A few weeks ago I watched two hours of ultimate frisbee out of sheer desperation to get something close to a sports fix. Among the many things that COVID-19 has robbed from us this year, competitive sports occupies that dubious spot of being simultaneously the most trivial and yet one of the most noticeable losses. This year was supposed to be a doozy. We had the prospect of the most competitive NBA playoffs in recent memory. We were going to be treated to the double-whammy summer extravaganzas that was Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics. My beloved Liverpool was a mere two games away from clinching their first title in thirty frigging years in front of a rabidly cheering home crowd. But now we stare into the vacuum of a nearly deserted sports schedule, grasping at straws at whatever nugget of news we can garner about when sports will come back and with the full knowledge that even when they do come back it will not be as we remember it (as of writing a few sports leagues, sans fans, have started coming back but will probably be in empty stadiums at least for a year) .
So yes, I have been hurting for anything sports related but fortunately that is where the movies comes in. Granted the “sports movie” is perhaps the most formulaic of genres out there, but the mere fact that sports movies keeps suckering us in even when we can see the cliches coming a mile away speaks to the genre’s power. The contradiction in sports movies is that the one thing that makes watching live sports exciting, namely its unpredictability, is absent in narrative form and yet somehow it is precisely the set nature of a written narrative that allows the sports movie to gain its captivating power.
This is because the currency of the sports movie is hope. There is the hope of ultimate victory, which is the primary stock of every pre-season when every sports fans wonders if this is going to be our year which in some ways soothes our disappointment in seeing our own sports teams fail (sometimes time and time again). This kind of hope is something the sports movie often gives us, usually over and against our real-life disappointments with our own favorite teams. But perhaps more importantly, the sports movie gives us the hope of moral victory where even if our protagonists lose the game they are playing they are almost always granted something resembling personal redemption. The sports movie is thus the perfect compliment to the real thing because it gives us the assurance (and probable illusion) that all the emotional stock we put in supporting our favorite team and player, and all of the resultant heartbreak we voluntarily put ourselves through, will be ultimately worth it.
- The sport in question has to be something that either was played or is being played in real life. So Rollerball and The Hunger Games do not count. Ditto Quidditch or pod-racing
- The sport has to be a key feature of the movie and not anecdotally a part of the movie. For instance Hook does feature baseball in some capacity, but it is NOT a sports movie.
- Ideally, the sport should also be featured at a competitive level. As much as Point Break features a lot of surfing, it is done at a casual level.
- The third act of the movie should ideally have something along the lines of the big game, where our protagonists find the climax of their narrative arcs through the sport itself. There will of course be a couple of key exceptions here.
- Only three movies per sport can be represented on this list. This is mostly to make sure boxing doesn’t take up six of the slots.
- One movie per director – which is why Miracle and this year’s The Way Back are out (sorry Gavin O’Connor).
- And finally, one entry per franchise, so don’t come at me when Rocky IV and doesn’t show up.
Just so we can get your righteous anger out of the way, know that I don’t personally like Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Chariots of Fire, Happy Gilmore, or Caddyshack, or The Color of Money. You are perfectly free to rank those among your best, but don’t feel shocked that they are absent among mine.
(p.s. Even though it doesn’t make the list, this year’s The Way Back is a serviceable way to spend a couple of hours with a pretty great Ben Affleck performance elevating its pretty conventional plot. In other words, a perfectly good enough distraction from the fact that the NBA playoffs should be happening right now.)
25. COOL RUNNINGS (1993) dir. Jon Turteltaub
Look, I’m not going to sit around and defend Cool Runnings as an objectively good movie and you are free to accuse me of blind nostalgia. But it is impossible for me to discuss my relationship to the sports movie without that run of winter-sport Disney movies in the 90s, and if I’m allowing myself to only pick one of those movies to make it onto this list, I’m picking the wacky and exhilarating antics of Team Jamaica who introduced me to a sport I had never heard of before over yet another rag-tag team of high schoolers performing some “Flying V’s” in hockey (which I found out later is not, in fact, a viable hockey strategy, much to my chagrin and to the detriment of my ability to trust people). And with all respect to Emilio Estevez, but if I have to choose between him and John Candy, the funny man is always going to win.
24. BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha
As this movie’s position indicates, there are much better sports movies than Bend it Like Beckham, but I doubt there are any more pleasant and enjoyable than this coming-of-age comedy. The clash-of-cultures between Jess (Parminder Nagra), a British-Indian teenager who wants nothing more than to break her culture’s norms about women playing soccer, and her parents is one that could have easily turned into a didactic lecture about the virtues of modernity, but Gurinder Chadha is too motivated by her genuine love for her characters here to allow any of them to descend into easy caricature. The end result is a movie brimming with compassion, making it an entirely lovable viewing experience. Of course one can’t help but think that if it were made today it would not chicken out of its less-than-subtle gay subtext and saddle the movie with a tacked on conventional romance, but then again, this was made in 2002 so it is hardly surprising.
23. RUDY (1993) dir. David Anspaugh
Yes, the movie is filled to the brim with cheese, is predictable to a fault, and is so sweet as to inspire tooth decay but the reason it works is the same reason why most (American) football movies usually do not. Football is by nature a team sport in which every player has a highly specialized role to play and the fact that opposing quarterbacks never actually face off against one another means that the only real way to make a football movie compelling is to focus on the coach and make the team side characters. However Rudy manages to escape this because it is simply about a person who so desperately wants to play football but lacks every physical attribute to make him a viable college player. Sean Astin taps into the earnestness that would make him a shoe-in for Samwise Gamgee that you end up inevitably rooting whole-heartedly for the guy, even as you feel all the plot machinations manipulating you along the way.
22. MAIDEN (2018) dir. Alex Holmes
I think part of what we love about watching sports is that there is constantly the hope that we might witness something unexpected, either by overcoming enormous odds or achieving a great feat. Both of these outcomes are what we get with the underseen Maiden which chronicles Tracy Edwards who became the skipper of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread race – an around-the-world grueling sailing competition in which “manliness” was traditionally seen as a given prerequisite to completing the race. To see this group of women first find themselves out of their depth, then thrive, and finally succeed in going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts and conquer the raging tempest that is the ocean is as satisfying a narrative as any other.
(Note: I could only bring myself to include one sailing movie on this list and so that meant I had to omit the quite excellent Deep Water (2006), about the first round-the-world-race and the strange and tragic tale of Donald Crowhurst, one of its racers. Check it out if you can)
21. WARRIOR (2011) dir. Gavin O’Connor
Somehow Gavin O’Connor has evolved into the modern auteur of the sports movie with his trilogy of rock-solid-but-not-spectacular movies in Miracle, Warrior, and The Way Back. However several things set Warrior slightly above his other two movies. First, the very nature of MMA, like boxing, means it is exceptionally easy to forefront the central conflict with the physical nature of the sport making the stakes all the more obvious. More importantly, Warrior produces some A-plus performances in Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as one half of an estranged brotherly duo who become each other’s opponents while Nick Nolte plays their recovering alcoholic father; together they transcend the genre’s cliches and instead turn Warrior into an exercise in catharsis.
20. RED ARMY (2014) dir. Gabe Polsky
As anybody who has watched with envy as their team gets thwarted time and time again by their bitter rivals can attest, it is easy to lose your objectivity when evaluating your opponents. It is easy to say that the other team cheated, that the refs were awful, that they were lucky, that it just wasn’t our day. But at some point you just have to admit that we lost because those guys were simply better. That is precisely the story of the unexpectedly playful Red Army which documents the Soviet Union hockey team that dominated international hockey for decades through the eyes of eventual NHL Hall-of-Famer and Soviet hockey Captain Viacheslav Fetisov. Gavin O’Connor’s Miracle is predictably crowd pleasing because of how unexpected the Americans beating the Russians were; Red Army reminds us that America’s one victory in Lake Placid was unquestionably a fluke.
19. PUMPING IRON (1977) dirs. George Butler and Robert Fiore
This is partly an oddball documentary about the offbeat world of competitive bodybuilding, but it is also an inadvertent origin story as we get to witness the birth of movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger. Proving the notion that any activity given a long enough time will turn into a competitive sport, Pumping Iron turns the exotic subculture of bodybuilding into something strangely accessible because it expertly taps into our competitive spirits by placing us intimately close to two competitors as they get ready to enter the competition, one being Schwarzenegger and the other Lou Ferrigno of pre-Hulk fame. The movie spends a great time showing just how difficult it is to physically and mentally train your body for the competition; inadvertently it also shows the drive that would make Schwarzenegger’s rise to the top of Hollywood seem inevitable.
18. HOOSIERS (1986) dir. David Anspaugh
As with most team sports movies on this list the setup to Hoosiers is as paint-by-numbers as they come: take one losing team, introduce one coach who will slowly mould them into a force to be reckoned with, and then toss a few adversities along the way to their eventual triumph. What makes this tale about a rural high-school basketball team in Indiana different is entirely in the details. There is Gene Hackman as Coach Dale, a coach seemingly too experienced to be merely coaching a high-school in the middle of nowhere who seeks redemption not just for this team but for himself. There is the assistant Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town alcoholic looking for a comeback. There is the gym itself which feels lived and breathed in, and the team which feels like the casting director simply went out into the rural town and picked the kids right off the street. All this creates an alchemy that makes Hoosiers so much more powerful than its rote premise would suggest.
17. THE DAMNED UNITED (2009) dir. Tom Hooper
Wrestling fans have long accepted this maxim to be true: every good face (good guy) needs a great heel (bad guy). While Brian Clough fans and Leeds United will certainly argue till kingdom come over who was the heel and face in Clough’s tumultuous 44-day reign as Leeds manager, the truth was that the contentious relationship between manager and club made for some highly compelling viewing. The Damned United chronicles those explosive 44 days, pitting a Leeds team constantly accused being dirty and a bunch of cheats and Clough, a manager who had previously been the author of many of those accusations. Michael Sheen is perfectly cast to play Clough, bringing his acerbic humor to this entirely unconventional sports movie; it is easily Tom Hooper’s best movie.
16. THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (2007) dir. Seth Gordon
At the end of the day sports are basically games we play for ultimately frivolous reasons but with the highest of existential stakes. In that way video games have exactly the same potential for becoming a sport as any other game and certainly The King of Kong helps bolster that reputation. It is easily the most cutthroat sports movie on this list as Seth Gordon follows Billy Mitchell, the apparent “world’s best gamer”, and his challenger Steve Weibe as they each try to claim the world record for highest Donkey Kong score. Of course, because this is also a perfect allegory for making it in America, this quest is one replete with thrash-talking, back stabbing, accusations of cheating, moving goal-posts, and enough drama and intrigue to fill a trilogy’s worth of movies.
15. FREE SOLO (2018) dirs. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
I think one of the reasons we find sports movies so compelling is that the people who devote themselves to the path of perfection required to get to the top of that sport are slightly insane. And no athlete displays that meticulous insanity more so than free climber Alex Honnold, terrifyingly portrayed in Free Solo, a riveting documentary about his quest to be the first to free solo climb El Capitan. The movie expertly walks the narrow tightrope between keeping us fascinated and horrified by Honnold as he literally puts his life on the line in pursuit of something resembling perfection. And of the hundreds of hours of tense action scenes I have seen, nothing has come close to making me break out in a visceral cold sweat more than the last thirty minutes of this movie.
14. JERRY MAGUIRE (1996) dir. Cameron Crowe
Other than the referee perhaps no other figure in sport is more universally reviled than the sports agent, making it all the more impressive that Jerry Maguire, featuring as cutthroat a sports agent as any, is as irresistibly charming as it is. And yes, the two boisterous and charismatic male performances in this film, whether it is the desperate and self-destructive Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire or the foolhardy and cocksure Cuba Gooding Jr. as his boneheaded star wide receiver Rod Tidwell, are key components to why this movie is so entertaining, but the true MVPs of the movie are Renee Zelwegger who has never been better as the woman who keeps Maguire’s sinking ship afloat (with Jonathan Lipnicki stealing in a fantastic supporting performance). Yes, this is barely a sports movie, but the fact that it is this high lets you know just how good I think it is.
13. PERSONAL BEST (1982) dir. Robert Towne
Bill Murray once made the joke that every Olympic event should include an average person as a reference point. Personal Best in many ways comes to closest to showing the vast gulf between Olympic athletes and the rest of us. It follows two budding pentathletes who invariably find themselves both extremely competitive with each other and falling in love with one another. While the chemistry between Mariel Hemingway and real-life athlete Patrice Donnelly is palpable, it is the rigorous training camps they go through that is the most almost erotically charged element of this movie. Director Robert Towne goes to great lengths to celebrate the kind of meticulous dedication required to become Olympic athletes, and the phenomenal bodies that kind of single-minded focus can produce. In short, it becomes fairly obvious exactly how I, a regular couch potato, would fail in every way if matched up to them.
12. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996) dir. Leon Gast
As much as Will Smith did a commendable job portraying Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s biopic, the truth is there is hardly anybody more entertaining than the man himself and that is precisely what we get in droves with this documentary that builds up to his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” match with George Foreman. As someone who only knew of Ali as a legendary boxer but as ancient history and in the context of his brave fight with Parkinson’s syndrome, it is electrifying to see him in this intimate portrait of the man in his prime. The man simply oozed charisma not just with his words but in the way he fought and the way he moved; seeing this documentary makes it clear why it was inevitable he became the biggest sports personality in the world and such a formidable foe to those who would try to stand in his way whether in or out of the ring.
11. WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP (1992) dir. Ron Shelton
Like just about any great comedy duo Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson is a combination that simply makes no logical sense and yet somehow it works. That their partnership works so well in a movie in which Harrelson is meant to believably portray a basketball player who hustles others in streetball games along with Snipes simply adds to this movie’s magic. But that is because director Ron Shelton cares to humanize his hustling characters and not let this movie simply descend into becoming a mere comedy basketball movie. Also, this movie has Rosie Perez which immediately bumps it up this list significantly.
10. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992) dir. Penny Marshall
I cannot think the word “baseball” without quickly saying “there’s no crying in baseball”, which is another sign of just how ubiquitous this movie is in our collective consciousness and a reminder of how quietly brilliant the A League of Their Own is. With most real-life sport shut down it seems appropriate to rewatch the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League which successfully filled the void of America’s pastime when most professional leagues got shut down for World War II. When a Madonna at the height of her popularity is only the fourth or fifth best thing going on in this movie you know you’re in for a real treat as Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks each offer some of their best comedic work in this somehow underrated comedy masterpiece.
9. CREED (2015) dir. Ryan Coogler
Longtime readers will know that I am frequently guilty of ignoring, bending, or flagrantly defying the rules that I myself have created in order to put a movie on these lists. The rule I break here is the one movie per franchise rule because I just could not exclude Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Creed from this list without immediately feeling like a complete fraud. Not only does it feature Sylvester Stallone’s best performance it makes absolutely clear that Michael B. Jordan, as Adonis Creed, is one of the greatest actors working today and that Coogler, who would go on from here to make Black Panther, is a top-tier director who deserves to make whatever he wants to make. It is truly only a hair’s breadth away from being the best in the series, and that is a claim that keeps getting harder and harder to make every time I revisit it.
p.s. I also broke the three movies per sport rule here because I am a rebel, baby (against, let us remind ourselves, the arbitrary rules I set up for myself).
8. THE WRESTLER (2008) dir. Darren Aronofsky
What happens when our sports heroes leave the spotlight? That is precisely what Darren Aronofsky’s movie The Wrestler examines as it follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging wrestler who finds himself in the impossible situation of being too old and injured to reclaim his glory days in the 80s without serious harm to his health, and yet too addicted to the fame of his glory days to live anything close to a normal life. That this wrestler is portrayed by Mickey Rourke, Hollywood’s forgotten bad boy who used this role to get back into Hollywood’s good graces again, simply adds to the this movie’s tragic verisimilitude as the Ram’s pain seems to come from a very, very real place.
7. ROCKY (1976) dir. Sylvester Stallone
Though this observation constitutes a major spoiler (of a nearly fifty year old movie), what sets Rocky from every one of its direct sequels is that it bravely understands that Rocky Balboa is so much more compelling as someone who finds moral victory in defeat. This is because the Rocky franchise is categorized by Rocky Balboa’s deep earnestness in believing that putting in the hard work, believing in yourself, and accepting your path ultimately helps you get ahead. That message rings false when all Rocky does is rack up wins – it is so much more powerful when the tender and tough hero emphatically discovers this to be true even when staring at the “L” in the win-loss column.
6. OFFSIDE (2006) dir. Jafar Panahi
There is an inherent contradiction in sports in that the competition engenders strict partisan splits as fans cheer opposing forces and yet it is also unifying in that it forges common bonds that transcend most of the things that divide us. That is exactly what Jafar Panahi shows us in this incisive and heartfelt comedy about a group of Iranian women trying to sneak into a football game – a public event that they are strictly forbidden from attending. Shot at an actual Iranian soccer match, Panahi wisely spends little energy explictly denouncing the government’s oppressive policies towards women but instead focuses on pockets of empathy within. And even though we barely get a glance at the game itself, the unbridled joy that this group of women display in supporting their home team in spite of their obvious danger is contagious – and powerful.
5. MONEYBALL (2011) dir. Bennet Miller
I realize that putting Moneyball as the highest ranking baseball movie on this list outs me as someone who probably doesn’t really like baseball. But just as the real life Oakland manager Billy Beane upended baseball by bringing analytics to the game, there is just something so satisfying at seeing Bennet Miller, Brad Pitt, and Aaron Sorkin similarly reject most of Hollywood’s sentimental relationship with baseball and instead give us a movie that unfathomably makes statistics riveting. Of course in a classic case of having it both ways, it originally presents baseball as a math problem but then sneakily gives us a baseball David vs. Goliath movie as familiar as the hundreds that have come before. And in a cruel twist of fate, it also made me kind of at least learn to appreciate baseball. Sneaky move, Pitt.
4. BREAKING AWAY (1979) dir. Peter Yates
The only reason I got good at geography is because I got into sports; following the best of a wide variety of sports necessarily meant that I had to know where their best athletes came from which coincidentally just meant I had to widen my borders. It is this exact spirit that drives Breaking Away, about a working-class high school graduate from Bloomington, IN who adopts everything Italian because he is in love with Italian cycling and because it gives him a chance to transcend his presumed fate as being merely a “cutter” in his small town. It is charming, it is funny, it is thrilling, and is so good that it almost convinces me I should try cycling again.
3. HOOP DREAMS (1994) dir. Steve James
Hoop Dreams is a mass of contradictions as it follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two high-school basketball players in Chicago looking to make it as professional players in the shadow of Michael Jordan and the then dominant Chicago Bulls. On the one hand the documentary serves as a harrowing portrait of race and inequality in America, where these two players’ only real hope of rising up in society lies in the monolithic goal of becoming an NBA player – putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment even when the odds of success are minuscule and the rewards for nearly succeeding being nonexistent. And yet, Hoop Dreams is also in some way a love letter to the sport and a reminder why that impossible pursuit of making it to the NBA is such a seductive path.
2. RAGING BULL (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
Raging Bull is less of a sports movie and more a distillation of a man’s psyche who can seemingly only view life through the binary of winning and losing. Robert DeNiro was arguably never better as Jake LaMotta, a middle-weight boxer so consumed by self-hatred and jealousy and so limited in his introspection and imagination that he literally resorts to violence in the ring as his means of affirming his worldview. Boxing fans are going to be disappointed because Martin Scorsese spends almost no time showing us the tactics of this sport. He instead gives us something better, as he expertly places us right in the heart of madness that is the claustrophobic boxing ring and with it gives us a window into the soul of a truly tortured man.
1. TOKYO OLYMPIAD (1965) dir. Kon Ichikawa
Maddeningly to the Japanese government that commissioned the film in the first place, Kon Ichikawa spends very little of Tokyo Olympiad‘s runtime on the actual winners or on providing a journalistic record of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Instead Ichikawa gives us something altogether better by capturing the atmosphere and spirit of the games. He shows us quiet moments of athletes in “game mode” contemplation, he is much more interested in the rapturous reaction of the audience to a phenomenal moment than the moment itself, and he time and time again simply basks in the poetic nature of bodies in motion. The Olympic Games, despite its controversy, is an event that gets cheaply romanticized ad nauseum; Tokyo Olympiad is the rare documentary that reveals why the event sometimes deserves its transcendent status. The documentary is at once a time capsule, reminding us of a simpler time in sport when things like sponsorships and precise sports analytics had not entered the frame, and timeless, as it reminds us of the irresistible power of sport and why it has most of us hopelessly hooked.