40 Movies Based on True Stories You Won’t Be Able to Stop Thinking About
Sometimes reality is more interesting than fiction. Whether you love crime capers, sweeping romances or historical dramas, you’ll want to add these movies based on true stories to your must-watch queue.
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The most compelling movies based on true stories
There’s a reason there have been so many incredible movies based on true stories: It’s because the truth is more fascinating than fiction a lot of the time. What also helps our appreciation is just knowing that these stories actually happened, so we’re able to relate to the characters on a much deeper level. We feel what they feel, and we see the world from their perspective, and that’s not just true for the best dramas.
Movies based on true stories have the potential to run the emotional gamut. They can be hilarious, heart-wrenchingly sad or outright terrifying—or even all three at the same time! But the best ones are thought-provoking and will stick with you for days after you’ve left the theater or closed your laptop. We’ve put together a list of films that will please every kind of movie watcher, including biopics, epic romances, war stories and historical dramas. We based our picks on blockbusters, award winners, critical darlings, classics and cinematic game-changers. No matter what you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it on this list.
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Memorable quote: “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.”
Twenty-five years after its release, our hearts still go on for James Cameron’s Academy Award–winning romantic drama. Set against the tragic 1912 sinking of the grand ocean liner, Titanic tells the tale of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), who defied their onboard class restrictions (she was a wealthy first-class passenger, he was a starving artist from steerage) and fell hopelessly in love.
While Jack and Rose were fictional characters, the deaths of 1,500-plus passengers and crew on the Titanic were not. Between Cameron’s stunning visuals, including a CGI recreation of the ship’s sinking, and one of the best movie soundtracks of all time, audiences will never let go of Titanic.
12 Years a Slave
Memorable quote: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
It is nearly impossible for a movie based on a true story to avoid taking any creative license, but 12 Years a Slave comes very close. One of the most harrowing kidnapping movies, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film recounts the incredible journey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man tricked and sold into slavery in 1841, and his eventual rescue more than a decade later. The film is also one of the best book-to-movie adaptations because it doesn’t shy away from the brutality detailed in Northup’s memoir, specifically the horrific whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Although 12 Years a Slave has a “happy ending,” with Northup reuniting with his family, the film is still one of the saddest movies based on real-life events.
Memorable quote: “This is what I do. I get people out. And I’ve never left anyone behind.”
Despite being a gripping spy thriller based on the very real extrication of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980 by CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed the movie), this film took a lot of creative license. So much so that Argo is actually one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made. We don’t want to include any spoilers here, but there’s a big, climactic sequence on the tarmac at one point in the movie … and it never happened. But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?
Memorable quote: “On any given day, I analyze the velometer levels for air displacement, friction and velocity. And compute over 10,000 calculations by cosine, square root and lately analytic geometry by hand.”
Biopics about the Space Race usually focus on the White, male astronauts privileged enough to set foot in a spaceship, but what about the people who got them to the moon and back safely? Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant Black female mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
Even though they were subjected to racist laws at every turn—like Katherine having to run across the Langley Research Center campus just to use a segregated bathroom, or Mary not being allowed to take night classes at an all-White school to become an engineer—these women persevered. And in the process, they changed the trajectory of the American space program. Hidden Figures should be added to any Black history movies must-watch list.
Memorable quote: “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”
One of the most critically acclaimed movies based on true stories on Netflix, Roma is a semi-autobiographical tale of writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood. The film follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the beloved Mixteca live-in maid for a wealthy Mexico City family in the early 1970s. Cleo must delicately walk the murky line between employee and family member—especially when she faces an unplanned pregnancy.
Aside from being one of the best Hispanic movies, Roma is also a gorgeously shot film. Cuarón opts for black-and-white instead of bright, garish ’70s colors, and he manages to find the beauty in the mundane, like the opening shots of water cascading over the concrete as Cleo washes the driveway.
Memorable quote: “There will be generations because of what you did.”
Thirty years after premiering in theaters—and winning seven Academy Awards—Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece about the horrors of the Holocaust remains not only one of the best ’90s movies but also the best movie based on a true story. Schindler’s List recounts the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who saved more than 1,000 European Jews from Nazi slaughter during World War II by employing them in his factories. Although Spielberg does take creative license by having his protagonist appear more directly involved with the rescue missions than he actually was (apparently Schindler didn’t help draw up the life-saving list, the way he did alongside Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern in the movie), there is no denying the instrumental role Schindler played in his Jewish employees’ survival.
Bonnie and Clyde
Memorable quote: “I’m Miss Bonnie Parker, and this here’s Mr. Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”
Bonnie and Clyde is one of those great movies that got rotten reviews when it was released. But this 1967 film’s portrayal of Depression-era criminals Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) does warrant a deeper examination more than 50 years later. Director Arthur Penn’s decision to graphically recreate Bonnie and Clyde’s historically accurate deaths by gun ambush was a Hollywood game-changer: Soon afterward, films began including similarly violent sequences, such as Sonny Corleone’s and Tony Montana’s bullet-riddled murders in The Godfather and Scarface, respectively.
Memorable quote: “If you imagine I’m going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren who’ve just lost their mother, then you’re mistaken.”
The Queen isn’t just one of the best royal movies—it’s one of the best movies period, thanks to Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning work as Queen Elizabeth II. Who could forget that moment when the queen, alone in the Scottish Highlands, finally unleashes tears after days of pent-up grief, only to notice a beautiful stag approaching? This film may be the closest the general public will ever get to understanding what was happening within the royal family in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s untimely death in 1997.
And even then, we can never know for sure: The Queen was written by Peter Morgan, who also created the juicy Netflix series The Crown. Both the movie and the TV series are classified as “historical fiction,” because it is impossible for Morgan to know exactly what was discussed behind the royal family’s notoriously closed doors.
A League of Their Own
Memorable quote: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
During World War II, with most American men off fighting for their country, Major League Baseball was on the brink of failure. To keep the national pastime alive—and to boost morale—the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was born. Nearly 50 years after the AAGPBL’s inception, A League of Their Own finally told the story of this groundbreaking sports decision and quickly joined the roster of classic family movies, courtesy of performances by Hollywood A-listers including Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna.
Although all the characters in the film were fictional—and the plot was restricted to the White, heterosexual experience—A League of Their Own still had a major impact on movie-going audiences. In 2022, Prime Video released a reimagined series based on the movie, but this time around, A League of Their Own not only included Black and LGBTQ+ characters, their stories were central to the narrative.
Dallas Buyers Club
Memorable quote: “AIDS … I got AIDS. Won’t you come in, join the party.”
Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas man diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s. Woodroof, as in the movie, spearheaded a drug distribution service—called the Dallas Buyers Club—that provided unapproved AIDS treatments to patients unable to afford AZT, the commonly prescribed drug to AIDS patients at the time.
McConaughey earned a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the (initially) homophobic Woodroof. The film does take creative license, however, with the character of Rayon (Jared Leto), a fellow AIDS patient. Leto received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal, even though the transgender Rayon was a fictional creation meant to showcase Woodroof’s developing tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community.
Memorable quote: “When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him. Let him keep going. Say, ‘Thank you.'”
Although the basic structure of Moneyball allows the baseball film entry into the hallowed genre of movies based on true stories, it doesn’t quite stick to actual events. Yes, this Oscar-nominated movie is about how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) used analytics to build a winning team. But the truth behind the team’s success wasn’t so simple: Many critics suggest the film—written by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote The West Wing, one of the best TV shows of all time—left gaping holes in the narrative as a way to maintain its “Cinderella story.” Also, Jonah Hill’s character, Peter Brand, the economics whiz who introduces the idea of using analytics to Beane, is fictional, even though he’s heavily based on Beane’s real-life colleague, Paul DePodesta.
A Beautiful Mind
Memorable quote: “I am only here tonight because of you. You are the only reason I am. You are all my reasons.”
A Beautiful Mind is a fascinating biopic about the life of Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe). The film correctly presents Nash as a gifted mathematician who spent most of his life battling mental illness, but unfortunately, A Beautiful Mind is one of the more historically inaccurate movies out there. In addition to poorly portraying Nash’s paranoid delusions, the film ignores the nuances of Nash’s complicated relationship with his wife, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). Although Nash married Larde in 1957, they divorced three years later. After several decades of living together platonically, the couple remarried in 2001. A Beautiful Mind portrays the Nash marriage as an uninterrupted love story.
All the President’s Men
Memorable quote: “Get out your notebook, there’s more. Your lives are in danger.”
The quintessential cinematic account of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men is based on the book of the same name by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman). The film documents the eventual downfall of President Richard Nixon, starting from the 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex, followed by Woodward and Bernstein’s meticulous reporting of the corruption within the Nixon administration, which then led to Nixon’s resignation. While Woodward and Bernstein are rightfully credited as the faces of the Washington Post‘s Watergate coverage, the film ignores the tireless behind-the-scenes work of their colleagues, who helped bring this story to light.
Memorable quote: “Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.”
Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed drama about the historic 1965 voting-rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is a Black-history-movies viewing requirement. Specifically, because, other than a few exaggerations for dramatic effect, Selma is a historically accurate film. For example, DuVernay doesn’t avoid depicting the brutal attacks the marchers received at the hands of Alabama state troopers that Bloody Sunday. There’s even a haunting line from John Lewis (Stephan James), while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge: In response to being asked if he can swim, the future Georgia congressman says there weren’t any pools open to Black people where he grew up. That line of dialogue came directly from Lewis’s memoir.
Memorable quote: “So before you come back here with another [lame] offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that number by 100. Anything less than that is a waste of our time.”
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of environmental crusader Erin Brockovich in this beloved biopic. The film presents Erin as an undereducated yet super-savvy mom who talks her way into a legal-clerk job, where she quickly discovers that a major energy corporation is knowingly contaminating the groundwater in a small California town. Before long, Erin is leading a class-action suit against Pacific Gas and Electric, without so much as a law degree. According to the real Erin Brockovich, the film depicting her life is, in her words, 98% accurate: While Roberts’s Erin was a former Miss Wichita, Brockovich herself never held a beauty-queen title from Kansas. She was, in actuality, a former Miss Pacific Coast.
Memorable quote: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”
Boasting an excellent soundtrack and some very memorable movie quotes, Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical film based on writer-director Cameron Crowe’s very real experiences as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone in the 1970s. While Crowe did indeed cover acts like the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band, he made most of his main characters fictional for the sake of a linear narrative. This included his 15-year-old alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit); Kate Hudson’s ethereal groupie, Penny Lane; and the rock band at the center of the movie’s story, Stillwater. But the most memorable, nonfabricated character from the movie has to be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s music critic, Lester Bangs, who serves as William’s sardonic tour guide through the debauched world of rock ‘n’ roll.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Memorable quote: “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me the way I wanna be treated, no matter how much it hurt them.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more dramatization than direct reenactment, but it’s a stellar addition to Netflix’s selection of movies based on true stories nonetheless. The film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, which depicts a fractious 1927 recording session by famed blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Although the plot is entirely fictional, Rainey herself is not, and the themes in the film resonate just as much today as they did in the 1920s: Rainey, a Black woman, is constantly fighting for control over her career from her White male producer and manager. The same can be said for Rainey’s trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role). Levee is a fabricated character, but he too is pushing for his own musical ideas to be heard, only for the White men in charge to dismiss him outright.
Memorable quote: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Martin Scorsese’s Italian American mafia masterpiece is everything a gangster movie should be: A little drama here, a little humor there (“How am I funny?”), one incredible three-minute-long tracking shot inside the Copacabana and several unforgettable performances from the likes of Robert De Niro, Lorraine Bracco and the late Ray Liotta. Goodfellas follows the story of mobster Henry Hill (Liotta), who started his life of crime at an early age before eventually becoming an FBI informant.
As with most movies based on true stories, some creative license was taken with Goodfellas. In real life, Hill had one daughter and one son, while in the film he had two daughters, but Hill himself called the film 95% accurate.
Catch Me If You Can
Memorable quote: “I never went to medical school. I’m not a lawyer, or a Harvard graduate, or a Lutheran. Brenda, I ran away from home a year and a half ago when I was 16.”
Only Leonardo DiCaprio could make running from the law look sexy and sophisticated, whether it was posing as a Pan Am co-pilot, a kindly doctor or a shrewd lawyer. DiCaprio played con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, a man who started passing bad checks as a teenager, eventually crisscrossing the United States and the world before he was apprehended in France at age 21.
While Abagnale and his crimes are real, the film may have taken even greater liberties than previously thought. It was always known that Tom Hanks’s dogged FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, was an invented character, but a book published in 2021 suggests that most of Abagnale’s story was fabricated after all: Public records prove that Abagnale was in prison during the time he was supposedly globe-trotting as an airline pilot. For a more accurate retelling of events, check out these riveting true-crime documentaries that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Theory of Everything
Memorable quote: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”
This biopic, about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his tumultuous relationship with his first wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), was deemed “broadly true” by Hawking himself. Hawking, as depicted in the movie, suffered from a degenerative motor neuron disease that robbed him of his ability to speak and, for all intents and purposes, move his body. The scene where Jane and Hawking are trying to communicate through a spelling board, shortly after Hawking has lost his voice, is a heartbreaking one. The Theory of Everything doesn’t avoid the difficulties in the Hawkings’ 30-year marriage, which ended in divorce in 1995, but in reality, things weren’t always as gentle and loving between the couple as the movie would have us believe.
Memorable quote: “The Irish were born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no pubs.”
Kenneth Branagh’s critically acclaimed film Belfast is one of the newer movies out there based on a true story. While the characters and narrative are fictional, the movie is still a semi-autobiographical tale: The film’s protagonist, Buddy (Jude Hill), is a 9-year-old boy living among the sectarian violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969. This setting, and the subsequent decision by Buddy’s father to move the family to England, very closely mirrors Branagh’s early childhood. There are so many reasons Belfast belongs on any list of the best Irish movies, but if we had to pick one, it would have to be that joyful performance of “Everlasting Love” by Buddy’s Ma and Pa (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe).
The Social Network
Memorable quote: “You really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
The Social Network documents the rise of social media juggernaut Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg is pitch-perfect as the obnoxiously arrogant Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, who, in the movie, ostensibly invents Facebook as a way to meet women after being dumped by a (fabricated) girlfriend. While this makes for a captivating narrative, it’s not accurate, as Zuckerberg was already dating now-wife Priscilla Chan before Facebook even existed. The film also takes liberties with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), portraying Zuckerberg’s friend as a victim unfairly removed from the company. The truth was a bit more complicated, as Saverin ran unauthorized ads on Facebook … for a rival company. None of this is mentioned in The Social Network.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Memorable quote: “I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people.”
Sometimes, movies based on true stories really can be stranger than fiction. Especially in the case of Can You Ever Forgive Me? which stars Melissa McCarthy as charming curmudgeon Lee Israel, a writer who has fallen on hard times. When Lee is unable to secure an advance on her forthcoming book about Funny Girl inspiration Fanny Brice, she resorts to forging letters from deceased celebrities (including Brice)—and actually makes money through this scheme. That is, until the FBI catches on, sentencing Lee to house arrest and probation. For the most part, the film is pretty accurate, with details like Lee needing money to treat her sick cat stemming from the truth.
The King’s Speech
Memorable quote: “I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!”
This inspirational story of how King George VI (Colin Firth)—the late Queen Elizabeth II’s father—overcame a debilitating stutter just in time to lead the United Kingdom in the Second World War was a critical darling and an Oscar winner. (And hey, when else would you get to hear a monarch repeatedly drop an F-bomb?) The movie’s main focus is the relationship between the king and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the latter of whom draws out his royal client’s deep-seated traumas as a form of healing.
The King’s Speech, however, like many films based on the royals, uses historical details as a basic structure but takes several creative liberties for the sake of a moving story. It’s suggested His Majesty and Logue didn’t start working together until around 1936 and that they clashed with each other initially. In reality, Logue and the future king had known each other since 1926, and they got along almost instantly.
Memorable quote: “If I’m going to die, I prefer to die in my own home. I’m staying put.”
The Pianist is based on the autobiography of the same name by a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor and musician named Wladyslaw Szpilman. In the film, Szpilman is portrayed by Adrien Brody, who gives an indelible, Oscar-winning performance of a man who is determined to survive the Nazi-sanctioned killings of his people. There are many gut-wrenching scenes in this movie, but the standout is one of the few hopeful ones: A starving, disheveled Szpilman is discovered by a German officer, and instead of being arrested, Szpilman is invited to play the piano (Chopin’s “Ballade in G Minor”), offering both men a brief respite from their mutual despair.
Memorable quote: “You can march like the White man, you can talk like him. You can sing his songs, you can even wear his suits. But, you ain’t never gonna be nothing to him, than an ugly [ … ] chimp in a blue suit.”
War movies based on true stories are some of the most iconic ever made, and that includes Glory, a tribute to one of the first Black regiments in the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. While most of the characters in the film are fictional—Matthew Broderick’s character, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th regiment, is one of the few real-life figures portrayed—Glory‘s impact on audiences is a powerful one: Denzel Washington earned his first Academy Award for his performance as Private Silas Trip, a formerly enslaved man who, in an evocative scene, is publicly whipped for procuring basic necessities for his fellow soldiers.
Memorable quote: “You always charge a guy with a gun! With a knife, you run away.”
Considering The Irishman is a gangster movie directed by Martin Scorsese and stars both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, both of whom portray actual mobsters (Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, respectively), the entertainment factor is a given. The film’s pedigree makes it easy to assume The Irishman is highly accurate as well. But as it turns out, even Scorsese admits that in the case of The Irishman, a compelling story was more important than, well, facts. The movie is based on I Heard You Paint Houses, a 2004 book written by former homicide detective Charles Brandt. But many of Frank Sheeran’s claims in the book about his involvement in Jimmy Hoffa’s death have been refuted by investigative reporters and FBI agents.
Memorable quote: “Houston, we have a problem.”
Apollo 13 is one of those feel-good, patriotic movies, and not just because Tom Hanks is the star. In April 1970, the Apollo 13 lunar mission—helmed by astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton)—is unexpectedly aborted when an onboard explosion occurs. The shuttle begins losing oxygen rapidly as well as its electrical supply, forcing the astronauts into a race against time to return to Earth safely.
While the film received significant praise for its accuracy depicting historical events, its most famous line, delivered by the incomparable Hanks, was the result of considerable creative license: Jim Lovell never said, “Houston, we have a problem.” It was actually Jack Swigert, who gave the SOS to Mission Control, who said, “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Memorable quote: “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.”
Hustlers is one of those movies based on true stories that seems like it was completely made up, when in actuality, the film is far more accurate than you might think. Adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” Hustlers is about several New York City strippers who, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, scam the unrepentant wealthy men behind the financial crisis.
The names of the film’s main characters are fictional, but the backstories of Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) closely resemble those of the real-life women profiled in Pressler’s article. There were some changes made in the movie, however, to make Destiny and Ramona more sympathetic: Nothing in Pressler’s article suggested that Destiny was hustling to support her grandmother or that Ramona was doing so to provide for her children.
Zero Dark Thirty
Memorable quote: “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.”
Zero Dark Thirty is a riveting dramatization of the manhunt and military raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA analyst instrumental in tracking down the terrorist behind 9/11 at his Pakistan compound. For privacy reasons, the characters in Zero Dark Thirty, including Maya, are fictional, even though many are based on actual CIA operatives and military personnel directly involved in the bin Laden mission. Chastain’s performance as the tenacious Maya, as well as director Kathryn Bigelow’s tense recreation of the Navy SEALs’ infiltration of bin Laden’s compound, puts Zero Dark Thirty on most lists of the best dramatic movies of the 2000s.
Memorable quote: “God bless White America.”
Back in the 1970s, Ron Stallworth, the first Black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, achieved the impossible: He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan through a series of phone calls and a White colleague who served as Stallworth’s in-person proxy. BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee’s adaptation of Stallworth’s memoir, is a relatively truthful take on this story, though Lee claims at the start of the film that not everything is 100% accurate. While real-life figures like Stallworth (John David Washington) and Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) appear, the biggest creative license in the movie is demonstrated through Adam Driver’s character, Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a fictional stand-in for Stallworth’s inside man, as this person’s identity was kept concealed even in the original memoir.
The Imitation Game
Memorable quote: “Do you know why people like violence? It is because it feels good. Humans find violence deeply satisfying. But remove the satisfaction, and the act becomes … hollow.”
This biopic about English cryptographer Alan Turing is equal parts enthralling and devastating, because it’s as much about Turing’s incredible achievements as his tragic personal life. Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the brilliant mathematician who decrypted the German military code machine Enigma during World War II. (Turing’s work in code-breaking is believed to have accelerated the Allied victory.) But Cumberbatch leaves an unforgettable impression on audiences in the way he tackles Turing’s lifelong misery as a gay man living in a country where homosexuality was a crime. In the film’s final heartbreaking scene, Cumberbatch’s Turing is a shell of his former self. The real Turing took his own life in 1954, as homosexuality wouldn’t be legalized in the U.K. until 1967.
The Blind Side
Memorable quote: “You threaten my son, you threaten me. You so much as cross into downtown, you will be sorry. I’m in a prayer group with the D.A., I’m a member of the NRA, and I am always packing.”
You don’t have to be a sports fan to fall in love with The Blind Side, or even an avid watcher of sports movies based on true stories. Because at its core, The Blind Side isn’t really about football. It’s about how family comes in all different forms. The film that won Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar is the poignant tale of NFL star Michael Oher, a poverty-stricken Memphis teenager taken in by the wealthy Touhy family. Bullock plays no-nonsense matriarch Leigh Ann Touhy, who showers Michael with equal doses of love and motivation, helping him to achieve his full potential on the football field and beyond. We adore Leigh Ann because, as she demonstrates during a pressure cooker of a game, she’ll go full mama bear on anyone who dares trash-talk her adopted son.
Memorable quote: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
The mark of a great, accurate movie about journalism is when there is no 11th-hour plot twist—and the facts arise from painstaking reporting, not invented shock value. That’s what makes Spotlight such a stellar film. It picked up a Best Picture Oscar for its unglamorous dramatization of The Boston Globe‘s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s widespread and systemic pattern of sexual abuse. Led by an all-star cast, including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight takes few liberties with the narrative. The film directly portrays the real-life clergy, lawyers and Globe reporters involved with the case instead of replacing these main players with composite characters.
The Amityville Horror
Memorable quote: “I’m coming apart! Oh, mother of God, I’m coming apart!”
Horror movies are creepy enough, but knowing that The Amityville Horror is based on a true story majorly ups the fright factor. In 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. murdered six of his family members in their Amityville, New York, home. About a year later, George and Kathy Lutz moved into the DeFeo house with their three young children. The Amityville Horror depicts the paranormal activity the Lutzes allegedly experienced during their brief stay in the house. From the moment they move in, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) are made to feel unwelcome by the house’s malevolent spirits, whether it’s a swarm of flies besieging a kindly priest (Rod Steiger) or streams of blood dripping down the walls. Although there’s never been any solid proof of the Lutz family’s claims, that doesn’t stop The Amityville Horror from being a chilling good time.
Memorable quote: “I’m not a bad person. I’m a real good person.”
Charlize Theron is nearly unrecognizable as Aileen Wuornos in Monster, but that kind of deep commitment to the character earned the actress a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance. Theron portrays the real-life Florida sex worker who murdered seven of her male clients between 1989 and 1990 before being executed in 2002. One of the best serial killer movies based on true stories, Monster doesn’t turn Wuornos into an antihero, acknowledging that she was neglected and sexually abused by her family members, and grew up without any kind of stability. There is one invented scene, however, that may have caused audiences to unnecessarily sympathize with Wuornos: The film suggests that after a brutal rape by one of her clients, Wuornos embarked on her killing spree.
Memorable quote: “The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.”
Seabiscuit is one of those book-to-movie adaptations that will warm your heart for days after watching. The film, based on Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, stars Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper as the ragtag team behind an unlikely Depression-era champion racehorse. While Seabiscuit‘s inspirational story is a true one—no one ever expected such a small horse to become such a big winner—the movie does take liberties to increase the dramatic tension in some spots. Most notably, the decision to portray jockey Red Pollard (Maguire) getting injured immediately before a major race. In reality, Pollard’s injury occurred months beforehand.
Memorable quote: “Hi, Mom, it’s me. I’m on the plane that’s been hijacked. I’m just calling to tell you that I love you, and goodbye.”
When terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial flights on 9/11, one plane failed to hit its intended target: United Airlines Flight 93. Instead of striking the Capitol building or the White House (the exact Washington, D.C., location remains unknown), the plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone onboard. United 93 attempts to piece together the events that led to the heroic, in-flight struggle that ultimately diverted the plane away from Washington.
Although the film uses the 9/11 Commission Report as source material, director Paul Greengrass invented many of the plot details to create a cohesive narrative befitting most Hollywood action movies. Since there were no survivors from United 93, the climactic scene depicting the passengers’ fight to retake the plane had to be left to the filmmakers’ imagination. But that decision made the scene no less powerful.
Memorable quote: “There will be no rescue, no intervention for us. We can only save ourselves.”
There’s no shortage of drama in war movies based on true stories, which is why Hotel Rwanda remains such an engrossing film nearly 20 years after its release. The movie dramatizes how hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) used his connections to shelter more than 1,000 refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which took place in the middle of an ongoing civil war in the African nation.
Cheadle gives a moving performance as Rusesabagina, portraying him as a compassionate individual working tirelessly to save his family and neighbors. According to several sources, however, this saintlike depiction may have been a Hollywood invention. Some survivors claimed Rusesabagina engaged in extortion, and in recent years, he was convicted of terrorism by the Rwandan government.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Memorable quote: “I will not die sober!”
When you combine Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and a so-crazy-it-has-to-be-true story, the result is The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that takes a deep dive into the decadent, drug-fueled world of uber-wealthy finance bros. The film follows Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a young, eager stockbroker entranced by the promise of endless wealth, and how he eventually resorted to corruption and fraud.
Since it’s based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t take much creative license. This is a polite way of saying that the unrestrained drug use, numerous sex workers and countless criminal activities featured in the film weren’t invented. Even an insane scene in which Belfort’s yacht capsizes in a storm and sinks actually happened. It’s worth noting, however, that Jonah Hill’s Quaaludes-addicted character, Donnie Azoff, is fictional—though he’s loosely based on Belfort’s real-life partner-in-crime, Danny Porush. If you’re a movie buff or just want to save a few bucks while watching the best films around, check out this list of the best free streaming services.