Some real-life events are just so much stranger (or cooler, or more exhilarating) than fiction, movie-makers couldn't imagine a better plot if they tried. From con artists who pulled off heists beyond your wildest dreams to unsung heroes with extraordinary lives that you never learned about in history class, these are the best movies based on true stories to queue up next time you need a dose of inspiration.
Catch Me If You Can
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Nathalie Baye
The story: A teenager named Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio) leaves home and turns to a life of conning and check fraud, eventually stealing $2.8 million. He is chased (and eventually caught—spoiler) by an FBI agent (Hanks) who teams up with Abagnale when he realizes his unique expertise can be used to catch other criminals.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, and Mahershala Ali
The story: Hidden Figures tells the stories of three black women working in a race- and gender-segregated computing department at NASA during the 1960s and how their work directly contributed to the United States' ability to send a man into space.
Starring: James Franco
The story: An avid but not-totally-responsible hiker named Aron Ralston (Franco) sets out to hike through Utah's Canyonlands National Park without telling anyone where he'll be. After an accident Aron gets stuck in a slot canyon for—you guessed it—127 hours. He eventually has to go to extreme measures to survive. A film not for the weak-stomached.
Into the Wild
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, and Hal Holbrook
The story: If you like intense survival stories, you might want to cue up Into the Wild after 127 Hours. The movie tells the story of amateur survivalist Christopher McCandless (Hirsch), who makes a series of poor decisions. Warning: This one does not have a happy ending.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney, and Chloë Sevigny
The story: The attacks perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Zodiac Killer in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s remain a mystery to this day. David Fincher's 2007 Zodiac, attempts to answer the question of the killer's identity.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, and Jean Dujardin
The story: Based on Jordan Belfort's (DiCaprio) memoir of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street captures the opulence and debauchery of Wall Street in the '80s. Hint: There is a lot of debauchery. A lot.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci
The story: The Oscar-winning movie chronicles the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a group of investigative journalists who take on tough, in-depth stories—specifically, their investigation of child sex abuse in the Catholic church in the early 2000s.
All the President's Men
Starring: Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman
The story: In 1972, the Watergate scandal rocked the United States. Two journalists at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman), broke the news of President Richard Nixon's involvement in the scandal and later wrote a book about their investigation. All the President's Men is based on that book.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta
The story: Hailed as one of the greatest crime stories of all time, Goodfellas follows 25 years in the life of mobster Henry Hill (Liotta), including his rise and eventual fall from grace.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris
The story: The 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission, manned by astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), Jack Swigert (Bacon), and Fred Haise (Paxton), was intended to be America's third Moon landing mission. Tragically, an on-board explosion forced NASA to abort the original mission in the struggle to get the astronauts home safely. The flick gave us the iconic (but somewhat erroneous) line, "Houston, we have a problem."
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley
The story: The classic film follows German businessman Oskar Schindler (Neeson), who saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
Starring: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Aaron Eckhart
The story: Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brockovich, a single mother who gets a job at a law firm and ends up uncovering evidence that contaminated groundwater has led to increased rates of cancer in the local community.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Nick Nolte
The story: Set during the Rwandan genocide, the film follows hotelier Paul Rusesabagina's (Cheadle) efforts to save more than a thousand refugees.
The Miracle Worker
Starring: Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke
The story: The Miracle Worker tells the inspiring story of Anne Sullivan's (Bancroft) work to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller (Duke) to communicate.
The Big Sick
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, and Anupam Kher
The story: Based on the real-life love story of screenwriters Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, the inspiring and funny film focuses on the struggles an interracial couple deals with when one of them (in this case Gordon, played by Kazan) becomes seriously ill.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
The story: In 1979, six Americans manage to avoid capture during the Iranian Revolution, but find themselves stuck in the country. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck, who also directed) concocts an eccentric plan to extract them from the country—by posing as a film crew scouting locations in the area.
The Social Network
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, and Max Minghella
The story: The behind-the-scenes story of Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and the rise of Facebook. Truly a tale for the ages.
12 Years a Slave
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard
The story: The Oscar-winning movie tells the real story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a black man born free in New York State but kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked as a slave in Louisiana for 12 years before he was eventually released.
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, and Lizzo
The story: Based on a magazine article, this wild true crime movie follows a group of New York City exotic dancers who drug their stockbroker clients to run up their credit cards during the 2008 financial crisis.
Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jiang Yongbo, Lu Hong, Aoi Mizuhara, Liu Hongli, and X Mayo
The story: This semi-autobiographical movie about a Chinese-American family who learns their grandmother only has a short time left to live is based off director Lulu Wang's own life (It's also a This American Life podcast episode).
The Theory of Everything
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, and Simon McBurney
The story: A look at the life of late renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, including his great scientific discoveries, his diagnosis with motor neuron disease at age 21, and his marriage to Jane Wilde.
Dolemite is My Name
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Wesley Snipes
The story: This hilarious Hollywood story follows comedian Rudy Ray Moore as he makes an independent film based on his character, Dolemite.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
The story: This movie follows the 1969 trial of seven defendants–including comedians, student activists, and a Black Panther–who were charged by the federal government following the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The King’s Speech
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Andrew Havill, and Michael Gambon
The story: This Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture depicts the friendship between King George IV, who has to overcome his stutter as he unexpectedly takes the throne, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Starring: Daniel Kaaluya, LaKeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemmons, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, and Martin Sheen
The story: In the 1960s, an FBI informant (Stanfield) infiltrated the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party to get intel on its leader, Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaaluya). This Oscar-nominated film depicts the events that led to Hampton's murder.
Kayleigh Roberts is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years of professional experience. Her byline has appeared in Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, Allure, Entertainment Weekly, MTV, Bustle, Refinery29, Girls’ Life Magazine, Just Jared, and Tiger Beat, among other publications. She's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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