Sports movies come in many different varieties. Some of them might not be great movies from a critical perspective, but that misses the point entirely. There are sports movies that make you want to stand up and cheer in the theaters or run through a brick wall, there are the ones that let you get lost in the life of a legend, and there are the films that make you laugh at the absurdity of it all. Sports movies are a beautiful thing all their own, to be judged on their own merits within that genre, and with that said, we take our best shot to do just that with this, the 50 best sports movies ever made.
Every sports movie needs a good villain, and so why not just go all the way and have the villains be Nazis? It’s not exactly subtle, but who cares? Sylvester Stallone vs. Nazis might sound like a discarded plot to Rocky XXVII, but you can’t deny the visceral thrill in seeing him and his boys rise up and kick a little Hitler ass soccer style.
49 ‘The Mighty Ducks’
Yes, it’s corny and completely unrealistic, but if you didn’t love this movie as a kid you’re either tragically old or you have no soul. Same thing, really.
48 ‘Rocky IV’
This is perhaps the most ridiculous of all the Rocky movies, which is a pretty remarkable statement to make. And yet, it’s true. But what’s also true is that you can’t deny that this thoroughly ridiculous movie is also maybe the most fun of the series, with full-on monster commie bad guys, the best training montage ever, and a finale that is somehow simultaneously chill-worthy and corny as hell. It’s a terrible movie, but an awesome sports movie.
47 ‘Happy Gilmore’
Again, a completely idiotic movie, but if you can’t laugh at Bob Barker beating the shit out of Adam Sandler, or marvel at Christopher McDonald’s evil golfer, then you likely missed out on soul day up in Heaven. This is one of those movies that you can quote to your friends and it never quite gets old.
Let’s face it, the idea of uber-fan/baseball sentimentalist Billy Crystal making a movie about his beloved Yankees is kind of nauseating. And yet, the movie works, largely because it’s not a love poem to the Yankees or baseball, but an honest and genuinely compelling look at two flawed superstars as they deal with both their friendship and their rivalry as they try to each chase down Babe Ruth’s hallowed home run record.
45 ‘The Hurricane’
This could have been just a run of the mill sports biopic, but then Denzel Washington shows up and kicks things up a notch. This is more about society and our troubling legal system than sports, but I had to put this on here or suffer the wrath of Denzel.
It’s kind of corny, a little maudlin, and a lot safe and old fashioned, but while this Jackie Robinson biopic doesn’t break any new ground, it’s still engrossing enough to earn a place on this list. This is a movie made for a wide audience, and if anyone deserves to be celebrated en masse, without controversy for once, it’s Jackie Robinson.
43 ‘Cool Runnings’
Again, if you don’t like this movie, your soul is in question. This is as Disney as it gets, but I don’t care, it’s everything a feel-good sports movie should be.
42 ‘White Men Can’t Jump’
Not all sports movies are about dignified men of grace. That’s because in real life, dudes like to talk shit, clown their bros on the court, and then go home to their wild Puerto Rican girlfriends. But really, this movie is all about the chemistry between Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, who bring kind of a dysfunctional buddy-cop sensibility to the sports genre, and completely kick ass.
41 ‘Rocky Balboa’
168 year-old Rocky Balboa gets drawn out of retirement – even though he presumably still has brain damage from fighting the ‘roided Russian from Rocky IV - to fight the new hot-shot, all over a feud ignited by a video game simulation. If that sounds completely asinine, it’s because it is, but really, who cares? It’s friggin’ Rocky, and remarkably, despite the nonsense premise, it’s the best Rocky movie since the original.
40 ‘North Dallas Forty’
This was one of the first mainstream sports movies that didn’t worry about protecting the myth of sports legends, and instead depicted football for what it really is – a brutal, exploitative death match played by drunks and hooligans. This was loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s but somehow I don’t think Tom Landry was on board.
39 ‘The Longest Yard’
No, not the Adam Sandler version. This is the OG Burt Reynolds version, and no matter how ridiculous the premise is – superstar quarterback/degenerate Burt has to rally a team full of prisoners to triumph over a team made up of vicious and corrupt prison guards – it still will kick your ass and make you laugh. It’s Burt Reynolds. He could take a poop on screen and it would still be cooler than anything you do all year.
38 ‘Eight Men Out’
A depiction of the infamous Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919, this engrossing movie both humanizes the actual players involved while refusing to deify them. There are no easy answers here, just flawed people who would later see themselves consumed by their own mythic and tragic legends. It’s a movie that appeals to both hardcore baseball fans and people who’ve never bothered to watch a full game in their life.
37 ‘The Champ’
Maybe the first great sports movie, The Champ won Wallace Beery an Oscar for best actor in 1931 and set the template for all future sports movies. It might seem kind of clichéd now, but you’ve got to remember, it’s not clichéd when you’re the first to do it.
36 ‘Fat City’
This is one of those overlooked gems from the 1970s, as John Huston embraced the auteur spirit of the day with this unflinching look at two boxers at a crossroads in their respective careers. Just a solid, solid film made all the better by the acting of its stellar cast, led by Stacy Keach and a young pre-Dude Jeff Bridges.
It’s hard to place a movie as new as Rush. You just don’t know whether it will stand up to time, and while the movie has been somewhat of a bomb at the box office, no movie has ever captured the Formula One experience – or the fighter pilot nature of their drivers – better than this. Oh, and the racing scenes themselves are undeniably badass.
It’s as formulaic as it gets, but who cares when both the story and the formula are this good? Besides, if you can’t swept up in rooting for the story of a bunch of college kids going for Olympic gold against the big, bad Soviet empire, then you can’t get swept up in anything, except for maybe your own misery.
33 ‘Win Win’
This is one of those small, indie films that hardly anybody watches, but everyone who does can’t stop raving about. Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer/part-time wrestling coach who tries to make some easy money, and then has to deal with the consequences, and naturally, those consequences come in the form of a moody, disaffected teen who also happens to be a star wrestler. It’s a character study with a sense of humor masquerading as a sports movie, but it totally works as both.
32 ‘Remember the Titans’
Another feel-good formula sports movie that totally gets the formula right. That might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but it’s hard to find a more enjoyable movie than a sports formula movie that nails it. Besides, it’s got Denzel in it, which automatically means you’ve got to give it respect.
Somehow, a small, direct to DVD type of movie starring Stifler of all people manages to be funny as hell, have some kickass sports scenes, and be the best hockey movie made since Slap Shot. It’s got both sort of a weird and totally relatable sensibility that will just suck you in, and believe it or not, this is probably the best performance of Seann William Scott’s career.
30 ‘Friday Night Lights’
The movie has sort of been eclipsed by the awesome TV show, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t really, really good in its own right. Sure, Billy Bob Thornton isn’t exactly Coach Taylor, but that’s because he’s based on a real dude, who coached a real team, which lends the movie an air of authenticity that the TV show can’t quite touch.
29 ‘The Wrestler’
You can argue that pro wrestling isn’t a sport at all, but that just misses the point. This is very much a sports movie, even if that aspect of it is overshadowed by the fact that it’s a phenomenal character study. Mickey Rourke puts on a show, makes you feel every last bit of his character’s pain and regret, and makes all the sport/not-a-sport talk feel utterly meaningless.
28 ‘Shaolin Soccer’
Delightfully weird and goofy, this movie is Stephen Chow at his best. It’s a kung-fu movie, a sports movie, and an absurd comedy all wrapped in one awesome package. There’s a reason that it was the highest grossing movie of all time in Hong Kong cinema. At least until Chow’s follow-up, Kung-Fu Hustle, did even better.
27 ‘Million Dollar Baby’
There’s a certain, uh, bleakness to this movie that makes it feel like sort of a bummer, but don’t let that get in the way of one simple truth: it’s a damn good movie, and as a sports movie, it’s a necessary movie. Boxing is brutal, violent, and it destroys people’s lives. And nobody knows this better than the people involved in it.
26 ‘Brian’s Song’
It’s cheesy as hell and it’s a made for TV movie for God’s sake, but don’t tell that to the legion of dudes who found the room getting a little dusty because of the bromance between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. This is basically the Old Yeller of sports movies.
Look, it’s hard to make a likable movie about Notre Dame football, and the real life Rudy was supposedly kind of a prick, but that’s why this movie is so astounding. It makes you root for a Notre Dame football player and a weird little dude who, let’s face it, is kind of ridiculous. It’s the ultimate underdog story, and in the end, that trumps all ill will.
24 ‘Cinderella Man’
This is basically “sports movie as an allegory for America” and while it’s kind of heavy-handed, you can forgive that because how can you root against a dude who’s basically the ultimate everyman, and is fighting not for glory, but for the survival of his family during the Great Depression? And let’s face it, you can’t pass up an opportunity to see Russell Crowe in his natural element – punching people in the face.
23 ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’
The story of a boxer at the end of the line, Requiem for a Heavyweight is brutally honest, hard to take at times, and powerful as hell. The opening fight is one of the best fight sequences in history, uniquely and perfectly filmed, violently immediate and dizzying, and even though it’s over fast – our hero gets his ass kicked by a young up-and-comer named Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali – it lets you know you’re in for something special.
22 ‘The Pride of the Yankees’
This is one of the OG’s of the sports movie genre. Gary Cooper plays Lou Gehrig in all his iron man glory, and instead of dicking around with actors, the movie’s producers just decided to hire fat old Babe Ruth to play himself. It gets sappy, and feels kind of clichéd, but you’ve got to remember, this movie is 70 years old, and back in the day it was good enough to be nominated for all the Oscars.
Character drama, sports movie, biopic… it doesn’t really matter what you label this as, it’s simply a very, very good movie. There are times when it feels like Brad Pitt wandered onto the set of a Major League remake – which is a compliment, by the way – and at its heart, this is very much an underdog sports movie, it’s just a little more complex than your average lovable losers flick.
20 ‘Point Break’
Look, I’m gonna be honest with you here, Point Break is my favorite movie ever, and while it may not be a traditional sports movie, it does have surfing, skydiving, beach football, and those most American of all sports, gratuitous nudity and violence, so I’m going to allow it. Long live Bodhi, and mad respect to Special Agent Johnny Utah, even if he did play quarterback for Ohio State.
Caddyshack is technically a sports movie, since the actual plot involves a golf tournament as its climactic scene, but let’s face it, this movie is just an excuse for the best of the best in American comedy to show off and run wild. But you can’t deny that so many of the movie’s classic scenes take place on a golf course, so it deserves a decent spot on this list.
18 ‘A League of Their Own’
Look, if you’re gonna make a bunch of snide, sexist comments about this, you can just get the hell out, because there is no denying that this is just a damn good baseball movie. Geena Davis is just perfect here, and so is Tom Hanks as the washed-up old slugger who has to manage the team. Miraculously, even Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell were good in this.
This is one of those underrated gems loved by just about everyone who actually watches it. On the surface, it seems like just another dumb movie about MMA, but it’s really a story about a fractured family, brother against brother with a father in the middle of it all. It’s almost Shakespearean, and the cast just completely kills it.
16 ‘The Natural’
It’s completely old-fashioned, but The Natural is about as American as American gets. This is baseball in all its old-timey glory, and let’s face it, any movie starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall and Glenn Close isn’t messing around.
15 ‘Chariots of Fire’
It’s rare that a sports movie is so good – or so dignified – that it merits recognition from the Academy Awards, but Chariots of Fire pulled it off, winning four Oscars, including best picture and best screenplay. And let’s not forget to mention that it has one of the most memorable film scores in history.
14 ‘The Sandlot’
This is one of those movies, like The Mighty Ducks or Goonies, that makes you feel good just thinking about it. It’s a movie about childhood, and fittingly, it’s a movie that a lot of us have as a fond memory of our own childhood.
13 ‘Bull Durham’
This is Kevin Costner at his absolute best. People forget this when they’re mocking him for big budget bombs or his inability to even pretend to do an accent, but Kevin Costner is perfect, just absolutely perfect, whenever he has to play a past his prime charmer who’s got more going on inside than people give him credit for. And Bull Durham is where he did it first, and best. But he’s not alone, as both Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins give arguably their best performances, and the script nails minor league baseball in all its idiosyncratic glory.
12 ‘Major League’
From about 1984 through 1989, Hollywood rolled out a string of baseball movies that all land in the top 20 on this list, and Major League, while probably the dumbest of the bunch, was also the funniest. Almost all of the characters work perfectly. I actually started to list them all off, but I realized that there are too many to talk about, and so let’s just let that stand as the testament to this movie – it’s too awesome to even try to talk about in detail without this turning into an article all its own.
11 ‘The Fighter’
Somehow, this movie feels engaging and alive even though it is about as clichéd a story as you can find. It probably helps that it’s actually based on a true story, and that the actors, especially Christian Bale, refuse to let it give in to its worst impulses. Whenever that happens, when a movie takes a cliché and manages to breathe new life into it, the result is almost always magic, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Fighter.
10 ‘Enter the Dragon’/’Game of Death’
I’m totally cheating here since these are two completely different movies, but really, you can’t mention one without mentioning the other. Really, if I could, I would have just put “Bruce Lee movies” down and called it a day. Enter the Dragon is probably the better of the two – and the most culturally significant since it was the first Chinese martial arts movie produced by Hollywood – but Game of Death has Bruce Lee fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in both the most ridiculous and coolest fight scene ever, so… yeah.
9 ‘The Hustler’
Some may argue that billiards isn’t actually a sport, but screw that, it’s Paul Newman approved, so who are we to say otherwise? Nobody even tries to make movies about billiards and pool sharks anymore, and you wanna know why? It’s because The Hustler wrote the book on the subject and then slammed it shut.
8 ‘The Bad News Bears’
How do you make an underdog sports movie even better? Make the underdogs a bunch of foul-mouthed kids and give them a deadbeat as a head coach. A notable achievement in the swearing arts, and the best sports movie featuring kids ever made, all in one profane package. (And we’re talking about the original 1976 classic here, not whatever that was in 2005.)
7 ‘The Karate Kid’
This is the one with the angelic Ralph Macchio, not the one starring Will Smith’s demon spawn. Snicker all you want, but this is damn near the perfect movie. It’s so made of win that Pat Morita of all people got an Oscar nomination for acting. It’s also got one of the best finishes to not only a sports movie, but any movie ever. Admit it, if the karate tournament scene was on TV right now, you’d drop whatever you were doing to watch it. Sorry, Grandma, you can get the ride to the doctor later.
6 ‘Field of Dreams’
Every dude on the planet is nodding his head right now and wondering if he should call his dad. And if you’ve ever had any sort of strained relationship with your dad, then this movie will just wreck you. It’s manipulative as hell, but when manipulation is done this well, you don’t even mind because it’s a thing of beauty, and that’s the reason we really go to the movies, to let ourselves be pulled in by the magic.
5 ‘Breaking Away’
This isn’t just the most underrated sports movie of all time, it’s one of the most underrated movies ever made of any genre. It’s a perfect coming of age movie, and its final bike racing sequence will have you smiling like an idiot on goofballs. It’s got an amazing supporting cast, including a young Dennis Quaid, and everything about it is pretty much perfect.
4 ‘Slap Shot’
This is the ultimate hockey movie. It’s that simple. If you’ve grown up surrounded by any sort of hockey culture, then you understand why this has to be ranked so highly. People worship this movie, and rightfully so. Man, who knew Paul Newman was the patron saint of sports movies?
3 ‘Raging Bull’
This is Robert De Niro’s masterpiece, just an acting tour de force that blows you away. The movie itself is poetic and brilliant, and transcends all genres. It’s simply Raging Bull and all that means. It seems absurd almost to try to rank it in context of a sports movie, but while it may not be a movie purely about boxing, which serves as more of a backdrop to the larger story, both in terms of plot and theme (and to be honest, that’s the only reason it’s not ranked number one) it’s still about a boxer, and so it would be impossible to leave off this list.
Good god, Hoosiers. This is sports movie gold, and no matter which order you rank these movies in, there’s no way you can leave Hoosiers off of the sports movie Mt. Rushmore. First of all, Gene Hackman would come to your house and beat you up even though he’s a billion years old, and second, come on, man… it’s Hoosiers! Don’t overthink this.
The theme-song probably just started rolling through your head as soon as you saw that name, and when you’re done reading this, you’re probably going to want to go wrestle a bear or something, but that’s only because that’s how perfect this movie is. It was Sylvester Stallone’s real-life last desperate attempt at making it big which only adds to the underdog allure of the whole thing, and everything from Sly’s slow-witted performance to the theme song to the training scenes to the climactic fight scene and everything in between is perfect, and set the standard for all sports movies to follow. Hell, they even play the theme song at actual sporting events to get everyone pumped up. Case closed.
(Previously published on November 13, 2013.)
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