Now that the Olympics are over, we’ve found ourselves yearning for the human drama that a good sports narrative provides. There’s something inherently cinematic about competition—whether it’s the suspense, overcoming obstacles, the glory of victory or that crazy desire to be something better than nature alone allows us to be. In other words, sports stories make for compelling movies. We have to wait four long years to hear Bob Costas narrate the next summer Games, so bide the time by revisiting the 25 best sports flicks of all time.
Director: David S. Ward
We can all look back and laugh at this crazy cast of oddballs, but for those in northeastern Ohio, it was all too real at the time. Not until the sequel’s release did the Cleveland Indians finally break out of their 30-year slump. Some will say it was the new stadium. Others, the even more superstitious ones (most baseball fans), may point to the dominance and swagger of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, as portrayed by Charlie Sheen. (Fun fact: Sheen was actually a star pitcher in high school.) Whatever the case, the really bad times are in the past, and let’s hope, for the sake of another one of these movies popping up, they stay there.—Joe Shearer
Director: Asif Kapadia
Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, creating one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time.—Michael Dunaway
Director: Penny Marshall
Although a film about women’s baseball during WWII, the real star of the feature is not one of the girls; it’s Tom Hanks. His portrayal of a fallen baseball great trying to regain respect (and kick the bottle) is one of the actor’s finer moments. Who can ever get tired of that famous quip, “There’s no crying in baseball!” a staple that baseball commentators throw out like it’s their fastball? It’s still a great line mulled over to this day. That’s when you know a movie has weight. Geena Davis and Lori Petty’s sibling relationship is swell, too.—Joe Shearer
Director: Peter Yates
Like all the best sports comedies, Breaking Away is about a ragtag group of misfits. In this case, they’re led by Dave, a cycling enthusiast obsessed with all things Italian. He and the rest of his teenage buddies in Bloomington, Ind. must deal with snobby Indiana University students, parents who just don’t understand and the disillusionment that comes with finding out your heroes are cheaters. No worries, though: Dave and the Cutters (predictably) destroy the competition in the Little 500 race and forge ahead toward adulthood.
Director: Boaz Yakin
It doesn’t matter if you’re as passionate about football as little Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere) or as ambivalent as Coach Boone’s daughter: We guarantee you’ll get a little weepy during this tale of a newly integrated high school team in 1971 Virginia. Between Denzel Washington delivering a monologue about the Battle of Gettysburg and the movie’s dramatic ending (which we won’t spoil for you), there are plenty of moments where busting out the tissues is appropriate. It’s not a total downer, however; there are a bunch of scenes that’ll bring a smile to your face, including whenever a young Ryan Gosling pops up as a goofy, Motown-loving defensive back.
Director: Adam McKay
There are so many reasons to love this movie: Will Ferrel and Amy Adams recreating White Snake’s “Here I Go Again” video; Elvis Costello and Mos Def randomly hanging out with Ricky Bobby’s French nemesis, delightfully played by Sasha Baron Cohen; Ricky Bobby trying to overcome his fears by driving with a cougar in the car. But the chief reason is Will Ferrell’s prayer to “Eight-Pound, Six-Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent.”—Josh Jackson
Director: Gurinder Chadha
When Jess (Parminder Nagra) joins a football (er, that’s soccer to us Yanks) team against her strict parents’ wishes, she finds herself not only at odds with Mom and Dad, but caught in a love triangle with her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley) and their coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). This surprise coming-of-age hit struck a perfect balance between comedy and drama, poking fun at cultural differences while also raising serious questions about race relations and challenging a more conservative generation’s set of beliefs.
Director: Ron Shelton
What this tale of an odd-couple street hoops duo (Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes) who hustle opponents to pay off gambling debts lacks in structure it makes up in charm. Trash-talking and “yo momma” jokes abound, and Rosie Perez appears on Jeopardy! to dominate the “Foods That Start With the Letter Q” category.
Director: Clint Eastwood
The best movies make us think, and in 2004, Million Dollar Baby sparked a debate over (spoiler alert if you’ve still got this one in your Netflix queue) euthanasia after Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn decides to put down his paralyzed protoge, Maggie Fitzgerald. Regardless of how you feel about the coach’s decision, it made for a riveting movie, one that also earned Morgan Freeman his first Oscar for his supporting role as Scrap-Iron Dupris.
Paul Newman won his only Academy Award for reviving his role as “Fast Eddie” Felsen, the title character of 1961’s The Hustler. Martin Scorsese directs this gritty drama that finds a middle-aged Eddie reluctantly returning to the hustle as a mentor to Tom Cruise’s young pool shark, like a matinee idol passing the torch to the next generation. Not one of Scorsese’s classics, The Color of Money nevertheless features plenty of seedy pool-hall texture, as well as the famous scene of Cruise showing off his cue-stick wizardry while singing along to “Werewolves of London.”—Curt Holman
Director: David Anspaugh
Long before he was a hobbit, Sean Astin was Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, an unlikely football player with dreams of playing for Notre Dame. Rudy seems to lack everything he needs to achieve his dream—good grades, money, actual football ability—but if you think for one second that those minor details are going to get in the way of him achieving his goal, you’ve got another thing coming.
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Pop this one in next time you’re visiting the ‘rents if you want to watch Dad have a good cry. Field of Dreams isn’t just about father issues, though. It’s about that pesky American Dream, when it’s okay to chase it and when it’s time to hang it up. Sure, it’s hokey and totally Hollywood (see: dialogue like “Is there a heaven?” “Oh yeah. It’s the place dreams come true”), but you’ve got a heart of steel if you can’t suspend disbelief and get a little misty when Ray finally has a catch with his dad’s ghost. On paper, it’s hard to believe people would pay money to watch a movie involving an Iowa farmer who plows over his crops because he heard a voice that told him to, time travel and a magical baseball field that may or may not be purgatory, but oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
Director: Sam Wood
Gary Cooper stars as the legendary Lou Gehrig, whose stunning career was ultimately cut short by the nerve disease that would carry his name. But it’s impossible to view this film and this man’s life without feeling a bit optimistic, especially when Cooper recreates Gehrig’s humble farewell speech. When he utters that famous, powerful line to a packed Yankee Stadium, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” you can’t help but be overwhelmed by goosebumps. It’s one of the saddest happy endings ever.—Joe Shearer
Director: Darren Aronofsky
American filmmakers may have rediscovered emotional realism, but no conversion is more surprising than Darren Aronofsky’s. His unadorned portrait of a pro-wrestling has-been is built around a fantastic, physical performance by Mickey Rourke, captured with a documentary style that renders his dingy world all the more strange, funny and heartbreaking. In his own words, he’s “a broken-down piece of meat,” and Rourke, back from actor purgatory, brings ample baggage to the role—including his bulked-up, modified body, his sandpapered larynx and his craving for an unlikely comeback. Randy “The Ram” Robinson can’t keep doing pile drivers forever, especially as the game evolves into something even more brutal, but what else is there? He’s distant from his daughter, but he has a flirtatious, tentative relationship with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) who’s facing the same injustice of the ticking clock. The movie, with its dime-store romance, breezy dialogue and telegraphed emotion, feels a bit like a grungier Rocky, but at times the understated attitude, grime and destitution are closer to Raging Bull.—Robert Davis
Director: John G. Avildson
We all love a good underdog story, and Rocky is the ultimate, pitting poor, beef-punching Rocky Balboa against lean, mean, fighting machine Apollo Creed. The champ rolls into Philly to take on the amateur in what’s supposed to be an easy victory, but, when he’s not wooing Adrian, the Italian Stallion is training hard against the backdrop of one of the most memorable soundtracks of all time. It’s enough to inspire even the most sedentary of us to throw on a gray sweatsuit and sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—almost.
Director: Harold Ramis
Bill Murray’s turn in Caddyshack as Carl Spackler—the utterly hapless groundskeeper of Bushwood Country Club—is one of his most iconic roles. Maybe it’s his permanent-burnout demeanor, or maybe it’s his nonsensical tales of caddying for the Dalai Lama. Either way, his love of explosives and endlessly quotable one-liners (“In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre: ‘Au revoir, gopher.’”) have enshrined him in the annals of ’80s B-comedies.—Josh Jackson
Director: Barry Levinson
Baseball has inspired more movies than any other sport, but the greatest of them all is The Natural. Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is a promising, young prospect with a bright career ahead of him in the 1930s when a troubled femme fatale guns him down at age 19. Sixteen years after the fact, he isn’t ready to let go of his love of the game, getting signed to a fictional scrub team called the New York Knights. It’s more than a story about baseball; it’s about a middle-aged man living his dream despite the naysayers. It’s a tale about a guy distracted by the glitzy glamorous babes all famous people gravitate towards, only to discover a happier life with his high-school sweetheart (Glenn Close). But when Hobbs hits the big two home runs—the one that breaks the clock, and the showstopper at the end that kills the lights, literally—and Randy Newman’s beautiful score triumphantly takes over, you know this is the ultimate take on the summer classic.—Joe Shearer
Director: Hugh Hudson
Oftentimes, as we were reminded by TV commentators frequently these past few weeks, the Olympics are about far more than sport. In the case of this 1981 British classic, the Games are a lesson in religious tolerance and sheer determination. The film chronicles the experiences of two runners—Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian—at the 1924 Olympics. Like many great sports flicks, it’s a tale of sacrifice and overcoming odds, and it’s got an iconic score to boot.
Director: Steve James
Seldom has a film, narrative or documentary, so probingly explored the American Dream. In this case, the version of the dream that young William Gates and Arthur Agee have bought into is redemption (and fortune and fame) through athletic achievement. That the odds are stacked so heavily against those dreams ever coming true only makes their dearest hopes that much more poignant. Steve James famously spent nearly eight years making the film, and despite its nearly three-hour running time, it doesn’t feel long at all. Every frame feels essential.—Michael Dunaway
Director: David Anspaugh
The ultimate tribute to Indiana basketball is also a few other things: a morality play, a history, an honest reckoning of the pros and cons of small-town life. If you don’t get emotional while watching the pastoral opening credits, you’ve never lived there—and you’ve never lived.—Nick Marino
Director: Martin Scorsese
Often regarded as Scorsese’s masterpiece, this biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta is a compelling character study, chronicling LaMotta’s violent outbursts inside and outside the ring. It’s beautifully shot in bleak black-and-white, and Robert De Niro (who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance) plays the prizefighter like a clenched fist, lashing out at friends, family and anyone who looks at him the wrong way.