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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.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published August 2015]

From Rolling Stone US

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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

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‘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 best was enough for David to slay Goliath. It’s a fable delivered without a wink, embodied by Hackman’s perfectly-aged performance that’s filled with rock-ribbed quiet decency. TG

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‘The Pride of the Yankees’ (1942)

First baseman and power hitter Henry “Lou” Gehrig was one of the best to ever don the Yankees uniform — and thanks to this movie, every generation who came after the Iron Horse’s heyday pictures Gary Cooper when you say his name. Like most sports biopics of the time, this retelling about Gehrig’s life, career and ultimate demise from ALS (a disease that’s synonymous with his name) is shamelessly sentimental, incredibly inspiring and focuses just as much on mythologizing the man as it does the game. It’s chock full of fellow pinstripers who played alongside him — yup, that’s the real Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel and Bill Dickey onscreen — and contains one of the most iconic sports-flick scenes of all time in Cooper’s recreation of Number Four’s farewell speech. Show just about any baseball fan that “luckiest man in the world” moment, and you’ll see waterworks. DF

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‘White Men Can’t Jump’ (1992)

A deceptively raucous celebration of smack-talk and slam dunks, White Men Can’t Jump is but one of writer-director Ron Shelton’s affectionate but clear-eyed examinations of the games men play in order to forget they’re not kids anymore. Real-life pals Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes make for a sharp comedic dynamic duo as dead-end Venice Beach streetballers reluctantly teaming up to win local competitions. More than 20 years later, their verbal dexterity and energetic give-and-go remain a consistent, buzzy delight. Which makes the movie’s wistful tone all the more poignant: Soon enough, adult responsibilities are going to strip away these guys’ hoop dreams. TG

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‘Friday Night Lights’ (2004)

Adapting Buzz Bissinger’s nonfiction account of one season with a high-school football team in Odessa, Texas, was never going to be easy. How do you capture all the true-life grit and journalistic detail without sacrificing a need for sports-movie drama? Director Peter Berg found the answer by balancing documentary-inspired handheld camerawork against the soaring emotions of the players’ lives both off and on the field, then grounding the entire affair via a rock-solid performance from Billy Bob Thornton as a deeply invested coach. The TV show may have eclipsed the movie at this point, but the elements that made the series great — the interpersonal relations, the small-town sports mania, the nailbiting gridiron drama — were already fully developed here long before the small screen version started waxing poetic about clear eyes and full hearts. KP

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‘Senna’ (2010)

Brazil’s Ayrton Senna became a national hero and the photogenic face of the Formula One circuit in the Eighties and Nineties before an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 ended his life. Asif Kapadia’s portrait of the champion racer relies on home movies, press conferences, off-screen interviews and you-are-there footage from the driver’s seat to piece together a career never short of tumult — including an intense rivalry with French driver and former teammate Alain Prost. Senna emerges as a charismatic, uniquely skilled figure whose love for racing was not always returned by organizations more concerned with spectacle than safety. A documentary that detailed his triumphs would be thrilling enough; Kapadia’s ability to capture an athlete’s life solely through his actions and accomplishments turns this into something above and beyond the let-us-now-praise-great-men genre. KP

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‘When We Were Kings’ (1996)

Leon Gast flew to Zaire in 1974 to shoot the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, then spent over 20 years chasing the money to finish his film. The persistence paid off: Blessed with the benefit of two decades’ perspective, his Oscar-winning documentary is pretty much the definitive last word on the legendary bout, complete with talking-head testimonies from Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, training clips and footage of the moment the Greatest takes back the belt. At the time of the match, Ali was the underdog, taking on an undefeated heavyweight champion in some folks thought was a folly and others predicted would end in a massacre. But when you watch the charismatic fighter running down crowded African streets as children chant his name, you suddenly believe that the people’s champ simply can’t be brought down or broken. The title says it all. NM

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‘Slap Shot’ (1977)

Drawing on her brother Ned Dowd’s experiences in the lowest reaches of professional hockey, screenwriter Nancy Dowd created this spirited, profane tribute to sports’ lost causes and those who see them through to the end. Paul Newman stars as a player/coach who resorts to questionable, often violent, tactics to boost the profits of the Charlestown Chiefs, the local heroes of a failing steel-mill town. Director George Roy Hill directs the ice-rink mayhem with tremendous energy, but it’s the underlying sense of futility that makes the film resonate. The Chiefs may win, but the world keeps reminding them they were born to lose. Long live the Hanson brothers. KP

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‘Bull Durham’ (1988)

For middle-aged minor-league catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner), baseball has become less about winning than persevering — a habit that may now be more foolish than noble. His latest assignment, taming the talented, erratic young pitcher “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins), may feel like a glorified babysitting job. But it also brings him into contact with Annie (Susan Sarandon), a worshipper at a self-created “Church Of Baseball” with an annual habit of taking on a promising young player each year as a personal project. A tribute to those whose love for the game needs no limelight, Bull Durham is at once a breezy romance, a knowing look at the less-glamorous aspects of America’s pastime, and a story about how the compromises of aging aren’t just unavoidable — they’re far preferable to clinging to the past. KP

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‘Caddyshack’ (1980)

You can argue that it’s not the greatest golf movie of all time, but you’d be wrong; eminently quotable and supremely rewatchable, Caddyshack has earned a sizable cult following since arriving in theaters in the summer of 1980, and it’s easy to see why. From Rodney Dangerfield crushing one-liners like Jordan Spieth in the tee box and Bill Murray’s standout turn as slack-jawed groundskeeper Carl Spackler (locked in an eternal struggle to rid the course of “Varmint Cong,”) to Ted Knight’s villainous Judge Smails and Chevy Chase’s laconic, ironic Ty Webb, there’s something for everyone – even folks who hate golf. Little wonder then, that 35 years after it was first released, it remains the gold standard of shiftless, semi-stoned sports films and the spiritual forefather of flicks like The Big Lebowski. Try and forget the truly awful sequel, and remember a simpler time, when the weed was good, the gophers unkillable and everybody did, in fact, end up getting laid. It’s a Cinderella story, indeed. JM

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‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

“I didn’t know anything about boxing,” director Martin Scorsese once confessed, which probably explains why Raging Bull is such a brutal, unromantic portrait of the sport and the film’s real-life protagonist — the charmless but utterly compelling Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro). Shooting in black & white and incorporating innovative fight scenes that emphasized raw violence, Scorsese didn’t so much make a boxing movie as he continued a thread from his earlier films, exploring the ways that masculinity poisons everyone in its path. Less a biopic than a psychological study of what it takes to get in the ring (and what happens when you take that killer instinct home with you), it’s the anti-Rocky: There are no moral victories, and our hero certainly doesn’t get the girl. TG

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‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976)

Not every youngster grows up to be Mike Trout. Most of us grind through our Little League years on the scrub-end of bench, more interested in the post-game pizza party than the score. That’s what makes The Bad News Bears so timeless — even if the sight of Walter Matthau playing a beer-guzzling single guy overseeing latchkey children screams “Yes, this most definitely is the 1970s.” Writer Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie capture the pressure grown-ups put on pre-teens who have more on their minds than sports. But they also convey the bond that develops among kids who never expected to care so much about whether they win or lose, which only makes the ending that much more perfect. Also: Kelly Leak forever. NM

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‘Rocky’ (1976)

Hey, remember when Rocky Balboa wasn’t considered an example of lunkheaded Reagan-era jingoism, but rather a soulful, working-class underdog? There’s a reason the original Rocky won a Best Picture Oscar: It’s a surprisingly lived-in, sensitive drama about a broken-down boxer who gets one last, very unlikely chance to prove himself against the World Heavyweight Champion, played by a wonderful Carl Weathers (just because you’re a nemesis doesn’t mean you can’t have a soul). Those hang-dog eyes, that sensuous mouth, that shrinking demeanor, even his characteristically slurred speech – there’s something so noble about this very human bruiser, and the then-unknown Stallone, who also won an Oscar for the screenplay, must have seemed like such a revelation. And if you want sports-movie symbolism, you could not do better than the driven, determined Rocky going for round after round with the red-white-and-blue clad Creed – the American dream as Sisyphean beat-down. BE

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‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)

Initially inspired by its makers’ shared obsession with basketball, this story of inner-city dreams started as an idea for a 30-minute nonfiction short about playground hoopsters. It then evolved into a three-hour odyssey about high school kids William Gates and Arthur Agee as they try to make their way to the NBA. A landmark American documentary, this compassionate labor of love from filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx has plenty of on-court action and suspense. (It’s possible no single free throw has ever been so nerve-wracking in the history of cinema.) But Hoop Dreams is even more powerful as a look at poverty, racial inequality and adolescence — the agonies of everyday life that sports only occasionally help us forget. TG