The clichéd cookie cutter sports movie, wherein a plucky striver tussles against a series of tough opponents (often the most challenging: their own damn selves) before ultimately achieving victory, has given the genre something of a bad name. If you’ve seen one, the naysayers whine, you’ve seen ’em all.
But look a bit deeper and you’ll see that that’s only half the picture: for every saccharine and inspirational underdog tale, there are plenty of unconventional sporting stories being told. And hey, in any case – there’s nothing actually wrong with bit of triumph over adversity, particularly when it’s done well. We all love a training montage, don’t we?
With that in mind, we bring you our rarified ‘roster’ – a top team sheet, if you will – of the best sports movies ever. Lace up your boots, shove a refreshing wedge of orange in your gob and enjoy.
Additional words by Sam Kieldsen
Before ice hockey rookie Dean Youngblood (fresh-faced Rob Lowe) can hold his stick high, he has to earn the acceptance of team top dog Patrick Swayze and toughen up to take on the league bully. However, sleeping with the coach’s jailbait daughter was optional.
The most quotable sports movie ever – well, if you play golf. Michael O’Keefe is the caddy trying to pay for college, Chevy Chase is an oddball golfing genius and Rodney Dangerfield’s the crass outsider trying to bury the club’s stuffy rulebook, but it’s goofy greenkeeper Bill Murray and his gopher nemesis who steal the show.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
Failing at Hockey doesn’t stop Happy conquering the golf course by bringing lad behavior to a tour while trying to earn money to save his Grandma’s house. Wrestling a crocodile, fighting an OAP and killing a one-armed golf pro are all part of a film that never gets less funny – no matter how many times you watch it.
Escape to Victory (1981)
Sylvester Stallone and Michael Cane in the same film, and yet it works. Allied prisoners of war in Nazi-occupied France play the German National side while planning an elaborate escape. Think Great Escape with football where Sly is the goalkeeper and Pele plays himself, but even better than it sounds.
Field of Dreams (1989)
If you build it, he will come. That famous (and often misquoted) line from the film sums it up well. Kevin Costner plays a farmer who dreams he is told to build a baseball diamond and, despite everyone telling him he’s mad, he does and the Chicago Black Sox come. Feel good fun for all the family.
Ping Pong (2002)
Two close friends, Peco and Smile, go through a journey of self discovery via the medium of table tennis. Cue over the top action, inner monologues and manga-esque wiff waff action. Fun, exciting and crazy. All the things that Balls of Fury failed to be.
Apollo Creed is in town and wants an easy win in a show-fight against a small-time boxer. Problem is the oh-so-lonely Rocky Balboa didn’t get the memo. Camp but iconic training montages ensue in the first of five Sly Stallone films you’ve just got to watch back-to-back.
Raging Bull (1981)
Scorsese’s intense, black and white masterpiece, based on the book by Jake LaMotta, tells the story of this self-destructive boxing champion. We wouldn’t want to face him in or out of the ring – this guy flips over the dinner table when he’s not happy with the steak.
Five men must track down and kill the people responsible for the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Based on a true story, this emotional and at times hopeless journey makes you forget you’re watching a Spielberg film.
Horse Feathers (1932)
Like the sound of a Marx brother riding a horse-drawn “chariot” to win an American Football game between two rival colleges? This slapstick classic is dumb, silly and quick-witted in equal measure and includes famous skits like the Password scene.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Two boys in inner city Chicago, Arthur Agee and William Gates, have their sights set on becoming NBA basketball players. This documentary follows the boys, their families and their coaches over five years as they chase the basketball version of the American Dream.
Bull Durham (1988)
Before Field of Dreams, Costner had already starred in one of the finest baseball movies ever. In Bull Durham he’s an aging catcher vying with young-and-dumb pitcher Tim Robbins for the affections of local bike Susan Sarandon. She likes a minor league does our Susan.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
Like a pretentious version of Sky’s now defunct Player Cam, A 21st Century Portrait follows World Cup headbutter Zinedine Zidane for a full 90 minutes, to a moody soundtrack by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai. At least, it does until he gets sent off at the end for piling into a ruck.
Violence never solved anything, except the problem of how to turn around the fortunes of a failing ice hockey team. Paul Newman plays a silver-tongued little league manager who tells his players that their team is up for sale and then turns it into the most thuggish in the league.
The Flying Scotsman (2006)
Drama based on the life and career of cycling Scot Graeme Obree which follows his attempts to break the world one hour distance record. Battling with Chris Boardman (now a Tour de France pundit and bike brand), he even builds a custom bike which uses washing machine parts in his bid to go faster.
Breaking Away (1979)
In the no man’s land between school and the rest of their lives, Dave Stoller and his friends regularly clash with the local university students. Obsessed with cycling, he transforms his existence into that of an Italian road racer, even though he lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Tensions run high in a recently desegregated high school in Virginia in 1971 as new American football coach Denzel Washington takes charge. Predictably, interracial tensions get in the way of success until everybody finds a way to get along but there’s plenty of drama and grid iron action along the way.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Co-produced by Clint Eastwood. Music by Clint Eastwood. And starring – you guessed it – Clint Eastwood. Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman propped up the Eastwood heavy credits, and the three scooped four Oscars between them. Oh, and it’s about boxing.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
By now you’re either singing the uplifting score of this seminal athletics Brit flick, or you haven’t seen it. If it’s the latter, lace up your running shoes and hotfoot it down to Blockbusters pronto.
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon pair up as Nelson Mandela and South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar to reconstruct the events of the 1995 Rugby World Cup against a backdrop of freshly boshed apartheid. Inspirational tale that’s well worth a try. Get it? We’re here every week.
The first Olympic documentary ever made wasn’t just a (slightly skewed) account of the (politically charged) 1936 Berlin Olympics – it pioneered many common cinematic techniques, including smash cuts and extreme close-ups. Legendary.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Underdog athletes with rubbish Jamaican accents, a disgraced coach played by John Candy and an unbelievable plot very loosely based on the true story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsledding team, make this a real feel good movie guaranteed to make you laugh.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
What do you do when you’re the star quarterback of the Miami Sharks, only to be made obsolete by a younger, fitter rookie who also happens to be horribly arrogant, deluded and driven by money and fame? Just ask Dennis Quaid.
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
A biopic depicting the life and career of “the Iron Man of baseball”, Lou Gehrig, begins with a young whipper snapper with pro baseball aspirations. It ends with a heartfelt farewell to fans after being diagnosed with amytrophic lateral sclerosis (now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Warning: you may shed a tear or two.
The Damned United (2009)
Before the invention of WAGS and prostitution scandals there was real football. Adapted from David Peace’s best selling book, the story deals with Brian Clough’s time at Leeds United. After 44 days he was fired. Not something you’d really want to put on your CV, is it?