It turns out that when it comes to the best sports movies, it's not always the sport that is at the forefront of the drama. And that's why we love this genre so much.
Sometimes combining two glorious things doesn’t always pay dividends – like chips and mayonnaise for example. And don’t even think of arguing otherwise.
But, sometimes mixing things can lead to a brief glimpse of nirvana. Take films for instance – they are aces. This is indisputable. Sport is also the best… Can you see where we’re going with this yet?
UPDATE: They haven't made the list but 2022 is a vintage year already for sports movies. Both King Richard, about the rise of tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, and the fictional The Hustle, starring Adam Sandler as a basketball scout, are a fantastic watch.
That’s right, we are here to salute those films that portray sporting endeavour. From boxing to baseball, via football and long distance running, we have uncovered the 20 best sports movies ever made.
Back page glory awaits…
The best sports movies
1. Rocky (1976)View now on Amazon
Okay, the franchise might have been slightly sullied by endless resurrections, but the original film is a masterclass in sporting drama. A gritty, no-nonsense, but ultimately affectionate tale featuring Sylvester Stallone as the titular Philadelphia pugilist, it catapulted Stallone (who also wrote the story) to stardom. Made for $1.1m, it took $225m. Rags to riches indeed.
2. Raging Bull (1980)View now on Amazon
Boxing and Hollywood has proven to be a heady mix down the years. From Somebody Up There Likes Me to Million Dollar Baby, the guts and glory of boxing is made for the big screen. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is unquestionably the best of a proud genre. Robert De Niro excels as Jake LaMotta, lending the film’s mixture of the balletic and the bruising an extra depth of pathos.
3. The Fighter (2010)View now on Amazon
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale star as half-brothers and boxing champs Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund in David O. Russell’s Oscar-winning film. Based on the pair’s real-life antics and tormented relationship, both Wahlberg and Bale mesmerise as the aspiring Micky and the effervescent, drug-addled has-been Dicky respectively. In doing so, Russell presents two sides of the same boxing coin with his majestic film.
4. Moneyball (2011)View now on Amazon
Sport might be played instinctively, but that’s not to say the actions of sportsmen aren’t hostage to the analytic tendencies of number crunchers and the like. In this cinematic adaptation of Michael Lewis’s acclaimed book, Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who takes a novel approach to scouting players for his ailing team. Action-packed on and off the field.
5. Ford v Ferrari (2019)View now on Amazon
Another racing film worthy of the list, Ford v Ferrari (otherwise known as Le Mans ‘66) documents one of the most competitive battles in sporting history. A film that will no doubt leave you rooting for the underdog, the plot depicts the automotive legend that is Carroll Shelby and his relationship with British driver, Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale). The pair, led by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, set out to build the now legendary Ford GT40, with the seemingly insurmountable challenge leading this story to become a modern-day classic.
6. Field Of Dreams (1989)View now on Amazon
If you pick it, they will come. Or something like that. Back in his salad days Kevin Costner was actually a cracking actor, and this wonderful slice of nostalgic drama concerning baseball and the loss of childhood innocence is one of his best films. Compelled to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield, Costner’s character reconnects with his dad, while discovering the magic of sport and life.
7. The Wrestler (2008)View now on Amazon
F Scott Fitzgerald remarked that there were no second acts in American life. Sport and Mickey Rourke both refute this oft-quoted aphorism. In The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s enthralling story of sporting salvation, Rourke plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, an ageing wrestler trying to relive his Eighties heyday. Both deeply moving and displaying a deft comic touch, The Wrestler is one of the best sports films of recent years.
8. The Hustler (1961)View now on Amazon
Paul Newman stars as Fast Eddie Fulson, a charismatic pool hustler who aims to prove himself the best in a shady business. An iconic movie that served Newman’s manifold charms well, and the inspiration behind Martin Scorsese’s sequel, The Color of Money.
9. Caddyshack (1981)View now on Amazon
The more observant of you will know we have a bit of a Bill Murray man crush here at ShortList. Caddyshack is one of the reasons for our devotion. Murray stars alongside Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield in this comedic tour-de-force that neatly rebuts Mark Twain’s observation that golf was a good walk spoiled. It’s not, but it does make for hole-in-one comic material.
10. The Damned United (2009)View now on Amazon
As a rule football at the flicks is a dispiriting experience. The Damned United, the film based on David Peace’s gripping book that imagined Brian Clough’s brief managerial reign at Leeds United, is a glorious exception. Michael Sheen illuminates the screen as the larger-than-life Clough, while the Machiavellian intrigue that pollutes every football club’s boardroom is fantastically brought to life. A dour classic.
11. Senna (2011)View now on Amazon
Ayrton Senna was undoubtedly the greatest Formula One driver of all time, and this spellbinding documentary pays testament to the Brazilian’s tempestuous genius. And although the tragic ending is already written, the film is no less captivating for that – indeed one need not be an F1 fan to appreciate it. A fitting homage to a honourable and glamorous man.
12. Tin Cup (1996)View now on Amazon
This is one of the most underrated sports movies of all time. Kevin Costner stars as a former golf prodigy who gives lessons to Rene Russo's psychologist and things get a little heated. Yes, it's predictable but Costner and Russo are superb as the leads and the golf isn't too bad, either.
13. Chariots Of Fire (1981)View now on Amazon
Films don’t come more rousing than Chariots of Fire. Telling the events leading up to and including the 1924 Olympics – and featuring that Vangelis score – it really is stirring stuff. The lead actors Ben Cross (who plays Harold Abraham) and Ian Charleson (who portrays devout Christian Eric Liddell) would never reach such heights again, but this story is the stuff dreams are made of. That it’s mostly true is even more moving.
14. Friday Night Lights (2004)View now on Amazon
Another film that artfully captures how the ennui of high school life is momentarily punctured by fleeting moments of sporting glory. This time the subject is American Football rather than the basketball of Hoosiers. Billy Bob Thornton is the coach trying to propel the Permian High School Panthers to a shot at the state championship.
15. I, Tonya (2017)View now on Amazon
It’s not often sporting prowess and comedy seamlessly overlap, but I, Tonya - directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers - certainly fits that brief. Depicting the dramatic twists and turns involved in the life of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, the mocumentary style film is loosely based on real-life events. Depicting Tonya’s connection to the 1994 attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, the film picked up a slew of big award nominations and led Margot Robbie to receive critical acclaim for her depiction of Harding.
16. Seabiscuit (2003)View now on Amazon
It’s hard to believe that a racehorse could lift a nation off its knees, but that’s what Seabiscuit did in America during The Great Depression. It’s an uplifting tale retold in the 2003 cinematic adaptation featuring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper. Seabiscuit is initially dismissed by racing experts as too small and fiery, but the triumvirate of Maguire, Bridges and Cooper (jockey, owner and trainer) bring success to the horse and hope to a nation.
17. The Bad News Bears (1976)View now on Amazon
The 1976 original starring Walter Matthau is a comic masterpiece. And the 2005 remake (featuring Billy Bob Thornton) is worth two hours of your time too. Matthau plays a washed-up former minor league baseball player who is drafted in to coach a bunch of no-hopers. Along the way to the edge of glory, both coach and kids learn a few things about sport and life.
18. Warrior (2011)
An incredible film, Warrior charts the differing fortunes of two estranged brothers - both budding MMA fighters who have to fight each other for the chance to win big. Both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton (relative unknowns when the move was made) are superb in their brutal roles
19. Hoop Dreams (1994)View now on Amazon
Hoop Dreams is without doubt the best sports documentary ever made. It might even be the best documentary ever. Filmed over eight years, it follows the hopes and dreams of two aspiring basketball players in inner city Chicago. Touching upon notions of race, class, education and the power of sport to transcend these issues, Hoop Dreams is both a touching and unflinching expose of Nineties America.
20. This Sporting Life (1963)View now on Amazon
Kitchen sink dramas don’t get any dirtier than Lindsay Anderson’s powerful film about wayward rugby league player Frank Machin (played to brutal perfection by Richard Harris). A violent misfit in real life, Machin’s machismo finds legitimate expression in the gladiatorial arena of rugby league. If only his life outside rugby could make some sense.
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