It’s no secret that sport is emotive. But what defines the sports genre? Is it a film where the plot centres around the buildup to a big sporting event? Or is it simply a film that contains a sport? The events of The Big Lebowski, for example, arguably would never have happened if it weren’t for that bowling team full of misfits. For the sake of this Top 10, we’re going to stick to the former, and with this in mind, and with the imminent release of Eddie the Eagle, ORWAV have thrown together a list of the top 10 sports films we think everyone should see. Agree? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
10. Days of Thunder (1990)
Days of Thunder is essentially Top Gun, but with race cars – so what’s not to love? Before the likes of Rush, DoT was the first film to really portray the thrill and adrenaline of Nascar. This is the greatest example of Tony Scott’s unique and eccentric style, bringing back Tom Cruise to head up an all-star cast. Cruise is on fire as the charismatic Cole Trickle, playing him with ease and verve. With mixed reviews over the years, it isn’t an obvious pick for the Top Ten – but to use the film’s astute tagline, “you can’t outrun the Thunder”. Offer it a chance, and try and stop yourself from grinning.
9. Coach Carter (2005)
Take a rough-and-ready group of scared inner-city high school kids, throw in a sassy and inspiring basketball coach, and a peppering of inspirational speeches about how most of these kids won’t make it to college, and you pretty much have the biographical Coach Carter. There’s nothing here we didn’t see in films such as Half Nelson, but similarity does not equal inadequacy. The film’s well-constructed, witty script ensures the film has a purpose, asking its audience ‘what is your biggest fear?’ For the characters, and probably most of the audience, it’s the fear of failure. This is what makes Coach Carter one of the most relatable sports films around, demonstrating through the medium of basketball that you don’t always have to win to be successful.
8. The Karate Kid (1984)
You simply can’t have a Top Ten of sports films without at least mentioning The Karate Kid. For a lot of us, this was the coming-of-age film of our childhoods, one we hold close to our hearts. There’s not a lot to say here, apart from the fact that its considerable charm is what has made The Karate Kid a film for the ages. Overlook the 2010 rehash that attempted to rejuvenate a gem for the next generation – there’s nothing to see there. But if you just want to sit back and enjoy some classic training montages, and a pre-My Cousin Vinnie Ralph Macchio, then this is your film. Even if Daniel is the real bully.
7. Blades of Glory (2007)
Right from the outset, Blades of Glory manages to set itself apart from other comedies of the genre. With a cast boasting Will Ferrell, Jon Heder and Amy Poehler, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re at least in for a few laughs. And BoG doesn’t disappoint. Make no mistake, you’ll either love or hate this film. Yet where this film makes its mark is its incredible choreography. You don’t see too many films about ice skating, and especially about the first all-male skating partnership (cue Jon Heder as his usual sparkly, camp self). However, it’s the over-the-top routines (don’t miss Poehler and her interpretive portrayal of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide attempt) and bejeweled leotards that make this film great.
6. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Woody Harrelson is on top form in White Men Can’t Jump as Billy Hoyle, who makes his money by conning black basketball players into underestimating his skills on the court. When he successfully swindles Sidney (Wesley Snipes), they decide to partner up to take on the Los Angeles streetballers scene. Whilst WMCJ features basketball, the real heart of this film is the growing respect between our central characters. Harrelson and Snipes have a great chemistry, and both deliver strong physical comedic performances. Director Ron Shelton deserves a fair share of the praise for actually creating well-rounded and relatable characters, without dousing the audience in a drop of condescension or snobbery. Aside from a bittersweet ending, this is a genuinely funny, feel-good buddy comedy of pure showboating perfection.
5. Bull Durham (1988)
For the most part, Bull Durham is a baseball biopic about a minor-league veteran (Kevin Costner) sent to the Durham Bulls to coach a rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins) on the intricacies of the beautiful game. On the other hand, it’s a light-hearted romantic comedy, centering around the love triangle involving our two leads, and the femme fatale of the piece (Susan Sarandon). What this film does best, however, is to have the most accurate depiction of the simplicity and whimsy of baseball. In its own words, “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball”. And there’s no other film about baseball that demonstrates this sentiment quite as well as Bull Durham. Once again Ron Shelton appears on this list as he magically transforms the ‘Hollywood non-starter’ that is baseball into a $60 million smash hit. Enjoy Bull Durham, as it’s always a rare pleasure to see Kevin Costner doing comedy, and doing it well.
4. Rush (2013)
Exhilarating and high-octane, this is essentially everything you could ever want from a film about Formula 1. Telling the tale of the mythic rivalry between boy racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, Rush never fails to satisfy. On first look, you wonder how accessible a film about racing could be. However, two incredibly charismatic performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl carry the film, and safely secure its place in this list. The electric cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle will have you sweating in your seat for days as Ron Howard delivers his best film in decades. A piston- and heart-pumping triumph of the highest level.
3. The Blind Side (2009)
Directed by John Lee Hancock, a veteran of the sports-film genre with his drama The Rookie, The Blind Side took everyone by surprise in 2009. This is the true story of the homeless Mike Oher, taken in by a generous white middle-class family, who goes onto become an all-star American Football player. Although Sandra Bullock’s Tennessee accent grates on some, it’s a surface level detail – Bullock delivers a performance that carries this film from start to finish. Her ability to elevate what could have been a humdrum schmaltzy flick into a film with real heart, soul and passion more than justifies her Best Actress Oscar. If you can escape without shedding at least one solitary tear by the end, we don’t even want to know you.
2. Raging Bull (1980)
Why do people enjoy watching fights? Is it our innate animalistic desire to see violence? Is it to see the artistry of humankind doing battle? Either way, boxing is an often maligned and underappreciated sport with many treating those who fight as thugs or inbreds. A complete falsity, and cinema has gone someway to helping defeat this ugly stereotype – even the brutal Raging Bull, with its balance of character, narrative, and beautifully-realised violence. It’s not gratuitous, it’s art. Scorsese’s delectable choreography of Jake LaMotta landing blows, captured through Michael Chapman’s stunning cinematography, all to the tune of the Intermezzo (from Cavalleria rusticana), is pure cinema. Raging Bull stands tall above the rest as it balances the beauty of the sport with fully realised and human characters. Robert De Niro is at his career best at he explores the mind of what it really takes to fight, to be the best at it, and what happens when you’re no longer number one.
1. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Right from the opening moments of Million Dollar Baby, with the dulcet voiceover of Morgan Freeman alongside a plodding acoustic soundtrack, you know you’re about to witness something special. Million Dollar Baby depicts the journey of Maggie Fitzgerald, a ‘trailerpark trash’ thirtysomething, who in her own words “would never amount to anything.” That is until Clint Eastwood’s weary boxing coach takes her under his wing, training her all the way to the welterweight title fight. There are plenty of films about boxing, but it’s rare to find one that successfully depicts women in the sport without talking down to the subject or its audience. The less said about Girl Fight the better. Hilary Swank was born for this role. Every actor has their perfect role, and Swank’s is Maggie Fitzgerald. Played to perfection, she’s tough, vulnerable, troubled, honest and human. Eastwood uses Swank to great effect, balancing her efforts with the soft in Freeman, and the hard from himself.
Of course, Roger Ebert perfectly encapsulated why this film works so well: “Movies are so often made of effects and sensation these days. This one is made of three people and how their actions grow out of who they are and why. Nothing else. But isn’t that everything?”
And there you have it, our top ten sports films of all time. Although we’ve taken the classical definition of sports film, that doesn’t mean special mention shouldn’t go out to the likes of Jerry Maguire and The Big Lebowski, and a multitude of others that would have kept the list going for days.