Bound for Glory (1976) Written by Robert Getchell Directed by Hal Ashby
The details are all a lie, but the experience is authentic. The time and place look just like it would have during the Great Depression. The trials and travails of the Okies are just as it would have been. The film is engaging in myth-making, building episodes, and lore to capture the essence of someone who exists as an icon. There’s nothing wrong with myths, they served a fundamental purpose in the ancient times, informing humans about their world and how to be in it. I would think most music biopics weave stories about their protagonists to get across some sense of the themes in their music. To do that some times you have to make those stories up.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018) Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant
The film about cartoonist John Callahan begins the same way his life is composed, a series of fragments, time scrambled around. We see him recovered and then back at the bottom again, sneaking bottles of tequila in the alley behind a liquor store. His body lies motionless on the pavement, his Volkswagen Beetle totaled, all glimpsed before he meets Dexter and goes on the drinking binge that will change his life forever. We see him whipping at high speed in his wheelchair, cars screeching to a halt before we know the circumstances that put him in that chair.
My Left Foot (1989) Written by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan Directed by Jim Sheridan
Christy Brown was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1932. Shortly after his birth, doctors determined that Christy had severe cerebral palsy, which left his limbs spastic and constricted. Even his throat muscles were challenging to move, which limited his speech, causing people to see him as cognitively impaired. The one limb that Christy seemed to have control over was his left leg, so he taught himself to write and draw using this appendage. He never received formal schooling save a short stint at a clinic for the mentally and physically disabled. As a youth, Christy became a quite talented painter and writer.
The Souvenir (2019) Written & Directed by Joanna Hogg
She meets him during a party. He works for the foreign office, is older, and exudes that overwhelming sense of mystery and sophistication. They stumble through the first steps of a thing they haven’t entirely defined yet. She’s caught up in developing her first feature film, a story about a declining English city. He’s always bounding about for work. Then his secret comes out, divulged by a dinner guest and every single thing in her life goes spiraling. This is a semi-autobiographical film from Joanna Hogg which follows the character of Julie in the early 1980s as she sinks into the quicksand of a destructive relationship.
Mr. Turner (2014) Written & Directed by Mike Leigh
I loved Mr. Turner! We’re in an age of the most cookie cutter formulaic biopic. Look at films like Bohemian Rhapsody, which follows a rigorous plot structure that doesn’t provide insight into its central figure. It’s not a new problem; it’s just so prevalent. Mr. Turner has no interest in exploring the early years of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, there’s no scene which shows him picking up a paintbrush for the first time as if guided by a divine hand. When we meet the main character, he’s in the last 25 years of his life, past a broken marriage where he doesn’t claim his two daughters, and whose only human connections are with his manager/father and an occasional tryst with his psoriasis riddled maid Hannah. This is not a pretty story but an honest one.
steve jobs (2015) Written by Aaron Sorkin Directed by Danny Boyle
Heroes can often be rotten people behind the scenes. Steve Jobs, while often canonized as a saint of American industry and technology, was not a very nice person, especially to the daughter he denied for decades. When making a film about the creator of the revolutionary Macintosh computer, it would be easy to go the usual biopic route that displays all sorts of corny and cliched foreshadowing that can make the audience think themselves clever. Instead, writer Aaron Sorkin structures this film like a three-act stage play with each act being the minutes before one of Jobs famous unveilings. 1984’s Macintosh reveal, 1988’s embarrassing NeXT launch, and 1998’s glorious return to glory iMac announcement. There are repetitious refrains, almost like a piece of music, characters as themes returning in variation. All of this adds up to a brutally honest portrayal of Steve Jobs that doesn’t seek to frame him as a “great man” but a flawed man with some great ideas.
Foxcatcher (2014) Written by E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman Directed by Bennett Miller
Mark Schultz is three years out from his wrestling gold medal win at the ‘84 Olympics and is feeling the pain of being quickly forgotten. He’s also stuck in his brother, Dave’s shadow, who also won gold and is now working as a coach at Wexler University while preparing for a bid at the ‘88 Olympics. One day Mark receives a phone call from eccentric multimillionaire John Du Pont. Du Pont has decided he wants to support Mark and the Olympic wrestling team with hopes of another gold. He opines about the loss of “American greatness” but as time wears on it becomes clear Du Pont sees himself as the leader, coach, and comrade of these wrestlers. An unhealthy power dynamic develops between Mark and Du Pont that only worsens when Dave arrives to act as the “assistant coach.” It’s clear this arrangement is heading for disaster.
The Grandmaster (2013) Written by Wong Kar-wai, Zou Jingzhi, and Xu Haofeng Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Ip Man was a Cantonese master martial artist, specializing Wing Chun. He would go on to become the teacher whom Bruce Lee studied under, but this film focuses on his ascension to becoming a grandmaster and his fall from grace during the Japanese occupation. The film begins in the 1930s when Gong Yutian, the grandmaster under whom the southern and northern schools united announces his retirement. He chooses Ip Man as his heir in the south and Ip goes through a series of challenges to prove his worth. Yutian’s daughter Gong Er feels her family has been dishonored by losing this position and sets out to defeat Ip. She loses but a friendship begins that is cut short when the Japanese invade. Ip loses two children to famine and starvation while Gong Yutian faces betrayal at the hands of former students. The rest of the film tries to incorporate way too many events in Ip Man’s life that it ultimately becomes hard even to keep track of what is going on.
The Tale (2018) Written & Directed by Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox is a successful documentarian and film professor, in her 40s living in New York City. Life is great for her. Then her mother calls upset because she found one of Jennifer’s short stories she wrote when she was in middle school. She sends the story to her daughter who suddenly begins to recall the summer of her thirteenth year that she spent living with a horseback riding teacher, Mrs. G. A neighbor, Bill, was having an affair with Mrs. G and worked as a running coach to make sure Jennifer and the two other girls attending kept in shape. But Jennifer doesn’t remember what happened completely right and as she speaks with others her memories shift and change. She had thought she was fifteen at the time — the details of Mrs. G and Bill’s relationship blur. Also, most important of all Jennifer remembers having a relationship with Bill as well. The deeper she goes, the more she uncovers and clarifies.
Dick Cheney served under three of America’s presidents before getting to sit as vice president during George W. Bush’s administration. His path to power was made possible by his wife Lynne who spurred Dick on despite his proximity to many political scandals in Washington. When he finally reaches the highest levels of power in America, he calls in a series of friends and associates to help him commandeer control of the executive branch. President Bush doesn’t seem to mind and happily hands off the reins power leaving Cheney to mastermind the whole of foreign and energy policy for the next eight years. This is the story of the shadow president who transformed our nation forever and increased the reach of the office of the President for generations to come.