These days it seems like there is endless entertainment at our fingertips. Between traditional networks and cable stations, not to mention a slew of streaming services with impressive libraries, it’s quite possible to hibernate for a year and still emerge without having seen everything on your list. The good news is that it means you can finally catch up on those movies you’ve always wanted to see, or even be inspired by some true story movies that you didn’t know existed.
It’s true that although they often say life imitates art, in Hollywood it’s the opposite. There are plenty of movies out there based on real-life stories and people, proving that sometimes life really is more dramatic than fiction. Think of harrowing stories like Schindler’s List or Capote, which centered on real men and earned Liam Neeson and Philip Seymour Hoffman love at the Oscars with a nod and respective win. Or the 1979 war movie Apocalypse Now, which featured an all-star cast (Martin Sheen! Marlon Brando! Robert Duvall!) and catapulted Francis Ford Coppola to the top of best directors lists everywhere.
If you’re looking for some of the best movies based on true stories, we have a few recommendations. These films didn’t just feature notable casts or earn plenty of praise come awards season, but at their center they feature dramatic — and sometimes unbelievable — stories that you just couldn’t make up. Have another one to add to the list? Let us know in the comments and we’ll consider adding your favorites to this post.
Odds are you’ve caught this Ray Liotta mob movie while channel surfing on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and become obsessed with the world of Henry Hill, his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and his associates Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino). That’s because while there are a ton of hot cinematic mafia takes out there, this 1990 movie is based on shocking, real-life events. Henry Hill was an associate of the Lucchese crime family in New York City. However, when he was arrested on drug charges in 1980 he turned into an FBI informant and helped them win more than 50 convictions. In 1985, Nicholas Pileggi released a novel, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family based on the man’s life, and five years later Martin Scorsese turned it all into the Oscar-nominated film we know and can’t fugget about today.
2. Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale’s story is incredibly unbelievable, yet true. The man at the center of this 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio-starring film masqueraded as all kinds of glamorous people before he was 21 years old, including a pilot, a doctor and an attorney. In addition to his false identities, he also forged millions of dollars worth of checks, making him every bit the wanted man that Tom Hanks’ Carl Hanratty character pursues in the film. In real life, the guy served five years of his 12-year sentence before ditching the con life to help the FBI catch fellow swindlers. It’s such a wild ride that director Steven Spielberg also recruited Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Amy Adams to help tell the tale, plus Abagnale’s antics were also the inspiration for the USA TV show White Collar.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Solomon Northup was born a free man in the early 1800s, and he grew up working on his family farm in New York before marrying and moving to another town with his wife. There, they worked various jobs to support themselves and their three children. Northup also happened to be a talented fiddler, so when two men recruited him in 1841 to join their circus act as a fiddler, he bought into it. Tragically, he was drugged and sold into slavery under the name Platt Hamilton instead. Northup wasn’t rescued until 12 years later, in 1853. It’s a heartbreaking story that’s told in full in his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, which of course also became the basis for the 2013 Oscar-winning movie directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.
4. Quiz Show
Before viewers spent their weeknights trying to answer questions on Jeopardy!, there was the Jack Barry-hosted trivia series Twenty-One. The game show pitted two contestants against each other in separate isolations booths, where they had to answer a series of questions to get to 21 points in order to win. But when producers decided that their current champ, a man named Herb Stempel, was tanking their ratings, they brought on a guy named Charles Van Doren to shake things up. Unknown to the public, producers fed Van Doren answers, and his fame grew from there — he even landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1957. It all blew up in 1959 when Van Doren testified before congress that he had, in fact, cheated. (Imagine if viewers found out Ken Jennings had been cheating all this time.) That sordid tale is the genesis for the 1994 Oscar-nominated, Robert Redford-directed Quiz Show, which stars Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren, John Turturro as Stempel, and Rob Morrow as the detective who wants to take it all down.
Director and writer Bong Joon Ho’s awards run in 2019 with the South Korean film Parasite is the stuff of legends, but the story behind the movie is also just as compelling. While the events themselves are fictional and the film is definitely a larger commentary on the divide of wealth and class, parts of the story are also inspired by Joon Ho’s life when he was in his twenties. At the time, he took a job as a math tutor for the son of a wealthy family in Seoul, even though he was terrible with numbers. His then-girlfriend (whom he has now been married to for more than two decades), was tutoring English for the family and put him up for the gig. Obviously, the job paid off in more ways than one, and now a large segment of the world knows it thanks to the epic Oscar wins, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Achievement in Directing.
6. The Pursuit of Happyness
Will Smith made headlines in 2006 for co-starring with his son Jaden Smith in this heartwarming story of a homeless man struggling to make it as a salesperson. But the real-life story of Chris Gardner goes much deeper than that, as the movie (which is based on his biography of the same name) shows. In the early 1980s, Gardner became a working homeless veteran and the single father of a toddler son, giving new meaning to the term “struggle.” Incredibly, he became a stockbroker, and by 1987 he even launched his own firm. These days he’s also a motivational speaker, with an estimated worth of about $60 million. As for the film? Well, it landed Will Smith a best actor nod at the Oscars, but he ultimately lost out to Forest Whitaker who won for his role in The Last King of Scotland.
7. Zero Dark Thirty
It feels like all of America watched along with Navy SEALs as they went on the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011. But in reality, the hunt to bring down the terrorist began a decade earlier and involved a surprising amount of torture tactics, women behind the scenes and one memorable dog. This 2012 true story movie attempts to retell those (often hard-to-watch) stories, as told largely through the eyes of a character named Maya, who is played by Jessica Chastain. Although names have been changed, all of the characters in the film are based on real-life people, and despite some of the mixed reviews and criticism over the movie and director Kathryn Bigelow glorifying torture techniques, it was a big contender at the Oscars, pulling in five nominations including Picture of the Year.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a permanent fixture in American history, but the struggles he and other Black Americans faced for equality is often glossed over in textbooks. This 2014 account from director Ava DuVernay digs deeper. She shows what it took over a three-month period in 1965 for King and fellow freedom fighters to march from Selma to Montgomery, where then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite David Oyelowo’s gripping performance as King and DuVernay’s undeniable skills behind-the-camera, the film was largely snubbed by Oscar voters that year. The pair later revealed they believed their snubs were a result of the crew protesting the death of Eric Garner at the film’s New York City premiere. The exclusion of the movie from all of the major acting and directing awards was also part of the reason a woman named April Reign created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, reminding everyone that there’s still a lot of work to do in this industry.
9. Midnight Express
To this day, parents of wanderlust backpackers everywhere insist their kids sit down and watch this 1978 Oscar-nominated true story movie from director Alan Parker before going anywhere. However, moviegoers should definitely take this one with a grain of salt. Although the movie traces the real-life tale of Billy Hayes — an American who was caught smuggling drugs from Turkey and thrown into prison —screenwriter Oliver Stone definitely took liberties when dramatizing Hayes’ subsequent book of the same name about the experience. Still, the basis of the story is wild enough that Hayes has dined out on it ever since (he even wrote two follow-up books). As for the movie, it’s considered a pop culture fixture and has been parodied plenty of times over the years.
10. Erin Brockovich
Erin Brockovich’s real-life fight against a giant energy corporation in 1993 following groundwater contamination that ruined people’s lives has the kind of happy ending you’d think only Hollywood could cook up. Yet it was definitely a case of art imitating life for actor Julia Roberts and director Steven Soderbergh when they immortalized the legal assistant’s tale in the 2000 true story movie. Erin Brockovich went on to earn five Oscars nominations and garnered Roberts the win for Best Actress that year. These days Brockovich’s life continues to inspire all kinds of dramatized tales: now the president of her own research and consulting firm, Brockovich is also a producer on ABC’s new TV series Rebel, which is loosely based on her current life.