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30 Best Sports Movies of All Time

From ‘Rudy’ to ‘Rocky,’ counting down the greatest films to play the game and get in the ring


An underdog team takes the field. A has-been suits up one final time for a last-gasp grab at glory. A never-was gets his or her shot to prove they have what it takes. Sports movies are never just sports movies — they’re tales of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, or metaphors for the little guy taking on the corporate Goliaths and grown-up rich kids and beating them at their own rigged game. Sometimes they smell like team spirit. Sometimes they inspire with examples of exceptional individualism. And other times, they prove that a well-timed explosion by a deranged groundskeeper trying to kill a gopher will help you go home a winner. But the great ones always make you want to stand up and do the wave in the theater.

So we’re counting down our choices for the 30 best sports films of all time — from boxing dramas to bowling comedies, surfing docs to slobs-versus-snobs battles on the links, trash-talking basketball showdowns to ninth-inning baseball stand-offs. All apologies to Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, the Rockford Peaches, the Z-Boys, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, Seabiscuit and every other screen athlete/coach/trainer that’s uplifted us over the years — we’ll catch you on the flip side when we do the Top 50 list.


‘Rudy’ (1993)

Forget some of the details the film conveniently overlooks (hey, turns out that iconic jersey scene never actually happened!) and pretend that the real-life Rudy wasn't charged with securities fraud in 2011; like all great mythology, this sports movie must be taken with a grain of salt. But when you've got a story about a hard-working, huge-hearted hero overcomes all obstacles (dyslexia, diminutive size, coach Dan Devine) to get his shot in the final home game of the 1975 season, well — you'd be foolish to let facts get in the way. And director David Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, the guys who made Hoosiers, are no fools, creating the underdog story to end all underdog stories, one that gave Notre Dame football yet another folk hero (as if it needed more help in that department). Sure, foes of the Fighting Irish may roll their eyes, but there's no denying the thrill of watching Rudy realize his dreams…and as far as epic gridiron stories go, it's a lot better than the Legend of Ron Powlus. JM


‘Blue Chips’ (1994)

Basketball-fanatic director William Friedkin populated screenwriter Ron Shelton's story of college hoops corruption with the likes of Larry Bird, Bob Knight, Dick Vitale, Bob Cousy, and Shaquille O’Neal — some as themselves, and others as characters from a fictional west coast university. The ever-fiery Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, a legendary coach who allows his boosters to buy him a team. Friedkin brings some of his jittery docu-realism to the games, though Blue Chips is more exciting is its forensic breakdown of how teams cheat, and of why well-off adults let their futures be determined by flighty young jocks. NM


‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)

Oliver Stone, once considered American cinema's reigning political provocateur — not the ideal guy for a big football movie, right? Wrong. The director's flair for the epic serves him well in this look at a turbulent season in the life of a struggling Miami football franchise. So, too, does his feel for the mythic desperation of his characters. Everybody in this movie is at a crossroads of sorts: lonely, broken-down head coach Al Pacino; injured, aging quarterback Dennis Quaid; young, overwhelmed hotshot quarterback Jamie Foxx (then mostly known as a comic actor); and ruthless team-owner and football scion Cameron Diaz. That collective sense of anxiety and hopelessness is just one of the reasons why Pacino's climactic "Life's just a game of inches" speech to his troops has earned its place as one of the all-time greatest sports movie speeches. BE


‘Bend It Like Beckham’ (2002)

Caught between the old-world traditions of her Indian family and the need for new-world assimilation in Britain, first-generation immigrant teen heroine Jesminder "Jess" Bjamra simply wants one thing out of life: to play soccer for her country's national team, just like her idol David Beckham. There are a few obstacles in her way, the main one being a disapproving mother who'd never allow her daughter to play such a ruffian's sport. But with a little help from a player on a local team (hi there, Keira Knightley!) and a cute coach, Jess may be able to achieve her goal(s). Gurinder Chadha's follow-your-dreams fable wouldn't work half as well if weren't for future ER star Parminder Nagra's winning performance and a real knack for nailing how sports can boost the self-esteem and self-identity of young women. DF


‘The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings’ (1976)

Co-produced by Motown honcho Berry Gordy and directed by a pre-Saturday Night Fever John Badham, this period baseball comedy recalls the age of barnstorming, when pro athletes supplemented their income by traveling the country to play against rubes. It's helped by a murderer's row cast led by Billy Dee Williams as a cynical businessman, James Earl Jones as a principled activist, and Richard Pryor as a hustler trying to pass as Cuban. The movie spoofs the gimmicks and clowning of the Negro League era, while making a still-relevant argument for the inherent dignity of workers — even those who earn their money playing games. NM

Sports Movies

‘Victory’ (1981)

Based on the Hungarian film Two Half Times in Hell, director John Huston's potboiler stars Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and Brazilian superstar Pele as WWII POWs who're going to use a match against the Germans as an opportunity to escape. Everything is ready to proceed as planned — and then the players wonder if they can actually do more good by beating the Nazis on the pitch. The football-ignorant Stallone may be a surrogate for all the early 1980s Americans who were just starting to learn more about "the beautiful game." But watching the legendary Pele display his footwork on the field (that bicycle kick!), you almost believe the soccer god could have singlehandedly stopped Hitler's troops in their tracks. NM


‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

Joel and Ethan Coen's Raymond Chandler-inspired shaggy dog story is, among its other qualities, a great bowling movie — and not just because it's the only one with a hallucinatory sequence set to Kenny Rogers' voice. The Big Lebowski captures how much of the experience of chucking a heavy ball down a lane depends on a number of factors: alley ambience, team camaraderie, between-frames taunts, and fetishistic equipment maintenance. The film even moves to bowling-like rhythms, with bursts of action followed by a whole lot of down time to puzzle over what just happened, and worry about what to do next. And if you don't agree, well, that's like your opinion, man. KP


‘The Natural’ (1984)

Movies sometimes treat baseball with hushed reverence, but never was the game depicted with more majestic grandeur than in this loose adaptation of Bernard Malamud's novel. Robert Redford plays the once-promising phenom Roy Hobbs, who, in his mid 30s, finally gets his shot at the big leagues after disappearing from the scene for mysterious reasons. The book was a cautionary tale about succumbing to earthly desires; Redford and director Barry Levinson instead pay homage to god-given talent, riding Randy Newman's misty-eyed score to a finale that still produces goose bumps. The Natural isn't about realism — it's too busy articulating the awe we feel watching mere mortals perform preternatural athletic feats. TG


‘The Wrestler’ (2008)

For those who don’t think pro wrestlers are athletes, take a look at Mickey Rourke’s Randy "The Ram" Robinson: an ex-superstar who gets beat to hell whenever he entertains. Director Darren Aronofsky's film lingers over the sport's lurid details (performers using blades to make their shows more visceral), and contrasts the Ram's colorful costumes with the bleak existence of his life offstage, spent between the crumbling trailer where he lives and his minimum-wage job in a wintry New Jersey suburb. This is what happens to people, the movie tells us, who abuse their bodies professionally until they become shells of their former selves. Even that blaze of glory at the end can't dispel the bleakness. NM

Sports Movies

‘North Dallas Forty’ (1979)

Set among the players and management of a team semi-loosely modeled after the Dallas Cowboys, Ted Kotcheff's down-and-dirty sports drama does double duty as a broad satire as it delves into the corrupt underbelly of professional football – the drugs, the sex, the backstabbing, and the bureaucratic incompetence. Back then, sports movies were generally meant to be rousing and inspirational. Here's a movie that explodes all that – both an ode to and an interrogation of Seventies locker-room machismo, American style. And real-life college football star Nick Nolte, then a rather strapping 38 years of age, is perfect in the lead role as the team's aging, wounded wide receiver. BE


‘The Endless Summer’ (1966)

The greatest surfing picture of all time, this unassuming piece of counterculture anthropology is so likable that it had kids around the world buying boards and heading to the California coast in search of the perfect barrel. Ostensibly the story of two wave chasers (Mike Hynson and Robert August) who dodge winter by taking a trip around the world, The Endless Summer doubles as a mini-history of the sport, threading primers on beach-bum terminology between bitchin’ footage of gnarly tubes. By the time the film's final sunset rolls around, director Bruce Brown's half-winking/half-gushing narration has become an irresistible sales pitch for shooting the curl. NM

Sports Movies

‘Fat City’ (1972)

Sweat, smoke, and whiskey fumes hang heavy over John Huston's fatalistic film about the relationship between the down-and-out alcoholic boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and Ernie, the young-up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) who inspires the older fighter to try for a comeback. It’s a boxing movie more concerned with between-bouts trials and traps than what goes on in the ring. Shot in what remained of Stockton, California's now-vanished skid row, the film lingers in the grimy bars and flophouses that its sad-sack pugilist hero calls home, and hints that new kid in the ring, no matter how great his talent, will probably easily end up there too. It's the sort of film that makes you want to take a shower immediately afterwards. KP

Sports Movies

‘Murderball’ (2005)

It has all the makings of another rote, feel-good documentary: quadriplegic athletes find purpose in the thrill of competition. But what makes Murderball – so named for the brutal sport of wheelchair rugby it focuses on ­– such a great film is that it skips all the gooey, inspirational bullshit, instead chronicling the burgeoning, bloody rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian teams. Directors Henry Rubin and Dana Shapiro train their cameras on the competitors, hard-partying men who consider themselves to be modern-day gladiators, and the results are revelatory. These are warriors in the purest sense of the term; they want to win, they want to fuck (a lot) and most of all, they want to live life on their terms. If Hollywood had gotten ahold of this one, there would have been uplifting speeches and moving montages – instead, it makes no apologies and leaves nothing to the imagination. Just like the men brave enough to strap themselves in and let it rip for honor and glory. And chicks, too. JM

Sports Movies

‘Hoosiers’ (1986)

Dramatic nuance? Emotional sophistication? Screw that: Sometimes you just want to be moved beyond all reason. Enter this dizzyingly feel-good sports movie in which a troubled coach (Gene Hackman) motivates a group of underdog 1950s Indiana high schoolers to play the best basketball of their lives by — wait for it — sticking to the fundamentals. To accuse television director David Anspaugh's feature debut of earnest nostalgia is to miss the point: Hoosiers is a proudly dewy salute to bygone innocence, to a time when doing your be