This is not a list of films about sport. We've already got a big list of the best sports documentaries, which is over here if you want it. No, this is about the sports film proper: the rags-to-riches tales, the underdog stories, the fish-out-of-water bobsledding yarns.
Tactically speaking, sports films tend to stick to the cinematic equivalent of four-four-flipping-two. One individual either finds an unexpected talent in a niche sport, or yearns to show their long-denied love of it. Either way, something's stopping them: it might be parents who think it's a waste of time, or snooty gatekeepers who don't want some oik upsetting the status quo, or the prejudices of the world at large.
They'll not be stopped, though, oh no. Through determination, training montages, and the advice of a wise shaman figure who got near the top and had their dreams destroyed by injury, they come out on top, proving to the naysayers, their family and themselves that yes, sport is brilliant.
Sturdy as it is, there's a load of great sports films which totally sidestep all of that though. Here are 11 of the best sports movies ever.
Days of Thunder (1990)
I am not saying that Days of Thunder is a great film. I'm not even saying it's great within the bounds of sports films. It is, however, the most powerfully sports film-y sports film ever made. Tom Cruise is the maverick rookie Nascar driver Cole Trickle (Cole! Trickle!!) who the suits don't trust behind the wheel of a car, but – goddammit – might just be the best god damn race driver who god damn drove a god damn sports god damn car. If only he'd stop blowing his engine, he'd show them all. All of the essential sports film pieces are here and they're dialled up to 11. Robert Duvall is the wise old sage figure. There's a training montage, but this time it's spent on doing up a car. Trickle has a rival who he hates so much he can't even resist racing when they're both pootling around a hospital in wheelchairs after a big smash. Gleefully, gloriously stupid stuff.
Le Mans 66 (2019)
At the other end of the motorsport film scale is the daddest dad film of an intensely daddish year in cinema. It's got beautiful mid-Sixties cars. It's got Matt Damon in a Stetson. It's got a bug-eyed Christian Bale making a welcome return to extraordinarily chewy accent which slides around the Midlands and occasionally into Wales. Just to really tweak the dads' tear ducts, Bale's got a pie-eyed son too. It's all about car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Bale) as they try to make a car which can win the Le Mans 24-hour race, and show those sniffy Italians over at Ferrari what's what.
Raging Bull (1980)
Cinema has loved boxing stories since its earliest days. As far back as 1894, bouts were staged and filmed to best show off both the athletes' prowess and the power of the Kinetograph. Martin Scorsese's opus was in black and white just as those early films were, though that was only because Scorsese's mentor, the British director Michael Powell, pointed out that he'd got the colour of the calfskin boxing gloves wrong. Robert de Niro is Jake LaMotta, bruised and broken, reflecting on the greatness which he so nearly gained in the ring, and the pursuit of which destroyed his life.
Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan's second collaboration following Fruitvale Station was their first decisive launch into mainstream blockbuster territory. Taking Rocky, one of the great Hollywood franchises in its day but increasingly a silly old mess, and rebooting it with Jordan as the son of Rocky Balboa's great nemesis-friend Apollo Creed was a sharp idea. It could still have been a vapid retread of former glories, though, but for Jordan's muscular charisma and the boldness of Coogler's direction: a single four minute-long take following the first round of a bout at head height, bobbing and weaving around the boxers, is an absolute haymaker.
The Damned United (2009)
Egotistical, fragile, driven, monstrous, wonderful: Brian Clough was one of the great characters of 20th century sport, and his 44-day disaster as manager of Leeds United one of its great cautionary tales. Michael Sheen's spooky inhabitation of Clough rightly got the plaudits, but the heart of it is the relationship between Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), and their rise to the top with Derby County: treat it with caution, historically speaking, but it does get to the emotional truth of a relationship between two men who needed each other more than they were willing to admit.
I, Tonya (2017)
In the early Nineties Tonya Harding was one of the great talents in ice skating. The sport's snobbish establishment looked down their noses at her though: her homemade costumes, her ZZ Top-soundtracked routines and working class upbringing mean she can't belong. In this retelling of her rise, fall and the clashing half-truths and ulterior motives of the shady incompetents around her Margot Robbie is Harding, and Allison Janney is particularly excellent as her flinty, acerbic, callous mother. Funny but bleak.
"There's rich teams, and there's poor teams," Brad Pitt's Billy Beane says. "Then there's 50 feet of crap, then there's us." Sick of playing baseball the way that the traditionalists in the back room believe it should should always be played, Pitt and Jonah Hill are the odd couple bent on reshaping the game around stats, undervalued outsiders and unconventional tactics. Beane, the apparently blithe head coach at the Oakland A's who's still haunted by his own failures as a player, recruits Hill as his startled, stat-toting protégé, and starts tearing up the rulebook.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Jess Bhamra loves football, but her conservative family aren't having any of it. When she's spotted having a kickabout in the park, she joins a local team and eventually wins over grumpy coach Joe. The team go on a cup run, with Jess and her mate Jules dragging the Hounslow Harriers to the final – but wouldn't you know it, Jess's sister's getting married on the same day. Some aspects are extremely 2002, but it barrels through on its own conviction and affectionately explores tensions between different generations of a British Indian family.
Skate Kitchen (2018)
Inspired by a real group of New York skaters called Skate Kitchen, this coming-of-age yarn follows 18-year-old Camille, who's banned from skating by her mum after she knackers herself in a fall. She soon finds a new family in the rebellious, welcoming gang. There's an unaffected charm to the cast, none of whom were actors before filming but play fictionalised versions of themselves, and the semi-improvised script gives the whole things a freewheeling feel.
Iran and Bahrain are meeting in a crunch qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, and everyone in Tehran wants a ticket. Unfortunately, thanks to the regime's insistence that women cannot attend, not everyone can have one. That doesn't stop one woman from disguising herself as a man and trying to wangle her way in. It's a thoughtful, funny farce that sends up the inherent absurdity of segregating genders, and one which suggests a gulf between how the establishment sees its rules and the eye-rolling which everyday Iranians treat them with.
Love & Basketball (2000)
Quincy McCall and Monica Wright are two basketball talents who've been mates since they were kids, and their fortunes on the court entwine as they go from teendom through to their college years and into the big leagues. Gina Prince-Bythewood's directing debut is a rich and romantic drama which inhabits most of the conventions of a big sports film while upending them. "I put a woman on screen that plays ball, but that could still be feminine," she told the Ringer later. "She wasn’t this typical cheerleader or homecoming queen. That was important to me."
A Knight's Tale (2001)
This is a gleefully anachronistic swords-and-wimples merry England romp bolted onto the basic chassis of an underdog sports film: unlikely outsider discovers unexpected talent at a sport, makes progress, finds progress blocked, doubts self, overcomes doubt, succeeds. Heath Ledger is William Thatcher, a poor squire, who steps in for his unfortunately deceased master in a jousting tournament and hits upon a way of escaping his dreary life. As Ulrich von Liechtenstein, he and his mates – including Paul Bettany vamping wildly as Geoffrey 'Geoff' Chaucer – take the jousting world by storm, seduce a princess, introduce positive discrimination to the blacksmithing industry, invent David Bowie, incur the wrath of Rufus Sewell, and nearly murder the king.
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