Top 10 Movies About Famous Real-Life Criminals

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Top 10 Movies About Famous Real-Life Criminals

VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
These true tales of crime and corruption are endlessly entertaining. For this list, we'll be looking at the most critically acclaimed movies based on real life criminals. Our countdown includes “I, Tonya”, "Goodfellas", “Catch Me If You Can”, and more!
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Top 10 Biopics About Famous Criminals


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Biopics About Famous Criminals.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most critically acclaimed movies based on real life criminals. They don’t have to be strict biopics per se, but must be either closely or loosely based on existing people who have committed crimes.

Which of these biopics is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: “I, Tonya” (2017)


In the world of figure skating, few names are as controversial as Tonya Harding. While a skater with promise, her career was permanently tarnished following the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s involvement remains ambiguous, but she pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was banned from figure skating. “I, Tonya” spins a darkly comedic and near-sympathetic portrayal of the story. It’s shot in a unique mockumentary format, which brings audiences closer to the characters and their motivations, and Margot Robbie proves sensational in the titular role, garnering a large degree of pity through her low self-esteem. The movie also touches on some tough topics, including class division and parental mistreatment, extending its thematic reach beyond the surface story.

#9: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)


Garnering Peter Jackson an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, “Heavenly Creatures” is a dark glimpse into the impulsive teenage mind. It concerns the Parker-Hulme murder case, a well-known incident from New Zealand in which Honora Parker was beaten to death by her own teenaged daughter and her daughter’s friend. Writer-director Jackson films the movie with a sympathetic and dream-like eye, treating his teenaged characters as flawed and dangerously hasty human beings. Aiding in that regard is the magnificent Kate Winslet, who makes a fantastic and nuanced film debut as Juliet Hulme. It’s unlike anything else in Jackson’s filmography - neither epic in scope nor a cult B-movie. It’s both tender and grotesque, a great true crime movie.

#8: “Reversal of Fortune” (1990)


In 1985, American lawyer Alan Dershowitz published a nonfiction book titled “Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case,” in which he gave a detailed account of one of his most high profile early ventures. He was defending a socialite named Claus von Bülow, who was on trial for the attempted killing of his wife, Sunny. The story is recounted in this great movie starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The story is enticing and ambiguous, the truth always shifting and unclear. It also has deeper ambitions that help flesh out the story, touching on themes like celebrity trials, the criminal justice system, and the dark side of social elitism.

#7: “Foxcatcher” (2014)


An exercise in great acting, “Foxcatcher” tells the story of John du Pont, a philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast who killed Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in the winter of 1996. Schultz is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, with Channing Tatum playing his brother Mark and an unrecognizable Steve Carell as du Pont. The movie’s strengths lay primarily in its acting and directing. All three stars are exceptional in their roles, with both Carell and Ruffalo earning Oscar nominations. Director Bennett Miller is also in complete control, with keen instincts for his actors and a studious eye for visual flair. He also imbues the movie with a repressive mood, signaling the dark undercurrent of du Pont and the tragic events that eventually transpired.

#6: “Badlands” (1973)


While the story of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” is mostly fictional, it has historic roots in the crime spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, which is why we’re considering it here. Between December 1957 and January 1958, a teenaged Starkweather killed eleven people throughout Wyoming and Nebraska with an even younger Fugate as his accomplice. The movie served as a bold feature debut for Malick, immediately signaling his potential as one of American cinema’s most creative visionaries. “Badlands” expertly blends true crime drama with visual decadence, its brutal narrative playing out amid the gorgeously shot American West. It’s more poetic than most movies of its ilk, putting emphasis on its tone and atmosphere rather than story events. It is as beautiful as true crime can get.

#5: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018)


Featuring a stunning against-type performance from Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of famous forger Lee Israel. A struggling writer, Israel began forging hundreds of letters from dead celebrities. Her forgeries were eventually detected by the FBI, and her sentence amounted to six months’ house arrest and five years’ probation. Director Marielle Heller has a deft command of tone, richly balancing the story’s pathos with a lot of great dark comedy. But the real star is the Oscar-nominated McCarthy, who seems born to play Israel. She completely disappears into the role, conveying a cold and prickly person with a strong undercurrent of sympathy.

#4: “Monster” (2003)


A transformative Charlize Theron stars as Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker who killed seven men between 1989 and 1990. Wuornos was eventually convicted on six counts of first degree murder and was executed in 2002. While the movie earned some criticism for its overly-sympathetic portrayal of Wuornos, it nevertheless contains a mesmerizing performance from Theron. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema,” as Theron walked away with a slew of industry honors, including the Oscar, Golden Globe, and SAG award. The movie belongs to her, and it may be one of the greatest performances ever found in a biopic.


#3: “Catch Me If You Can” (2002)


Honestly, any movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks would be worth watching. “Catch Me If You Can” tells the story of con artist Frank Abagnale, with DiCaprio in the lead role and Hanks as the FBI agent tasked with catching him. Many of Abagnale’s claims have been questioned over time, but either way, it makes for one entertaining and expansive story, spanning several years as Abagnale makes his way across the country. The film moves at a brisk pace, and the beautiful ‘60s production design transports viewers to a classically stylish time in American history. Plus, you can never go wrong with DiCaprio and Hanks, in case we weren’t clear.

#2: “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)


It makes sense that one of the most famous crime biopics would tell the story of one of the most famous criminal couples. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed gas stations, stores, and banks throughout the Central US during the Great Depression, and their crime spree resulted in at least thirteen deaths. Arthur Penn’s historic biopic transcends the true crime genre, offering some genuinely great and artful filmmaking. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards (half of which were for acting), and it revolutionized the depictions of both sex and violence in mainstream cinema. The seedy crime films of the ‘70s owe their very existence to “Bonnie and Clyde,” and it’s generally regarded as one of the best movies of all time.


Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)
A Fast-Moving, Highly Entertaining Film About Wall Street Scammer, Jordan Belfort


“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986)
A Grotesque Film About Henry Lee Lucas & Ottis Toole That Makes Viewers Feel Dirty

“American Gangster” (2007)
A Stylish Period Piece Starring Denzel Washington as Harlem Drug Trafficker, Frank Lucas

“Bernie” (2011)
Jack Black Brilliantly Plays Against Type as Killer Mortician, Bernie Tiede

“Snowtown” (2011)
A Brutal Australian Film About the Bodies in Barrels Murders Carried Out by John Bunting, Robert Wagner & James Vlassakis


#1: “Goodfellas” (1990)


Arguably the greatest crime drama ever made, “Goodfellas” is a tantalizing glimpse into the mafia. Martin Scorsese has made a slew of thrilling biopics throughout his career, including “Casino” and “The Irishman,” but “Goodfellas” is his masterpiece. The movie is based on “Wiseguy,” Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book about the life of FBI informant Henry Hill. “Goodfellas” is the perfect slew of exciting storytelling, masterful acting, and expert film editing. Even amidst a stacked cast, Joe Pesci stands out, giving one of the scariest performances in film history as the unhinged Tommy DeVito. And the entire third act presents like a drug-fueled and paranoid fever dream that is conveyed by virtuosic editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s a classic movie that conveys an exhilarating true crime story.
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