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) Hachi: A Dog’s a Tale
Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström is obsessed with dogs. Not only did he direct 1985’s My Life as a Dog and 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose, he also made the 2009 hidden gem, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. Though it received a theatrical release in England and Japan, you may not have heard of it since the film was unfortunately banished directly to DVD in the U.S.. Remade from the Japanese feature Hachikô monogatari, the American version stars Richard Gere as a college professor who forms a surprising bond with the stray shiba inu (Doge, anyone?) he takes into his home. To elaborate on the plot any more would be to go into spoiler territory, but let’s just say that for dog-lovers, this is one of the ultimate ugly cry movies. In Japan, the real canine the film is based on was so beloved, they erected a statue in his honor. —C.O.
4) Gangs of New York
Obviously, Martin Scorsese has made a lot of gangster movies. But although it received 10 Oscar nominations when it came out in 2002, no one really counts Gangs of New York as one of his finer entries in the genre. Perhaps that’s because this movie, based on the real gangs who ran the “Five Points” area of New York City in the 1860s, feels more like a historical epic. It’s also truly a strange film. Bloated and violent and full of gigantic sets that feel like something out of the old studio era, the movie is definitely trying to make some grand statement about America. And while Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are pretty wooden in it, the movie has a great supporting cast and features a fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, one of the most unforgettable villains in Scorsese’s canon.
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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
Director Pablo Larraín has described Neruda as an “anti-bio” of the poet Pablo Neruda. Indeed, the film, which stars Luis Gnecco as Neruda and Gael García Bernal as a cop on his trail, plays with biography and fiction, celebrity and politics. Neruda lived in interesting times and Larraín plays up the parties and speeches in stunning detail, balanced out by a noirish game of cat-and-mouse. —A.S.
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If you’ve already seen Goodfellas, you may feel compelled to skip Casino. Martin Scorsese teamed back up with writer Nicholas Pileggi for this film that’s essentially a retread of their previous masterwork. However, while Goodfellas is definitely the superior movie, Casino is not without its merits. A chronicle of the mob in Las Vegas as told by Robert De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, the film has an unforgettable opening, a wonderfully gonzo performance from Sharon Stone, and one of the most memorable death scenes of all time (spoiler alert: here’s looking at you, Joe Pesci.) At almost three hours long, it isn’t exactly so much Goodfellas-lite as it is Goodfellas’ spiritual sequel. While the runtime is daunting, each hour into Casino gets better, till you arrive at a final act, which is non-stop madness. —C.O.
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.
12) 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
13) 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.
14) 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
18) 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
19) 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
20) 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
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, LGBT movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.