10 best movies based on true stories, ranked

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro star in Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Warner Bros.

Some of the best movies ever made are based on true stories. These films have brought to life some of the most extraordinary moments in history, making excellent use of real-life inspiration to craft compelling narratives spanning a variety of genres. When considering their impact, authenticity, and artistic merit, which movies based on real events come out on top?

From the stirring heroism portrayed in Schindler’s List to the gripping chronicle of a gangster’s life in Goodfellas, numerous movies offer a unique reimagining of true stories. Knowing that they’re rooted in facts makes every twist and turn all the more riveting, even if filmmakers tend to embellish for the sake of entertainment.

10. Spotlight (2015)

The cast of Spotlight in the newsroom.
Open Road Films

Spotlight depicts the Boston Globe Spotlight team’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in their local area, which ignited one of the most significant scandals in modern history. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team of journalists, including Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), uncovers a pattern of abuse and institutional complicity within the church.

The film portrays the dogged determination of the journalists as they confront powerful institutions and run into roadblocks, though none of these obstacles stop them from ultimately bringing the truth to light and holding the perpetrators accountable. Directed by Tom McCarthy based on stories by the Spotlight team, the film effectively conveys the emotional weight of the true story while taking minimal creative liberties. Is controlled portrayal of the events help it avoid sensationalizing the journalists’ experiences.

9. Zodiac (2007)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal sit in an office together in Zodiac.
Paramount Pictures

Everyone knows how the hunt for the Zodiac killer ends, and yet, director David Fincher is able to make that journey toward a frustrating cold case file an engrossing one. Zodiac chronicles the real-life investigation into the infamous serial killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based on nonfiction books by Robert Graysmith, the film primarily follows cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and police detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) as they work to understand and capture the elusive criminal.

Fincher does what he does best in Zodiac, creating a tense atmosphere that only gets heavier as the characters’ frustrations begin to affect their work and personal relationships. The crime thriller becomes more about how each cryptic message sends investigators spiraling, with their obsession eventually consuming their lives. With its distinct perspective of a case that haunted the nation and its flawless execution, Zodiac enjoys its reputation as one of the best contemporary crime movies.

8. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor sitting in 12 Years a Slave.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

A harrowing retelling by British director Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is a searing portrayal of one of the darkest chapters in American history. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery by two con men. The film follows his struggle to survive while enduring the harsh realities of slavery on various plantations in Louisiana. In the process, he forms bonds with other slaves, including Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who endures particularly brutal treatment at the hands of their sadistic master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Based on the 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave, the 2013 film is unflinching in its depiction of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, which was once commonplace in this country. 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, but necessary watch. It also greatly benefits from a talented cast, with Ejiofor’s BAFTA-award-winning performance as Northup being widely praised, and Nyong’o’s dramatic turn as Patsey earning her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

7. Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960)
Universal International

One of the best epic movies of all time and among Stanley Kubrick’s most important works is Spartacus, a historical drama based on the true story of a Thracian gladiator who leads a slave revolt against the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. Kirk Douglas stars as the titular character who is born into slavery but, after being trained as a gladiator and forced to fight for entertainment, rises to become a legendary figure who eventually leads a rebellion against the empire.

Adapted by Dalton Trumbo based on Howard Fast’s 1951 novel, 1960’s Spartacus is a triumph of the genre. Its sweeping story and ambitious set pieces were groundbreaking for its time, with Kubrick masterfully translating the timeless narrative onto the big screen. More than 60 years later, Spartacus remains an enduring symbol of hope and freedom, with his daring rebellion still relevant within the context of today’s social and political issues.

6. The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody in The Pianist.
Pathé Distribution

An adaptation of the autobiography by Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman, director Roman Polanski’s The Pianist brings his bleak story to life. It follows Szpilman (Asteroid City‘s Adrien Brody), a Polish-Jewish pianist who watches Warsaw transform during World War II. As the Nazis tighten their grip on Poland, Szpilman is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto along with thousands of other Jews. Through a series of fortunate encounters and narrow escapes, Szpilman manages to evade capture and certain death, ultimately surviving to see the end of the war.

The Pianist is both a heartbreakingly intimate and overwhelming view of a terrible period in history. Szpilman’s singular tale is particularly devastating because of the way he clings to his passion for music, finding solace in something so human as playing the piano whenever he can. Brody, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal, delivers a haunting performance as the resilient Szpilman, whose experiences are a somber reminder of the dark legacy the Holocaust leaves behind.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio stands near a microphone in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Paramount Pictures

The Wolf of Wall Street is a darkly comedic biographical crime film based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who rose to prominence on Wall Street in the 1990s before being convicted of securities fraud and money laundering. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the movie follows Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he quits his entry-level job to create his brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont. As Belfort’s wealth and influence grow, so too do his excesses and vices, including drug abuse and extravagant spending.

DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese would prove to be incredibly successful, with The Wolf of Wall Street becoming one of the highest-grossing and best crime movies of the 2010s. The culture of greed that dominated the industry in the 1990s is perfectly captured in Belfort’s meteoric rise and spectacular fall, with Scorsese delivering a scathing critique of the excesses of Wall Street through the film’s wild and raucous ride full of nonstop debauchery.

4. The Sound of Music (1965)

The von Trapp children in The Sound of Music.
20th Century-Fox

The Sound of Music is a cultural touchstone and a landmark achievement in cinema, but it’s easy to forget that it’s actually based on the real-life figure Maria von Trapp and her 1949 memoir titled The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Set against the backdrop of Austria in the late 1930s, it’s centered on Maria (Julie Andrews), a young woman studying to become a nun who is sent to serve as a governess for the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a widowed naval officer. As Maria brings music and joy into the lives of the von Trapp children, she also falls in love with Captain von Trapp.

The 1965 musical drama is still beloved and celebrated today for its fantastic performances, gorgeous scenery, and songs that have become legendary in their own right. Andrews’s iconic portrayal of Maria is still just as entertaining to watch today and helps the film’s uplifting message of resilience and hope endure.

3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.
Columbia Pictures

Director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece that redefined what it meant to craft epic movies. The film takes inspiration from the real-life experiences of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence during World War I and his 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It follows Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) as he is sent to Arabia to assess the progress of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Initially a detached observer, Lawrence becomes deeply involved in the Arab cause and eventually leads daring attacks against the Ottomans.

The 1962 movie was nominated for 10 Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards, winning seven of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. It has since become synonymous with the epic genre, thanks to its sprawling sets and meticulously choreographed massive scenes depicting huge battles in the desert. Revisiting it today will highlight just how much work went into crafting its biggest moments, especially considering this was pre-CGI cinema. The protagonist’s struggle with disillusionment and his identity also remains fascinating, as one man’s conflicting loyalties sparked a revolution.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

Three men sitting at a bar drinking and smoking in a scene from Goodfellas.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Goodfellas is a classic gangster movie and among director Martin Scorsese‘s best works. It’s an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 nonfiction book Wiseguy, which is based on the real-life story of former mobster turned informant Henry Hill. The film follows Hil (Ray Liotta) as he rises through the ranks of the Italian-American mob in New York City alongside his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). The protagonist starts out as a low-level errand boy, but soon becomes a powerful part of the world of organized crime.

The 1990 film became a critical hit and was praised for its unflinching portrayal of the mafia lifestyle that showcases the violent consequences behind the lavish façade. Goodfellas greatly benefits from Scorsese’s direction, with a large part of what makes it successful being the filmmaker’s trademarks, which include tracking shots, freeze frames, and voice-over narration. These all create an engrossingly kinetic mix that provides a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that has aged like fine wine.

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Schindler’s List is never excluded from any discussion of the best war movies of all time, and is also among the greatest films ever made. Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel titled Schindler’s Ark, the 1993 movie tells the true story of Oskar Schindler (future action movie star Liam Neeson). The German businessman saved the lives of more than 1,000 mostly Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, risking his own life and fortune to protect them from the Nazis.

Shot in haunting black-and-white, Schindler’s List is a hard-hitting, intense, and emotional retelling of real event sthat shows how one person can make a difference in hopeless situations. It contrasts unimaginable evil within the Plaszów concentration camp with Schindler’s astounding bravery.