Einar Wegener is not exactly a household name, but if you happen upon The Danish Girl, the Eddie Redmayne-starring biopic based on Wegener’s life, you’ll come away knowing a little bit more about what it was like to be transgender in the early part of the 20th century. A thoughtful, well-considered biopic can do what your history textbook never could: make the past come alive and comment on our present moment. Here’s a batch of fresh-rated biopics of people famous — Jackie Robinson, Queen Elizabeth II — and not-quite-so. That’s the other secret power of films about real people: immortalizing nearly-forgotten institutionalized female artists and recovering drug addicts who go on very long hikes.
This underappreciated film should have made Chadwick Boseman a movie star. He’s that good as baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Of course, Get On Up also should have made Chadwick Boseman a movie star. He played James Brown in that one and nobody went to see it, either. But back to 42: Boseman all but resurrects the patient, determined, no-nonsense athlete who broke the color barrier in professional baseball way back in 1947 during his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was, as you might imagine, not an easy task. Hate from fans and his own teammates tested the man every time he took the field, but Robinson never gave anyone the satisfaction of clapping back. Director Brian Helgeland, along with his extremely talented lead, creates a sobering look back at the historical realties of American sports and American racism. As for Boseman, he’s about to enter the Marvel universe as Black Panther. Movie star achievement coming soon.
Maybe you thought this was just another period British costume drama, the kind that country creates with impeccable precision, all for your mom to enjoy. But Belle glides along in its own lane, taking on the ugliest truths about the English aristocracy, and inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the mixed race child of Admiral John Lindsay, raised by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield in a world of privilege, one punctured by the restrictions of her race. It was the time of slavery in England, after all, which meant Belle was unable to participate fully in the world in which she lived. Solution: fight the power and work as an abolitionist, of course. Amma Assante’s direction is clear-cut and modern, necessarily imposing today’s wisdom on historical horror, while Mbatha-Raw (who was also excellent in the same year’s underrated Beyond The Lights) moves slyly through a story that demands her character’s allegiance to strict codes and the disobedient nerve to break them.
So it’s the early part of the 19th century and you are a passionately-in-love couple of young people. But you have to keep it secret. That’s the problem faced by English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and headstrong, fashion-minded Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). They don’t even like each other much, at first, which is romantic-drama-speak for “gotta have it,” and no one approves, of course, which makes it that much hotter. But if you think you know how this all goes, then you should also know that it’s a film by Jane Campion (The Piano), one of the world’s great directors. Campion understands the clichés inherent in this kind of story and she navigates around them with skill and intensity, delivering instead a truthful film about living a real life in a time that required a crushing denial of that same reality.
If you’re here for demanding, difficult director Bruno Dumont, then you’ve already seen this one. But chances are you’re here because Juliette Binoche is one of best actors on the planet and you never even knew this film existed. Well, get ready to work, because Camille Claudel, 1915 is an exacting drama of the long-take school, featuring a deeply felt, and highly specific performance from Binoche as an artist whose life was marked by slow, inexorable tragedy. Claudel, once the mistress of sculptor Auguste Rodin, is committed to an asylum in southern France and left to waste away. Binoche, burrowing deeply into the emptiness, speaks very little, but says everything. A tough but rewarding feel-bad experience for people who don’t need happy endings.
At the moment, Michael B. Jordan is impressing audiences in Creed, but his promise was announced with this earlier film by Creed’s director Ryan Coogler. It’s a true story, one that could have been taken from any headline of the past few years, and stars Jordan as Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man in Oakland, California, who lost his life on New Year’s Day, 2009, when he was murdered by a police officer at an Oakland BART station. It begins with cellphone video of the real killing. But instead of delving into documentary-style drama about the event itself, Coogler shows you Grant moving through his last day, dealing with work and family and friends. This approach heightens the despair and sense of wasted life by forcing the audience to live with the everyday humanity of the crime’s victim, rather than a just-the-facts approach resulting in one more numbing statistic created by institutional racism.
This tear-jerker is based on the harrowing story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an Irish woman whose youthful unplanned pregnancy resulted in her confinement to a cruel, prison-like convent, her child put up for adoption against her will. In her later years, she joins a journalist (Steve Coogan) in the hunt for her now-adult lost child, unprepared for what she’ll find. Now, when the deck is this stacked with tragedy, a strong center is required to avoid overselling the pain. That means you go get Judi Dench. Audiences have placed massive amounts of goodwill in her, and for good reason. She’s a walking empathy machine, gently and intelligently tugging at your heart when lesser actors would mercilessly wrestle it to the ground. Her soft-spoken, perhaps needlessly naïve and devout truth-seeker (compared to the real life woman, whose relationship with the Church that abused her involves no love lost) is all goodness, all forgiveness. This is how she earns your tears. And you will shed them.
Is this really how Queen Elizabeth II behaved behind closed doors in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death? Did she have a genuine crisis of manners and standards? Was she forced to contend with the changes taking place outside the confines of royal life, where contemporary public expectations of figureheads shifted, altered by that public’s relationship with Diana herself? We’ll probably never really know for sure, but as portrayed by Helen Mirren, we now want to believe that the stoic monarch in the pastel-colored hats had a dormant heart that grew three sizes the moment Elton John re-recorded “Candle in The Wind.” Mirren carries the film like it all rests on her shoulders – it does, by the way – and she does so gracefully, balancing regulation and feeling like a proper queen. She won a well-deserved Oscar for it, too.
One of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2014 was, strangely, ignored at the box office and by award-giving organizations. Perhaps it all felt like it might be the moviegoing equivalent of homework, but Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a huge achievement, both in re-examining the past through fresh eyes, as well as in sheer entertainment. This is not a saintly MLK. David Oyelowo portrays the legendary civil rights leader as a real, flawed, sometimes frightened, sometimes furious man, and you can’y take your eyes off him. Maybe people stayed away because the story of King’s campaign to secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965 might have felt too real in a moment when politicians are still trying to figure out ways to keep non-white Americans from voting. Whatever your reasons for avoiding it were, you were wrong. Go watch this one today.
You’ve heard about the famous French writer Simone de Beauvoir. Well, this is not about her. Instead, it’s the story of Violette Leduc, a French author who was deeply involved with de Beauvoir for years. As played by Emmanuelle Devos, this lesser-known literary figure is a fascinatingly complex cauldron of conflicting feelings, a woman filled with unhappiness who was stoutly determined to get what she wanted, grasping for life and personal connection anywhere she could find it. She had an iron will and a prickly personality that you won’t like, but also won’t soon forget. Sometimes it’s the unlikeliest people who make the most interesting subjects.
This is not Reese Witherspoon’s 127 Hours, her Incredible Journey, or anything else you think it is. It’s a much more subtle story about a woman’s determination to finish what she starts and heal herself along the way. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild tells the story of the troubled author’s 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She encounters danger and despair, but not the kind you expect. In fact, very little of this movie relies on the usual prestige picture story beats and cathartic uplifts, the kind that secure nominations and awards. Meanwhile, Witherspoon’s performance rivals her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter in Walk The Line. She’s that good, as is Laura Dern as her mother.