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 currently streaming on Netflix—then go out and live your best life.
The best movies based on true stories on Netflix
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
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.
Zodiac is the great crime movie of our time. David Fincher’s masterpiece about the hunt for the notorious Bay Area 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. Finally receiving some of the recognition it deserves as one of the best films of the past decade, if you’ve only seen Zodiac once, the time to revisit it is now. And if you’ve never seen it, the same holds true. —Chris Ostendorf
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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) but never strays too far from his comedic routes.
The Big Short‘s portrayal of the crises that led to the collapse of the credit and housing bubble remains didactic throughout. Ultimately, the film seeks to inform the public who were affected by the collapse 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? —C.O.
6) 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.
7) 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.
Director of Drive and the upcoming The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn has a penchant for exploring themes of masculinity and violence, and he’s never done it better than in this 2008 British film based on the story of the man often thought to be the country’s most violent prisoner. In Bronson, 19-year-old Michael Peterson is sentenced to seven years behind bars for robbing a post office. He ends up serving 34, three decades of which he carries out in solitary confinement. During this time, Peterson adopts the alter ego of Charles Bronson (yes, like the actor), and the story only gets weirder from there. The center of it all is Tom Hardy in a performance that’s like watching a star about to go supernova. —C.O.
9) 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
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10) 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.
12) Young Mr. Lincoln
Many films have told the story of Abraham Lincoln, but few are as unique as Young Mr. Lincoln, a biopic that focuses solely on Lincoln when he was (get this) young. Henry Fonda stars as the future president, portraying him during the period where his law career took off and political ambitions started to set in. Made by John Ford, who would go on to direct Fonda again a year later in what’s probably his most iconic performance, as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln is a precursor to the great work both star and filmmaker would soon become famous for. —C.O.
13) 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
14) 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.
15) 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.
17) 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.
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.
19) 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.
20) 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
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.
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