Nominees for the 2018 Oscars were announced with much fanfare on Tuesday, but there’s always a gap between what performs at the box office and the films the Academy finds to be of merit. Hundreds of movies fall in the chasm between, many soon forgotten. Twelve biopics stand out in particular this year.
Audiences got an outsized crop of releases “based on a true story” that are alive with spirit, humor, striking visuals, and stranger-than-fiction twists. This list is not comprehensive, does not include documentaries, and avoids films loosely inspired by actual events, such as “The Greatest Showman.” (Because while watching Wolverine shed his claws and sing his way through a Broadway take on circus man P.T. Barnum may be a lot of fun, the story has little basis in reality.)
The breadth and depth of these films, from romance to war to dark comedy, reveals true stories can’t really be pigeonholed. Most dramatize only a small chapter from history, rather than a sweeping look at a hero’s entire life. It’s a welcome trend that brings forth small, specific moments that bring meaning to big-screen narratives. Here are the twelve.
1. Darkest Hour (Set in 1940’s Great Britain, 127 minutes, PG-13)
One performance getting ample attention deserves every award coming its way. Gary Oldman (“Air Force One,” “Harry Potter”) brings Winston Churchill to life with remarkable period detail, his transformation aided by expert prosthetic work and a vocal coach who helped him drop an octave. Though he had long been cast aside by the powers that be, when in crisis, Great Britain called upon a military tactician and historian for help, and he ended up saving countless lives by seeing world events with moral clarity.
2. A United Kingdom (Set in 1950’s Bechuanaland, 111 minutes, PG-13)
Heir to the throne of an African nation, Seretse Khama was studying law in London when he met a young woman who loved jazz as much as he did. David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Rosamund Pike (“Pride & Prejudice”) capture well the romance that agitated cultural mores in several nations. Upon their marriage, Ruth Williams Khama must endure a skeptical people — and the unexpected absence of her husband. Director Amma Asante, known for her under appreciated film “Belle,” navigates the complex history that birthed the nation of Botswana in this film.
3. The Promise (Set in 1910’s Turkey, 135 minutes, PG-13)
This story from director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”) reveals the Armenian genocide in all its tragedy. Because Turkey still denies the historical record, this film faced hurdles coming to the big screen, such as tens of thousands of one-star reviews submitted to IMDB before it was even released.
Lavishly filmed in Portugal, Malta and Spain, historic events of “The Promise” are set against a love triangle as Oscar Isaac (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) and Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight Trilogy”) vie for the affections of Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred-Foot Journey”).
4. Marshall (Set in 1940’s Connecticut, 118 minutes, PG-13)
Before he became the first black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall defended those often wrongly convicted during the Jim Crow era. None other than Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther,” “42: The Jackie Robinson Story”) portrays Marshall as a young lawyer for the NAACP in this film. Marshall pulls a reluctant Jewish attorney (Josh Gad of “Frozen” fame) into a case, as they seek to ascertain the difficult truth. Based on extensive research, “Marshall” is the rare engaging biopic that also educates on the judicial process.
5. Dunkirk (Set in 1940’s France and Great Britain, 120 minutes, PG-13)
A master of spectacle, director Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) lit up the summer with this immersive epic. Near the start of World War II, more than 300,000 soldiers were stranded across the English Channel and surrounded by Nazi forces. Viewers experience the desperation of war on three fronts—land, sea, and air—each one plotted on different timelines, all a race against time. Civilian vessels pressed into service face crushing sacrifice and pivotal triumph. It’s little wonder “Dunkirk” has become the most successful World War II film of all time.
6. All Saints (Set in 2000’s Tennessee, 108 minutes, PG)
Six years in the making, this surprisingly authentic Sony Pictures release centers on a young Episcopal priest (John Corbett from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) just assigned to a dying parish. Developers are circling, and his denomination needs funding. No one is too keen when his local outreach results in a group of refugees joining the church. When his plan to solve both predicaments falls apart, the community faces an uncertain future. In a nation where thousands of churches close every year, “All Saints” has a relevant message on the role of faith in society.
7. The Post (Set in 1970’s Washington, D.C., 116 minutes, PG-13)
The filmmaking team behind “Catch Me If You Can” and “Saving Private Ryan” reunite for a political thriller, with brave reporters as the hero. The owner of the Washington Post (Meryl Streep) clashes with her editor (Tom Hanks) over whether to publish the revealing Pentagon Papers. Some have noted an anti-Nixon slant to its narrative. Plodding along without the pacing or reflection often seen from director Steven Spielberg, “The Post” feels like a rush effort at times. This triumph for the First Amendment is worth seeing—just don’t believe all the press around it.
8. First They Killed My Father (Set in 1970’s Cambodia, 136 minutes, TV-MA)
Great art is often born of difficulty. Filming in Cambodia 16 years ago, Angelina Jolie picked up a book by human rights activist Loung Ung, and she became aware of the trail of inhumanity left by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. Since then, Jolie’s quest to help refugees has led to several humanitarian initiatives; she’s also adopted three children, including one from Cambodia. This year, her long-attempted film based on Ung’s book premiered on Netflix — showing a nation’s descent into chaos through the eyes of a child.
9. The Case for Christ (Set in 1980’s Chicago, 112 minutes, PG)
2017 was also a banner year for faith-based films, with none more surprising than this entry based on an evangelical bestseller. A new father and celebrated reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel hit his stride personally and professionally. Then a chance encounter brings his wife to reconsider the relevance of Christianity, and Strobel thinks she’s lost it. He sets out to disprove her beliefs while investigating a cop murder, finding many unresolved questions along the way.
10. Breathe (Set in 1960’s Great Britain and Spain, 118 minutes, PG-13)
When Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield of “Silence”) contracts polio, he and his wife (Claire Foy of “The Crown”) must find a new normal. Gradually, he helps develop breakthroughs to improve quality of life for those facing disabilities. Some moments, such as a street party when the family visits Spain, may seem dramatized. Yet Cavendish’s own son produced “Breathe.”
“The locals really did come out to meet us, the local priest really said a blessing, and there really were guitars and pies,” said Jonathan Cavendish. “The Spanish people we met were quite frightened of my father and his machine. But he put them at ease, as he did with everyone.” While its ending presents an ethical dilemma at odds with the rest, the story as a whole gives off a sense of wonder about life.
11. The Founder (Set in 1950’s America, 114 minutes, PG-13)
From “The Blind Side” to “Saving Mr. Banks,” director John Lee Hancock is a master of feel-good biopics. “The Founder” brings to light a comically darker side of American culture, as Michael Keaton (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) plays preeminent salesman Ray Kroc.
He meets the McDonald’s brothers in California, who pioneered the fast-food concept. (Watch for Nick Offerman from “Parks and Recreation” to steal every scene as Dick McDonald.) When Kroc schemes to take their burger joint national, count on being as surprised as the brothers at how he achieves the coast-to-coast chain.
12. Megan Leavey (Set in 2000’s Iraq, 116 minutes, PG-13)
This tale of a military working dog fuses a family’s personal journey with the dramatic events of war, led by Kate Mara (“127 Hours”), Ramon Rodriguez (“The Defenders”), and Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”). Inspired by the events of 9/11, a young New York woman trains to become a Marine and is paired with a tough German shepherd.
When their K-9 unit ships out to Iraq, war-zone heroics play out with edge-of-your-seat suspense. But it’s the journey home where viewers may gain the most insight, with its view into post-traumatic recovery and military law. Currently available on Amazon Prime, “Megan Leavey” celebrates sacrifice on the frontlines, including by a woman’s best friend.