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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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‘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