This week’s Big Miracle, about a duo’s (John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore) struggles to save a family of whales, is “inspired by the incredible true story that united the world.” While it’s not often that movies bear such a heartstring-tugging tagline, it is quite often that they're inspired by or loosely based on real events. Below we list our favorite such movies, not to be confused, however, with biopics, docudramas or alteration-less “true story” fare. So no Schindler’s List, etc. Also no Titanic – but not because it doesn't qualify.
“True story” notes: Based on the book of the same name – self-adapted by William Peter Blatty – which itself is based on a real-life exorcism that was purported to have included supernatural events.
It is often forgotten that the scariest movie of all time – according to my recurring nightmares – is ultimately “inspired by true events.” Or perhaps we just don’t want to believe that the devil can inhabit cute little kids and turn their voices into gravel. And enable them spin their heads around. And spider-crawl down the stairs.
Saving Private Ryan
“True story” notes: The invasion of Normandy and horrors of war are, of course, the stuff of nonfiction, but the last-surviving-brother plot is largely the result of screenwriter Robert Rodat’s imagination (he was inspired after a story of eight siblings who died in the Civil War).
The opening sequence is forever burned in our brains – if there’s a moviegoer version of PTSD, it is induced here – but Spielberg masterfully, and characteristically, mixes humanity and adventure with unforgettable visuals.
“True story” notes: Fictional but based loosely on writer/director Cameron Crowe’s time as a young writer for Rolling Stone.
Crowe’s best movie (sorry, Jerry Maguire fans and Say Anything diehards) captures what the writer/director always seems to be reaching for: the rock ‘n’ roll of life.
“True story” notes: Adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s novel Wiseguy, based on real-life mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill; other characters’ names were changed but mostly based on actual people.
Pileggi and Martin Scorsese might’ve changed names and condensed a lot of the Henry Hill saga, but it’s hard to imagine Goodfellas feeling any more authentic, even if had it been an all-inclusive 10-hour movie. We’ll give The Godfather the top spot and maybe Part II the No. 2 spot, but not many would disagree with Goodfellas being ranked the third-best Mob movie ever.
“True story” notes: Loosely based on/inspired by the life and times of porn star John Holmes.
Our proper introduction to – and thus fascination with – Paul Thomas Anderson commenced with this pseudo-biopic about the Golden Age of porn and the, um, rise of its, ahem, biggest star. Great performances were in abundant supply, but it was Anderson’s unwillingness to do anything conventional and/or expected that kept our interest, er, aroused. (Sorry.)
One of the best-ever sports movies is also quite possibly one of the best “true story” movies – even though it isn’t, per se: The only keywords that the movie and real-life story have in common are “Indiana,” “basketball” and “high school.”
Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing feature-film debut – loosely based on a killing spree perpetrated by a teenaged couple, and about a similar couple’s (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) murderous road trip … and so much more – earned him the right to make us wait sometimes a decade between each of his films. But if he wants to speed up the pace, as is reportedly the case nowadays, that’s OK too.
The French Connection
With The Exorcist (see above) two years after this crime-thriller masterpiece – in which several of the characters have real-life counterparts – director William Friedkin is the sole two-time “true story” director on our list, and he boasts one of the best back-to-back movie runs of all time. How he wound up directing Blue Chips, we’ll never know.
The Hitchcock classic is based on a book loosely inspired by infamous murderer/grave robber/body snatcher Ed Gein. So, uh, thanks for being such an unfathomable psychopath, Mr. Gein … ?
Tim Burton could’ve made an honest, earnest biopic about “one of the worst directors of all time,” but it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or fitting – and it wouldn’t have made our list, which was no doubt on Burton’s mind at the time – as the zany homage he paid with Ed Wood.
The Ides of March are upon us, and the impressive teaming of the classic George Clooney and the vibrant Ryan Gosling is inspiring. In fact, it’s such a potent power duo that it makes us think of other great pairings of the past.
What films have provided us with such superhuman stardom? Whose forces have joined to relinquish unmitigated glory? Let’s take a look…
Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia
The Power of Hanks: Tireless relatability. Putting the everymanest everyman ever in the taboo position of being a gay man afflicted with AIDS makes the situation seem more real, less alien, and far more sympathetic to those who had discounted it prior.
The Power of Washington: Extreme intimidation. Maybe you can brush off a message that someone else might deliver to you…but if Denzel tells you that you should feel something in a movie, you’re terrified not to feel it. He might hear about it. Then you’ll be in trouble.
When They Join Forces: We get one of the most powerful movies of the 1990s—sympathetic, hard-hitting, not without humor, even in the darkest parts (that’s life, after all), and definitely something that’ll get through to you.
Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in Fight Club
The Power of Norton: Brooding psychological fragmentation that couldn’t possibly have been more appealing to the aging Gen-Xers to whom this movie was dedicated.
The Power of Pitt: The ability to make you—no matter how happy you were with your life at the time of stepping into the movie—wish you were Tyler Durden. You begin to question the merit of your cookie-cutter life, your “surface value” job and relationships, and even your own morals. All because Brad Pitt is just so damn cool.
When They Join Forces: We get the iconic story of every single over privileged young adult in the 1990s coming to terms with himself, his world, his mind, his choices, and his taste in music. The Pixies record sales must have shot up like a thousand times that year.
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
The Power of Foster: The perfect balance of courage and fear. Foster as an FBI agent braving both the waters of a male dominated industry, and taking on an incredibly dangerous case with the help of an incredibly dangerous individual to boot—but none of it ever seems hokey, thrill-driven or making-a-statement-esque on the part of the actress. She plays a very human character very humanly.
The Power of Hopkins: Horror. Not just because he eats people—although that’s not exactly one of his more affectionate qualities—
When They Join Forces: We get one of the strangest, most unforgettable partnerships (and, if you would be so bold as to call it this, friendships) in cinematic history, and one of the most haunting and intriguing movies of the past few decades.
Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in Heat, The Godfather Part 2, Righteous Kill
The Power of DeNiro: Reservation. DeNiro has his tipping point, but he keeps it bottled well until absolutely necessary. That’s what’s great about classic Bobby D performances: you know what’s coming, you just don’t know when.
The Power of Pacino: The exact opposite of reservation. Al Pacino comes flying onto the screen like a bat out of hell. His idea of a subdued performance is only one heart attack on set. But it’s never overdone.
When They Join Forces: We get a big heap of cement (that’s DeNiro), speckled with chunks of gravel (that’s Pacino) to form arguably the mightiest duo in Hollywood.
Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive
The Power of Ford: That grimace. That clench-jawed, grumbling grimace that says, “Get off my plane,” “Give me back my family,” “Why did it have to be snakes?” and “Greedo never shoulda shot first.”
The Power of Jones: What powers does Jones NOT have? He can play the ultimate badass. He can play a craven coward. He is a true warrior of cinema, and is nearly unrivaled in superhuman acting abilities.
When They Join Forces: We get an unstoppable powerhouse cataclysm dynamite volcano explosion of wonder. Or, you know…something in that neighborhood.
Christian Bale and Johnny Depp in Public Enemies
The Power of Bale: Heightened strength and agility, superb detective/analytical skills, advanced technology including the Batmobile…oh, wait. Wrong movie…um, chiseled jaw?
The Power of Depp: The Baritone Salamander. That’s his superhero name. When not overdoing it in Burtonian hyper-roles, Depp is actually a prized performer
When They Join Forces: We get a clash of the swift-winged titans—and probably the handsomest face-off in recent history.
Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County
The Power of Streep: Authenticity. It has been said of Meryl Streep, “She’s so authentic. [You] really believe everything is actually happening to her. There's no acting there” (Elaine Benes). Well, who are we to disagree?
The Power of Eastwood: Grrr…
When They Join Forces: We get a pleasant surprise. As music soothes the savage beast does the whimsical Streep to the gruffled and grisly Eastwood. Sure, when we think Clint, we think shoot outs and war stories. But is this not a timeless romance, appreciated by all—except that one woman in In & Out? It is.
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man
The Power of Hoffman: Complete and utter dedication. Dustin Hoffman gets so incredibly immersed into character that he was famously mocked by Sir Laurence Olivier for being far too over-prepared for his roles. But it pays off in spades—
The Power of Cruise: Narcissism. That’s not a dig at the actor, it’s one at his characters. Cruise manages to channel perfectly the ideas of entitlement and self-absorption, injecting them quite well into stories like Rain Man, which was more about his struggle to open his heart to something than about his brother’s trials with autism.
When They Join Forces: We get truly moving film about, more than anything else, family. Sure, Cruise’s character had no idea that Hoffman’s was his brother for the first three decades of his life…but the connection was organically formed between the two least likely of hosts. It’ll get ya.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption
The Power of Robbins: Stoicism. Andy Dufresne was in control from the get-go…or at least after the whole cheating wife debacle. Something clicked in him right around the presumed time he “quit drinking,” and he managed to chauffer us all through a journey about understanding yourself and your world.
The Power of Freeman: Fatherliness. Even in the dark pit of a jail cell full of deranged psychopaths, if you’ve got Morgan Freeman on your side, you can never feel too unsettled.
When They Join Forces: We get friendship. An incredibly meaningful friendship. Shawshank is a story about freedom—more internal freedom than literal—and part of Red’s freedom came from his acquirement of a true friend from whom he could learn things about life.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic and Revolutionary Road
The Power of DiCaprio: Humanity. In so many DiCaprio roles, these included, he is gruffled, yet clean-cut. Good guy, yet dirtbag. Whether a middle class sell-out or an impoverished young artist who lies his way into the company of an aristocratic beauty, Leo is always firing on all cylinders.
The Power of Winslet: Her powers are innumerable. She’s never delivered a role that was anything below spectacular.
When They Join Forces: We get heartbreak. Either both of them die, or their marriage sours to the point of irrevocability. Either way, it’s a somber tale of the experience of love. But hey—that’s Hollywood!
In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who along with his band of thugs has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady Allison French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town. She complicates the picture walking on the gray line between good and evil and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film based on the novel by Robert B. Parker smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West. Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000’s Pollock to an Oscar Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors at least most of them into superlative performances which includes himself. In fact the actor doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman who quietly goes about his business determined to clean up the wild wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris’ partner in stopping sagebrush crime looking like he’s lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen’s demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there’s nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger on the other hand lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair her character rarely adds up but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law. In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era he nobly honors the great American western tradition crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast and he’s picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler’s stunning New Mexico landscapes.
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.
Let's hear it for the old guy who in this movie comes off sexier than his buff young accomplice (Dermot Mulroney). OK the old guy happens to be the gracefully aging icon Paul Newman -- as a feisty heistmeister who dodges a long prison sentence and then teams up with his equally conniving rest-home nurse (Linda Fiorentino) on a bank job gone wrong. "Where the Money Is" is breezy suspenseful and as much a love story as anything else -- if you call mentoring a new life in crime a kind of love. The mission-improbable caper is no more or less entertaining than a "Rockford Files" rerun but the film's swerving joyride takes its real thrills from the great escape that Fiorentino's Bonnie Parker makes from a dead-end life in the married lane.
Newman still hasn't lost it and as Henry Manning he doesn't miss any nuances in the edgy balance between streetwise wariness and amiable rapport with his sultry new colleague. The steam-powered Fiorentino has forged her career by making danger look casual and this is her most alluring work since "The Last Seduction" added another zero to her salary. Her chemistry with Newman a flirty twist on the idea of honor among thieves is really what makes this movie worth seeing. Mulroney is serviceable as the dim but lovable hubby a supporting role that's more foil than fully etched character.
We can all thank director Marek Kanievska for deciding not to have the May-December duo end up in the sack and leaving them simply professional cohorts. The director's admirable sense of comic timing works all the better by not letting the laughs get in the way of his leads' exploration of their characters -- although there's no denying the limits of this frothy genre. Perhaps Kanievska's greatest feat here is allowing Newman to retain his dignity in close-up.