The most exciting movies of 2020 – biopics
Having wiped away her Catstoddler snot, Jennifer Hudson gives her pipes a wider airing in this Aretha Franklin biopic which – unlike other movies featuring the great lady – Franklin was happy to be involved with. Forest Whitaker plays her father, a civil rights activist preacher, while Marlon Wayans is her first husband, Ted White, and Mary J Blige is Dinah Washington. It’s the first feature film directed by stage staple Liesl Tommy who has already been signed to follow Respect with a Trevor Noah biopic.
Francis Lee follows 2017’s acclaimed “Yorkshire Brokeback” God’s Own Country with a tale of 1840s lesbian palaeontology starring Saoirse Ronan as famous fossil hunter Mary Anning and Kate Winslet as a gentlewoman sent to convalesce by the sea. Fiona Shaw plays another renowned rock expert, Elizabeth Philpot, while Gemma Jones is Mary’s mother, Molly.
Julie Taymor scripts and directs this ambitious-sounding Gloria Steinem story, featuring Julianne Moore as the older activist, with Alicia Vikander playing Steinem from the ages of 20 to 40. Bette Midler will sink her teeth into a meatier part than usual as women’s movement leader Bella Abzug, while Janelle Monáe plays Dorothy Pitman Hughes.
David Calder and Peter Lindford have tackled the cold war spy Greville Wynne – whose intelligence helped end the Cuban missile crisis – for the BBC; now it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn on the big screen, in this thriller directed by former Royal Court supremo Dominic Cooke (who made his film debut with On Chesil Beach in 2017). This version focuses on the contrast between Wynne’s mundane home life with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and his daring Soviet encounters with Russian source Oleg Penkovsky.
Elite Squad star Wagner Moura leads this biopic of Sérgio Vieira de Mello – a Brazilian UN diplomat tipped for secretary general before he was killed in the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq along with 20 members of his staff. Ana de Armas plays his Argentine economist partner.
With his profile retrospectively raised once more by the combined efforts of Elon Musk and Nicholas Hoult – who played him in The Current War – Nikola Tesla finally gets his own film. This one stars Ethan Hawke and focuses on his middle age in New York. There is plenty of material here for a movie: even without the extraordinary engineering and invention, Tesla only slept for two hours a night, fired staff for being fat and ate supper every evening at exactly 8.10pm, served by the same waiter.
Herman J Mankiewicz’s battles over a screenplay credit for Citizen Kane get their own spell on the silver screen courtesy of David Fincher, here directing from a screenplay by his late father, Jack. Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, with Tom Burke – described by Souvenir director, Joanna Hogg, as reminding her of Welles – as Orson. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are scoring once more.
Will Sharpe, the actor/director behind projects such as Black Pond and Flowers is the man in charge of our second biopic featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, this one of 19th-century artist Louis Wain. Wain, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in life, specialised in paintings of big-eyed anthropomorphised cats. Claire Foy plays his sister’s governess, 10 years his senior, who Wain married but who died young. Wain’s gifts emerged during her illness, when she was comforted by sketches he drew for her of their kitten, Peter.
Cary Fukunaga’s biopic starring Jake Gyllenhaal lost out on the rights to Bernstein’s music to this rival movie, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. It’s unknown who the only credited co-star, Carey Mulligan, will be playing, or how Josh Singer’s script will juggle Bernstein’s extraordinary career and prodigious private life. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are producers, for added wallop.
Potentially the busiest actor of 2020, Ana de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel. Adrien Brody plays Arthur Miller and Bobby Cannavale is Joe DiMaggio. This project has been around for a while, with Naomi Watts originally linked to the lead, before she was – briefly – replaced by Jessica Chastain.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Chastain has instead gone a little more left-field with this fabulous-sounding spin on a 2000 documentary about televangelists Tammy Faye Messner and Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Tammy Faye (her marriages meant multiple surnames) was a singer, author, talk show host and TV personality who, with then husband Bakker, hosted a small screen puppet show, promoted Christian worship on TV and taped hymn-based albums. The pair also built Heritage USA, a Christian theme park, but this was shut after Bakker was imprisoned in 1989 after being convicted of fraud and conspiracy.
A new direction for Johnny Depp as he plays war photographer W Eugene Smith in this movie based on his book documenting the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in Japanese coastal communities. Director Andrew Levitas’s only previous movie was Lullaby, a 2014 drama about the impact on a family when a patriarch decides to switch off his life support.
Amy Adams stars in this Ron Howard adaptation of the family memoir by JD Vance about struggle, deprivation, laziness and love in small-town Ohio. The bestseller was cited as a key text of the 2016 election, as Vance writes compassionately about a low-income white working-class clan who played a part in Donald Trump’s election. Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins play Mawmaw and Papaw.