You don’t have to like sports to love sports movies, but it certainly helps. And since comparing football to martial arts is essentially likening apples to oranges, we thought it only fair to judge each sports flick within its own athletic bracket. Here, broken down by sport, are the 10 best movies about athletic glory ever made.
Baseball: "A League of Their Own" (1992)
There’s no crying in baseball, but there’s quite a bit of it in A League of Their Own (not least for the viewer!). Penny Marshall’s home run of a movie tugs at the heartstrings even as it provokes uproarious laughter, often in the span of a single scene. A good history lesson and an even better story, it’s essential viewing for anyone who loves America’s pastime and those who’ve never been taken out to the ballpark. Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, and the genius pairing of Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna as a couple of sour peaches in the outfield are great, of course, but equal credit is owed to their skipper — Marshall helmed the proceedings with grace and aplomb, ensuring that this all-timer would remain in a category of its own.
Also Great: Bull Durham, Major League, Moneyball, The Natural, The Pride of the Yankees
Basketball: "Hoop Dreams" (1994)
Director Steve James spent five years following two high school students who aspired to become the next Michael Jordan, so the fact that it takes nearly three hours to watch this documentary is only fair. What’s more, Hoop Dreams is worth every minute. An exceedingly empathetic portrait of its subjects (who, it’s no spoiler to say 26 years later, you haven’t heard of), its greatness lies in the fact that it’s about much more than just basketball. Set in a suburb of Chicago, where the two Black athletes attend a predominantly white private school, the film touches on issues of race, class, and inequality of all kinds.
Hoop Dreams was a major success at the Sundance Film Festival and championed by Roger Ebert, who was so outraged when it wasn't nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary — due in no small part to the nominating committee's questionable practices — that the Academy ultimately changed its rules. Few movies have had that kind of impact, but anyone who watches Hoop Dreams will be unsurprised that it has.
Also Great: He Got Game, Hoosiers, Love and Basketball, White Men Can’t Jump
Boxing: "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)
Before you say “that’s a funny way of spelling Rocky,” consider the unrivaled emotional punch of Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winner. Hilary Swank won her second Oscar in five years for her devastating performance as an up-and-coming boxer whose story concludes in a way that audiences never saw coming. Million Dollar Baby inspired nearly as much controversy as acclaim, but the debates it stirred didn’t take away from how profoundly moving the film is on a minute-to-minute basis.
Also Great: Ali, The Boxer, Creed, Raging Bull, Rocky, When We Were Kings
Extreme Sports: "The Endless Summer" (1966)
Whether it’s surfing, mountain climbing, or skateboarding, extreme sports are best captured in documentaries. There’s something to be said for raw footage of these athletes, who often risk their lives in pursuit of their dreams — it’s so compelling on its own that it doesn’t need to be sensationalized or fictionalized. Case in point: The Endless Summer, which is to surfing what Apocalypse Now is to the Vietnam War. (Not to mention the fact that there probably wouldn’t even be a surfing scene in Apocalypse Now if The Endless Summer hadn’t birthed the surf-and-travel movement.)
Also Great: Dogtown and Z-Boys, Free Solo, Touching the Void
Football: "Rudy" (1993)
Sean Astin has had major roles in The Goonies, The Lord of the Rings, and Stranger Things, but countless moviegoers will always know him as Rudy. Directed by David Anspaugh, who also helmed basketball classic Hoosiers, Rudy is quite possibly the most inspirational sports movie ever made — not least because it’s based on a true story. Even the most cynical among us would be moved by this tale of a would-be football player who's “5 foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’,” with barely a speck of athletic ability, as Rudy’s lifelong dream of joining Notre Dame’s squad proves that, every so often, heart and hard work matter more than anything else.
Also Great: Friday Night Lights, Horse Feathers, Remember the Titans
Hockey: "Miracle" (2004)
It helps that, like Rudy, Miracle was based on a true story so inspiring it was tailor-made for the movie treatment. Anyone familiar with the famed “Miracle on Ice,” in which the United States was pitted against the dominant Soviet Union hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics semi-finals, already knows how this one ends. But that doesn’t matter: Gavin O'Connor's surprisingly moving film makes the how just as compelling as the what, particularly because the Cold War backdrop raises the cultural and political stakes far beyond a regular hockey game.
Also Great: Goon, Red Army, Slap Shot
Martial Arts: "The Karate Kid" (1984)
It would be impossible to count how many kids got into karate and other martial arts thanks to The Karate Kid, but for a while there in the ’80s and early ’90s, there was nothing cooler among youths of a certain age. It helps that this classic is anchored by a genuinely moving performance by Pat Morita, who took what could have been a generic character and made Mr. Miyagi a sensei for all of us.
Also Great: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Drunken Master; Enter the Dragon; Warrior
The Olympics: "Chariots of Fire" (1981)
Even if you haven’t actually seen Chariots of Fire, you’ve heard its Oscar-winning theme song more times than you can count. The film tells the true story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, two religiously devout runners from different backgrounds who came together to represent Great Britain at the 1924 Summer Olympics. It won four of the seven Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture. The film has become so synonymous with athletic greatness in general and the Olympics in particular that Chariots of Fire and its instantly recognizable musical score played a prominent role during the opening ceremonies when the Summer Games were hosted by London in 2012.
Also Great: Cool Runnings; I, Tonya; Personal Best
Soccer: "Bend It Like Beckham" (2002)
David Beckham’s reign as the world’s most famous footballer may have come to an end since his 2013 retirement, but his megastar status has rarely been matched. After all, how many athletes have highly successful movies named after them? Bend It Like Beckham is an utter charmer, one that made Keira Knightley a star and gave Bhaji on the Beach director Gurinder Chadha her largest-ever platform to display her behind-the-camera skills. Using “the beautiful game” as a means of exploring the plight of British Indians and female athletes alike, it also serves to remind us why soccer is still the most popular sport worldwide.
Also Great: The Damned United, Offside
Wrestling: "The Wrestler" (2008)
Professional wrestling may not be “real” in the strictest sense of the word, but the toll it takes on the bodies of its participants certainly is. No movie has ever captured that like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, in which a never-better Mickey Rourke plays a beaten-down grappler hoping for one last great match. Authentic to the point of blurring the line between fact and fiction, it shows just how brutal and unforgiving the business really is — especially for the performers who can’t bring themselves to hang up their boots.
Also Great: Beyond the Mat, Fake It So Real, Fighting With My Family, Foxcatcher, Win Win
Featured Image Credit: wesleyphotography/ Unsplash