The top 30 sports movies of all time for your viewing
There are a lot of fight films among the greatest sports movies, and still more fights about them — not just concerning which sports movies are truly the greatest and where each ranks, but over what even constitutes a sports movie.
We ranked the top 30 non-documentaries in the hopes of giving fans something to both enjoy and debate in the absence of actual games being played, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of your favorites undoubtedly are missing or ranked lower than you think they should be. That's just how these things work. Let's see what made our cut.
30. "Love & Basketball" (2000)
This is a standard love story in many respects. Boy meets girl as childhood neighbors. They attend high school and college together then go off in separate directions only to rejoin each other's orbit. But the characters played by Omar Epps Jr. and Sanaa Lathan are also first-rate basketball players, and it's the ending — along with supporting players Dennis Haysbert and Alfre Woodard — that elevates what might otherwise have been mere soap opera.
29. "I, Tonya" (2017)
This dark comedy begs you to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, whose 1994 Olympic bid is best remembered for the conspiracy of dunces that injured rival U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Don't fall for it. Kerrigan's the one who deserves sympathy, but fact-based sports movies rarely stick to the facts. Margot Robbie gives a terrific performance as Harding, while Allison Janney steals the movie with her Oscar-winning turn as Harding's chain-smoking mother.
28. "Remember the Titans" (2000)
Denzel Washington is an actor who makes whatever he's in better. Spike Lee's "He Got Game" nearly made this list on the strength of Washington's performance as the just-out-of-prison father of a basketball phenom named Jesus Shuttlesworth. In "Titans," Washington's turn as real-life football coach Herman Boone, who integrates a Virginia high school team in 1971, converts what easily could have been an after-school special into something special.
27. "Rudy" (1993)
There are flaws in this fact-based story of a determined runt who won't take no for an answer in a bid to have his day in the sun at Notre Dame Stadium. Like title character Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin), however, the film's a resilient crowd-pleaser. If the football sequences seem authentic, that's because producers brought in a crew from NFL Films to shoot them. An interesting aside: Director David Aspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo teamed seven years earlier on another Indiana-based sports classic, "Hoosiers." (A surprising number of great sports films are set in that state. Even "Brian's Song" starts there.)
26. "Chariots of Fire" (1981)
It's the Vangelis score that's best remembered, but the timeless themes of perseverance and principles in the face of prejudice are what earned this fact-based sports film a best picture Oscar a year after "Ordinary People" beat "Raging Bull." Ben Cross and Ian Charleson are the rival runners chosen to represent England in the 1924 Paris Olympics, learning that what makes them different isn't as critical as what unites them.
25. "Caddyshack" (1980)
Here's proof that it isn't necessary for a great sports film to be a great film. This slobs vs. snobs tale is so quotable and rewatchable that it would have been sacrilege to omit. It's a series of scenes strung together more than a story. Some of those scenes don't even seem like they're from the same film, and some haven't aged well. But there's no getting around the fact Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase are just flat-out funny. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.
24. "Field of Dreams" (1989)
Phil Alden Robinson built this adaptation from a novel by W.P. Kinsella, and we paid to see it because it's money we have and peace we lacked. For some the appeal may be quixotic Iowa farmer Kevin Costner putting his family's future at risk by carving a baseball diamond from cornfield to make it a purgatorial playground for dead ballplayers and/or the quest to round up James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster. There's also the lyrical ode Jones recites ("People will come, Ray") and the mystical cleansing of the Black Sox's Shoeless Joe Jackson. But a lot of us are simply suckers for a father and son playing catch, especially when dad is long dead and the two never exactly saw eye to eye.
23. "Bend It Like Beckham" (2003)
Sometimes the parent-child conflict involves mother and daughter, as in this cross-cultural story of young soccer players (Parminder K. Nagra and Keira Knightley) who resist being pigeon-holed in the manner some in their families and communities might wish. Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha's film can't claim originality as a strong suit. (The themes were old hat when "The Jazz Singer" was the first talkie.) But there's undeniable energy and freshness to it.
22. "Downhill Racer" (1969)
The late Roger Ebert called this film "a portrait of a man that is so complete, and so tragic, that (it) becomes the best movie ever made about sports — without really being about sports at all." Robert Redford suppresses his usual on-screen charm as an icy-cool world-class skier laser-focused on success at the seeming expense of nearly every other aspect of his life. Also, the skiing sequences in Michael Ritchie's directorial debut are sensational.
21. "Invictus" (2009)
It's the true stories you don't know that are the most interesting. Maybe you know of Nelson Mandela's work with Springbokscaptain Francois Pienaar to integrate the South African rugby union team and help unify the nation after Apartheid is well-known elsewhere, but it is hardly common knowledge in this part of the world. That lends this uplifting Clint Eastwood-directed story starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon greater poignancy. It would be a strong story rendered beautifully in any case, however.
20. "Happy Gilmore" (1996)
It's a little bit stupid, a little bit sly and all heart. Adam Sandler is a winner in this story of a hot-tempered but inherently sweet, failed hockey player whose powerful slapshot somehow translates to driving a golf ball exceptionally well. The scene with lovable game show host Bob Barker is a show-stopper, but Christopher McDonald's arrogant antagonist Shooter McGavin, Carl Weathers' patient mentor and Julie Bowen as the romantic interest arethe glue that holds it all together.
19. "Miracle" (2004)
If all this film had going for it was Kurt Russell's stirring delivery of Team USA coach Herb Brooks' "Great moments are born from great opportunity"speech, this movie might well have made this list. But the story of how the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team came together and not only jelled, but triumphed beyond the world’s expectation is an unbelievably compelling narrative told exceptionally well. You can’t improve on the true story, but there are a lot of ways this could have been screwed up. This film didn’t.
18. “The Natural” (1984)
Bernard Malamud’s novel had a very different ending from director Barry Levinson’s fireworks. That would have made a good movie, too. Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry wrote something more inspiring. (Towne, of course, is famous for his Oscar-winning script for “Chinatown,” while Dusenberry was an ad man credited with coining tags such as General Electric’s “We bring good things to life” and Pepsi’s “The choice of a new generation.” They know how to win people over.) Here, we get Robert Redford, definitely too old for the teenage version of wonder boy Roy Hobbs and pushing the edge of the envelope on the middle-aged iteration, in something resembling Arthurian legend. Hobbs’ first at-bat for the New York Knights in which he literally hits the cover off the ball should let you know realism is not a concern. Randy Newman’s unforgettable score sells Hobbs emerging from the shadows of his haunted past, resisting temptation as best he can. Meanwhile, a supporting cast that includes Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Prosky, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen and Darren McGavin helps seal the deal.
17. “Girlfight” (2000)
Writer-director Karyn Kusama twists a lot of boxing movie cliches — but not all — in this story of a female high school student who finds catharsis in channeling her fury and other issues in the ring. (A particularly fun changeup: Her romantic interest and fellow boxer is named Adrian, a nod to Talia Shire’s role in the “Rocky” films.) Michelle Rodriguez’s Diana Guzman faces resistance in and out of the ring. Her widower father, who may have driven Diana’s mother to suicide, is among those not in her corner. But Adrian, too, is forced to confront what it means to respect a woman who wants no deference.
16. “Moneyball” (2011)
No screenwriter is better at taking complex concepts and making them easy to digest than Aaron Sorkin. Adapting Michael Lewis’ book on the Oakland A’s under Billy Beane, Sorkin and Steven Zaillian demystify analytics so anyone can understand why they’ve become the lifeblood of not just sports but any competitive endeavor seeking greater efficiency and effectiveness. There’s not a bad performance in a cast led by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it’s the ideas that carry this film in which winning over minds is as important as winning games.
15. “The Harder They Fall” (1956)
This boxing film is based on a novel by Budd Schulberg and, like other Schulberg works (including the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” and screenplays for “A Face in the Crowd” and “On the Waterfront”), there’s a fair amount of cynicism laced through it. Humphrey Bogart, in his final film, plays an out-of-work columnist whose desperation leads him to become a tout for a corrupt boxing promoter. He’s stuck talking up a no-talent South American fighter who becomes a heavyweight contender through a string of fixed bouts. But Bogie being Bogie, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to sell out both his convictions and the Argentine palooka who thinks it’s all on the up-and-up. Real-life heavyweight champs Max Baer (father of future “Beverly Hillbillies” star Max Baer Jr.) and Jersey Joe Wolcott lend a patina of realism to a story that would seem to need it by modern standards. When it came out, however, real-life fighter Primo Carnera (who lost a title fight to Baer) sued the filmmakers for appropriating his life story. Despite some similarities, Carnera was unsuccessful. (Fun fact: Chicago’s Tribune Tower gets a cameo.)
14. “The Wrestler” (2008)
The trajectory of star Mickey Rourke’s lends power to director Darren Aronofsky’s film about a professional wrestler, decades removed from his glory days, coming to terms with the consequences of time and bad choices. A bid to reclaim his past imperils whatever shot he has going forward to repair his frayed relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and pursue romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Pro wrestling may be as fake and scripted as most movies, but the people in them can be very real indeed — and never more so than here.
13. “The Karate Kid” (1984)
The TV series “How I Met Your Mother” advanced a theory a few years ago that Daniel (Ralph Macchio), the putative hero of this film, is actually the villain, and the real victim is Johnny (William Zabka), whom he vanquishes in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. The film would be just as engaging, but that scenario doesn’t track with “Rocky” director John G. Avildsen’s sensibility. It also would undercut the quiet heroism of Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, a still-waters-run-deep mentor to young Daniel-san.
12. “Major League” (1989)
Wild thing, you make our hearts sing. A classic underdog story, a great cast and a fun script from “The Sting” screenwriter David S. Ward (who also directed) add up to an unbeatable combo. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, Rene Russo, Dennis Haysbert, Chelcie Ross, Margaret Whitton, gravel voiced James Gammon and the great Bob Uecker are all in peak form. This is one of those films that, when you stumble across it channel surfing, you can’t help but watch for a while.
11. “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)
It’s hard to think of Lou Gehrig without thinking of Gary Cooper, whose screen recitation of No. 4’s Yankee Stadium farewell (“I consider myself the luckiest man …”) in this sentimental favorite is probably why baseball fans know it so well today. It matters little that Cooper, born two years before Gehrig, is far too old to convincingly play him as a Columbia University student and up-and-coming pro ballplayer. Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Bill Dickey and announcer Bill Stern play themselves, but that’s where the concern for verisimilitude largely ends. The screenplay by Joe Swerling and one-time Tribune correspondent Herman J. Mankiewicz (best known for writing “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles) — working from a story by former sportswriter Paul Gallico (who wrote the novel “The Poseidon Adventure”) is the stuff of Hollywood.
10. “Creed” (2015)
Keep reading. We’ll get to this in No. 9 …
9. “Rocky” (1976)
These two films are essentially the same movie — the story of a boxer given a shot at the champ and showing their mettle through their determination to endure. Common threads include Sylvester Stallone and flag-inspired shorts. The original “Rocky,” a Best Picture winner, was a revelation when it launched the movie series and Stallone’s superstardom in 1976, but in many respects the remake/reboot 39 years later is more impressive in that it manages to make the whole thing fresh.
8. “Slap Shot” (1977)
From screenwriter Nancy Dowd comes what some consider the ultimate guy movie. Inspired by her brother’s experiences as a minor-league hockey player, it’s the gloriously profane story of the Charlestown Chiefs, a failing minor league hockey team in a failing mill town. (That’s Ned Dowd as Syracuse rookie goon Ogie Ogilthorpe in the Chiefs’ final playoff game.) Paul Newman’s charisma fuels the believability of player-coach Reggie Dunlop, a shrewd manipulator who, faced with the prospect of his team folding, does whatever he can to save it. The most amusing of his tactics is to weaponize the unforgettably odd Hanson brothers, who remain vivid even if the rest of the film fades from memory.
7. “Hoosiers” (1986)
This could have been a Western. A man with a murky past is eyed with suspicion and outright resentment by his new community as he shows the locals the errors of their ways, leading them to lead them to triumph against common enemies, earning redemption, respect and love. The cast — with Gene Hackman as the outsider, Dennis Hopper the town drunk and Barbara Hershey the librarian who warms to Hackman — would have worked either way. But here it’s Hackman’s note-perfect performance as basketball coach Norman Dale in this story loosely based on a team from tiny Milan, Ind., sweeps you up into the film’s 1950s mindset and methodically wins you over.
6. “Bull Durham” (1988)
Yes, there are two men and a woman at the center of this smart, warm and funny film about minor league baseball, love and life, but theirs is no mere romantic triangle. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), young pitching sensation Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and ardent fan Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) have another shared love — baseball — appropriately making this more of a romantic diamond, if you will. Writer-director Ron Shelton (who also gave us “Tin Cup,” “Cobb,” “Blue Chips,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and the underrated “The Best of Times”) gets the details right in so many ways. Crash and Annie may speechify a bit too readily, but the authenticity of peripheral characters make up for that. Oh, and candlesticks do always make for a nice gift.
5. “The Hustler” (1961)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie give stellar performances in this dark drama about the kind of trouble (with a capital “T”) that you can get into in at a pool hall. Newman’s self-centered Fast Eddie Felson (a role he would reprise 25 years later opposite Tom Cruise in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”) is all talent and ambition. He’s too blind and naïve to see the game that’s really being played and what he’s losing along the way. By the way, the real Jake LaMotta of “Raging Bull” fame plays a bartender.
4. “A League of Their Own” (1992)
“I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.” If all you remember is Tom Hanks saying, “There’s no crying in baseball” and Geena Davis catching the ball one-handed or doing the splits, you need to rewatch Penny Marshall’s classic about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. How good is this film? Madonna plays off her outsized rep and still disappears into her role. The cast, top to bottom, is terrific from Hanks, Davis and Lori Petty all the way down to smaller, memorable turns by Jon Lovitz, Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Garry Marshall, David Strathairn, Bill Pullman and David L. Lander. In the end, there are some unknowable (or at least debatable) points: Do we think the ball was dropped on purpose, and what exactly happened to the Hinson sisters’ relationship after their playing days ended?
3. “Breaking Away” (1979)
Victories large and small require sacrifice, determination, hard work and no small amount of faith. That’s the underpinning of this tale of four young men — played by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley — coming to terms with their place in the world and what can and can’t limit them going forward. It’s sweet and sage and often quite amusing. No one deadpans like Stern. Paul Dooley, always a great choice to play a movie or TV dad, ensures you’ll never hear the word “refund” the same way again.
2. “Brian’s Song” (1971)
Just a few bars of Michel Legrand’s “The Hands of Time” is enough to make grown men weep and talk about how Ernest Hemingway said all true stories end in death, and this bromance tearjerker about a pair of Bears running backs might be their favorite true story. Burt Reynolds was the network’s choice to play ill-fated Brian Piccolo, and he wanted the role that ultimately went to James Caan (before his turn in “The Godfather”). Billy Dee Williams got the part of Piccolo’s fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers only because Louis Gossett Jr. tore his Achilles tendon while he trained. Clearly this TV movie was touched by magic. Jack Warden is outstanding as George Halas, even more convincing than Abe Gibron as Abe Gibron. But the real miracle may be William Blinn’s script, which packs so much into just 73 minutes. Years later, the language can seem a bit jarring, like watching an uncensored ‘“All in the Family” rerun. But it’s worth remembering a 2001 remake that softened that and other hard edges fell utterly flat.
1. “Raging Bull” (1980)
“So give me a stage / Where this bull here can rage / And though I could fight / I’d much rather recite / That’s entertainment.” Robert De Niro won the only best actor Oscar of his career with his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s tour de force. (De Niro won a best supporting actor Oscar for Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.”) This film that first paired De Niro with Joe Pesci is about boxing the way “2001” is about space travel. Unlike most of the entries on this list, it is not much fun to watch. But it’s as visceral as it is cerebral and emotional, and by the end you sense you know what it feels like to stagger away after losing a championship fight. As a meditation on toxic machismo, violence, insecurity, self-sabotage and pain, it’s unmatched, a true work of art.
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