18 Best Movies Ever Made Based on True Stories

Sometimes, the best story is one you can't make up.

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In recent years, it's felt like Hollywood is only capable of producing three types of movies: sequels, remakes, and reboots. But the best silver-screen storytellers know that the most incredible and most inspirational plots are mined not from the well-trod archives of film studios but from the events of actual human history. Don't believe it? Well, read on. Below, you'll find 18 films—sweeping epics, intimate portraitures—that are all based on real-life events. True story.

1
Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody became the all-time highest grossing music biopic, earning more than $600 million at the global box office since being released on October 24th in the U.K. The film follows the early days of the legendary rock group Queen, with Mr. Robot actor Rami Malek taking on the role of frontman Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody concludes with Queen's unforgettable 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium—all 20 incredible minutes of it.

Malek talked about portraying the iconic rock star in a behind-the-scenes featurette for 20th Century Fox, saying, "When you set out to play Freddie Mercury, you think, 'How am I ever going to fill those shoes?' It's an immense responsibility, but one that I was very eager to take on."

2
Hidden Figures

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In 2016, Hidden Figures told the inspiring and previously little-known story of the African American women who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit during the 1960s Space Race. The movie stars Taraji P. Henson as mathematician Katherine Johnson, Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson, and Octavia Spencer as NASA supervisor and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan in a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Hidden Figures also received recognition in the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

While discussing the importance of Hidden Figures back in December 2016, Spencer told Variety, "There's an underserved audience for stories of women like this working, and succeeding. There is a kind of fatigue on slave stories, on subjugated stories, which for some reason, there is still a plethora of in Hollywood. I think this movie will be impactful in a lot of ways because African American women have contributed so much and have been regarded so little. But there's still a lot of road to cover, a lot of stories to tell."

3
The King's Speech

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King George VI suffered from a significant stammer that made preparing for a broadcast declaring Britain's war with Nazi Germany in 1939 that much more challenging. His devoted wife, Queen Elizabeth, took it upon herself to seek out the help of Lionel Logue, an eccentric Australian speech and language therapist. It's that relationship that The King's Speech, starring Colin FirthHelena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush, explores. 

At the 83rd Academy Awards, the 2010 film solidified its place among the best Hollywood biopics by winning the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay.

4
Ray

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Jamie Foxx earned rave reviews for his portrayal of Ray Charles in the 2004 film named for the legendary musician. Foxx took home the Oscar for Best Actor, as well as the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Critics' Choice, and BAFTA for his role that awards season. This impressive feat makes Foxx just the second actor ever to win all five major lead actor awards for the same performance. (The first was The King Speech's Rush for the 1996 film Shine.)

Foxx opened up to The New York Times about playing the industry idol who passed away on June 10, 2004, shortly before the film premiered. "Coming from comedy, I could grasp a Ray Charles impersonation easily. The difficult thing was capturing his nuances," he said.

5
Titanic

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In 1997, director James Cameron took us back in time and deep below the ocean waves with Titanic. The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a young pair—Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater—who find love just before the newly launched ship infamously struck an iceberg in April 1912 and sank during its maiden voyage. Though there was no real Jack or Rose aboard the RMS Titanic, of course, there were historical figures like the unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and John Astor (Eric Braeden) that made appearances in the film.

Titanic's production budget of $200 million was the largest ever spent on a movie at the time. Thankfully, it initially took in over $1.84 billion worldwide and also earned a whopping 14 Academy Award nominations. The film took home 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director during the 70th annual event.

6
Schindler's List

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Schindler's List stars Liam Neeson as real-life figure Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees during World War II by employing them—and thereby protecting them—in his factories.

Along with winning seven Oscars—including Best Picture and Best Director—at the 66th Academy Awards, the movie was also included in TIME magazine's All-Time 100 Movies list and Leonard Maltin's "100 Must-See Movies of the Century." If that wasn't enough to convince you that this film is one everyone should watch, the Vatican also deemed Schindler's List one of the most important 45 films ever made.

7
Erin Brockovich

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Julia Roberts won her first—and only—Academy Award for her starring role as Erin Brockovich. The 2000 film tells the true story of the titular legal clerk, environmental activist, and single mom who took on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California in 1993 for polluting the town of Hinkley's water supply. Despite a lack of a formal legal education and daunting odds, Brockovich successfully won her lawsuit in the inspiring real-life David vs. Goliath scenario.

The real-life Brockovich had a small cameo in the film and approved of Roberts' award-winning performance, except for one small detail. "When Erin saw the movie, she said, 'The only thing that was inaccurate is that the skirts weren't short enough,"' director Steven Soderbergh told Entertainment Weekly.

8
12 Years a Slave

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Chiwetel Ejiofor leads the incredible cast of this 2013 Academy Award-winning Steve McQueen film. Though 12 Years a Slave also features Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, and Brad PittEjiofor won much of the critical praise and ultimately, the BAFTA for Best Actor for his role as Solomon Northup.

The movie is based on the memoir of the real Northup, a free black man born in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 12 Years a Slave follows Northup over the course of the 12 years he spent trapped on a plantation before finally gaining back his freedom.

9
The Revenant

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Despite being nominated for an Academy Award five previous times, it was 2015's The Revenant that finally saw Leonardo DiCaprio take home the coveted Best Actor Oscar. Inspired by Michael Punke's 2002 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a real frontiersman named Hugh Glass, who was forced to survive extreme wilderness conditions in 1923 after suffering from a bear attack and being left for dead by the members of his camp.

When asked what drew him to the role, DiCaprio told Wired in 2015, "It's all true. [Glass] survived a savage bear attack, was left for dead, then traveled through this uncharted territory of interior America, crawling through hundreds of miles of wilderness on his own." He added: "It was epic in every sense of the word."

10
Goodfellas

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Martin Scorsese directed and co-wrote the screenplay for this 1990 film that follows the rise of mobster Henry Hill from the 1950s, right up until his eventual fall after nearly three decades of living a dangerous and lavish criminal lifestyle. Ray Liotta plays the lead character in the award-winning movie, with Robert De Niro taking on fellow real-life mobster Jimmy the Gent and Joe Pesci stepping into the shoes of Tommy D (though those names were slightly altered from the real-life mobsters they're based on). 

In 2000, Goodfellas was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress because it's considered to be "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant."

11
A Beautiful Mind

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A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, a real brilliant mathematician who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia and delusional episodes. The movie went on to be the 2002 Academy Award winner for Best Picture and Crowe's performance as a schizophrenic earned high praise for its accuracy.

"Crowe does a brilliant job of portraying the mannerisms, and some of the behaviors of a schizophrenic—the best I have ever seen on the screen," Dr. Ken Davis, chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told ABC News.

12
Capote

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The late Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his stunning portrayal of American writer Truman Capote in this 2005 film directed by Bennett Miller. Released on September 30, 2005, to coincide with Capote's birthday, the movie followed the famed author as he gathered material and conducted interviews for his 1966 novel In Cold Blood

Despite their physical differences, Miller was confident Hoffman was the one for the role. "The main thing is the character's interior and without getting too deep into it, there are lots of parallels in Phil's life," Miller told Indiewire. "Which I knew and only became more evident with time. There was something about that character that he could own that nobody else could."

13
Moneyball

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Hoffman also appeared in 2011's Moneyball, which starred Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the former Oakland Athletics general manager who was determined to turn the low-budget team around, even if it meant changing the business of Major League Baseball. The film, which also features Jonah Hill as Billy's assistant general manager Peter Brand, was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay as well as acting nods for both Pitt and Hill.

Pitt talked to NPR's Fresh Air in 2011 about wanting to be a part of the movie as soon as he read the 2003 Michael Lewis book of the same name that the film was based on. "I was taken with these guys who, out of necessity, had to challenge the conventional wisdom of their industry," Pitt said. "What these guys had to do was re-question baseball and baseball knowledge. They had to take everything apart and start over again."

14
Gorillas in the Mist

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In 1988, Gorillas in the Mist told the inspiring and heartbreaking story of American primatologist and conservationist Dian Fossey, who was murdered in 1985 after spending years studying and trying to protect gorillas in the jungles of Rwanda. With Sigourney Weaver in the lead role, the movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and Weaver earned the Golden Globe for Best Actress.

In a case of art imitating life, Weaver found herself in a dangerous situation while filming with the real-life primates. "There was one silverback, named Pablo, who was known for dragging women down the mountain by their hair," she recalled to The Telegraph in 2017. "One day I think he was not in a good mood, and in the middle of our shooting, he just rose up, beat his chest, roared going up the mountain at me, and knocked me down. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally moved further up the hill and started to terrorize a female up there, who I think was my stand-in."

15
Apollo 13

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Director Ron Howard helmed two movies on this list: A Beautiful Mind and 1995's Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise as NASA astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, Fred Haise, and Ken Mattingly respectively. The movie also featured an incredible performance from Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Apollo 13 tells the story of the failed 1970 lunar mission, but the film was certainly a success. It took in over $355 million worldwide and the late critic Roger Ebert called it "a powerful story, one of the year's best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics."

16
The Wolf of Wall Street

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Leonardo DiCaprio has been known to play real-life figures. And before he won an Academy Award for his role in The Revenant, he stepped into the shoes of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort in 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie also co-starred Jonah Hill, as Belfort's business partner, as well as Margot Robbie as the main character's wife. The movie, directed also by Scorsese, took in $392 million worldwide, making it Scorsese's top-grossing film to-date.

Belfort was involved in the filmmaking process and was helpful to DiCpario for a memorable scene that involved the actor being high on quaaludes. "Leo had never done drugs, so I showed him what it looks and feels like when you are high on quaaludes," Belfort told The New York Post. "We were both on the floor, drooling. His father walked into the room and asked us what the f— we were doing."

17
Hotel Rwanda

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In 2004's Hotel Rwanda, Don Cheadle stars as Paul Rusesabagina, a successful four-star hotel manager who housed more than a thousand Tutsi refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide in an attempt to protect them from the Hutu militia. Sophie Okonedo plays the main character's real-life wife, Tatiana Rusesabagina, in the retelling of the story, which has been compared to Schindler's List. 

The film won the People's Choice Award at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival. Paul Rusesabagina told Oprah Winfrey he was heavily involved in the filmmaking process and helped Cheadle understand the role. "He didn't really understand me until we met, sat down, shared wine, and spent almost a week together," he said. "He'd expected me to be a shell-shocked man who hid in alcohol after all I went through. But when he met me, a real person, he noticed that I was different from his preconception."

18
Walk the Line

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Based on two autobiographies written by Johnny Cash himself, 2005's Walk the Line stars Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black with Reese Witherspoon playing his equally formidable wife June Carter Cash, a role that earned the star the Academy Award for Best Actress. 

Phoenix told CNN in 2005 that he enjoyed the experience of playing a real-life icon. "I had John's personal reflections about his life and his experience, whereas with a fictional character you're creating their history," he said. "There are pros and cons with playing a real person. There are great deals of expectations, and people already have a preconceived idea of who that person is. But at the same time, there's a wealth of information to draw from, and I like that process a great deal." And for more movies to check out, dive into 20 Happy Movies That Almost Got Sad Endings.

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