Some of the greatest films of the 1990s were based on real-life figures. Most of the biopic titles on this list will ring a bell, while others may appear more unfamiliar. But they’re all made my talented directors with star-studded casts to boot, and they hold up wonderfully today as biographical pictures that shine light on their iconic real-life counterparts. Most of these films feature A-list celebrities as their respective figures, with many examples likely coming to mind off the bat. Career-defining performances were put on across the board, with all of their efforts holding up well today. They’re still worth a watch. All that said, these are then best biopics of the 1990s, ranked.
10 The Hurricane
With direction by Norman Jewison and Denzel Washington in the titular role, The Hurricane (1999) should be more widely considered among the finest boxing films ever made. For its paucity of popularity today, it could easily be considered underrated. Denzel’s portrayal of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter warrants the film a spot on the list in itself, let alone the seamless execution of its poignant plot.
After the eponymous pugilist is wrongly arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, a young boy named Ezra reads Rubin’s story and vows to free him from his twenty-year prison sentence. The result is masterclass of scriptwriting, direction, and storytelling in general. This is among the greatest performances of Denzel’s career as he gives us insight into the psyche of a real-life middleweight contender while also showcasing tangible rapport with his on-screen co-stars. If you haven’t seen The Hurricane, rest assured that it’s an essential ’90s biopic.
9 Ed Wood
A monochromatic piece from director Tim Burton, this entry marks that filmmaker’s second-ever collaboration with American actor Johnny Depp. And although this isn’t the most popular piece under the belt of those famous collaborators, Ed Wood (1994) is among the most critically acclaimed. It received an Academy Award for Best Makeup, while Martin Landau also walked away with a golden statuette for Best Supporting Actor.
He plays Bela Lugosi, while Depp appears as the titular Ed Wood. A cult filmmaker, Wood was known for his low-budget movies in the realms of science fiction, crime, and horror. In turn, the film at hand has since become a cult classic, creating an underlying sense of poetry for those wishing to revisit Ed Wood today. A great decision, as it holds up well enough to land itself on the list.
Though a half-hearted historical piece, JFK (1991) is a full-fledged piece of cinema, with a compelling plot and convincing efforts across the board of its cast. Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, while other performers include Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Metcalf, and several notable others. They all lead JFK to new qualitative heights under the direction of Oliver Stone.
It’s a political thriller, homing in on Garrison’s conspiracy that there was more than meets the eye to the JFK assassination. He concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald had at least an accomplice, and what plays out is among the best and most famous journeys on from any biopics in the 1990s. The renown of JFK backs up all those sentiments and more, with the film as a whole garnering widespread praise from critics and audiences alike. And it holds up wonderfully today.
7 Donnie Brasco
Directed by Mike Newell, this entry stars Al Pacino alongside Johnny Depp, with the latter playing the titular, undercover character. A gangster film, Donnie Brasco (1997) follows the infiltration of the Bonanno crime family in 1970s New York City. FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone uses the eponymous alias to befriend Pacino’s character, a hitman named Lefty Ruggiero.
The performers share one of the most electrifying chemistries out of any two co-stars on the list, and their efforts define the quality of the project itself. Of course, Donnie Brasco does boast a star-studded supporting cast of names like Michael Maddsen and Anne Heche, with great tactics of behind-the-scenes filmmaking featured around every corner of production. If it’s been sometime since you last watched this seminal ’90s gangster flick, it’s aged with absolute grace.
6 The Insider
Several actors show up multiple times on this list, from Denzel Washington to Robert De Niro. But another frequent portrayer of real-life figures throughout the 1990s was Al Pacino. With The Insider (1999), he plays Lowell Bergman, a producer for CBS who exposes the corruption of a tobacco company called Brown & Williamson. In the co-starring role is Russell Crowe, who shows up as Jeffrey Wingad, a former executive for the aforementioned company.
Though a highly fictionalized account, The Insider by Michael Mann is nonetheless among the most technically brilliant films on the list. This was Mann’s first of several biopics, with Ali (2001) coming a couple of years later. There’s also Public Enemies (2009) and the recent Ferrari (2023). But for many fans, The Insider will forever be the most essential biopic under Mann’s directorial belt.
After the 1917-1928 encephalitis lethargica epidemic, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (portrayed by Robin Williams) discovers the benefits of an amino acid l-DOPA. He administers the drug to catatonic patients who survived the aforementioned epidemic, with Robert De Niro playing Leonard Lowe. He awakens after decades with the rest of the survivors, forced to deal with a brand-new time period.
The leads in Williams and De Niro put on two of their most powerful performances, with great overall direction under the talented Penny Marshall. Each name involved in Awakenings (1990) received widespread praise for their work. The character Malcolm Sayer is based on real-life figure Oliver Sacks, who wrote the 1973 memoir of the same name. His story translated to a poignant picture that remains an essential piece of ’90s cinema.
4 What’s Love Got to Do with It
There are of course some exceptions, but for the most part, biopics flourish or fail by the portrayals of their real-life figures. Take What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), for example. All the fancy camerawork and tireless editing in the world can’t encompass the soul of Tina Turner, but Angela Bassett surely could. She shines as the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, with her abusive husband Ike Turner being portrayed in equally accurate fashion by the talented Laurence Fishburne.
Both thespians received Oscar nominations in their respective categories — Best Actress for Bassett and Best Actor for Fishburne — with the actress actually winning at the Golden Globe Awards. And with good reason. Though adapted from Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, much of the story was fictionalized for film. And in spite of some historical inaccuracies, What’s Love Got to Do with It received widespread acclaim across the board of film criticism. It also holds up well today as one of the best biopics of the 1990s.
3 Malcolm X
Starring Denzel Washington in the titular role, this entry marks his second collaboration with Spike Lee. They’re among the greatest director-actor duos of their generation, and this is their definitive work. Written by Lee alongside Arnold Perl, the film also features the director in a supporting role as Shorty, a friend of Malcolm’s from childhood, while Angela Bassett portrays Betty Shabazz. And though it didn’t exactly make waves at the worldwide box office, Malcolm X (1992) holds great name value today.
It also garnered widespread praise upon release, particularly from pundits of the industry. Washington received his first nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, and his third acting nod in general. And if you need any more convincing that Malcolm X deserves a spot on the list, just know that it’s been preserved by the Library of Congress with a spot in the National Film Registry. Pretty impressive.
2 Schindler’s List
Take a moment to revel at the talented names attached to Schindler’s List (1993): It of course saw direction under Steven Spielberg, firstly. But its script was penned by Steven Zaillian, an all-time great screenwriter. His second ever script was the aforementioned Awakenings, which garnered a nomination at the Academy Awards. And for Schindler’s List, he walked away with a golden statuette.
Now, the cast: Liam Neeson stars as Oscar Schindler, a real-life figure who famously saved thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. It’s Neeson’s greatest work, and the same could be argued for Ralph Fiennes. There’s also Ben Kingsley and Caroline Goodall, with everyone showing up in spades to take audiences on one of the most emotional journeys of the decade.
American director Martin Scorsese has a few, career-defining masterpieces under his belt that any filmmaker would dream of creating. From Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) to the film at hand and The Departed (2006), some of the most famous and renowned pieces of cinema from their respective decades were led by Scorsese, who’s often referred to as one of the greatest filmmakers living today. Goodfellas (1990) is arguably his masterpiece, and the perfect showcase for such widespread acclaim.
But Goodfellas also features the most star-studded cast of any 20th century Scorsese film, with names such as Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci as the lead gangsters. They bring their real-life counterparts to the screen like no one was else was even remotely capable of filling their well-shined shoes. But there’s also Lorraine Brasco, Paul Sorvino, and a minor appearance from Samuel L. Jackson. Everyone performs brilliantly enough to render Goodfellas one of the best biopics ever made, let alone of the 1990s.