The Best Fiction Sports Movies Ever Made, Including the GOAT of Sports Movies, Part 1
My Picks for the Best Fiction Movies Representing Their Sport
Sports movies fall into two main categories: “Triumph of the Underdog” and “Sports as Metaphor for Life.” Two sub-categories are “Outsider Coach Earns Redemption from Past Mistake” and “Rag-tag Group of Misfits Learns to Be a Team.” The plots of all four are generally as predictable as a romantic comedy or Hallmark Christmas movie.
But sometimes they cross-pollinate and a hybrid forms, producing a flowering orchid that is hearty and colorful and smells like delicious cinnamon toast. I have to admit that I enjoy most sports films, even the ones that are clumsily manipulative in trying to get us to feel emotions they haven’t earned. There’s just something about watching people compete against others, against themselves, against the clock, and against naysayers that is exhilarating and touching and relatable.
But not all sports movies are created equal. Most are between okay and good. They make us care, they make us feel, they make us cheer—and then they evaporate from memory. And I’m fine with that. Some provide a stirring history lesson about racism, misogyny, and corruption in sports. Important lessons, sure, but earnestness doesn’t necessarily translate into greatness.
The difference between a good and great sports movie is the difference between watching a cute and cuddly middle school basketball game and watching the seventh game in a NBA championship final. Yes, the school children are adorable and you can get emotionally involved in the outcome. But it’s not the same experience as watching the best players in the world elevate the sport to a whole new level that inspires and awes. “Great” inspires and awes.
For me, a great sports film has to accomplish a few things:
It has to capture the essence of whatever sport is being featured. I have to come away from that film knowing what the particular thrill of that game is for the players and fans. Part of that is in the intensity of the actual sports scenes. But a larger part is in how the characters relate to their sport.
The story has to offer some intelligent insights into the drive to compete and the effects that competitiveness has on the protagonist and others around them. It’s not enough to give us biographical highlights—the struggles and triumphs—it needs to put them in a greater thematic context that reflects everyone’s struggles and triumphs, even if they’ve never played a sport.
I have to want to watch it again—and again. I’m no snob about rewatching mediocre films. Some are just so enjoyable that I’m drawn to rewatch them for favorite scenes, even though I’m under no illusion that this is a great film. Just as I may scarf down a bucket of popcorn without ever kidding myself about the nutritious value. A good movie makes you want to rewatch it for sheer entertainment. A great movie makes you want to revisit it because it recharges some basic part of you that may be running low.
Many of my selections will surprise you. They aren’t conventional choices. Also, I expect to hear some disagreements and suggestions for movies I overlooked. I look forward to reading them in the Comments section. But remember, I was looking for the best from each sport, not just good.
Make sure you read all the way to the end because that’s where I name the GOAT of Sports Movies.
Turns out there were a lot more sports I wanted to write about than I had room for in this post. So, I’m making this post Part 1, with Part 2, featuring the sports and movies I left out, coming soon.
Best Basketball Movies
This might seem like a predictable and sentimental choice. After all, it has the a little bit of most the familiar categories: Rag-tag Team, Underdog Triumphs, Outsider Coach Earns Redemption (actually two coaches earn redemption). But this is a case where the completed story is greater than the sum of its parts.
The movie takes place in 1951 when disgraced coach Normal Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in Hickory, Indiana for his last chance as a coach. He immediately encounters local resistance from the town as well as the players. The rest is how he slowly wins them over through his integrity and passion for the game, all culminating in an exciting buzzer-beater shot for the state championship.
Redemption is a tricky theme to pull off convincingly. Most movies make the protagonist too self-pitying and broken to make his redemption believable. They romanticize his struggle. In Hoosiers, Dale is steadfast in his commitment to the team, and he never descends into mawkish self-pity. He teaches them basketball fundamentals as well as the fundamentals of sportsmanship in a way that would have made Coach Wooden proud.
Runner-up: White Men Can’t Jump
Also Recommended: He Got Game; Hustle; Drive, He Said
Quick note about professional basketball players who act. I had a blast doing Airplane!, Game of Death, and Glass Onion, as well as a couple dozen TV shows. But I know my limitations. I was never a three-point shooter nor was I a great actor. But I do want to give a shout-out to Shaquille O’Neal in Blue Chips. The movie never quite came together, but I thought he was a terrific presence. I also liked Michael Jordan in Space Jam. There’s no way you aren’t charmed by the man’s aura. Finally, I was shocked by LeBron James in the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck. He was so natural and funny that I forgot it was him.