Movies about true events not just entertain but also offer something to brood about. They pave way for us to reflect on our personal lives, our misgivings, achievements, and our downfalls.

No matter the genre, these affective movies ignite empathy, sympathy, anger, and all sorts of emotions. Simply put, they explore the very essence of life. They tug at our heartstrings and are more riveting than fiction.

Movies based on true stories have varying purposes: they offer guidance, provide historical insight, or simply give a look into another person’s life experiences. Whether they are told in the first or second person doesn’t matter as long as they tell a real-life story.

Hollywood in the year 1990s and 2000s gave birth to a plethora of these movies based on true stories. And the corresponding titles below are definitely worth your time and emotions.

1Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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This biographical movie tells the story of the legendary British band Queen. It follows their success until their 1985 Live Aid performance at the former Wembley Stadium in London.

The story though mostly focuses on the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. The narrative takes viewers back to 1970 when he joined Queen and chronicles his life after he defied stereotypes and destroyed convention to become one of the most celebrated entertainers in the world.

It shows his rise and downfall after he succumbed to darker influences. Yet he masters the courage to face the challenges brought by his failing health in order to lead Queen in one of its greatest performances in the history of rock music.

This movie is a nostalgic walk down memory lane and a great tribute to Mercury, whose music continues to inspire generations years after his death in 1991 from AIDS-related complications.

Rami Malek is on point with his portrayal of the revered musician: from the mustache down to Mercury’s signature stage presence. Outside of the music influence, this movie humbly tells a story about the value of family, friends, and loyalty.

Director: Bryan Singer – Screenplay: Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan – Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker – Run Time: 2h 14m

2127 Hours

127 Hours (2010)

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This survival movie takes inspiration from the memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It tells how the author, Aron Ralston (James Franco), survived while trapped in a remote canyon in Utah.

In April 2003, Ralston, a real-life canyoneer, packed his gear and hiked Canyonlands National Park. He didn’t tell anyone about his trip.

Disaster struck when he slipped through a slot and knocked a boulder that trapped his wrist and hand against the wall. He braved hunger, thirst, hypothermia, paranoia, and resisted the call of death through his sheer will to live.

He got himself out of the tight situation through any means necessary. Ralston defied the odds and climbed back up to tell the story of his survival.

Despite his harrowing experience, he continues his passion to this day even with one-hand less to carry his weight.  He now also leaves a note saying where he’s going.

This movie might not even qualify as entertaining for some. After all, watching someone slowly succumb to his possible demise is not enjoyable. Yet, as the story unfolds, you become invested in the protagonist’s plight to live.

At some point, you even wish you were there to help. However, you can only watch as the time ticks idly by and cross your fingers that rescue arrives or that he doesn’t die.

Director: Danny Boyle – Screenplay: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy – Cast: James Franco, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan, Clémence Poésy, Amber Tamblyn, Bailee Michelle Johnson- Run Time: 94m

3Into the Wild

Into The Wild (2007)

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This movie takes pages from the journal of Christopher McCandless, which he left behind on a converted bus prior to his death. In it, he talks about his travels and thoughts on life.

The movie gives an insight into his life as a beloved son, exemplary student, and avid traveller. It shows the emotions he chose to write about on his precious diary instead of opening up about them to friends and family.

Into the Wild gives viewers a look into McCandless’ life and his struggles. It recounts the days he lived off the Alaskan wilderness on his own, where he also succumbed to death from starvation.

This movie is an emotionally gripping tale about a person’s search for happiness and acceptance. The emotions it evokes are raw and organic. McCandless’ journey echoes life’s realities on how it can be meaningless and sad without the love of a family.

Director: Sean Penn- Screenplay: Sean Penn – Cast: – Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Zach Galifianakis, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook – Run Time: 2h 46ms

4Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor (2013)

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In 2005, a four-man SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team is sent to war-torn Afghanistan to track and eliminate the high Taliban operative Ahmad Shah. None of them could have prepared for the outcome of their mission.

Tragedy strikes after local goat herders spot them and alert the Taliban of their presence. Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) didn’t anticipate the onslaught of enemy afterward.

They were taken by surprised and ambushed on enemy territory. Sadly, only Luttrell survived and he lives to tell the story of how the team valiantly fought back even with their limited resources.

Luttrell talks about the bravery of the fallen soldiers and recounts the tragedy in his book titled Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.

Director: Peter Berg – Screenplay: Peter Berg – Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman – Run Time: 2h 2m

5The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

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Poverty is no laughing matter and clearly not an entertaining premise for a movie. Yet, this drives the story of The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie that shows the harsh realities of being homeless and jobless and with a child to take care of.

The movie is based on the life of Chris Gardner, stockbroker, investor, and philanthropist. It wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies for the American businessman. Like many people, he too had to overcome homelessness and being jobless, while striving to be a good example to his son.

Gardner pushed through the challenges and persevered. He is what he is today because he willed himself to come out of poverty so he can provide a better future for his family.

This movie is very inspirational since it explores real-life issues. It is relatable for those who are facing financial hurdles. It’s a deeply emotional movie, one that tugs at your heart from start to finish.

Director: Gabriele Muccino – Screenplay: Steven Conrad – Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Brian Howe, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer – Run Time: 1h 57m

6Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn (2006)

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This biographical war drama recounts the harrowing experience of German-American US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) during the Vietnam War. It shows his life as a Vietcong prisoner of war and his subsequent escape.

In the annals of history’s greatest prison escapes, there lies the remarkable story of Dengler, the only American to come out alive of the impenetrable Laotian jungle. Resilient and brave, he survived hunger and torture as a prisoner.

He lived through the harshest of conditions in the world’s fiercest wilderness. Despite his traumatic ordeal, Dengler appeared before the press looking more like a celebrity than a man disheartened by the brutal realities of war.

Director: Werner Herzog – Screenplay: Werner Herzog – Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davis, Zach Grenier, Toby Huss, Pat Healy, Marshall Bell – Run Time: 2h

712 Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013)

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remembers the day when he lost 12 years of his life merely because of a false assumption. He writes about those years filled with tears, hardships, and struggles in his memoir 12 Years a Slave.

In this movie adaptation of his story, we follow Northup’s memories as a free citizen of New York living a peaceful and happy life with his wife and kids. Then we see how the happiness turns to sorrow and bitterness after someone kidnaps him and ships him off to a plantation in New Orleans where he lives through all the physical tortures as a slave.

Northup recounts the lies and deception he had to commit in order to survive. But most of all, he remembers the silver lining that came in the guise of a Canadian man who liberated him from his sufferings and returned him to his real life.

This movie tells of one man’s courage and resilience and the brutality and savagery of many. It also shows the potential for people to be both evil and good.  It’s an emotionally devastating reminder of the horrors of 1800s slavery.

Director: Steve McQueen – Screenplay: John Ridley- Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard – Run Time: 2h 14m

8Everest

Everest (2015)

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This movie is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster and follows the plight of a group of climbers to survive amid freezing temperatures. The storytelling walks viewers through their harrowing experience as they attempt to escape a fierce blizzard.

This is a thrilling man vs. nature survival movie with a premise that’s as chilling as its title. It tells the actual events of the excursion that took the lives of eight climbers.

This movie is a clear reminder of the dangers of commercial Everest expeditions or other mountain climbing excursions for that matter. One can never be too certain when Mother Nature’s ire strikes and outweighs the expertise of the guides or the climbers.

Director: Baltasar Kormákur- Screenplay: William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy – Cast: Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington – Run Time: 2h 1m

9Alive

Alive (1993)

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This movie is based on the 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read. It recounts the horrors of the 1972 disaster on the Andes mountains.

Alive is another one of those movies that highlight man’s struggle to survive against the forces of nature. It shows the desperation and the lengths man will go in order to live

The story focuses on a group of rugby players who are stranded on the Andes mountains after a plane crash. Equipped with minimal resources (food, clothing, water), they must learn to adapt to their unknown territory and find ways to survive.

However, extreme weather conditions eventually lead to tragic events. Food ultimately ran out that they are left with no choice but to feed on the bodies of their dead companions.

This movie does a great job of raising awareness to the “what would you do” issues. It challenges your moral views and obligations between bouts of chattering teeth.

Director: Frank Marshall – Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley – Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano, Josh Hamilton – Run Time: 2h

10Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List (1993)

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A brutal and depressing reminder of the Holocaust comes in the American epic historical drama Schindler’s List. This movie tells of Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) humanitarian efforts to save Polish Jews from death.

Schindler capitalizes on the Nazi’s rise to power and opens a factory that manufactures cookware and utensils. He employs the Jews in Krakow’s ghetto including accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). For Stern, this means freedom for himself and the others from death camps.

However, the Germans ultimately sent Schindler’s workforce to the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp where they could face their inevitable death.  Schindler witnesses firsthand the brutalities inside the camp and develops a conscience.

He felt compelled to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews after he realizes that his work is the only thing that prevents them from being sent to death camps.

The businessman then ups his number of employees.  By the time the allies defeated the Germans, Schindler managed to save about 1,100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

This movie is a compelling reminder about man’s ability to show compassion no matter the circumstances and regardless of upbringing and origin. Schindler was a greedy German but his selflessness took over when he realized the value of human life.

Director: Steven Spielberg – Screenplay: Steven Zaillian – Cast: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz – Run Time: 3h 15m

11Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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This movie is based on the real-life story of Erin Brockovich, a single mom-of-three who single-handedly brought down a multi-billion dollar company. The movie follows her legal battle against California’s energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) despite her lack of education.

The narrative starts out with Brockovich struggling to find a job because of her abrasiveness and her trashy clothes. No one takes her seriously but this soon changes after she becomes a legal assistant and begins to investigate a series of health concerns that links to PG&E.

She discovers that the company has been polluting Hinkley’s water supply with toxic chromium and it’s buying out lands belonging to the residents. Brockovich digs deep and her determination paves way for the case to become one of America’s biggest class action lawsuits against a large corporation.  

Brockovich’s story is a reminder that class or education and physical appearance do not define a person. Instead, empathy and moral obligation are more important.  

 

Director: Steven Soderbergh – Screenplay: Susannah Grant – Cast: Julia Roberts, David Brisbin, Dawn Didawick, Pat Skipper, Albert Finney, Valente Rodriguez, Conchata Ferrell, Erin Brockovich-Ellis – Run Time: 2h 11m

12The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014)

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This WWII drama is based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. It follows the efforts of mathematical genius Alan Turing to crack the Nazi’s enigma code.

Together with his colleagues, who comprise of scholars, intelligence officers, linguists, and chess wizards, they work tirelessly to decrypt German intelligence for the British government. The covert operation occurs within the confines of Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

Turing was considered a difficult and aloof person to work with because he considered his colleagues his inferior. However, prejudice aside, the team eventually cracked Germany’s so-called unbreakable World War II Enigma machine. The success helped shorten the war and in the process, Turing managed to save thousands of lives.

Benedict Cumberbatch is spellbinding in his portrayal of one of the most heroic figures of the 20th century. His brooding appearance alone heightens the nail-biting suspense and mystery. This movie though evokes different emotions of sadness, dread, anger, and triumph.

Director: Morten Tyldum – Screenplay: Graham Moore – Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance – Run Time: 1h 54m

13Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

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In 1963, 17-year-old Frank Abagnale Jr. runs away from home and starts to live off on confidence scams for money. Soon his cons increased from impersonations to forgery.

This movie follows the years of deception the teenager committed prior to his 21st birthday. A successful con artist and a master at deception, Frank became a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a legal prosecutor.

However, his expertise in forgery, from which he earned over $2.8 million from Pan Am, caught the attention of FBI bank fraud agent Carl Hanratty. Carl pursued Frank tirelessly and his determination to put the artist behind bars eventually paid off after several baits.

This is a fun watch that fills the run time with hours of entertaining action sequences and smart dialogues. The draw also happens at the end when viewers learn about Frank’s twist of fate. What starts as a cat and mouse becomes akin to father and son when the two men develop an amicable working relationship.

Director: Steven Spielberg – Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson – Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Pompeo, Nathalie Baye – Run Time: 2h 21m

14The Aviator

The Aviator (2004)

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This biopic of billionaire director and aviator Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) traces his career from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s. The story mainly focuses on his passion for designing and promoting new aircrafts.

Hughes catapulted into Hollywood society following the success of his directorial debut Hell’s Angels. There he romanced celebrities including Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, and Katharine Hepburn.

However, it didn’t take long for him to venture into aeronautics, which he risked his time and money to test out aircrafts. He even broke world record when he flew around the world in four days. Hughes eventually purchased Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) and subsequently gained enemies for his eccentric approach to his bold ideas. Pan-American Airlines head Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) tried to prove that Hughes’ radical concepts are just a means to get more money out of taxpayers through government contracts.

The Aviator simply tells the story of a great man who’s not without faults. Hughes had many women in his life and was a known germaphobe. It’s emotionally gripping and DiCaprio flawlessly evokes empathy and sympathy from viewers.

Director: Martin Scorsese – Screenplay: John Logan – Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin,    Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Frances Conroy, Willem Dafoe, Adam Scott, Danny Huston– Run Time: 2h 50m

15Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)

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This film is a tribute to three African-American women who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. These women paved way for the success of one of the country’s greatest space operations.

Hidden Figures is the untold story of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Three women who crossed the boundaries of racial and gender prejudice in the workforce to inspire generations to dream big.

These women, known as “human computers,” were the brains behind astronaut John Glenn’s launch into orbit. They also calculated his safe return home.

This scene has its merits including the laugh-out-loud moments during a family gathering and some emotional ones too. Despite it being a positive experience, the movie never fails to remind us of the racial oppression at the time: the office has a color-coded bathroom.

 

Director: Theodore Melfi – Screenplay: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder – Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kristen Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Quinn – Run Time: 2h 7m

16Argo

Argo (2012)

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Ben Affleck not only directs but also stars as the lead in this riveting action suspense about the rescue of Americans from Iran. In 1979, militants stormed and took 52 Americans hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran, but six managed to escape and find refuge in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador.

What follows is a life or death covert operation to bring the escapees safely out of the country. Knowing that it’s only a matter of time before they are found and likely killed, the CIA brings in Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert, to come up with a risky plan of rescue. A plan that involves a fake Canadian movie with the refugees employed as a film crew.

Affleck digs deep into history to create fear and tension while the superb performances of the actors make a smart, nail-biting, and entertaining story.  This is a well-paced film and one that evokes personal and political emotions.

Director: Ben Affleck – Screenplay: Chris Terrio – Cast: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Chris Messina, Kerry Bishé, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver – Run Time: 2h

17Apollo13

Apollo 13 (1995)

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This sci-fi film adaptation of the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by astronauts Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger dramatizes the aborted Apollo 13 lunar mission. It recounts NASA’s race against time to bring Lovell, Kluger, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise back to Earth after their spaceship suffered technical problems.

“Houston, we have a problem.” This phrase was immortalized during the tense 1970 mission when en route to the moon an onboard explosion slowly deprives the crew of their oxygen and power.  NASA scrambles to bring the men back despite knowing that they could face their probable death once the Apollo 13 reenters the Earth’s surface.

The production of this film is so convincing and the special effects so spectacular, rightfully so, since Ron Howard utilized NASA’s expertise in flight and astronaut training. The cast also filmed scenes aboard a reduced gravity aircraft to depict real weightlessness.

Director: Ron Howard – Screenplay: Al Reinert, William Broyles Jr. – Cast: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Joe Spano – Run Time: 2h 20m

18Ali

Ali (2001)

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Will Smith portrays Cassius Clay or the revered boxer Muhammad Ali in this biopic that covers his triumphs and controversies between 1964 and 1974. The film chronicles his rise from his early days as Cassius Clay, an Olympic gold medalist, to eventually conquering the world of heavyweight boxing and politics.

Ali’s career and personal life were riddled with controversy. His refusal to join the Vietnam war, his friendship with the controversial Malcolm X, and his allegiance to the Nation of Islam (thus he changed his name to Muhammad Ali).

Yet this movie depicts Ali’s life as a fighter and shows his achievements, preferring not to dwell too much on his failures. Smith does an incredible portrayal of his own understanding of the man who considered himself to be the world’s greatest boxer of all time.    

Director: Michael Mann – Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Eric Roth, Michael Mann – Cast: Will Smith, Jaimie Foxx, Jon Voight, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ron Silver, Mario Van Peebles, Jeffrey Wright – Run Time: 2h 37m

 

19Selma

Selma (2014)

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This unforgettable true story relieves the historical moment when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) forever altered history. In 1965, he led the tumultuous three-month-long campaign to secure equal voting rights.

In the face of violent opposition, the visionary along with members of the civil rights movement marched in solidarity from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The epic march culminated in then-President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Selma is an important film about an important part of history that’s filled with racial hatred and social and legal injustice. It passionately relieves the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and gives a glimpse at his triumphs and failures as a political figure and as a family man.

Oyelowo gives a compelling portrayal of the activist. Ava DuVernay succeeds in creating an emotionally gripping story that’s filled with violence and brutality.

Director: Ava DuVernay – Screenplay: Paul Webb – Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tessa Thompson, Tim Roth, Jim France, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland – Run Time: 2h 8m

20Milk

Milk (2008)

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Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay rights activist, who became California’s first openly gay elected official.  The story relieves the last eight years of his life from his career up to his death at the hands of Dan White (Josh Brolin).

The film uses flashbacks from a recorded statement to trace the narrative back to his 40th birthday when he meets his young lover Scott Smith (James Franco) and decides to move to San Francisco. There he opens Castro Camera. His life takes a drastic turn when he experiences gender opposition in his neighborhood.  

Milk wasn’t just a gay rights activist who rallied to lift the statewide initiative for gays to hold public school positions. He also fought for the unification of all people across the political spectrum. In a sense, he was a human rights activist whose actions spoke louder than words.

Penn’s portrayal of Milk is a standout: from his physical appearance to his body language. Credit also goes to the stellar cast who contributed to the moving and remarkable storytelling of the struggles and successes of a gay politician.

 

Director: Gus Van Sant – Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black – Cast: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross – Run Time: 2h 8m