There are a lot of fight films among the greatest sports movies, and still more fights about them — not just concerning which sports movies are truly the greatest and where each ranks, but over what even constitutes a sports movie.
We ranked the top 30 non-documentaries in the hopes of giving fans something to both enjoy and debate in the absence of actual games being played, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of your favorites undoubtedly are missing or ranked lower than you think they should be. That’s just how these things work. Let’s see what made our cut.
30. “Love &Basketball” (2000)
This is a standard love story in many respects. Boy meets girl as childhood neighbors. They attend high school and college together then go off in separate directions only to rejoin each other’s orbit. But the characters played by Omar Epps Jr. and Sanaa Lathan are also first-rate basketball players, and it’s the ending — along with supporting players Dennis Haysbert and Alfre Woodard — that elevates what might otherwise have been mere soap opera.
29. “I, Tonya” (2017)
This dark comedy begs you to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, whose 1994 Olympic bid is best remembered for the conspiracy of dunces that injured rival U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Don’t fall for it. Kerrigan’s the one who deserves sympathy, but fact-based sports movies rarely stick to the facts. Margot Robbie gives a terrific performance as Harding, while Allison Janney steals the movie with her Oscar-winning turn as Harding’s chain-smoking mother.
28. “Remember the Titans” (2000)
27. “Rudy” (1993)
26. “Chariots of Fire” (1981)
25. “Caddyshack” (1980)
Here’s proof that it isn’t necessary for a great sports film to be a great film. This slobs vs. snobs tale is so quotable and rewatchable that it would have been sacrilege to omit. It’s a series of scenes strung together more than a story. Some of those scenes don’t even seem like they’re from the same film, and some haven’t aged well. But there’s no getting around the fact Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase are just flat-out funny. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice.
24. “Field of Dreams” (1989)
Phil Alden Robinson built this adaptation from a novel by W.P. Kinsella, and we paid to see it because it’s money we have and peace we lacked. For some the appeal may be quixotic Iowa farmer Kevin Costner putting his family’s future at risk by carving a baseball diamond from cornfield to make it a purgatorial playground for dead ballplayers and/or the quest to round up James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster. There’s also the lyrical ode Jones recites (“People will come, Ray”) and the mystical cleansing of the Black Sox’s Shoeless Joe Jackson. But a lot of us are simply suckers for a father and son playing catch, especially when dad is long dead and the two never exactly saw eye to eye.
23. “Bend It Like Beckham” (2003)
22. “Downhill Racer” (1969)
21. “Invictus” (2009)
20. “Happy Gilmore” (1996)
It’s a little bit stupid, a little bit sly and all heart. Adam Sandler is a winner in this story of a hot-tempered but inherently sweet, failed hockey player whose powerful slapshot somehow translates to driving a golf ball exceptionally well. The scene with lovable game show host Bob Barker is a show-stopper, but Christopher McDonald’s arrogant antagonist Shooter McGavin, Carl Weathers’ patient mentor and Julie Bowen as the romantic interest are the glue that holds it all together.
19. “Miracle” (2004)
If all this film had going for it was Kurt Russell’s stirring delivery of Team USA coach Herb Brooks’ “Great moments are born from great opportunity” speech, this movie might well have made this list. But the story of how the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team came together and not only jelled, but triumphed beyond the world’s expectation is an unbelievably compelling narrative told exceptionally well. You can’t improve on the true story, but there are a lot of ways this could have been screwed up. This film didn’t.
18. “The Natural” (1984)
17. “Girlfight” (2000)
16. “Moneyball” (2011)
15. “The Harder They Fall” (1956)
This boxing film is based on a novel by Budd Schulberg and, like other Schulberg works (including the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” and screenplays for “A Face in the Crowd” and “On the Waterfront”), there’s a fair amount of cynicism laced through it. Humphrey Bogart, in his final film, plays an out-of-work columnist whose desperation leads him to become a tout for a corrupt boxing promoter. He’s stuck talking up a no-talent South American fighter who becomes a heavyweight contender through a string of fixed bouts. But Bogie being Bogie, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to sell out both his convictions and the Argentine palooka who thinks it’s all on the up-and-up. Real-life heavyweight champs Max Baer (father of future “Beverly Hillbillies” star Max Baer Jr.) and Jersey Joe Wolcott lend a patina of realism to a story that would seem to need it by modern standards. When it came out, however, real-life fighter Primo Carnera (who lost a title fight to Baer) sued the filmmakers for appropriating his life story. Despite some similarities, Carnera was unsuccessful. (Fun fact: Chicago’s Tribune Tower gets a cameo.)
14. “The Wrestler” (2008)
The trajectory of star Mickey Rourke’s lends power to director Darren Aronofsky’s film about a professional wrestler, decades removed from his glory days, coming to terms with the consequences of time and bad choices. A bid to reclaim his past imperils whatever shot he has going forward to repair his frayed relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and pursue romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Pro wrestling may be as fake and scripted as most movies, but the people in them can be very real indeed — and never more so than here.
13. “The Karate Kid” (1984)
12. “Major League” (1989)
11. “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942)
10. “Creed” (2015)
Keep reading. We’ll get to this in No. 9 …
9. “Rocky” (1976)
These two films are essentially the same movie — the story of a boxer given a shot at the champ and showing their mettle through their determination to endure. Common threads include Sylvester Stallone and flag-inspired shorts. The original “Rocky,” a Best Picture winner, was a revelation when it launched the movie series and Stallone’s superstardom in 1976, but in many respects the remake/reboot 39 years later is more impressive in that it manages to make the whole thing fresh.
8. “Slap Shot” (1977)
7. “Hoosiers” (1986)
6. “Bull Durham” (1988)
5. “The Hustler” (1961)
Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Piper Laurie give stellar performances in this dark drama about the kind of trouble (with a capital “T”) that you can get into in at a pool hall. Newman’s self-centered Fast Eddie Felson (a role he would reprise 25 years later opposite Tom Cruise in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”) is all talent and ambition. He’s too blind and naïve to see the game that’s really being played and what he’s losing along the way. By the way, the real Jake LaMotta of “Raging Bull” fame plays a bartender.
4. “A League of Their Own” (1992)
“I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.” If all you remember is Tom Hanks saying, “There’s no crying in baseball” and Geena Davis catching the ball one-handed or doing the splits, you need to rewatch Penny Marshall’s classic about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. How good is this film? Madonna plays off her outsized rep and still disappears into her role. The cast, top to bottom, is terrific from Hanks, Davis and Lori Petty all the way down to smaller, memorable turns by Jon Lovitz, Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Garry Marshall, David Strathairn, Bill Pullman and David L. Lander. In the end, there are some unknowable (or at least debatable) points: Do we think the ball was dropped on purpose, and what exactly happened to the Hinson sisters’ relationship after their playing days ended?
3. “Breaking Away” (1979)
Victories large and small require sacrifice, determination, hard work and no small amount of faith. That’s the underpinning of this tale of four young men — played by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley — coming to terms with their place in the world and what can and can’t limit them going forward. It’s sweet and sage and often quite amusing. No one deadpans like Stern. Paul Dooley, always a great choice to play a movie or TV dad, ensures you’ll never hear the word “refund” the same way again.
2. “Brian’s Song” (1971)
Just a few bars of Michel Legrand’s “The Hands of Time” is enough to make grown men weep and talk about how Ernest Hemingway said all true stories end in death, and this bromance tearjerker about a pair of Bears running backs might be their favorite true story. Burt Reynolds was the network’s choice to play ill-fated Brian Piccolo, and he wanted the role that ultimately went to James Caan (before his turn in “The Godfather”). Billy Dee Williams got the part of Piccolo’s fellow Bears running back Gale Sayers only because Louis Gossett Jr. tore his Achilles tendon while he trained. Clearly this TV movie was touched by magic. Jack Warden is outstanding as George Halas, even more convincing than Abe Gibron as Abe Gibron. But the real miracle may be William Blinn’s script, which packs so much into just 73 minutes. Years later, the language can seem a bit jarring, like watching an uncensored ‘“All in the Family” rerun. But it’s worth remembering a 2001 remake that softened that and other hard edges fell utterly flat.
1. “Raging Bull” (1980)
“So give me a stage / Where this bull here can rage / And though I could fight / I’d much rather recite / That’s entertainment.” Robert De Niro won the only best actor Oscar of his career with his portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s tour de force. (De Niro won a best supporting actor Oscar for Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.”) This film that first paired De Niro with Joe Pesci is about boxing the way “2001” is about space travel. Unlike most of the entries on this list, it is not much fun to watch. But it’s as visceral as it is cerebral and emotional, and by the end you sense you know what it feels like to stagger away after losing a championship fight. As a meditation on toxic machismo, violence, insecurity, self-sabotage and pain, it’s unmatched, a true work of art.