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From David Fincher to Steven Spielberg: The 10 best Netflix films based on true events

The central debate for years focuses on whether art imitates life or if life itself imitates art. Literature and art are considered to mirror the society they are produced in; cinema, too, is said to reflect the contemporary socio-political and socio-cultural scenarios while delving deep into the consciousness of the common people. While, arguably, there is little truth to fiction, cinema often finds its way round to uphold an event that was inspired by a real-life incident and makes it look more realistic with its clever portrayal of the same. For years, bizarre real-life events have attracted filmmakers to base their films on. They often indulge in artistic liberty, straying away from the source material and blending in elements that were probably never present, to add their personal touch to it and make the story more commercially viable.  

It is often more difficult to make a film about a book that has already been released or an incident that is already known to the public. The director’s burden compels them to come up with something more ingenious and creative. This is what makes such films even more aesthetically pleasing. Besides insightful character studies and exemplary portrayals of their struggles, trials and tribulations, the films often harbour a sense of inexplicable calm and unexpected endings. 

Netflix has a wide variety of films and among them, a big fraction of films are based on real-life events. They are entertaining and eye-opening at the same time, often making the audience partake in a moving journey. 

Here are the 10 best films on Netflix that are based on real-life events. 

10 best films on Netflix based on true events:

10. Brain on Fire (Gerard Barrett, 2016)

In a harrowing account of what she had to face, the film portrays the struggle of a young journalist Susannah Cahalan whose erratic behaviour and seizures get misdiagnosed. As she moves further towards insanity, the relentless hope on part of her family and boyfriend help her going. A doctor’s timely intervention gives her new hope and the chance to start life afresh. 

Moretz is too vivid and naked in her portrayal and might leave goosebumps on your skin. With a brilliant and heartwarming performance that will devastate you, the film as well as the cast performance seems to be highly undermined by the critics. Emotional and realistic, the film defines outstanding. It’s a blessing that Netflix chose to stream it and garner awareness among young audience regarding symptoms and mental health disorders. 

 “We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.” 

9. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 2015)

Philip Zimbardo was a psychology professor at Stanford University, who believed that social situations affected an individual’s behavioural patterns and not their respective personalities. To support his hypothesis, he started a unique experiment where 18 willing male participants were placed in a mock prison for a fortnight to record their behaviour. As the students grow increasingly abusive and the experiment begins to go downhill, Zimbardo is compelled to suspend it after just six days. 

Based on the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, the film documented the notoriety if this terrifying experiment. With Bily Crudup, Ezra Miller and other talented cast members playing their respective parts incredibly, the film recounts the chilling tale and the harrowing experiences of the mock prisoners which is a detailed and blood-curdling commentary on human nature and condition. 

“This is all real! They won’t let you go.”

8. The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

A bio-drama on the rise and fall of the eponymous 1970s rock band, the film sees Cherie Currie, a David Bowie stan, as a passionate rock musician. She is discovered by Joan Jett and Sandy West who wants to start a band together. Together, they form The Runaways which leads to a rise in stardom. All the while, they deal with internal conflicts regarding preference and favouritism. Cherie also deals with personal demons of addiction which threaten to dismantle their band. 

Sigismondi expressed why she wanted to make a film about this band. She was amazed by the fact that these fearless girls “were doing things that girls weren’t supposed to do, especially at 15.” Her main intention was to uphold the emotional and psychological journey these girls embarked on to trace their identity and selfhood as well as their place in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll. Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart’s performances were noteworthy in the film; however, the film has often been criticized for being told from Cherrie’s perspective and never really giving the other girls the space to assert their voice. 

“I need my life back.”

7. Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Based on real-life incidents, namely the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, the film revolves around the struggles of Christine Collins who lives in Los Angeles in 1928 with her nine-year-old son Walter. She comes home one day to find her son missing. When she reports to the authorities, she is shunned away on grounds of being an incompetent mother, delusional as well as confined to a psychiatric ward. The police resort too various unfair measures to disguise their corruption and inability to solve the case. 

The film sees the corruption and bigotry of the police pitted against a mother’s undying struggle to find her missing son. Angelina Jolie, who played Christine Collins, reportedly found her role distressing as a mother. However, the depth of the character as well as Collins’ sheer ability to keep going despite all odds made her accept the script. The storyline is compelling while dealing delicately with important issues such as political bigotry, woman disempowerment, trivialising mental health as well as violence related to children.  

“I used to tell Walter ‘Never start a fight, but always finish it.’ I didn’t start this fight… but by God, I’m gonna finish it.”

6. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg is sad and angry after getting dumped by his girlfriends Erica Albright and ends up making a website for on-campus dating. slowly, as it gains popularity, he navigates his way through financial success while sacrificing personal relationships. He starts facebook which goes on to become one of the leading global social networking sites but faces obstacles in form of lawsuits from the people who claimed Zuckerberg had stolen their intellectual property as well as former friend Eduardo Saverin with whom he severed ties to fuel his own interest. 

Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, the film has been masterfully crafted following the ingenious ideas of Fincher as well as the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. The film indulges in its own creative freedom while focusing on how financial success alienates one from personal relationships. A brilliant ensemble cast sees Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield delivering standout performances. Insanely detailed character studies, as well as a gripping tale, makes this film one of the best films released in 2010.

“Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars.”

5. First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017)

The film is set in Cambodia during the time of the Vietnam War where violence had induced the Cambodian Civil War. Young Loung Ung and her family are forced into hiding as they might all be killed if their father Pa’s identity as a government official is discovered. One by one, her family keeps depleting and soon her father is taken away for the impending doom. Urged by her mother, she flees with her two siblings and under the pretext of being a child orphan is empanelled as a child soldier which leads her to set bombs and other such traps. 

Grappled by violence and war, the film views the impact on the lives of civilians with compassion and empathy. It laments the lives lost and the families torn apart by war. A heartfelt commentary on war and childhood as well as the trauma and devastation it wreaks on young minds is splendidly captured in the film. As a director, Jolie is successful in evoking the correct magnitude of emotions which help the audience connect more with the characters. 

 “I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. ”

4. To the Bone (Marti Noxon, 2017)

Ellen is a 20-year-old girl suffering from anorexia while dealing with various problems at home. Her absent father impacts her life deeply but her stepmother sends her to Dr William Beckham’s patient program for Ellen to deal with her eating disorder. Ellen meets new people, including Luke, who show her various perspectives towards life. However, she keeps spiralling as she is constantly in the search of something that is bothering her while dealing with addiction and the pursuit of loving oneself. 

The film deals with heavyweight issues such as eating disorders, dysfunctional families with absent fathers, separation anxiety as well as miscarriages and depression. Based on Noxon’s personal experiences with eating disorders, the film is quite a cathartic escape for her. She has opened up about how it is similar to substance abuse as it helped her “escape a certain pain or level of feeling that [I] didn’t want to have”. Lilly Collins has suffered from anorexia as well which helped her bring out the best in her character. The other cast members including Keanu Reeves deliver heartfelt performances which gives an insightful and empathetic outlook towards such a critical issue within the scope of the film.

“People say they love you. But what they mean is they love how loving you makes them feel about themselves.”  

3. The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

Based on the real-life story of the legendary theoretical physicist Stephen hawking who battled all odds to emerge a victor in his academic field. The film details the journey of Hawking as a Cambridge University student who finds out about the motor neuron disease that he has. With the unwavering support of his sweetheart Jane as well as by sheer dint of perseverance, he embarks on an ambitious project which involves the study of time, which is quite ironical given the dearth of time in his life according to the doctors. 

An inspirational story about one’s immense desire to achieve something despite all odds and the power of love is viewed in this film. Both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones received high praise for their splendid performances in the lead roles. Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, it is a solid portrayal of their complicated relationship and the narrative is both heartfelt and inspirational. 

“There should be no boundaries to human endeavour.”

2. Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)

This heartwarming tale is based on Saroo Brierley’s real-life story about reuniting with his family after years of separation. In 1986, Saroo is separated from his brother Guddu aster he falls asleep on a train to Calcutta unwittingly. After a brief stint of homelessness in the city, he is adopted by a kind Australian couple and lives with them. But the yearning for home never goes away and Saroo is determined to find his way back to his village to reunite with his mother and sister and let them know he is alive and thriving. 

Instead of being overly melodramatic, Lion brings out the undying nostalgia one feels as well as the intense desire to return to one’s home. Incredible performances from the cast, namely Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, compel the viewers to embark on an unforgettable visual journey that is both moving and exhilarating. While one loves his new life at the Brierleys, the audience cannot help but root for Saroo to find his way back home. The film’s title is derived from the titular protagonist’s name which he mispronounced; it was supposed to be Sheru, which means lion. 

“What if you do find home and they’re not even there?”

1. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

“Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.” A Holocaust survivor as well as a Schindlerjuden, Poldek Pfefferberg, was determined to tell the world about Schindler’s act of compassion. Zealous and persistent, he motivated Thomas Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark and subsequently persuaded Steven Spielberg to film the adaptation. The film traces the journey of Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German, who travels to Krakow, Poland, amidst World War II to make a fortune for himself by acquiring a factory for enamelware production. He ends up hiring cheap labour in the form of Jew workers with the help of Itzhak Stern, making a lot of profit. However, with the arrival of the ruthless Göth, the Jews are mercilessly exterminated. Moved by their suffering, and subsequently following an elaborate plan, Schindler and Stern successfully rescue the Jews.

Schindler’s List is undoubtedly one of the best historical dramas on the horrors of the Holocaust. It bears witness to the atrocities meted out to the Jews and contains scenes that petrify the audience. Spielberg adds a touch of humanism to his protagonist, and one cannot help but mourn with Oskar at the end. Though the film has been criticized for being viewed from the perspective of a Nazi German and for not having further explored the tropes of violence and sexuality, Schindler’s List, a dark and emotionally hefty masterpiece, is indeed one of the greatest films of all time. 

“Someday, this is all going to end, you know. I was going to say we’ll have a drink then.” 

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