Sports! One of the great unifying activities you’ll find anywhere in the world. Whether we’re talking about American football or chess between two grandmasters, few things bring people closer together than watching a game of some kind being played.
There may be nothing like the adrenaline rush and sense of camaraderie you feel witnessing a sporting event unfold in front of your eyes, but watching a movie about sports comes pretty darn close. Encapsulating the constant pressure these athletes feel as they perform in front of thousands of people, these movies also underline their efforts to become the very best their sport offers, be it football, wrestling, or any other sport you can think of.
From inspirational stories about boxing to documentaries highlighting real-life basketball stars, here are some of the greatest sports movies ever put to the screen.
If it’s difficult to think of a sports movie more iconic than Rocky, that’s because there isn’t. The film that perfectly encapsulates the underdog story – focusing on Sylvester Stallone’s down-on-his-luck boxer seizing the opportunity of a lifetime – every other movie on this list likely owes it a debt of gratitude. It not only helped Stallone become a breakout star, securing the Oscar for Best Picture along the way, it helped bring a new degree of realism and sentimentality to the sports drama.
One of the greatest documentaries of the modern era, Hoop Dreams tracks two high school basketball players over a period of five years. Navigating the competitive world of high school sports – where a well-earned college scholarship can make or break a future – Hoop Dreams also hammers home the idea of how important sports can be for young athletes escaping tough personal situations.
Most people tend to classify wrestling more as entertainment than strictly as a sport. However you choose to view it, though, wrestling can be an incredibly challenging activity, with so many wrestlers succumbing to depression, substance abuse, and physical deterioration. All of this and more is explored in 2008’s The Wrestler, a sobering reminder that, while wrestling itself may not be real, the harm and emotional distress wrestlers put themselves through for the sake of our entertainment is very, very real.
After several disappointing sequels, it seemed that the Rocky franchise had reached the end of the road with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Nine years later, though, the series saw a sudden jolt back to life with 2015’s Creed. A remarkable spin-off in every sense, it revitalized Rocky’s name, channeling the same degree of emotion and realism that made the first two Rocky films so well-loved in the first place.
Rocky and Creed are both inherently inspirational stories, following two boxers as they ascend the ranks of their sport, overcoming adversity to become the best athletes in the industry. In this sense, Raging Bull can be seen almost as the polar opposite of Rocky or Creed. Focusing on Jake LaMotta’s rise and fall, it explores the grim reality that so many athletes face at the end of their career. Having sacrificed everything for success in the ring – including his health, his family, and his very happiness – LaMotta’s left a shell of his former self, with no one left in his corner save his own personal demons.
If you leave Rudy without tears streaming down your face, you might want to make a doctor’s appointment of some kind. Exploring the story of aspiring football player Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, Rudy dramatizes the aspirations and frustrations most of us feel at some point in our lives. Wanting more than anything to play college football but lacking the physical skills, grades, and finances to make it happen, Rudy’s star is emblematic of each viewer’s hope to one day obtain their dream career.
The Bad News Bears
It’s hard to make a notably slow sport like baseball interesting, but the best baseball films are the ones that manage to mix laughs with its sporting motifs. Such is the genius of The Bad News Bears, a riotously funny sports comedy featuring the comedic antics of Walter Matthau. Chugging beer, discreetly napping, and methodically scheming, Matthau’s Morris Buttermaker uses wiles and tricks to help his abysmally poor Little League team get ahead, never failing to make us laugh along the way.
One of the most famous sports comedies there is, Caddyshack’s incredible cast is probably the main reason it remains the undisputed classic it is. Featuring peak talent like Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Murray (in his breakthrough role as the eccentric groundskeeper Carl), it’s jam-packed with standout moments that continue to crack audiences up from generation to generation.
Friday Night Lights
Like the TV series of the same name, the original adaptation of Friday Night Lights is an excellent sports movie for only one reason: its ability to focus just as much on football as on high school life in general. Alternating between youthful angst and its football games, it underscores the release many people feel witnessing or partaking in football; whether you’re watching from the stands or on the field, suddenly all of your problems slink away the moment the ball is kicked into the air.
Hockey has a reputation for being among the more violent sports on television. Fittingly dealing with how rough the sport can be is 1977’s cult classic, Slap Shot. Touching upon the inherent violence tied to hockey, Slap Shot is filled with humor, but at the same time forces you to ask fundamental questions about why we watch sports in general: is it for the love of the game, or because we’re secretly hoping for a fight to break out at any moment?
“I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. And the only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball.” So says Susan Sarandon’s baseball-obsessed philosopher, Annie Savoy, in 1993’s Bull Durham. A rousing sports romantic comedy, baseball’s effect on players and fans is the primary focus of the film. More than a simple means of escape, it shows the power and sense of belonging one feels watching the sport or playing it, brilliantly built around a complicated love triangle between Sarandon, Kevin Costner, and Tim Robbins’ characters.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Dodgeball hardly ranks as popular a sport as football or baseball in America, but therein lies the hilarity of 2004’s fan-favorite Dodgeball. A first-rate comedy, the film acts as a satirical take on the stereotypical sports movie, following a middling dodgeball team’s efforts to become the champions of the sport and save their gym. With Vince Vaughn as the picture-perfect comedic straight man and Ben Stiller given free reign as the health guru villain, there’s no shortage of endless lines you’ll be quoting for weeks afterward (“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball,” “Nobody makes me bleed my own blood,” etc.).
A League of Their Own
The basis for the similarly popular Prime Video series, 1992’s A League of Their Own is a rare film that’s able to switch gears between infectious comedy and genuinely touching emotional moments. Its basis in historical reality – with most of the women on the team married to men fighting overseas in World War II – provides the movie with plenty of poignant scenes. Far from lapsing into full-on drama, though, the movie also has plenty of light-hearted elements as well, none more so than Tom Hanks’ cynical, alcoholic pro ball player-turned-reluctant manager, Jimmy Dugan.
There’s a subtle art/science to sports analytics that not even the most astute sports experts can fully master. Shining a light on this mysterious art form is Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin’s incredible study of Oakland Athletics’ manager Billy Beane and his quest to build the perfect team. Facing nonstop uncertainty from fellow Athletics personnel, Beane used the then-unconventional sabermetric approach to creating an all-star roster line-up.
White Men Can’t Jump
It says a lot about a movie when the legendary Stanley Kubrick ranks it as one of his favorite films. That's certainly high praise from the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and White Men Can’t Jump is every bit deserving of it. Once again inhabiting the idea that great athletes can come from anywhere, White Men Can’t Jump is perhaps most worth watching for its indelible humor, and for the excellent pairing between Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes.