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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
Inspired by his childhood in 1970s Mexico City, Roma is the latest film from visionary writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity; Children of Men). It’s a moving autobiographical drama about a young woman who works as a housemaid for a wealthy Mexican family, based on Cuarón’s beloved childhood nanny. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest movies of 2018, destined to live on as a highlight of Cuarón’s career. —Gavia Baker-Whitelaw
2) 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
3) The End of the Tour
Although many close to the late writer denounced the film upon its release, The End of the Tour’s portrayal of acclaimed author David Foster Wallace doesn’t necessarily need to be accurate to be affecting. Following journalist David Lipsky’s unpublished chronicle of Wallace in the last days of his book tour for Infinite Jest, the film is a powerful work on art, interviewing, genius, depression, and the way creative people view each other. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel do some of the best work of their careers as Lipsky and Wallace, bringing authentic chemistry to this brief but powerful relationship. —C.O.
4) First They Killed My Father
Angelina Jolie’s continues to grow as a director. After her attempt at Oscar bait, Unbroken, the commercially successful but non-player at awards season, Jolie works on a smaller scale with First They Killed My Father. It tells the true story of Luong Ung (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie and wrote the memoir the film is based on), whose family was one of many that suffered under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The film is contemplative without being boring and emotionally devastating without being manipulative. It’s a tough watch but a strong film. —Eddie Strait
5) Other People
Based on Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly’s real-life experiences, Other People tells the story of struggling comedy writer, David (Jesse Plemons), who moves back home to Sacramento to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). Complicating matters is his father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), who refuses to accept David’s sexuality, even 10 years after he came out. The lead performances are all great, and the film features strong supporting turns from familiar character actors and comedy mainstays, including June Squibb, Matt Walsh, Maude Apatow, and more. It’s a movie which alternates between moments designed to make you laugh and moments designed to make you cry, and it’s not short on either. —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.
7) 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.
8) Julie & Julia
As talented as Amy Adams is, she can’t quite save the half of this movie devoted to Julie Powell and her quest to complete all the recipes in Julia Child’s first cookbook. Yet it hardly matters, when you have Meryl Streep giving one of her best performances in recent years as Child herself. From her intelligence, to her love for the kitchen, to her inability to be anything other than herself, Streep brings way more humanity to Child’s outsize personality than anyone should be able to. This was the legendary Nora Ephron’s last film before she died, and as sad as it was to lose her, we can at least take comfort in the fact that she gave us one more great rom-com before she left. Come to Julie & Julia for the food, stay because Julia Child and Stanley Tucci are relationship goals. —C.O.
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. —Audra Schroeder
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10) The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment takes the infamous 1971 study on perceived power by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo and turns it into something like a psychological thriller. Starring a who’s who of young Hollywood actors, led by Billy Crudup playing Zimbardo, the film recounts the disturbing events of the experiment by stretching them out in a slow, painful burn. Based on footage from the actual study, it feels like director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s fictionalized version took painstaking detail. —C.O.
Zodiac is the great crime movie of our time. David Fincher’s masterpiece about the hunt for the notorious Zodiac Killer is not only his best film—it’s perhaps the best film ever made on the nature of obsession. Dark, enigmatic, and unforgettable, this is the kind of movie that gets better with each viewing. Zodiac has finally received some of the recognition it deserves as one of the best films of the past decade, so if you’ve only seen it once, the time to revisit it is now. And if you’ve never seen it, the same holds true. —C.O.
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
Netflix honors a World War II hero and photographer Francisco Boix in its newly acquired Spanish film, The Photographer of Mauthausen. The film, which follows Boix as he attempts to smuggle photos that incriminate the Nazi party of war treason while in the Mauthausen concentration camp, is predictably dark, somber, and incredibly difficult to watch—but an essential film about the Holocaust and the importance of upholding the truth. —Tess Cagle
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. —E.S.
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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.” —A.S.
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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. —A.S.
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. —T.C.
21) The King’s Speech
Though the Oscar should’ve gone to the more daring The Social Network in 2010, The King’s Speech is still a strong entry in the good ol’ “inspirational true story” genre. The lead performances from Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and Guy Pearce are top-notch. Tom Hooper’s decision to shoot much of the film in unflattering close-ups works perfectly. And for fans of The Crown or monarchy obsessives in general, The King’s Speech is a great primer. —C.O.
22) 22 July
Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips) tackles yet another real life tragedy. On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik carried out a terrorist attack in Norway that left 77 people dead and injured over 300 others. The film covers the two-pronged attack, as well as the aftermath, and Breivik’s trial. It’s a tough film to watch because the trauma is so recent, but Greengrass’s respectful approach keeps the film from being maudlin. If you enjoy Greengrass’s other work (he also directed three Bourne films), 22 July is on par with those works. —E.S.
The story of the first black man to play baseball in the major leagues, Chadwick Boseman gives a star-making turn as Jackie Robinson in 42. Harrison Ford also shows up as legendary executive Branch Rickey, and his acting is, well, a lot– though it’s good to at least see him trying. Mainly, 42 is worth watching for the way it makes Robinson’s story feels alive and new, rather than like a page from a history book. —C.O.
24) American Gangster
Though overstuffed and filled with too much of Russell Crowe’s Detective Richie Richards, American Gangster succeeds because of Denzel Washington’s fierce turn as real-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. Violent, angry, yet methodical, there’s something unknowable about the way Washington plays Frank. We’re never entirely sure what’s driving his unquenchable thirst for power, but there is certainly something American about it. The movie is also worth checking out for one of the final performances from the great Ruby Dee, as Frank’s mother. —C.O.
25) 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 uniquely 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. —C.O.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, rom-coms, LGBT movies, gangster 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.
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.
Born in Singapore to Chinese parents, Clara Wang grew up in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, where she first started her journalism career. Her work has been published by the Austin Chronicle, the Daily Dot, the Alcade Magazine.