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The Weekend Watchlist: Biopics Edition!


In the wake of the release of critically acclaimed Professor Marsten and the Wonder Women, we wanted to offer up recommendations of some of our favorite biopics for your viewing pleasure.

Shelby Cadwell

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) - This early short film from director Todd Haynes has become something of a cult classic for good reason. The film depicts the life of Karen Carpenter - including her rise to fame, her relationship with her brother and parents, and her untimely death at age 33 from heart failure (related to her long battle with anorexia) - but using Barbie dolls rather than actors. Despite the silliness of the dolls and the low production values, the film is rather poignant and sympathetic towards its subject. Because Haynes didn't seek approval to use the music of The Carpenters in the film, Richard Carpenter was able to sue him for copyright violation, which led to a judgment that all of the copies of the film should be recalled and destroyed. Of course, bootleg copies proliferated in spite of this ruling, and now the full film can be viewed for free on Youtube:

Catch Me If You Can (2002) - In this film Spielberg recreates the stranger-than-fiction life story of con man extraordinaire, Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio). The odd friendship that develops between Frank and the FBI agent charged with taking him in - Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) - is genuinely sweet, culminating in a partnership where the two work together to investigate bank fraud. This movie is infinitely rewatchable, largely thanks to a fun script, solid acting, and Spielberg's deft hand with balancing action and pathos.

Available to rent on Google Play Movies, iTunes, and Vudu.

American Splendor (2003) - Part biopic, part adaptation of the comic book memoirs of author Harvey Pekar, this film is a masterpiece of meta- and inter-textual referencing and creative world-building. Much like Pekar's work pushed the boundaries of comics and graphic memoir, the film based on his life has stretched my understanding of what a biopic can be and can do. Actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, playing Pekar and his wife Joyce, manage to embody the complexity and depth of average people, which is no small feat in a genre that tends to glamorize and Hollywood-ify everything it touches.

Available to rent on iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.

Matt Linton

Ed Wood (1994) – While both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton (and especially Johnny Depp working with Tim Burton) have their ticks, they take a back seat here to a genuinely sweet and endearing look at one of cinema’s worst directors. Depp plays Wood with a relentless, and almost frantic, positivity that would probably grow tired if it weren’t balanced with Martin Landau’s pathos as an aging Bela Lugosi. As much as I like the gothic/camp Tim Burton, this is probably my favorite of his films.

Available to rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) – This is a biopic that might be 90% fiction. 1970's game show host Chuck Barris claimed to be a CIA assassin in his spare time, and George Clooney’s directorial debut, from a script by Charlie Kaufman, takes that claim at face value (while not being unaware of its likely exaggeration). Sam Rockwell, who might be incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, plays Barris, and the film also stars Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and Clooney himself.

Available to rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.

Chaplin (1992) – Robert Downey Jr. has always been a talented actor, but he might have peaked with his performance as Charlie Chaplin. The film is also a look at the early days of cinema, as we see Chaplin’s meteoric rise to become one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood. We also see the often-difficult man Chaplin was when not inhabiting his “Tramp” persona. That Downey Jr. lost the Best Actor Oscar to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman is still one of the more egregious outcomes at the Oscars.

Available to rent on Amazon Video and Vudu.

New in Theaters This Week...

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