The Best Biopics You’ve Never Seen

Borg McEnroe

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we check out some under-seen movies about real people like you and me, but you know, better known for doing stuff.)

The end of the year is often considered to be prestige season when it comes to movies as studios roll out their classiest films in the hope of winning awards and accolades. The topics run the gamut, but a major presence every year are the biopics — as in pictures about biological humans, presumably — and this year is no different. Richard Jewell, Harriet, Seberg, and Ford v Ferrari are just a few of the biopics opening in the last two months of 2019, and some of them are even well worth the praise they’ve been receiving. (Hint: it’s the one with the fast cars.)

Not all biopics have been as lucky, though, as a crowded field over the years has seen plenty of great ones fade into memory. That’s right, I’m still furious that so many of you slept on the masterpiece that is Borg vs McEnroe (2017). Lucky for you I’m here to point you towards a few of those lesser seen gems. So keep reading for a look at six of the best biopics you’ve probably never seen!

Agatha (1979)

It’s 1926, and Agatha Christie is at the height of her success. Suddenly, though, she disappears. An abandoned car and a note are all that’s left behind, but while the press and public erupt in speculation of suicide, foul play, and publicity stunt, an intrepid reporter discovers the truth of her whereabouts. Now he just needs to find out the why.

There are mysteries, and there are mysteries involving mystery writers. One of the most curious of both centers around the famed author’s eleven day disappearance. There’s never been an official explanation outside of claims that Christie suffered acute memory loss for regarding the period, but the film offers its own answers in the form of a suspenseful mystery built around the writer’s broken heart.

Michael Apted’s late 70s mystery/drama isn’t all that beloved, but it’s an effective tale about love and death that explores the possible intent and emotion behind Christie’s disappearance. Her husband had just announced his intent to divorce her, and that opens the door to sadness, anger, jealousy, and maybe a little murderous inclination, and the result is a compelling tale brought to attractive life with period-focused locales and design. Vanessa Redgrave plays Christie well Dustin Hoffman plays the reporter who cracks the case and falls in love in the process. It’s the right blend of style, glamour, and darkness.

Agatha is available to stream.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Yukio Mishima grew from a frail child into a strong, commanding figure, but while he shaped his body to muscular precision it’s his mind and his words that captivate Japan. As a post-war writer his novels, plays, and speeches draw a loyal fan base of citizens who share his dream for a stronger, more traditional Japan, but popularity and reality rarely meet.

Paul Schrader might seem like an unlikely filmmaker to have taken on such a story and real-life persona, but the man’s filmography is filled with people whose daily lives are driven by obsession and purpose. From Taxi Driver (1976) to First Reformed (2018), though, those obsessions have been a bit more relatable for western audiences. This film is a maybe a tougher watch for it, but it’s still well worth the effort.

Mishima was a fascinating man with challenging ideas, and Schrader’s film meets him with an equally challenging and fascinating movie. Part biography, part adaptation of Mishima’s stories, the film works to paint a picture of a complicated human being with a style and structure all its own. It’s far from an easy watch for that reason alone, but sometimes it’s necessary to shake up the norm with something different. Mishima thought so, and he carried that idea all the way through to his dying breath.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Mozart’s Sister (2010)

Nannerl is a teenager with incredible musical talents. She sings and plays the harpsichord, an instrument deemed suitable for feminine touch, and shares these gifts with audiences throughout France. Unfortunately for her, she has an obnoxious younger brother named Wolfgang who’s every bit as talented and has something she doesn’t — a supportive father interested in fostering his musical career and talents.

There’s no shortage of films highlighting the unfairness of a world where men take far too much control from women, and all of them are telling worthy stories for a populace that constantly needs reminding. This French drama fits the bill with its tale of a talented woman restricted by society, family, and fear from blossoming into the renowned artist she was clearly capable of becoming. It’s necessarily sad, as all such stories tend to be, but it remains a valuable glimpse into the not so distant past.

As much of a downer as the film is — you almost wish René Féret had gone the Tarantino route and simply altered history to deliver a rousing third act showing Nannerl take the world by storm — there’s a vitality in Marie Féret’s performance that sees the young woman retain her pride and the knowledge of what could have been. It’s a lush tale capturing the time and place well, and if it encourages even one parent to support their daughter’s talents and interests than its value is secured.

Mozart’s Sister is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015)

The village of Gehlaur is but a speck on the great map of India, and the country’s government treats it as such. It’s home to a small population, one deemed unworthy of infrastructure upgrades, and that in turn leads to tragedy. Without a proper road over the mountains to the closest town, a young woman is forced to crawl and climb her way to medical attention, and when she dies her husband takes it upon himself to carve the much needed road himself.

This feels like a made-up plot, but Dashrath Manjhi was a real man — a real widower — whose grief and rage were channeled into a twenty-two-year project. He woke up each morning and single-handedly went to war with the earth itself using hammers, chisels, and his own two hands to dig a 360 foot road through harsh terrain. Locals thought him deranged, government officials didn’t think of him at all, but he ultimately finished the road. Thirty years later the government had it officially completed.

It’s a simple story from beginning to end, but Dashrath was a simple man, and while his accomplishment was strictly a local one its weight is still valuable. The film is ultimately an inspiring one that shines a near mythological light on him, but it’s kept to an appropriate degree for a man who literally altered the earth. Even with its flaws, the film is a fine example of a biopic celebrating a person who would otherwise be completely unknown outside of their homeland.

Manjhi: The Mountain Man is available on DVD.

A Taxi Driver (2017)

Kim Man-seob is a hard-working cab driver in 1980 South Korea, and he has little time for upstart college students and others rebelling against the government. He’d prefer they just shut up and get a job of their own, but when he snags a hefty fare driving a Western journalist he discovers the true state of the country he calls home.

This may be a borderline pick as the real-life driver wasn’t actually identified until after his death and after the film’s release meaning what’s on the screen is a fictional representation of the man’s life apart from the German journalist. Kim Sa-bok was the man’s name, but even as a fictional retelling the film still works as a celebration of both men and those standing up for democracy. The truths they captured and helped out into the world show a government using murderous force against peaceful protesters, and as painful as the imagery is to see dramatized it pales beside the horrors these people endured.

The film blends drama, history, and a smidge of action into an affecting and highly entertaining watch, and at the heart of it is yet another fantastic performance from Song Kang-ho as Kim. He’s such a lovable, disagreeable grump, but the more he learns the more he opens up to acknowledging his error, and by the time the third act rolls around he’s transformed into a man both desperate and terrified to help but unable to resist all the same. He’s broken by what he sees and rebuilt by what he must do.

A Taxi Driver is available to stream and on Blu-ray.

A Private War (2018)

Marie Colvin is a war correspondent powered as much by bravery and courage as she is by attention and alcohol. She’s covered conflicts all around the world and even lost her eye to a grenade in Sri Lanka, and now the biggest story of her career is calling from the bombed and besieged city of Homs, Syria.

War correspondents are some of the bravest, craziest people alive, and that in turn has left more than a few of them dead. Colvin was, by all accounts, one of the most fearless journalists to ever walk a battlefield, and the film captures what drives her with emotion and urgency. She brought attention to the civilian cost of war in Syria, and while there’s power in her words, as captured by a CNN appearance, director Matthew Heineman succeeds at putting viewers into Colvin’s shadow during moments both harrowing and heartbreaking.

The various elements all work well here, but the heart of the film is Rosamund Pike’s lead performance. She portrays a woman as resilient as they come yet capable of fragility thanks in part to PTSD and the experience of all she’s witnessed. Pike isn’t interested in portraying Colvin as soft or feminine, and the resulting performance is one that eschews likability in favor of authenticity and personality. The film is under-seen, and the performance is equally deserving of more praise.

A Private War is available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

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