The 25 Best Sports Movies of All Time
Sports movies are ingrained into our culture. Sure, many sports films follow a familiar path—the underdog team full of misfits that somehow comes together as a team and conquers the competition.
However, the best sports films tend to transcend these cliches, using the familiar structure to deliver character insights or cultural critiques.
Sports also can become a metaphor for personal struggles and challenges embodied in an athletic event.
Success on the field often equates to success in life or the vanquishing of personal struggles. Below are the best sports movies of all-time, memorable flicks that somehow rose above the genre’s predictability to become cultural touchstones.
1. Rocky (1976)
This Best Picture Oscar winner made Sylvester Stallone a star and launched a film franchise that continues to this day. It’s easy to forget how good this initial entry in the Rocky series was as it follows a journeyman boxer given the shot at a title by a champion looking for a fight he can sell to the public.
Rocky’s story and his relationship with Adrian is the focal point of the film. So much so that who wins the fight at the end is immaterial, Rocky has won his personnel battles.
2. Slapshot (1977)
The hilarious story of a minor league hockey team that resorts to extreme tactics, Slapshot delivers a good, hard punch to many of the genre’s most tired cliches.
Paul Newman is the player-coach of the Charleston Chiefs, a team on the brink as the local steel mill is closing, and the entire town falls on hard economic times. Newman begins a quest to save the team by any means necessary, often with vulgar and violent results.
The Chief’s desperation and frustration, and the team’s use of violence to deal with both, become an outlet for a community on edge.
3. Bad News Bears (1976)
Director Michael Ritchie’s comedy takes dead aim at parents overly invested in youth sports and delivers. Walter Matthau plays an alcoholic former minor league baseball player hired to coach a team of kids who weren’t good enough to make the little league.
One parent sued, resulting in a team of leftovers and outcasts. The first act is slow, but the final act and climatic game is one of the best sequences of any sports film as all of the story threads come together. Matthau’s dug-out meltdown and the realization he has become what he hates is amazing.
4. Raging Bull (1980)
Some consider Raging Bull to be Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. The story of Jake LaMotta and his demons was polarizing somewhat polarizing with critics upon its release. It has since become regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
In a way, this is the anti-sports film, washing away all the romanticism and hero-worship we apply to athletes. What makes Jake LaMotta a compelling and successful fighter in the ring does not translate to making him a successful person outside of it.
5. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Considered by Roger Ebert as the best film of the decade, this documentary follows the basketball dreams of William Gates and Arthur Agee.
The two African American teenagers are recruited to play at the predominantly white, private, St. Joseph High School in the Chicago suburbs.
Originally intended as a 30-minute PBS documentary, the filmmakers ended up following their youthful subjects for eight years, documenting their sports dreams from the playground to high school to college.
A compelling 3-hour documentary, Hoop Dreams does far more than simply follow its subject’s athletic aspirations.
6. The Wrestler (2008)
Director Darren Aronofsky’s film stars Mickey Rourke as an aging wrestler Robin Ramzinski. Ramzinski is well past his prime and facing serious health issues as he tries to cling to his past fame and success.
Rourke’s performance is a tour-de-force as the film follows Ramzinski as he attempts to navigate life and deal with the fact his wrestling days might soon be behind him.
A League of Their Own (1992) – Penny Marshall’s heartwarming tale follows the creation of a women’s baseball league during World War II. Tom Hanks is a washed-up former ballplayer hired to manage a team that includes the best player in the league (Geena Davis) and her sister (Lori Petty). Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell appear in supporting roles.
The film is funny, and its ending is unexpectedly poignant. The heart of this film is the sisterly rivalry between the characters played by Davis and Petty and adds much to the film’s already rich story line.
7. Breaking Away (1979)
A coming of age story that is punctuated by cycling, Breaking Away is a heartwarming late 1970s comedy.
Four high school friends face adulthood and the potential end of their friendships as they start to go their separate ways. Our four heroes also have a rivalry with the college kids who come to Bloomington to attend the University of Indiana.
At the center of the film is Dave Stohler played by Dennis Christopher, a cycling obsessed kid, reluctant to leave his friends and go to college. If you sense that this film’s end might involve a bike race between the townie kids and the college preppies, you’d be right.
8. Bull Durham (1988)
Bull Durham is a comedy that deftly combines sex and baseball. Kevin Costner plays a minor league baseball catcher who is just good enough to remain in the minors for a long time, but not quite good enough to make it to the major league.
Tim Robbins is the young, dumb star pitcher he’s charged with mentoring. Susan Sarandon plays a woman who, each season, takes on the best local player as a lover – the relationships tend to last only a season or so as the players usually either wash out or move on to the majors.
This is a film that deftly blends sports themes and a love triangle, creating an entertaining, funny look at the world of minor baseball.
9. I, Tonya (2017)
This Tonya Harding biopic recounts the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and its aftermath. The film delves deep into numerous issues delivering a somewhat empathetic and controversial view of what transpired.
Harding is a poor girl who is struggling to fit in the skating world. She’s not tall and thin, but stocky and powerful. She’s from a poor family and participating in a sport that is fairly expensive to pursue. Her home life is chaotic. The media is happy to build up and then tear down her persona.
10. The Karate Kid (1984)
The feel-good story of an outcast who learns karate and gets the girl in the end, The Karate Kid follows a familiar formula.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Mr. Miyagi. Their acting and the relationship between the characters elevate the film and make it one of its best of its kind. Some parts might seem a bit cheesy and dated today, but the two central characters’ unique friendship sets the film apart.
The film also deserves high marks for actually showing Daniel’s training rather than relying on a music-filled montage. The film also has given us the Netflix series Cobra Kai, which is one of the best sports series on TV.
11. Major League (1989)
Silly and fun, Major League revels in being a light, fun baseball comedy. Major League is an enjoyable ride for the audience, embracing some of the genre’s most predictable tropes.
The Cleveland Indians’ owner wants to move the team, so she assembles the worst group players to tank the season. Of course, this group of nobodies suddenly starts winning. Often hilarious, the film is engaging and fun.
It’s also a bit prescient, given that team tanking to secure draft position has increasingly become a thing across all professional team sports.
12. One Day in September (1999)
The story of the Munich Massacre, this documentary unfolds like a thriller, using archival footage and interviews.
Narrated by Michael Douglas, the film tells the story of Israeli athletes taken hostage by terrorists during the 20th Olympic games. The film presents the unfolding tragedy while the Olympics continue in the background, and an ill-equipped West German government struggles with the crises. The climax of the film details a disastrous rescue attempt and its horrifying results.
13. The Longest Yard (1974)
Burt Reynolds starred in this comedy-drama in which a former star college quarterback leads a prison football team in a game against the guards.
The film contains some great performances, including Eddie Albert as the sadistic warden. The game isn’t about football, really, but power, control, and submission. It’s a metaphor that extends far outside the lines of the football field.
14. Remember the Titans (2000)
Denzel Washington stars as real-life high school football coach Herman Boone. After the high school integrates, Boone is brought in to ease racial tensions while leading the football team. Passed over is the white coach Bill Yoast who eventually becomes Boone’s assistant. The movie is a terrific sports film that also grapples with issues of prejudice and racial identity.
15. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes are a couple of hoopster con men who decide to team up and make some real money. Rosie Perez stars as Harrelson’s somewhat superstitious girlfriend who stays with her man, even when he consistently does dumb things and routinely loses all of their money.
The interracial friendship between Harrelson and Snipes provides the core of the film and many of its laughs. Eventually, Harrelson is able to find success on the court and make some real money, but the cost is higher than he expects.
16. The Natural (1984)
Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbs, the greatest pitcher ever in baseball – until he is shot and becomes its greatest hitter during an improbable comeback. The film is predictable but works as a baseball fairytale.
Hobbs is the hero who goes on a quest for baseball greatness, only to encounter villains who need vanquishing – a psychotic woman who shoots people, an evil newspaper reporter, a villainous owner and his henchman, and even a femme fatale. The film is defined by some fairly magical on field moments and visuals.
17. The Hustler (1961)
The original sports “hustler” movie, the film follows two pool players on their way to take on the legendary “Minnesota Fats.” Starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and George C. Scott, The Hustler has influenced many films, including White Men Can’t Jump and Kingpin.
Unlike those films, “The Hustler” is a drama and, at times, tragic. Filled with desperate characters attempting to use their skill at a game to make a living and improve their lives.
18. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The story of Lou Gehrig, the film came out only about a year after his untimely death due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The film is a biopic that is more about Gehrig’s humanity and dedication to the game than it is about baseball or winning the big game.
The movie includes performances by several of his teammates who played themselves, including Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig.
19. Rudy (1993)
The inspiring story of Daniel Ruettiger, who pursues his dream of attending Notre Dame and playing football despite significant challenges. Ruettiger has dyslexia, lack of money to attend a private university, and is undersized to play college football.
Ruettiger is the ultimate underdog who achieves his dreams on and off the field through heart, tenacity, and hard work. The scenes of Ruettiger winning over his skeptical teammates and disbelieving coaches is inspiring.
Ruettiger is a winner not because he wins games or becomes a superstar, but rather because he sets goals and achieves them.
20. Brian’s Song (1971)
This made-for-television film tells the story of friendship between undrafted NFL free agent Brian Piccolo and superstar Gale Sayers. Starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, the film aired just 18 months after Piccolo’s sudden death from cancer.
Brian’s Song is considered one of the greatest TV movies ever made and actually ended up garnering a limited theatrical run. The film is part of the “tearjerker sports movie” subgenre and evokes some genuine emotion, even if some of the production values are of the cheap TV variety.
21. Field of Dreams (1989)
Kevin Costner is an Iowa farmer who hears voices and decides to build a baseball field amidst his cornfields. Yes, the film is as “corny” as it sounds. But it works on a very sentimental level as it explores the timelessness of the game the filmmakers clearly love.
Costner’s journey and pursuit of his “crazy” idea is a fun ride for the audience. The film unfolds as a bit of a mystery, as the audience discovers along with Costner’s character what the point of it all is.
22. Caddyshack (1980)
Director Harold Ramis’ gross-out golf comedy is now considered a classic. Originally the film was supposed to be a coming-of-age film that focused on the caddies.
That focus shifted dramatically during filming, primarily because of the performances of Bill Murray as a groundskeeper and Rodney Dangerfield as a loutish golfer.
Disjointed and unfocused from a plot perspective, the film works in its own scatological way. In the end, Ramis went with what was funny and cut everything else.
23. Hoosiers (1986)
Gene Hackman plays the new high school basketball coach for the tiny town of Hickory, Indiana. Hoosiers is a cliched filled, shallow sports film elevated by Hackman’s performance and that of Dennis Hopper, who plays the town drunk given a shot at being an assistant coach.
None of the players are particularly well-developed, including Jimmy Chitwood – the best player on the team who refuses to play at first because of issues we are told about, but never see or experience from his point of view.
Also, the team isn’t very good until Chitwood shows up, which undercuts any notion that Hackman is a good coach.
24. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood’s story of a cynical boxing coach who is cajoled into coaching a female fighter won the oscar for best picture.
The heart of the story is the relationship between boxing coach Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank). Morgan Freeman plays a supporting role Dunn’s friend and employee.
An emotional story about friendship and about Dunn’s true character as a person, the film struck a chord with audiences and critics alike.
25. Kingpin (1996)
Funny and distasteful, Kingpin happily mocks many of the established sports film tropes and does so effectively. Randy Quaid is an Amish farm boy who can bowl. Woody Harrelson plays a former great bowler who lost his hand after a scam gone bad.
Harrison recruits the farm boy for a cross country journey and a chance at his own redemption. The film is a satire that takes aim at sports films and road movies and does so with glee. Also, there are plenty of fish-out-of-water jokes associated with the Quaid characters Amish background.