Best Sports Movies

Ten Best Sports Movies

1. Raging Bull (1980):  This is Director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, tracing the career (and post-career) of boxer Jake LaMotta. The cinematography and editing of the boxing scenes is sublime, capturing both the sport and the era.  Robert DeNiro trained to make the boxing look as authentic as possible, and it shows.


2.  Hoop Dreams (1994):  Documentarian Steve James followed two inner city boys with bright futures in basketball for FIVE YEARS.  As their story unfolds, they are recruited by a suburban high school and must adapt to the pressures of both basketball competition and a new environment that is radically different in culture, demographics and academic expectations.  Will they survive? Flourish? Make the NBA?  This is one of the great American documentaries and was chosen as the best film of its year by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.


3.  Bull Durham (1988):  This comedy is the ultimate baseball film, depicting the minor leagues and players on the way up and on the way down.  The very smart screenplay celebrates all of the little customs, superstitions, traditions, idioms, etc., that make up the culture of baseball.   Plus there is the all-time funniest conference on the mound.

4.  Eight Men Out (1988):  Director John Sayles tells the true story of the Black Sox Scandal – the Chicago White Sox players who fixed the 1919 World Series.  Sayles used actors, not baseball players, but the baseball scenes are totally authentic.  The characters of star players Eddie Cicotte, Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson and owner Cahrles Comiskey vividly come alive.


5.  Million Dollar Baby (2004): Clint Eastwood’s masterwork won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. It is impeccably acted by Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, who also both won Oscars.  It’s already a great movie about training a boxer when suddenly the plot takes the themes of the movie to a much, much deeper place.


6.  Rocky (1976) Rocky also won the Best Picture Oscar, and it’s easy to forget how good it is after years of lousy Stallone movies.  The training scenes are brilliant, the music works to enhance the film, and Phillie itself becomes a character in the movie.  The first sequel, Rocky 2 (1979), was also very good.


7.  Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962): Anthony Quinn is Mountain Rivera, a fighter whose career is ended by a ring injury by Cassius Clay (played by the real Muhammed Ali).  His manager, Jackie Gleason, continues to exploit him in this heartbreaking drama.  There’s no boxing in this clip, but it illustrates the quality of the writing and the acting.


8. Step Into Liquid (2003):  This is the best of several fine surfing documentaries.  We see the world’s best pro surfers in the most extreme locations.  We also see devoted amateurs in the tiny ripples of Lake Michigan and surfing evangelists teaching Irish school children.  The cinematography is remarkable – critic Elvis Mitchell called the film “insanely gorgeous”.


9. Downhill Racer (1969):  Robert Redford plays a raw but talented downhill skier.  He has his demons, but only lets others see that he is a jerk who does not play well with others.  Will he be able to engage with his frustrated coach (Gene Hackman)?  The downhill racing scenes are riveting, perhaps because the soundtrack spurns dramatic music for the crunch of snow.


10. The Wrestler (2008):  This movie about the world of independent pro wrestlers takes us right into the locker room – full of real-life wrestlers with their promoters and drug suppliers.  Mickey Rourke is brilliant as the former star being betrayed by his aging body.


Best Movies By Sport

Badminton:  Poetry (2011) – This fine Korean drama features two poignant badminton games between a Korean grandmother and her troubled grandson.


Baseball:   Bull Durham (1988) – Along with boxing, baseball enjoys the best treatment by the movies. Bull Durham tops a very deep list of excellent baseball films; See 10 Best Baseball Movies, featuring Eight Men Out, A League of Their Own, The Natural and more.


Basketball: Hoop Dreams (1994),  Hoosiers (1986) and  Inside Moves (1980) –  Hoop Dreams tells the multi-year story of two school boys with bright futures in basketball; it is one of the great American documentaries and was chosen as the best film of its year by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.  Hoosiers, a tale of high school basketball explores the heart of coaching (and alcoholic parents, too).  Inside Moves is about a bartender who must overcome a disabling injury and the heartache caused by a junkie girlfriend to get his shot at the NBA; this is probably the only movie ever that will feature the Golden State Warriors.  The recent Lebron James documentary More Than a Game (2009) is good, too.


Birdwatching:  Many movies have birdwatchers, but only The Big Year (2011 with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black) has a competitive birdwatching theme.


Bocce: With all the great Italian-American gangster sagas, why isn’t there a bocce scene?


Bodybuilding:  Pumping Iron (1977) – Arnold Schwartzenegger (before getting his teeth fixed) displays the charisma of a movie star in this winning documentary about competitive bodybuilders.


Bowling:  The Big Lebowski (1996) – John Tuturro is hilarious as Jesus the master bowler in a sport that The Dude can appreciate along with his White Russian.


Boxing:  Raging Bull (1980) – Raging Bull is our greatest sports film, so it also tops a very deep list of great boxing films;  See 10 Best Boxing Movies.  Two other boxing movies have won the Best Picture Oscar (Million Dollar Baby and Rocky).


Boxing (Kangaroo):  Hell Below (1933) – This is the first really good submarine movie, but there is plenty of comic relief, especially Jimmy Durante putting on the gloves and taking on the local kangaroo champ.


Bullfighting:  Talk To Her (2002) – Pedro Almodovar is not the most traditional Spaniard, but his treatment of bullfighting is the best on film.  Of course, his bullfighter is female – Pedro just can’t help himself.  (I do NOT list the dreadfully cast 1957 The Sun Also Rises.)

Almodovar's Talk to Her


Cheerleading:  The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1996) – We’ve all seen the over-amped youth sports parent – and Holly Hunter takes it to a new level.


Cricket: Lagaan (2001) – It took the Bollywood excess of this romance/historical drama/musical to bring a multi-day cricket match to life for me.  (A cricket movie that I haven’t seen is Fire in Babylon, the 2011 documentary about the West Indies teams of the 50s and 70s.


Cycling: Breaking Away (1979) – This story follows a familiar arc (even for a sports movie), but it was one of the year’s best and remains the definitive cycling film.  Check out this trailer – it’s just too smart for the Hollywood studios to release today.


Equestrian:  Giant (1956) – We could have gone with National Velvet or The Black Stallion, but Giant is just a better movie.  Most people think of Giant as a Texas movie, but remember that Rock Hudson must first woo Elizabeth Taylor in the Virginia fox hunting country before bringing her back to the ranch.  Valley Keene was Elizabeth Taylor’s riding double.


Fencing: The Three Musketeers (1973) – I love Richard Lester’s Musketeer series for its humor and exuberance.  There’s plenty of swash buckling (and medieval tennis, too).


Figure skating:  Blades of Glory (2007) – A dead-on parody of a sport that often takes itself too seriously.  Extra credit for cameos by Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Nancy Kerrigan.


Fishing: Jaws (1975) – Gotta go with the film where “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.


Harold Lloyd in The Freshman

Football: North Dallas Forty (1979) and Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2009) – North Dallas Forty is based on the novel by Dallas Cowboy WR Pete Gent.  The Gent character is played by Nick Nolte.  Mac Davis plays a very Don Meredithesque QB, and G.D. Spradlin Tom Landry-like coach. NFL stars John Matuszak, Doug France, Harold Jackson and Louie Kelcher appear.  In Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, the players and spectators retell the story of a great game in 1968 that still affects the participants.

Given its place in our culture, one would expect a richer group of football movies – like boxing and baseball.  I mean, pro wrestling, roller derby and rugby are represented by better lists of films.

Remember the Titans (2000) is pretty good, and Everybody’s All-American (1996) is underrated.

There are, of course, comic football scenes in The Longest Yard (1974), M*A*S*H (1970) and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925).  In Trouble Along the Way (1953), John Wayne plays a gleefully corrupt football coach who buys players in an attempt to build up the football program overnight at a small Catholic school.  Wayne even utters the famous coachspeak, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”


Football (Touch):  Turkey Bowl (2011):  This delightful indie comedy is set in a group of friends’ annual touch football game.   Take a bunch of friends that haven’t seen each other for a while and put them in a competitive situation, and you’ve got a promising premise. Newcomer writer-director Kyle Smith pulls off a tight, well-paced 62 minutes of smart laughs.  Smith said that the football game was tightly structured in the screenplay, but much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast.

Smith is a native of Columbia, Missouri, and college football fans will note a very funny reference to an infamous Colorado-Missouri game.


Frisbee: Solitary Man (2010) – Returning alum Michael Douglas returns to college, is clipped by a tossed frisbee and starts a fight with an undergrad.  And Frisbee is supposed to be the Sport of Pacifists…


Golf:  Caddyshack (1980) – Golf is one of our more pretentious sports, so it is represented by the most irreverent sports movie.


Handball:  American Me (1992) –  Much of this East LA gang film takes place in California prisons, and it realistically depicts handball being played in the prison yard.


Hockey: Slap Shot (1977) –  It’s hard to imagine any future hockey movie topping this one with Paul Newman’s burnt out player-coach, Michael Ontkean’s disaffected collegiate goal scorer and the gloriously thuggish Hanson Brothers.


Horseracing: The Black Stallion (1979) and Seabiscuit (2003) – Black Stallion is timeless.  Seabiscuit brings alive the period.


Hunting:  The Deer Hunter (1978) – This is a great war movie, a great Vietnam movie and a great movie, period.  But the deer hunting sequence is realistic and mystical at the same time.  For sheer stylized slaughter, it’s hard to top the bird hunting scene in The Rules of the Game (1939).


Jousting:  A Knight’s Tale (2001) – After watching this movie, it’s easy to understand how King Francois II of France was killed in a jousting accident in 1559.


Motor racing: Grand Prix (1966) – Master director John Frankenheimer comes through again.

The 1932 James Cagney vehicle The Crowd Roars is hackneyed, but provides a snapshot of Indy racing  in the 1930s.  The racing close-ups are rear projection, but the long shots are actual car races.  Lots of leather helmets,  driving through dust clouds on dirt tracks, flaming wrecks and very sketchy tires.  When Cagney puts his pedal to the metal, you can see that he’s wearing wing-tips.


Polo: The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – In this tale of the 19th century colonial era, former British soldiers become adventurers seeking power and fortune.  They end up watching an Afghan version of polo – with the head of a tribal foe employed as the ball.


Racquetball and squash:  Manhattan (1980) – Woody Allen and Michael Murphy kvetch on and off the court.


Rodeo: 8 seconds (1994), The Lusty Men (1952), and Junior Bonner (1972) –  8 Seconds benefits from modern production values.  Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy had outstanding stunt doubles in The Lusty Men, which allowed Anthony Ray to make a rodeo film unusually realistic for Hollywood in the 50s.  Junior Bonner is a solid Steve McQueen vehicle.


Rowing: The Way We Were (1973) –  Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand meet at a college where the rowing team is a big deal.  The best rowing scenes in the movies, however, do not involve Ivy League crew – those are the slave galley scenes in Ben Hur.

not the Dartmouth crew


Rugby: Invictus (2009) and This Sporting Life (1963) – Of course, Clint Eastwood expertly stages the rugby in Invictus.  Richard Harris star-making role was as the thuggish loose forward in This Sporting Life.  Stranded: I’ve Come from Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (2007) is a survival masterpiece about a rugby team.


Roller Derby: Kansas City Bomber (1972) and Whip It (2009) – For a spectacle that doesn’t garner much respect, Roller Derby is luck to be represented by a couple of pretty good films.  Raquel Welch and Kevin McCarthy are excellent in Kansas City Bomber. Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s fun girl power movie with fine performances from Ellen Page and Kristen Wiig.


Shuffleboard: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) – At the beginning of the film, Kirk Douglas takes a midnight stroll around the sanatorium and sends the biscuit in a desultory visit to the shuffleboard court.


Skateboarding: Dogtown and Z-boys (2001) – This is the documentary, not the 2005 Lords of Dogtown from the same source material.  Written by one the pioneers of modern skateboading, this film documents the ground zero of the sport and its subculture.


Skyjumping:  The Gypsy Moths (1969) – Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman are barnstorming sky divers; John Frankenheimer delivers a thrilling finale.


Skiing:  Downhill Racer (1969) – Robert Redford plays an Olympic hopeful with talent, a really bad attitude and a frustrated coach (Gene Hackman).


Sledding:  Citizen Kane (1941) – Rosebud.


Soccer: The Damned United (2009) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) – The Damned United tells the true story of a gifted but self-destructive coach in the English Premier League.  Bend It Like Beckham is the fictional tale of a young woman’s need to escape the traditional expectations of her immigrant family and express herself in soccer.


Surfing: Step Into Liquid (2003) –  Surfing has a history of fine documentaries (and crappy beach movies), but Step into Liquid is the best.   Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants (2004) is pretty good, too.


Swimming:  The Swimmer (1968) – In this quirky film, Speedo-clad Burt Lancaster wanders through the backyards of suburbia, trying out each swimming pool.


Tennis:  Strangers on a Train (1951) – Every movie sports contest has drama, but the tennis match in this Hitchcock classic is the most suspenseful.  Annie Hall deserves a mention for Alvy and Annie playing doubles.


Track and Field:  Personal Best (1982) and Chariots of Fire (1981) – In Personal Best, two athletes compete for a spot on the Olympic team while having a romance, but the nonsexual relationship between athlete and coach is even more interesting.  In Chariots of Fire, two athletes also vie for the Olympic team, but the real drama is about class and religious bigotry in early 20th century England.  The film is enhanced by a stirring score and beautiful cinematography.  The Jericho Mile (1979) is also good: the story of a convict training for the mile race that he will not be released to run.


Volleyball:  Meet the Parents (2000) – In a family game of swimming pool volleyball, Ben Stiller, anxious to impress his future in-laws, delivers a vicious spike that breaks the nose of his girlfriend’s sister – on the day before her wedding.


Wheelchair Rugby: Murderball (2005) – The definitive – and very entertaining – documentary on paraplegics competing internationally in full-contact wheelchair rugby.


Wrestling: The Wrestler (2008) and Night in the City (1950)  – Mickey Rourke is brilliant in The Wrestler, seamlessly fitting in with a locker room full of real-life wrestlers with their promoters and drug suppliers.  Richard Widmark is equally good in Night in the City as a  loser who tries to corner the pro wrestling business in post-war London – and, as in any noir classic, it doesn’t end well for the sap.  The cast includes real life wrestlers Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki.