Best Sports Movies Ever
Good movies click when the conflict is convincing, and nothing draws out conflict like competitive sports.
There have been hundreds of sports movies made, and picking the best ones was a challenge. The choices here include films that focus on baseball, football, basketball, bicycling, hockey, boxing, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. Yes, a lot of punches are thrown.
Whether the teams or individuals are professionals or amateurs, all these films feature some version of a story that includes an underdog, redemption or reaping the benefits of long hours training, practicing and perfecting a craft. You may have your own picks for sports flicks that deserve top billing, but you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with the movies listed (alphabetically) here.
The title of the film is the uniform number worn by Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is signed by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and has to deal with racism and degradation from fans as well as his own teammates.
The film authentically depicts Robinson’s daily struggle with keeping his temper in check while he dealt with the small-mindedness of hecklers all over the country. Robinson rose above the situation, of course, and it’s fitting that today his jersey number has been retired by every team in the league.
A League of Their Own (1992)
A professional baseball league for women? It became a reality in 1943 when World War II threatened to shut down Major League Baseball.
Many thought the idea was a joke, including Tom Hanks’ movie character Jimmy Dugan, a former MLB star who’s convinced to manage the Rockford Peaches. The pitcher-catcher combination for the Peaches are sibling rivals played with palpable angst by Geena Davis and Lori Petty.
Madonna turns in her best-ever screen appearance as outfielder “All the Way” Mae Mordabito, palling around with chum Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell).
Hanks gives us one of sports moviedom’s all-time one-liners as he reprimands his right fielder for making a bad throw while she tears up: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
This baseball movie and another 1973 film release, "Mean Streets," launched the career of Robert De Niro.
He plays dimwitted catcher Bruce Pearson on a (fictional) team with his best friend and batterymate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarity). Henry is a star. Bruce kinda sucks.
But we learn that Bruce is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease. Henry makes a deal with team management — he’ll sign a new contract as long as the deal also includes Bruce.
Nobody knows why Henry would make such a deal, but when the truth comes out, it rallies the team, even as Bruce sinks deeper into the clutches of Hodgkin’s.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
The title refers to British soccer (football) superstar David Beckham and his ability to curl the ball into the back of a net.
He makes a cameo at the end of the film, but the story centers on 18-year-old Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) a British-Indian daughter of strict parents who forbid her from playing the sport. She joins a team behind their backs.
Egged on by her teammate (Keira Knightley) and coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) Jess plays well enough to earn a scholarship to an American university. Jess’ conservative parents are faced with dual dilemmas — giving their blessing to letting a female play sports and having her face a racially charged situation that once stymied her cricket-playing father.
Breaking Away (1979)
An Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay, the coming-of-age story of four Indiana 19-year-olds brings bicycle racing into the fold of best sports movies.
Based on a true story, a climactic competition unfolds in the "Little 500" four-man bike relay race as talented underdog Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) takes on all the other teams by himself. Then there’s a crash, and he has to yield to teammates who slowly lose the lead Dave had built.
Injured, Dave decides to get back in the race by taping his feet to the pedals of his bike. "Breaking Away" pits Dave’s working-class Cutters team versus the frat boys of Indiana University. Rent it on Amazon to see who wins.
Brian’s Song (1971)
There’s so much to unpeel here.
First, the Emmy-winning original first aired as an ABC Movie of the Week, and totally outshines the 2001 big-screen remake.
It’s a story of an unlikely interracial friendship between pro football players Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). After joining the Chicago Bears, Piccolo is stricken with terminal cancer and dies at the young age of 26.
Even if you watch this movie with your hard-as-nails father or the guys from your flag football team, have a box of tissues handy. It’s one of the top all-time “guy-cry” movies ever made.
Bull Durham (1988)
Kevin Costner has acted in five baseball-themed movies, two of which made this list. "Bull Durham" is the silver screen’s most accurate portrayal of baseball’s minor leagues.
Costner plays "Crash" Davis, a veteran catcher who’s brought in to the Durham Bulls to prepare talented space case "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) for the big leagues. A love triangle develops between Davis, LaLoosh and team groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon, who met her future and now ex-hubby Robbins on the set).
Memorable on-field scenes include: Davis telling a batter what LaLoosh is about to throw to teach the pitcher a lesson in listening to his catcher and an oddball pitcher’s mound meeting where half the team discusses cursed gloves, wedding gifts and a host of non-baseball-related topics.
Who’d expect a sports movie to star comedians Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray? Directed by Harold Ramis, "Caddyshack" is an irreverent look at the world of country club golf.
There’s a young caddie (Michael O’Keefe), who tries to secure a scholarship by sucking up to a judge (Knight), who’s a stuffy regular at Bushwood Country Club.
Meanwhile, an unhinged groundskeeper (Murray) wages a war on a gopher infestation.
The climactic ending features a doubles golf match with big money, reputations and college education on the line. Just when you think the good guys aren’t going to win, fate — and a series of explosions set off by Murray’s character — steps in.
Field of Dreams (1989)
The year after Kevin Costner made "Bull Durham," he starred in "Field of Dreams," an adaption of the W.P. Kinsella book "Shoeless Joe."
Costner plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who hears a voice that whispers "if you build it, he will come." That leads him to plow under part of his corn field and build a baseball diamond. His neighbors think he’s crazy. Then his unorthodox field is visited by deceased major league baseball players, beginning with "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
It’s a lot of fun to have dead baseball players in your corn field, but meanwhile, the bank is ready to foreclose. Things get heady when Ray’s dead father appears at the field, and the whispering voice turns out to be prophetic — people from all over begin to flock to Ray’s Field of Dreams (which is a real-life tourist attraction in Dyersville, Iowa).
For Love of the Game (1999)
A die-hard sports fan might find a little too much soap opera here. But there is genuine insight into pitching a major league baseball game through Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Billy Chapel.
Costner is on the mound for the Detroit Tigers, closing out a losing season but on the brink of hurling a perfect game against the New York Yankees.
The movie flashes back and forth between Costner clearing his mind to get batters out and his love affair with Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston).
The authenticity of the game situation is supported by the play-by-play calling of iconic former Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.
You probably didn’t see this one in a theater, but "Goon" became a cult classic after showing up on Netflix. (Streaming success helped launch a sequel, "Goon: Last of the Enforcers." Don’t bother.)
The original movie stars Seann William Scott as Doug Glatt, a kindly but dimwitted bar bouncer who goes to a hockey game and winds up beating up one of the players. His fighting skills land him a job on the team as a "goon" — the guy whose primary job is to hurl fisticuffs. Doug "The Thug" is tasked with protecting the team’s leading scorer from veteran enforcer Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schreiber).
There’s real heart in this surprisingly moving story, albeit a lot of blood and broken bones. Yep, in the end, it all comes down to an on-ice, bare-knuckled brawl between The Thug and The Boss.
Loosely based on the Milan High School basketball team that won the 1954 state championship, "Hoosiers" chronicles the season of a small-town Indiana team.
New coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) is a disciplinarian who comes with a checkered past. The town of Hickory is insane about its hoops squad — which only has seven players. Dale’s rules are too tough for the townspeople, who were used to being given voice in how the team was managed. But Dale asserts command, and the underdog team winds up in the state finals.
Best scene: The team arrives wide-eyed and overwhelmed for its first practice for the final in the huge, big-city gym. Dale directs one of his players to measure the height of the rim. "Ten feet," the player reports. Replies Dale: "Ten feet … the exact same measurement as our gym back in Hickory."
I, Tonya (2017)
Life was anything but smooth sailing for Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Margot Robbie shines playing the hardscrabble athlete. Allison Janney won an Oscar for playing Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden.
The film portrays Harding as misunderstood by the public — in part because she came from the wrong side of the tracks and was more of an athletic skater than an artistic, feminine one.
The real-life Harding was found guilty by association of an attack on her rink rival Nancy Kerrigan.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat that part of the story but does suggest that she wasn’t the mastermind by any means, and certainly suffered from the situation.
Jerry McGuire (1996)
Tom Cruise plays the title role, which was inspired by the career of real-life sports agent Leigh Steinberg. In this romantic comedy-drama-sports hybrid, Jerry has an epiphany about the dishonesty in sports management and quits his big agency.
He starts over with a secretary (Renee Zellweger), who joins him in a startup company with one client, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals played by Cuba Gooding Jr.
The movie sent many a memorable one-liners into the popular lexicon, including the weepy, “You had me at hello,” the cute and funny, “Did you know the human head weighs eight pounds?” and the oft-shouted, “Show me the money!”
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood was the star, producer and director of this saga about a female boxer hoping to turn professional.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up in Frankie Dunn’s gym (Morgan Freeman works there, too) and sets about to impress everybody with her work ethic. Frankie is reluctant, but Maggie is a natural, and she begins winning most of her fights by knockout. Then comes the $1 million title fight with the WBA women’s welterweight champ.
The champ lands an illegal sucker punch that causes Maggie to land on her corner stool in a way that breaks her neck. With her career over, the ending revolves around Maggie’s desire to have Frankie put out of her misery. Oh, baby.
"Million Dollar Baby" won four Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress and best supporting actor.
No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
Dock Ellis was a flashy and colorful Major League Baseball pitcher who had a prolific career, but he also was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamines. He claimed to throw a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while under the influence of LSD.
Outspoken about what he considered the second-class treatment of black athletes, Ellis was at the front of the 1970s civil rights movements. Some called him the Muhammad Ali of baseball.
After retiring from the game, he spent the last decade of his life using his blunt honesty as a counselor for others living with addictions.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Professional football was a different game in the late 1960s, but the behind-the scenes-decadence hasn’t changed all that much in 50 years.
"North Dallas Forty" focuses on the friendship between wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) and quarterback Seth Maxwell (country singer Mac Davis, in his first movie role). Elliott is nearing the end of has playing career and manages to make it from game to game with help from immense amounts of painkillers (no, there wasn’t a concussion protocol back then). Nolte has an affair with the owner’s fiancé, and team management turns the law onto his drug issues.
The movie is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by former Dallas Cowboys receiver Peter Gent.
Raging Bull (1980)
Shot in black and white and directed by Martin Scorsese, "Raging Bull" is the adaptation of middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta’s memoir.
Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the lead in this story of a man whose obsessive rage, jealousy and self-destructive tendencies wrecked his personal life and alienated his wife and family.
LaMotta’s brother was played by Joe Pesci, a widely unknown actor at the time.
De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for the portrayal, and Scorsese won Best Director.
The movie was added to the National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Everybody wondering how races in America can live together with common respect should set aside 113 minutes to watch "Remember the Titans."
The movie depicts the fortunes of a desegregated Virginia high school football team, whose administration chooses black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) to run the team. The white players won’t participate unless white coach Bill Yoast is named as the top assistant. There’s racial disharmony in training camp and into the beginning of the season.
While nobody’s completely colorblind on the team or in the town, the Titans advance to the state championship through teamwork, commitment and friendship. Worth remembering.
Before it spawned six sequels, there was the raw, charming, rags-to-riches original story of a working-class boxer from the Philadelphia slums.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, who starred in and wrote the movie) is a club fighter who’s not the brightest bulb and works as a debt collector for a loan shark. He’s discovered by the champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and gets a last-minute shot at a heavyweight boxing title fight. The Italian Stallion has heart. He can’t be put down in the ring and has a seemingly unlimited ability to absorb punches.
Kudos to Stallone’s storyline, which doesn’t exactly include a Hollywood ending. Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Rocky was made for $1 million and earned $225 million in global box office receipts.
Slap Shot (1977)
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is the player/coach of a small-town minor league hockey team with lagging attendance. When he discovers the team is about to be disbanded, he resorts to a tactic of violent and thuggish play to draw and excite fans.
The approach is enthusiastically adopted by the team, especially a trio of recent acquisitions, the bespectacled and constantly brawling Hanson brothers.
The Charleston Chiefs make it to the finals, but Dunlop has a change of heart and wants to win the game clean, with "old-time hockey!" But the opposing team has another strategy in mind and beats the tar out of the Chiefs in the first period. This prompts a wild ending that amusingly calls into question the double standard to which violence is held in hockey.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Little League baseball gets turned on its head when beer-swilling pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is paid to manage a team of misfits.
The awkward and foul-mouthed youngsters are the outcasts not picked to play on other teams. They can’t win a game or barely score a run until Buttermaker recruits two other players.
His daughter Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) is an ace pitcher. Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) is a local hooligan who hits home runs and seals up the defense.
Suffice it to say, the team gets better and makes it to the championship game, but the celebratory scene afterward is a far cry from a typical Hollywood ending.
The Fighter (2010)
Mark Wahlberg got into tiptop physical shape to play Mickey Ward, a tough-nosed boxer from Massachusetts whose career isn’t exactly aided by an offbeat and cantankerous family.
Mickey’s brother Dickey (Christian Bale) is a former fighter of minimal acclaim who’s become addicted to crack.
Their mother (Melissa Leo) makes a deal for Mickey to fight on an undercard against a boxer 20 pounds heavier, and Mickey proceeds to get his butt kicked.
Nonetheless, Mickey gets a shot at a welterweight title belt, and the family manages to come together to support the effort.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is picked on by the neighborhood bullies until he’s befriended by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who teaches him to defend himself with karate. This leads to the big All-Valley Karate Championships with Daniel and the Cobra Kai team’s biggest bad guy, Johnny, in the final match.
Daniel’s knee is injured via an unethical move by Johnny, but Daniel recalls Mr. Miyagi’s "Crane" stance and utilizes it to defend himself against his nemesis.
Despite being utterly predictable, the film works thanks to an on-screen sincerity mastered by Macchio and Morita. Far too many sequels sprung up in theaters and on television, but the original still holds up.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Don’t be misled to believe this movie originated in 2005 — that was a remade piece of schlock starring Adam Sandler. No, no, no. The original classic starred Burt Reynolds as Paul Crewe, a former NFL quarterback who is sent to jail and cajoled into starting a team made up of prisoners.
The Mean Machine prison squad plays the guards to a standoff at halftime, when the prison warden threatens Crewe with a longer sentence unless he throws the game. A conflicted Crewe agrees, but gets riled when the warden backs out of his promise to make sure none of the prisoners gets hurt in the game. He goes back in and sparks a rally that brings them to the brink of victory on the one-yard-line with seconds left.
Personal redemption versus being on the bad side of the warden. Which would you choose?
The Natural (1984)
Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford) is a mysterious, 35-year-old “rookie” saddled onto the midseason roster of the New York Knights.
Finally given a chance to play, and using a special “Wonderboy” bat, he literally knocks the cover off the ball and leads the Knights out of the cellar.
We eventually find out that a 19-year-old Hobbes had been shot by a sports groupie and dropped out of sight for 15 years.
Against the backdrop of a dishonest owner trying to throw games, Hobbes rediscovers his childhood sweetheart (Glen Close) and a son he never knew he had.
With the season on the line and down to his last strike, even with a serious stomach wound bleeding through his jersey, Hobbes manages to smash a ball into the stadium lighting system, thus winning the pennant.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Subtitled “The Life of Lou Gehrig,” this film starring legendary Gary Cooper is an homage to a stoic, much-loved sports figure whose premature death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (later dubbed Lou Gehrig’s disease) affect hometown fans in New York and all over the country.
Gehrig played first base for the Yankees — and for decades his record 2,130 consecutive games played was the benchmark for longevity, earning him the nickname Iron Horse.
Real-life teammates Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Mark Koenig and Bill Dickey play themselves.
The climactic moment is Gehrig’s 1939 fan farewell speech, where he declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
The Rookie (2002)
The movie is based on the true story of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a 35-year-old high school baseball coach who discovers he still has the arm strength to be a pitcher in the major leagues. An injury had ended his fledgling career in the minors years ago.
As life moved on, Morris got married, started a family and took on a coaching role in Big Lake, Texas. His players noticed that Morris could still throw a heater, and they encouraged him to try out for the bigs.
He made a deal: win the district championship and he’d give it a go. To his surprise, Morris was signed to a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
In real life, he appeared in 20 games before his arm injury recurred.
The Wrestler (2008)
Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is a past-his-prime professional wrestler whose star has waned but can’t give up the "sport." Old age and steroid use lead to a heart attack and The Ram is forced to leave the limelight. He struggles to re-engage with his estranged daughter, but is beckoned back to the ring for an anniversary rematch with an old opponent.
Despite having a stripper with a heart of gold (Marisa Tomei) as a girlfriend, life outside the ring’s not working out well. Heart condition and all, The Ram takes the match. During the bout, the chest pain returns, and he’s got to decide whether to bow out or finish with his climactic diving head-butt called the Ram Jam.
In tears, he salutes and makes his decision.
Watching this action-filled movie in a theater is like participating in full-contact combat.
Two estranged brothers find themselves in a high-stakes mixed martial arts tournament and wind up pitted against each other in the final. U.S. Marine Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) is a stone-cold assassin in the ring. Older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher with mortgage problems.
Their divisive, alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) resurfaces, and everybody tries to reconcile their personal differences — though it’s hard to reconcile anything while you’re trying to beat somebody’s brains in.
Seriously, you’ll lose two pounds sweating out the conclusion to this heart-pounding film.