The 22 Best Movies Based on True Stories

It’s a subtitle that means something and at the same time absolutely nothing. The text appears on screen during the trailers and sometimes before the first frames of the film: “based on a true story”. Are there legal criteria for the label? Do producers have guidelines, rules that must be followed to smack the claim of the ad? nope Not that we can find it.

Back in 2007, the LA times introduced something of an informal rule book for the label, which included general principles of only deviating from fact when it was supposed to improve storytelling, but even those guidelines allow for pretty much anything, and the article mentioned the power of deliberate deception, as in Filmmakers avoided the “realist trap” altogether and plunged into pure fiction.

Then what makes ranking these films so difficult is that there are so many degrees of “based on a true story”. Are we talking about films that make that claim, or about films that don’t need to make that claim because it’s so obvious, or about films that neither make that claim and yet somehow find themselves in historical territory of half-truth?

Biopics – films about historical figures – are obviously all based on true events, in that their main character was actually alive and eating and pooping at a certain point in time. However, including these films would make our list almost endless since Hollywood loves a good biopic and because there are so many of them. (Side note: Hollywood loves anything that smacks of veracity and has been pushing out true stories at what seems like an increasing rate over the last few decades).

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And with that our problem: There are too many damn movies.

Our solution: no biopics. Also, we’re a bit more modern with our list. We’re going to be a little snobby too. We proceed with a narrow category of “based on a true story”. That is: films where the makers went further than just adapting a book or an article. These are films that employ cinematic techniques that differentiate their work from the original medium. Sometimes these works question the veracity of the original story. Other times, they find completely different ways of telling the same story, utilizing all of the film’s special assets.

Another question we ask ourselves: would it be a good movie if it wasn’t true? Zero Dark Thirty, Selma, The imitation game, headlight, nomadic country, etc. etc. Big true stories brought to the big screen? Yes. Great movies if they were entirely fictional events? Ehhhh.

Obviously there is a lot of choice. We have done our best.

Here are the best movies based on true events.

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