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From ‘Rocketman’ to ‘Tolkien,’ 12 True-Life Films To See This Year


Even in uncertain times, a few rock-solid certainties remain: death, taxes, and sequels. When something works at the box office, Hollywood will produce a rehashed, rarely as-good follow-up. It makes sense in the high-risk film business, where hundreds of millions can be lost in a weekend. Why else would ten big-budget superhero films be flying our way in 2019?

Studios increasingly place their bets on fewer, bigger films— movies full of action, adventure, and spectacle that deserve to be seen on the big screen. Mid- to low-budget dramas, comedies, and the like have begun heading straight to Netflix or another streaming service. Perhaps that’s progress, though it leaves popular media focusing mostly on loud, formulaic, vapid blockbusters.

In the face of these dynamics, biopics have proven persistent, and have even diversified in recent years. This year holds potential for the genre, as top directors and major studios invest significant resources to recreate recent or long-past history. Whether these 12 films find an audience will determine if we can expect future stories like these to enliven the cultural conversation.

Winter and Spring Releases 

1. Stan & Ollie (In Theaters Now, BBC Films/Sony Pictures)

Comedy duo Laurel and Hardy live again in this love letter to classic slapstick. As they tour the United Kingdom in 1953, audiences come to see the thrill and toil of performing gags for laughs every night.

From the foibles of Hollywood studios to the unspoken bonds of lifelong friends, “Stan & Ollie” has unexpected depth due to amusing, award-winning performances by Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C. Reilly (Hardy). Their classic routines recreated here are as funny as ever.

2. The Mustang (March 15, Focus Features) 

As the United States rethinks prison reform, “The Mustang” presents a timely story inspired by true events at Nevada’s Wild Horse Gentling Program. An inmate with an unresolved past meets his match in an unbreakable mustang.

Actress-turned-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre spent several years researching and developing this story of animal therapy in the context of U.S. prisons. In what looks to be a breakout role for Matthias Schoenaerts (“Red Sparrow”), “The Mustang” reflects on criminal justice and human dignity through visual metaphor.

3. Unplanned (March 29, Pure Flix)

With the debate on life and abortion not letting up, “Unplanned” navigates these issues through the eyes of a woman who has been on both sides. For eight years, Abby Johnson rose up the ranks at a local Planned Parenthood clinic, and fiercely defended her work for women in crisis.

But her views changed when a visiting provider asked for assistance with an ultrasound-guided abortion. The film stars Ashley Bratcher (“War Room”) as Johnson, alongside Robia Scott (“CSI”), Emma Elle Roberts (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”), Brooks Ryan (“Overexposed”), and newcomer Jared Lotz.

4. The Best of Enemies (April 5, STX/Astute Films)

Based on the best-selling account of civil rights-era events in Durham, North Carolina, “The Best of Enemies” upends conventional narratives on race relations. It chronicles how civil rights activist Ann Atwater clashed for years with a local Ku Klux Klan leader— until they were forced to work together.

When a court orders local schools to desegregate, Atwater (Taraji P. Henson of “Hidden Figures” and TV’s “Empire”) co-chairs a volatile two-week community meeting with her longtime nemesis (Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell). Her quest to overcome racism reveals truths about human rights that apply to even the most unlikely of candidates.

5. Breakthrough (April 17, 20th Century Fox) 

Producer DeVon Franklin (“The Star,” “Miracles from Heaven”) brings another faith-centric narrative to theaters with “Breakthrough.” It tells of a teen boy’s devastating accident on an icy lake, and an even more shocking outcome when he was revived.

Starring Chrissy Metz (“This Is Us”), Topher Grace (“Interstellar”), and Dennis Haysbert (TV’s “24”), the St. Louis-based story of resurrection opens, appropriately, on Easter weekend.

Summer Releases

6. Tolkien (May 10, Fox Searchlight) 

Author of “The Lord of the Rings,” J.R.R. Tolkien is the storyteller whose saga finally received the big screen treatment. “Tolkien” begins at the turn of the century, with the future fantasy writer still an imaginative schoolboy. As the film follows the misadventures of Tolkien and his young friends, count on references to the vast world of Middle Earth he created.

The story also picks up years later, even including his military service in World War I. Although a recent New York City art exhibit ignored Tolkien’s Catholic faith, it looks to have a role here, as the film dramatizes the ups and downs of his romance with a Protestant woman.

7. Rocketman (May 31, Paramount Pictures)

Six weeks before his most popular soundtrack hits theaters again—when Disney’s “The Lion King” is reimagined as a photorealistic CGI film—Sir Elton John is set to get his own biopic.

Billed as a film “based on a true fantasy,” “Rocketman” allegedly plays loose with actual events and uses John’s many karaoke standards as the backdrop to key life events. Directed by Dexter Fletcher (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), it stars Taron Egerton (“Kingsman”) as the British singer/songwriter.

8. Ford v. Ferrari (June 28, 20th Century Fox) 

The 1960s rivalry between automakers Ford and Ferrari plays out on the racetrack in the latest from director James Mangold (“Logan,” “Walk the Line”). When the Italian sports car company backs out of a Ford buyout offer, Henry Ford II is determined to best them at the legendary Le Mans race.

With Matt Damon as the mastermind behind Ford’s GT40 and Christian Bale as the British driver Ford hires, it takes a few laps around the track for them to get it right. Promising a high-speed drama of American ingenuity and resolve, “Ford v. Ferrari” looks like a winner.

9. The Current War (TBD, Lantern Entertainment)

After seeing trailers years ago, moviegoers may wonder: What happened to Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Thomas Edison? With Harvey Weinstein indicted after Me Too revelations, the assets of his co-owned company were sold off, including this unreleased biopic.

With a new studio home and U.S. release on the horizon, look forward to a battle of wits and technology between Edison, Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), along with co-star wattage from Tom Holland and Katherine Waterston.

Fall Releases

10. Judy (Sept. 27, BBC Films/Roadside Attractions)

An American icon since her childhood role in “The Wizard of Oz,” Judy Garland’s later years come to life in this biopic starring Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger (“Cinderella Man,” “Chicago”).

With a script by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), “Judy” captures the screen and stage star decades after the Golden Age of Hollywood. It dramatizes when Garland visited London for five weeks of live shows in 1968, with old friends, hecklers, and a new beau playing a part in her swan song.

11. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Oct. 18, Sony Pictures)

Following last year’s successful Mister Rogers documentary, this biopic offers a different view of the children’s educator. Tom Hanks, who has taken on such true-life roles as Captain Richard Phillips, Walt Disney, and heroic airline pilot “Sully,” dons the cardigan sweater to portray Fred Rogers late in his career.

Directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is based on an Esquire magazine feature about Rogers. Hard-nosed journalist Tom Junod accepts an assignment on the PBS host, never realizing how his own life will be impacted.

12. Harriet (TBD, Universal Pictures/Focus Features)

She escaped inhumane conditions as a slave, then journeyed south more than a dozen times to rescue 70 others. A forerunner of generations of human rights activists, abolitionist Harriet Tubman will be portrayed by film and stage star Cynthia Erivo (“Widows,” “The Color Purple”).

Filmed in Virginia this past fall, the biopic reportedly also dramatizes Tubman’s role as a Union spy during the Civil War. With a screenplay co-written by Gregory Allen Howard (“Remember the Titans”) and director Kasi Lemmons, “Harriet” spotlights a freedom fighter all Americans should know.