Monday, August 30, 2010

Based on Actual Events

Some of the best stories come from real life and some of the best movies are based on actual events. Here are my Top Five favorite movies based on true stories.

5. Heavenly Creatures (1994)

One of Peter Jackson's early films, Heavenly Creatures received wide acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It is the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two teenage girls involved in an obsessive friendship that resulted in the death of Parker's mother, Honora Kelly. Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Hulme (Kate Winslet) meet at school and begin a friendship deeply rooted in a richly detailed fantasy world. When the girls learn that Hulme's poor health (repeated bouts of turbuclosis) will separate them, they try to convince Parker's mother to allow her daughter to move to South Africa with Hulme. Her refusal is her death sentence - the girls feel the only way to be together is to kill her.

The film is everything you expect from Peter Jackson and Lynskey and Winslet give stellar performances. It is a must see for film lovers and true crime fans alike.

4. In the Name of the Father (1993)

Directed by Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father is the true story of the "Guildford Four", a group of four Northern Irishmen falsely convicted of the IRA's Guildford Pub bombing. Gerry Conlon, a young layabout, and three of his friends are arrested on flimsy evidence and, under the new law against terrorists, tortured by British police until they confess. Conlon's father and several other relatives are also implicated. Conlon and his father spend 15 years in prison, before winning their freedom with the help of their attorney, Gareth Pierce.

The film is excellent, but the real standout is the exceptional cast. Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, John Lynch, and Emma Thompson make this movie the underappreciated great that it is. It is well-deserving of the seven Academy Award nominations.

3. Capote (2005)/Infamous (2006)

These two films about Truman Capote and the infamous Clutter family murders came out within a year of each other. Both are excellent films, but there are certain aspects of each that surpass the other. Both films center on outlandish author Truman Capote's involvement in the investigation of the Clutter family killings in Holcomb, Kansas. In November of 1959, Capote read of the killings in the back pages of the New York Times. He and his childhood friend Harper Lee (author of classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird) make a trip to Holcomb to gather information for a small magazine article the author plans to write. Once there, he becomes enthralled with the crime, the town's residents, and ultimately the accused killer, Perry Smith. Capote becomes convinced that he has enough material for a book and doggedly pursues the story, to his own detriment. After writing his bestselling book, In Cold Blood, Capote descended into alcoholism and his further attempts at writing another substantial work failed.

Capote is a stark film with an excellent secondary cast. Catherine Keener is a wonderful Harper Lee and Clifton Collins, Jr. shines as doomed killer Perry Smith. The movie's main issue is Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal as Truman Capote. Without competition from rival film Infamous, Hoffman's performance would have been unquestioned.

Film-wise, Infamous is a very similar to Capote, although it focuses more on Capote than the crimes. However, Toby Jones's performance as the author is far superior to Hoffman's. Rex Reed of the New York Observer expressed it best: "They gave the Oscar to the wrong Truman Capote. I do not begrudge the versatile, popular Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar for playing the tiny terror in Capote, but he was doing an impression. In Infamous . . . a diminutive actor with a titanic talent named Toby Jones literally becomes the man himself. This is no lisping impersonation learned from watching old Johnny Carson shows: Mr. Jones moves into Truman's skin, heart and brains." While Capote's secondary cast is amazing, the supporting actors in Infamous are not as remarkable. Daniel Craig (Perry Smith) and Sandra Bullock (Harper Lee) are too A-list to really become their characters, which makes them distracting. The perfect film would have Toby Jones with the rest of Capote's cast. Despite their flaws, both films are superb and worth watching, if only to compare the two.

2. Glory (1989)

Glory is the true story of the creation of the first African-American regiment in the Civil War, led by Captain Robert Gould Shaw. It is an amazing story brought to life by an amazing cast. Matthew Broderick shows off his acting chops as Shaw, but the real stars are Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. One of my favorite character actors, Andre Braugher, also makes a pivotal performance. A description wouldn't do it justice, so just put this film on your Netflix queue immediately.

1. Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, etc.), Zodiac is a comprehensive biopic about the principle investigators of the still unsolved Zodiac serial killer case. Based on Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith, the film follows Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he becomes steadily more obsessed with the Zodiac case. Graysmith was a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac killer first wrote to the paper's editor. Interested in the case from the beginning, he began talking to police officers, government officials, and victim's families in an effort to solve the murders.

Gyllenhaal is endearing as Graysmith (the character is frequently described as a "boy scout") and Robert Downey, Jr. adds some much needed humor to relieve Fincher's tightly wrought tension. Fincher is a superb director and the soundtrack is pitch perfect. The film, like all the others on the list, boasts an amazing cast. Just a sample: Brian Cox, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny, Durmot Mulroney, Clea DuVall, Elias Koteas, and Donal Logue This film is a must see for Fincher fans and true crime buffs.

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