Photo via the Imitation Game (CC-BY-SA)
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 on Netflix—then go out and live your best life.
The best movies based on true stories on Netflix
1) Dallas Buyers Club
As a movie about LGBTQ subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club leaves something to be desired. Not only does it omit elements of the real Ron Woodroof’s story, it fails to clearly define whether Rayon, the film’s second lead, is transgender, a cross-dresser, or identifies in some other non-binary way. Where Dallas Buyers Club does succeed is in its depiction of the AIDS crisis, stigmatization that came with an HIV-positive diagnosis, and the far-reaching effects it had in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Dallas Buyers Club stands as one of their few offerings that provides a raw snapshot of a watershed moment. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performances as Woodroof and Rayon, respectively, are also among the best of their careers (particularly in Leto’s case), and the direction from Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) is stunning. —Chris Osterndorf
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) My Left Foot
My Left Foot tells the story of Christy Brown, an Irish author with cerebral palsy. Through frustration and determination, he learned to write using only (you guessed it) his left foot, making his journey on screen one that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Daniel Day-Lewis won his first of three Oscars for playing this difficult character, and while the casting of an able-bodied actor for the part might inspire some criticism today, at the time the film all but cemented his reputation as the greatest actor of his generation. —C.O.
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Daniel Day-Lewis is completely believable in the title role, downplaying the grandeur Abraham Lincoln is usually depicted with in favor of vulnerability and uncertainty. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, sings with wit and wisdom, turning behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing into a Schoolhouse Rock “how a bill becomes a law” mix of education and entertainment. And Steven Spielberg’s usual sentimentality is tampered down just enough to allow for a poignancy rarely seen in this kind of prestige pic. Lincoln may take place during the most polarized period in American history, but in comparison to our political climate today, it’ll make you feel positively inspired about the power of government. —C.O.
6) Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is the kind of movie that is so famously wrenching, it’s increasingly harder to find anybody who has actually seen it. Hopefully its presence on Netflix fixes that, because Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic may still be the defining film about the Holocaust. In addition to winning Best Picture, Schindler’s List cemented Spielberg’s place as not only the populist favorite among his generation of directors but a true master of the artform as well. —C.O.
7) The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game isn’t much different from any Oscar candidate in any given year. It’s a true story about a British man who overcomes incredible difficulty to win against all odds. Except in The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn’t really triumph in the end. 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. Though the movie downplays Turing’s sexuality for most of its runtime, 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. 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.
8) Quiz Show
In the 1950s, TV quiz shows ruled the airwaves. That is until a lawyer discovered proof that they might all have been rigged. Robert Redford directed this riveting account of the original quiz show scandal, crafting a film that’s genuinely riveting without any life-threatening drama. John Turturro doesn’t get enough leading roles in movies, but his Herbert Stempel is a tragic figure despite playing a man willing to compromise his morals for fame. Quiz Show gazes at a time in America where people still trusted what they saw on TV, but this tale of corruption feels oddly timely. —John-Michael Bond
Richard Linklater’s account of an East Texas murder is a curio, even by his standards. He mixes real interviews with locals of Carthage, Texas, into his fictionalized account of Marjorie Nugent’s murder at the hands of her assistant, Bernie Tiede. Jack Black’s vocal and physical affectations walk the line of caricature, but he never crosses it. He does the best work of his acting career here. Shirley Maclaine matches, and even surpasses, Black’s work as Marjorie. The film is darkly funny and a fascinating look at a relationship gone horribly wrong. —Eddie Strait
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9) 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.
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. The first half of the film depicts the severity of the experiments as nearly every test subject succumbs to the pressure of the circumstances and administers shocks to a stranger. Between the experiments, Milgram meets the Alexandra, the future mother of his children. —C.W.
11) The Ip Man Trilogy
Donnie Yen (who audiences will recognize as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One) stars in this trilogy of biographical martial arts films as real-life Wing Chun master Ip Man, who eventually became Bruce Lee’s teacher. The first film focuses on events that occurred during the Sino-Japanese War, the second film follows Ip after he opened a Wing Chun school in Hong Kong, and the third features a young Bruce Lee (played by Danny Chan) going to Ip’s Wing Chun school to learn martial arts. While the fights are excellently choreographed and executed, it’s the emotional story that brings it home. —Michelle Jaworski
12) City of God
This 2002 Brazilian film about growing up under corruption, poverty, and violence in Rio de Janeiro moves as fast as a Martin Scorsese gangster movie despite containing enough tragedy for 10 depressing documentaries. Director Fernando Meirelles (with help from co-director Kátia Lund) imbues the film with such a sense of gritty realism, it could only be based on real-life experiences. At the same time, the film is so highly stylized, it’s also a cinematic experience, whether you watch it at home or in a theater. Instead of being buried under the weight of these contradictions, City of God thrives on them. For anyone interested in doing a deep dive, check out City of God: 10 Years Later, a documentary about the lives of the film’s young actors, which is also on Netflix. Beware though, the follow-up is almost as emotionally draining as the first go-around —C.O.
13) To the Bone
It may be hard to convince yourself to sit down for a harrowing story about a young woman’s struggle with anorexia. Despite To the Bone’s grim subject matter, Marti Noxon’s script has enough humor to act as a release valve. The performances from lead actress Lily Collins to supporting players Alex Sharp, Keanu Reeves, Retta, and Lily Tomlin are great. The true story, based on Noxon’s past experiences, comes through in her intimate and empathetic approach to the film. —Eddie Strait
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Milk is a sad movie because it shows you how hard the gay rights movement had to fight for the most basic respect. It’s a sad movie because the rights that were being fought for are still too often unrecognized in this country today. It’s a sad movie because Harvey Milk gave his life for what he believed in. But it’s not an entirely sad movie because Harvey Milk also lived a life worth celebrating. —C.O.
While critics have almost universally praised the first half of Lion for its intense portrayal of Calcutta street life, there’s something kind of exploitative in the film’s focus on poverty. But the second half of the film, which focuses on a young man in Australia trying to find his way back to the home he doesn’t remember in India, Lion becomes something else entirely. The story’s hero, Saroo (Dev Patel), struggles to reconcile the privilege of his current life, mainly the love of his adopted parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and girlfriend (Rooney Mara), with the life he lost as a child. With a little help from Google Maps, he begins to obsessively search for the village he was born in. All that Googling might not sound exciting, and some of it is a little dull, but it’s contemporary story this hones in on globalization and technology. —C.O.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Netflix’s feature film adaptation of Josh Karp’s 2006 book of the same name, is an exploration of the creation of humor mag National Lampoon and its odd-couple co-founders, Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) and Doug Kenney (Will Forte), it’s removed enough from its 1970s origins to offer new insight into its generational influence—and it also recontextualizes satire in an era littered with “fake news.” —Audra Schroeder
17) The Most Hated Woman in America
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was one of the world’s most controversial atheists, and this new film from Tommy O’Haver and Irene Turner looks at her mysterious disappearance and death as well. Melissa Leo plays O’Hair as a bulldog who fought for religious freedom, but her life had some dark pockets too. —Audra Schroeder
18) Roxanne Roxanne
A long overdue biopic, the dutiful Roxanne, Roxanne tells the early ‘80s beginnings of Lolita Shante Gooden, known to the hip-hop world as Roxanne Shante, rap’s first female superstar. Serviceable as a straightforward film, the project suffers from lack of depth as it tries to cover as many real-life events as it can. However, the accurate time-period placing, expert editing, and dazzling performances of Chante Adman, Nia Long, and Mahershala Ali cover most of the film’s tangles. —Kahron Spearman
19) Come Sunday
Evangelical biopic Come Sunday chronicles the fallout of Bishop Carlton Pearson when he is dubbed as a heretic for preaching the gospel of inclusion—the idea that no one will go to Hell because Jesus died for everyone’s sins. Director Joshua Marston does a successful job of making viewers feel like they’re watching events unfold in real life, but his insistence on presenting both sides of the conflict without bias hinders the movie from ever fully delving into any true emotion or character development. Based on an episode NPR’s This American Life, Come Sunday lacks compelling storytelling and nuance, but it successfully shines a light on the shortcomings of a modern-day Christianity that lacks empathy. —Tess Cagle
20) The Iceman
There’s nothing that really makes The Iceman special as a crime film. Based on the real-life experiences of contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who murdered hundreds of people without his wife and children ever having any idea, it’s actually a pretty rote hitman movie. Fascinating as Kuklinski is, the film never fully reckons with the dichotomy of his life as a family man versus his profession as a ruthless killer. But the ensemble is excellent, including strong supporting turns from Winona Ryder and Ray Liotta, a great cameo from James Franco, and a notably zany performance from Chris Evans. The cast is headlined by Michael Shannon in the lead role, a perfect fit for the film and Hollywood’s leading talent in somehow making complete sociopaths sympathetic. —C.O.
Still not sure what to watch tonight? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, and indie flicks. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, and comedy specials when you really need to laugh.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.