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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.
Best Baseball Movies
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player, not a basketball player, and I dreamed of glory in the dusty diamond. I met most of the great players of the last fifty years, and I still attend games and cheer on the Dodgers. My love of the game has never waned.
Bang the Drum Slowly was made for one million dollars but it delivers more sports wisdom and insight than almost any other sports movie ever made. It’s based on a 1956 novel by Mark Harris and was previously adapted that same year for television starring Paul Newman.
The plot is simple: Star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) has the world by the tail. He’s a hot pitcher negotiating a new contract, he sells insurance to other ball players, and he’s written a bestselling book. Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) on the other hand is a catcher on his way out. Where Henry is witty, charming, and intelligent, Bruce is dim, uneducated, and clueless. When Henry reluctantly agrees to take Bruce to the clinic, they both discover Bruce has an incurable disease with little time left. Henry forms a bond with Bruce, determined to protect him so he can continue to play baseball, the only thing he knows how to do.
But this movie isn’t a melodrama about dying like Brian’s Song. At one point, Bruce says, “Everybody'd be nice to you if they knew you were dying.” To which Henry replies, “Everybody knows everybody is dying; that's why people are as good as they are.” The movie is about how people treat each other in the face of death, what we find value in, and how the game just keeps rolling along—with or without us.
One of the key metaphors of the movie is the card game tegwar (the letters stand for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules). The players use the game to lure baseball fans into playing for money and then fleece them with made-up rules that the fans are too embarrassed about not knowing to object to. Tegwar is life: The Exciting Game Without Any Rules that we are forced into playing and must somehow find meaning and joy in.
The last scene as well as the last line, which I won’t spoil by telling you here, is so powerful that it has stayed with me the last fifty years.
Runner-up: A League of Their Own
Also Recommended: Moneyball, 42, Bull Durham, Bad News Bears, The Natural
Best Boxing Movies: Split Decision Between Hard Times and Champion
So many great boxing movies. I ended up with a tie between these two.
Hard Times (1975)
Oh, I know I’m going to get push-back from this selection because there are so many boxing favorites out there: Rocky, Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Creed, Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby, and so on. Why on Earth would I pick this little-known B-movie starring Charles Bronson?
The story takes place in 1933, during the Great Depression, when a drifter named Chaney sees a bare-knuckle fight taking place and decides to wager his entire fortune, six dollars, on himself. After an easy victory, he quickly becomes renowned and is in demand for high-stakes fights. Unfortunately, his manager is a lowlife hustler, Speed (James Coburn). Despite Speed’s faults, Chaney sees him as a friend and is forced to fight one last bout against the best bare-knuckle brawler in the country in order to save Speed’s life.
There’s some schmaltz in that set-up. But what really stands out is Chaney as working-class man whose faith in society’s promises has been shaken beyond redemption. His life is one big struggle to survive, so when he steps up to fight in a bout without rules or referees, that’s just an extension of his daily struggle. The fights themselves are exciting and gritty. You will feel the bare-knuckle punches as they thud into ribs and jaws.
What makes Champion such an exceptional movie is its willingness to offer us an unflinching portrait of a competitor who eventually loses himself in his quest to become champion. And, though he succeeds, his transformation from nice guy to corrupt athlete reveals him to be a champion in name only. In every other way, he is a loser.
Kirk Douglas plays “Midge” Kelly with a ferocity that powers this story like sticking a nuclear-powered propellor on a row boat. The boxing scenes are brutal, reflecting Kelly’s need to win, his single-minded drive to be champion. But most effective is his fall from someone we’re rooting for to someone we’re rooting against, then back to someone we’re rooting for. It’s emotional whiplash. Once you’ve seen this movie, you will never look at boxers the same.
Also Recommended: Rocky, Raging Bull, Creed, Million Dollar Baby
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Best Wrestling Movies
Vision Quest (1985)
This movie is that hybrid orchid I mentioned earlier: Underdog, Misfit, Sports as Life Metaphor, and Teen Coming-of-Age. But it blooms beautifully, explaining the importance of sports to society better than any other movie has ever done. It also makes us understand the struggles of being a high school wrestler on a visceral level.
Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) is a high school senior in desperate need of a wrestling scholarship to go to college to become a doctor. But when he turns eighteen, he decides to risk everything to drop 22 pounds in order to wrestle the state champion, Brian Shute, who is undefeated. Losing could mean losing his chance for college and his well-planned future. When an independent young woman comes into his life, his goal to wrestle Shute gets thrown, and he has to decide whether or not he will wrestle Shute as well as understand exactly why it’s important.
Two scenes are especially original when dealing with sports. In one scene, the wrestling coach tells everyone that they can challenge anyone else on the team to take their number one spot. He proudly proclaims how fair this system is. When Louden tells the coach his plan to lose weight to wrestle Shute, the coach tries to dissuade him because that would be bad for the team. Fairness is important to the coach only when it suits him. The team also turns against Louden, complaining that he’s hurting the team. To which Louden replies, “In case you haven’t noticed, wrestling isn’t a team sport.” The movie defies the usual trope of sacrificing for the team in favor of how Louden’s impossible quest inspires everyone else to raise their game.
The movie does make one mistake. Once Louden decides that he will wrestle Shute after hearing his fry-cook pal explain the meaning of sports (see video below), the movie should have ended with him entering the gym. But they chose to also show the wrestling match with Shute because they didn’t have faith that the audience would appreciate that making the decision was the victory, regardless of what happens in the match. Still, this is a smart and inspiring movie.
Runner-up: Win Win
Also Recommended: The Wrestler
Best Football Movies
The Longest Yard (1974)
This movie was so successful as a story that it’s been remade many times, including 2005 with Adam Sandler, 2001 as a British film (Mean Machine), and 2015 as an Egyptian film (Captain Masr). The reason for the original’s popularity and success as a sports movie is that it tells such an honest story of redemption without the melodramatic manipulation that you buy into it right away. It also has a lot of humor, heart, and makes you want to play football.
When former star pro quarterback Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) recklessly crashes his girlfriend’s sports car, he’s sentenced to eighteen months in a state prison. Crewe is universally hated for cheating during his pro career, but the warden, who manages a semi-pro team of prison guards, forces Crewe to help him coach his team. Of course, there is a climactic game in which Crewe is challenged to once again take the selfish path or sacrifice for the sake of the team, but even that seems authentic.
Most important, the metaphor of people locked in prison who use sports as a means to experience their moments of freedom says something about what sports means to all of us shackled to our daily responsibilities. Sure, we are entertained, but also uplifted.
Runner-up: Jerry Maguire
Also Recommended: Friday Night Lights, North Dallas Forty
Best Track & Field Movies
Personal Best (1982)
One reason this movie stands above the rest is that it was written and directed by Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Last Detail), one of the best screenwriters ever. He brings that same level of thematic sophistication, character depth, and dramatic intensity to this story about two women track athletes (Mariel Hemingway, Patrice Donnelly) vying to make the Olympic team. Complicating their athletic pursuits are their romantic relationship with each other and the overbearing influence of their coach (Scott Glenn). Their lives are messy and chaotic—but focused on their goal of athletic excellence. Really exceptional dialogue.
Runner-up: Chariots of Fire
Also Recommended: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Without Limits
Best Hockey Movies
Slap Shot (1977)
I get that most people would have made Miracle (2004) their go-to hockey movie, because what’s not to like about the real-life story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team defying all odds to beat the seemingly invincible Soviet team? But Slap Shot pushes beyond all the predictable underdog tropes to take us somewhere we haven’t been before in sports movies. When I first saw this in the theaters, I was also resistant to its charms because it didn’t follow the usual path. But the more I thought about it—the more it made me think about it—the more I appreciated what it was doing.
Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, the dodgy player-coach of a minor league hockey team whose existence is threatened when their local steel mill lays off 10,000 workers. To keep his team alive, Reggie encourages his players to become more violent during games, even importing players known for their violence. The plan works: fans are showing up. This leads to the usual championship game in which both teams have their hired goons ready to brawl. The resolution will surprise and, I hope, delight you.
The movie boldly questions commercially exploiting a sport for maximum profit when doing so damages the sport itself. Do you give the fans what they seem to want, even if it ruins the sport, or do you retain the integrity of the sport and let the fans appreciate it for what it is?
Also Recommended: Mystery, Alaska; Goon; The Mighty Ducks
Best Golf Movies
Happy Gilmore (1996)
You could make a case that this isn’t really a golf movie because it’s an exaggerated comedy that plays everything for a laugh. I’m good with that. There’s a plot about a hockey player who takes up golf to win money to save his grandmother’s home. But the real joy is how Sandler manages to be both reverent and irreverent toward golf at the same time. I’ve seen this movie many times and it always makes me laugh—and appreciate golf more.
A brief meditation on Adam Sandler’s contribution to sports movies. Adam Sandler understands sports better than most filmmakers and the result has been movies that not only feature sports but convey the passion for playing and enjoying the sport. For some filmmakers, sports is treated like a prop—a rubber dagger or a fancy costume. Not with Sandler. His movie Hustle, in which he plays an NBA scout, captures the thrill of professional basketball that transcends the business. He never fails to convey the sheer joy of sports and makes the audience feel it too.
Runner-up: Tin Cup
Also Recommended: Caddyshack
The GOAT: Best All-Around Sports Movie Ever Made
The Hustler (1961)
Is pool a sport or a game? Don’t care. The Hustler illuminates the darkest corners and hones the sharpest edges of the competitive spirit. It unabashedly lays out the destructive behavior—to ourselves and to others—that the narcissistic drive to be the best demands. The movie is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote Queen’s Gambit, the basis for the Netflix series which reveals the same cutthroat competitiveness in the chess world.
Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson, a young pool hustler out to take down the legendary “Minnesota Fats” (Jackie Gleeson) under the tutelage of a corrupt gambler (George C. Scott). Along the way, he falls in love with an alcoholic failed writer (Piper Laurie). Eddie’s monologues about why he plays and what it means to him perfectly articulate how most professional athletes feel.
Eddie’s transformation from competitor to champion is not heralded by a peppy montage scene with a soundtrack. He is too desperate, too feral for that. Instead, Eddie claws his way to the top in order to face off against Fats once again. But now he’s not playing for glory or money, he’s playing to honor those crushed by the corrupt ambition of the men in the room. The so-called “winners.” The writing, the characters, the drama—this movie gets inside of you like the smoke-filled rooms they play in.