is as infamous for his (somewhat) hidden homosexuality and for blackmailing MLK as he is for founding the FBI. I mean, the guy even got a shout-out on Clue, the movie. Another DiCaprio film, J. Edgar is directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay by the writer of Milk, Dustin Lance Black. The film is a masterful biopic spanning seven decades, showing us a man so untouchable, with so much dirt on every person in power, that he holds hands with his lover in public while condemning homosexuals and blacks. —C.W.

13) Lee Daniels' The Butler

The story of fictional White House butler Cecil Gaines is based on Eugene Allen, a historical figure in the “smallest of print,” according to the Washington Post article that inspired the movie’s filmmakers. Director Lee Daniels places Gaines in important historical scenarios through the decades, Forrest Gump-style. He’s worked through eight presidential administrations, and every president who goes through there from Nixon to Reagan asks his advice at some point. The film ends with a shot of an emotional Gaines as Obama is being sworn into office. —C.W.

14) Experimenter

The famous Milgram Experiments tested one question: How far will you go to obey, even if it means hurting someone else? The results were shocking. In 1961, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested the willingness of ordinary humans to obey an authority figure while administering electric shocks to strangers. In the first half of the film, it is shown how the experiments are conducted, with nearly every test subject succumbing to the pressure of the circumstances and administering shocks to a stranger, despite the stranger begging him to stop. Between the experiments, Milgram meets the Alexandra, the future mother of his children. —C.W.

15) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba stars as Nelson Mandela in his struggles against systemic racism in South Africa. The film chronicles his early life, coming of age, education, and almost three decades in prison before becoming president and working to rebuild post-apartheid. Although it falls into the trap of idealizing the great leader, the biopic is still worth a watch, if only for educational purposes. —C.W.

Editor's note: This article is regularly updated for relevance. 

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