What do you do if you’re a sports fan but there isn’t any game on to watch? Why, watch a sports movie of course! But which one? Perhaps we can help. Here is a ranking of the best sports movies of all time.
Some will call it corny. Some will call it cheesy. And yet, “Field of Dreams” has an enduring legacy. Clearly, the movie resonates with many people. Plus, it gave us one of the most famous lines in the history of film, sports or otherwise: “If you build it, he will come.”
Before it was a beloved TV show, and after it was a book, “Friday Night Lights” was a fairly well-received movie. How many other movies can say they won an ESPY for Best Sports Movie of the Year? That would be nine, as they gave out that award 10 times. Still, that’s a noteworthy accomplishment that speaks to the success of this story of high-school football in pigskin mad Texas.
When you think “underdog sports movie,” the first name you might think is “Rudy.” Sean Astin stars as a young man who dreams of playing for Notre Dame despite his relatively-small stature. And yet, through determination, he makes it happen. It sort of became the template for any aspiring athlete who was told they didn’t have the size to compete.
Weirdly, a lot of people these days are nostalgic for a movie from the ‘90s that’s all about being nostalgic for the ‘60s. That’s the power of the past. Perhaps it helped those ‘90s kids that the movie is told through a kids’ perspective. You know, when giant dog monsters turn out to be just normal big dogs and faking drowning so you can kiss a lifeguard is slightly distasteful instead of horrifyingly problematic.
Hey, when you have Denzel Washington at your disposal, your movie has something going for it. He got people to see something called “Roman J. Israel!” Here, he plays the black head coach of a football team as he attempts to integrate his squad in the 1970s. There are tensions, but since this is a sports movie you probably know how it goes.
In its way, “D2: The Mighty Ducks” is more fun, mostly because of the knuckle puck and the fact the bad guys are a hockey team from Iceland. However, we couldn’t have that if not for the first movie in the eventual trilogy. The stakes are lower here. Gordon Bombay is just a disgraced lawyer coaching a lousy kids hockey team in Minnesota as community service. Then, he turns the team around and, shockingly, learns a little something in the process.
Oliver Stone seems to have no interest in creating a realistic football movie. He’s not really interested in portraying anything realistically, to be fair. Plus, he’s got Al Pacino at his most “Al Pacino.” That being said, the combo of Stone and Pacino led to some crazy, memorable moments, including a speech that become one of the more legendary inspirational speeches in sports movie history.
We’re talking about the original version, not the one starring Adam Sandler. That one isn’t all that bad, but it doesn’t quite have the same feeling of Burt Reynolds and company as a ragtag group of inmates pressed into a football game against the prison guards. It’s an underdog sports movie mixed with “Cool Hand Luke.”
“Chariots of Fire” is a sports movie that was so well-received that it won Best Picture at the Oscars. That’s impressive, but from a “sports movie” perspective it lacks a bit. After all, it’s a British period piece about two runners at the 1924 Olympics, with everything that “British period piece” entails. So don’t expect a lot of rip-roaring action scenes.
Even if you haven’t seen “The Natural,” you probably know how it ends. It’s an iconic sports movie moment. That’s all well and good, who doesn’t like it when a movie ends with a bang, but there’s a lot more to the film than those closing moments when Roy Hobbs, as portrayed by Robert Redford, gets to realize his potential.
Here’s a sports movie that focuses a bit more on the coaches than the players. However, when those coaches are played by Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, you get why they did that. You will see Hackman again later on this list, because nobody could play a grizzled coach like him. Heck, he was great at playing a grizzled anything. The basketball scenes are solid too.
Before she was a movie star, Keira Knightley got one of her first big breaks as a co-star in this lighthearted sports movie/romantic comedy. However, the focus is really on Parminder Nagra, who plays an Indian girl in London who defies her parents by playing soccer. It’s a classic tale of a young person finding a spark in their life through sports. Even cynics have to give it at least a little bit of begrudging respect for the execution.
Hey, sports movies can be about amateurs too. That being said, Sidney and Billy are pros in their own way. They make their money by hustling streetball, which can get pretty ugly if you mess with the wrong dudes. Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes are both funny, and somehow this movie makes watching guys plays hoops on the blacktop as engaging as most movies about pro basketball players.
When done well, auto racing movies can be quite exciting. We do love car chases, after all, and what’s a car race but a long chase around an oval? “Days of Thunder” also has a hot shot driver played by Tom Cruise being mentored by the wise sage that is Robert Duvall. Those acting chops help take this film to another level of quality.
Tonya Harding became infamous in the ‘90s when Nancy Kerrigan was injured by somebody purportedly doing it at the bidding of her fellow figure skater. Over time, though, Harding’s story has become more complex, or at least more convoluted. That’s what “I,Tonya” drives at. Margot Robbie is great as Harding, but Allison Janney stole the show, winning an Oscar for her role as Harding’s mom.
We had to include “Space Jam,” if only to keep ‘90s kids from breaking down our doors. Look, Michael Jordan isn’t that good of an actor, and this is a silly, cheesy kids movie. On the other hand, Bill Murray and Wayne Knight are in it, and there are a few decent Looney Tunes moments along the way.
By the time “The Replacements” was made, the underdog sports movie had been done…hundreds of times? Still, this is a pretty good version of that. Keanu Reeves plays a former college quarterback who leads a ragtag group of replacement players to glory under the watchful eye of Gene Hackman. The labor politics are a little sketchy, but don’t think too much about that. It’s just a dumb, fun sports movie.
You may not be aware of Brian Clough. This is a British story but an interesting one. Michael Sheen, a great actor, plays Clough, a talented, but controversial, soccer manager. He had a brief, tumultuous run as the manager of Leeds United, one of the biggest teams in the world at the time. It’s a drama that happens to be about sports.
“Teen Wolf” is no less dumb than “Space Jam.” However, what “Teen Wolf” has is Michael J. Fox as a werewolf who plays basketball; also, a guy named Styles and a girl named Boof. Ergo, “Teen Wolf” > “Space Jam.” We rest our case.
Kevin Costner seems to love baseball. Of all his baseball films, though “Bull Durham” is the best. We can credit the cast for that. This is a sports movie that features Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in prominent roles. Plus, sometimes a career minor leaguer like Crash Davis is more interesting than any star.
The Miracle on Ice was as captivating as any movie could be. This biopic can’t quite recapture that magic, mostly because we know the United States is going to beat the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Kurt Russell is strong as coach Herb Brooks, and there is some real impressive action scenes in this one.
“Shaolin Soccer” is on the opposite side of the verisimilitude equation from “Miracle.” It’s basically a live-action cartoon. Stephen Chow doesn’t care about making a realistic sports movie. He just wanted to do his usual crazy action within the realm of sports. And it works.
“Kingpin” is your typical Farrelly brother’s comedy, which is to say there’s some gross-out jokes and it’s a little sweaty. However, there is one man who raises this movie up the pantheon. Bill Murray is in all his glory as Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken. He steals every scene he’s in. Watch this movie at least once to see the comedy legend hamming it up.
Ron Shelton is back at it! The writer of “Bull Durham” also wrote “Blue Chips,” but William Friedkin handled the directing. It’s a fascinating movie, as a young Shaquille O’Neal and a young Penny Hardaway act in this film. So much did Shaq enjoy playing with Penny, he encouraged the Orlando Magic to bring Hardaway onto the team. They listened, and the rest is history.
Cheerleading is very much a sport, especially when it’s as athletic as it is in this film. After all, two rival cheer squads are going head to head, with the added tension that the Toros, led by Kirsten Dunst, have been stealing the routines of the Clovers. By the way, director Peyton Reed has gone from directing films like “Bring It On” to directing the “Ant-Man” films for Marvel.
Warren Beatty liked to have creative control over his projects. “Heaven Can Wait” was no different. He co-wrote with Elaine May and also co-directed with Buck Henry. Beatty plays an NFL quarterback who dies in a mix-up, so angels send him back to Earth into the body of a millionaire. For a sports film, this one was critically acclaimed. It was nominated for nine Oscars.
Speaking of Oscar-nominated sports movies, “The Fighter” wasn’t just nominated. Two actors, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, won for their roles in this boxing movie. They are both excellent, and the film also features Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg. Micky Ward isn’t the most famous real athlete, but this was an engrossing biopic nevertheless.
“Major League” spawned a couple of mediocre sequels, but the first film is a solid sports comedy. It’s a classic underdog story, helped by the fact it used actual MLB teams in the story. Not every sports movie is that lucky. If only it wasn’t the Cleveland Indians. Sure, it made sense from a team history perspective, but nothing featuring Chief Wahoo stands the test of time.
The “Rocky” series had really hit a dead end and seemed all but done. So it was decided it would get a reboot focusing on a different boxer. Michael B. Jordan was hired for the role of Adonis Creed, son of Rocky’s friend, foe and mentor, Apollo Creed. Sylvester Stallone got an Oscar nomination, and a new series was born.
Roller derby is a niche sport but one that gives a lot of women an outlet of both an athletic and creative variety. That’s what the main character of “Whip It,” played by Ellen Page, is looking for, and it’s what she finds. It’s a charming comedy about self-discovery and finding your community. Even if you don’t know roller derby, you can get invested.
Is “Happy Gilmore” at all realistic? Well, Adam Sandler plays a failed hockey player who becomes a pro golfer thanks to his big drives. Also, his mentor is a guy who had his hand bit off by a gator. It’s silly, but it’s the funniest movie Sandler ever made. It also had a great Bob Barker cameo.
Billy Beane used sabermetrics and analytics to turn the penny-pinching Oakland Athletics into a playoff team. Does that sound like it could make an interesting film? Well, surprise! “Moneyball” is really good! Brad Pitt is great as Beane, and Jonah Hill is good as the made-up character Peter Brand. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a real sports team.
Will Ferrell made a few sports comedies. With apologies to the ones that didn’t make the list, “Talladega Nights” is the only one worthy. Hey, at least it made the top 10. Ricky Bobby is like a race-car-driving Ron Burgundy. John C. Reilly is also great, showing the rapport these two would have in “Step Brothers.” Not every joke hits, but there are so many of them it doesn’t matter.
It’s the ultimate slobs-vs.-snobs sports comedy! There’s a lot of stuff in this movie that could be trimmed. It’s a little shaggy, and not all of it aged well. On the other hand, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray are at their peaks. Those four all hit it out of the park, making this a hilarious movie as a whole.
Pro wrestling isn’t a “sport,” you might argue. It’s “sports entertainment.” However, pro wrestlers all put their bodies on the line, like any athlete, which is what “The Wrestler” delves into. Randy “The Ram” has destroyed his body, in part due to his wrestling career. We see the damage wrestling can do. It’s a somber, dark movie, but a gripping one.
The ensemble of this movie is as impressive as that of any sports film. Up top we have the winning duo of Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. Then you add in Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Garry Marshall and in a particularly fun cameo, Jon Lovitz. It’s funny, it’s emotional, and it has a great retro feel to it.
“Raging Bull” is considered one of Martin Scorsese’s masterpieces. It didn’t win him an Oscar, but it did win one for Robert De Niro. It’s absolutely beautiful, and a really good movie, but it can be an uncomfortable watch at times. As a dramatic work of art, it maybe would top this list. However, as a “sports movie,” it falls a couple of notches.
We could have put a few “Rocky” films on this list, but we wanted to limit every series to one. The original “Rocky” won Best Picture in 1977 (although it probably shouldn't have), but it’s not the best of the series. “Rocky III” brings back Apollo Creed in a smart way, and it has perhaps the best villain of the series. We speak, of course, of Clubber Lang, as portrayed by Mr. T.
Cycling isn’t the most riveting sport to watch. However, “Breaking Away” is one of the best sports movies ever. That’s due to the character work and the storytelling. It’s an engaging coming-of-age tale that happens to involve cycling. The creators of the film also do manage to make the bike races interesting, at least the final one.
Here we have the best sports movie. It’s led by Paul Newman, which helps. It has more substance and depth than some of the lighter sports fare, yet “Slap Shot” isn’t a feel-good movie. In fact, the members of the Charlestown Chiefs, a dying team in a dying city, are almost uniformly unlikable. They are crass people with personal issues, and they find notoriety by embracing violence on the ice. It’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s occasionally brutal. So while it may not be uplifting, “Slap Shot” is the best sports movie for a multitude of other reasons.