Sports and film have gone hand-in-hand for decades, producing groundbreaking results, and it’s not difficult to see why. The drama and spectacle of the sporting world translate perfectly to the big screen, whether it’s in the form of films based on true stories or complete fabrications. Some of the most prolific filmmakers in cinema history have made sports movies; Martin Scorcese, the Coen brothers, Gavin O’Connor, and more.
The love affair between these two cultural juggernauts can largely be dated back to the turn of the 20th Century and the development of silent films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Champion.
Some sports are better suited to the silver screen than others and arguably no sport has influenced as many great movies as boxing. Rocky, released in 1976, was and still is the ultimate underdog story, focusing on the titular Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his-luck pro heavyweight played, of course, by Sylvester Stallone. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and Stallone also won for Best Screenplay, launching his then-fledgling Hollywood career into the stratosphere. Rocky spawned a decades-spanning franchise with multiple sequels and spin-offs in the form of the recent Creed movies.
Its influence on cinema, in particular sports movies, cannot be overstated; countless others have tried to replicate it, but none have been able to recapture the magic of Rocky.
Audiences wouldn’t have to wait long for another all-time-great boxing movie, as Scorcese released Raging Bull in 1980. The film focuses on the life of Jake LaMotta, a real-life boxer who fought the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson. Robert De Niro, in an iconic turn, played LaMotta and famously gained and then lost extreme amounts of weight to portray the various stages of LaMotta’s existence.
Very much the antithesis of Rocky, Scorcese’s masterpiece does not indulge in moral highs but instead focuses on the psychological toll it takes to fight for money, outlining how boxing is a sport rarely covered in glory.
The rise of betting online in recent years has highlighted the importance of statistics and data when it comes to analysis, and this is perhaps why Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, released in 2011, is held in such high esteem. Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, which was released eight years prior, the film focuses on the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, who came in as Oakland’s general manager for that season and worked with assistant general manager Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. The pair used empirical data and sophisticated analysis to scout undervalued players into the team, resulting in a historic run that saw them win the American League West title and narrowly miss out on the League Division Series.
Though it might sound a little dry at first glance, Moneyball includes excellent performances and a punchy script, providing a fascinating insight into a side of sport that isn’t shown much and ends on an irresistible high.
Speaking of feel-good sports movies, there are few that can match the inspiration of Rudy (1993). This biographical heart-warmer centers around Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, played by Sean Astin, who has dreams of playing college football for Notre Dame. You only have to look at the college football betting markets to appreciate the scale of college sports in the US, so there’s no doubting Rudy was up against the odds. There are plenty of obstacles in Rudy’s way – physical, financial, academic – but through sheer will and determination, he achieves his dream and suits up for the Fighting Irish. The film ends in triumph, with Rudy held aloft by his teammates and celebrated by his friends, family, and the roaring crowd.
In a similar, but also entirely different vein, 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump partnered Wesley Snipes with Woody Harrelson as two streetballers reluctantly working together to win streetball competitions in Venice Beach. The duo – good friends in real life – have an electric chemistry and their buzzy, hilarious dialogue is still quoted to this day. The movie is more than just a comedy though, as it also serves as a study of two men desperately trying to cling onto their youth and avoid the anchoring of adult responsibilities.
No list of the greatest ever sports movies would be complete without mentioning Hoosiers. Released in 1986, the film has a simple premise; a small-town high school basketball team trying to succeed in the state championships. Hoosiers sets out the blueprint for the ideal inspirational sports movie; a group of misfits defying the odds, a new coach bucking tradition, family dramas threatening the success of the team, and the climax of a big game, complete with an iconic speech and last-gasp glory.
Lastly, a special mention should go to When We Were Kings, which some might not consider a sports movie in the same sense as the films listed above as it’s actually a documentary. Created by Leon Gast, the feature focuses on one of the most iconic sporting events in history; ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Winning an Oscar and universal acclaim, the documentary is the definitive account of the fight and its cultural impact, with unprecedented behind-the-scenes access and fascinating interviews.
Sport has provided the inspiration for some of cinema’s finest achievements, ranging from introspective dramas looking at the psyche of elite athletes to bombastic underdog tales that’ll have you punching the air with joy.