With sports in a timeout, catch some of these top 30 sports films
Publicity photo from 1994’s Hoop Dreams.
June 24, 2020
Clearly, I’m a film person. It’s my favorite form of entertainment by a landslide. That said, I’m a boy who was raised in the Midwest by a former athlete, and so I had no choice but to care about sports.
Due to COVID-19, both the film world and the sports world have been halted for the most part. Enter this week’s topic: Sports films.
Here are a few released in just the last few years that are worth checking out: The Way Back; Ford v Ferrari; Fighting with My Family; I, Tonya; Uncle Drew; Southpaw; Creed II; and Battle of the Sexes. \Plus, there are all the great sports documentaries that are always coming out. If you’ve not yet explored ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries, that’s a treasure trove unto itself.
Whether you like sports or not, sports movies often make for incredible human drama and thus great fodder for filmmakers.
So, I’ve attempted to list out my Top 30 Favorite Sports Films of All-Time. It was a very, very difficult task. First are numbers 6-30 in reverse order:
30. Jordan Rides the Bus (dir. Ron Shelton)
29. Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy)
28. The Fan (dir. Tony Scott)
27. Sugar (dir. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
26. Borg vs. McEnroe (dir. Janus Metz)
25. Kingpin (dir. Farrelly Brothers)
24. Everybody Wants Some (dir. Richard Linklater)
23. Ali (dir. Michael Mann)
22. Hoosiers (dir. David Anspaugh)
21. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)
20. Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor)
19. Pumping Iron (dir. George Butler and Robert Fiore)
18. Bull Durham (dir. Ron Shelton)
17. Breaking Away (dir. Peter Yates)
16. Rocky 4 (dir. Sylvester Stallone)
15. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)
14. The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)
13. Major League (dir. David S. Ward)
12. Bloodsport (dir. Newt Arnold)
11. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)
10. Raging Bull (dir. Martin Scorsese)
9. When We Were Kings (dir. Leon Gast)
8. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)
7. White Men Can’t Jump (dir. Ron Shelton)
6. The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
5. He Got Game
director: Spike Lee
You’ll notice that five of my all-time favorite sports films have something in common: they’re basketball films. I like basketball a lot. Spike Lee also likes basketball as much as anything else.
Here Lee examines the concept of a No. 1 high school player (Ray Allen) planning their future while attempting to balance a relationship with his convict father (Denzel Washington), shady girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), friends, teammates, and family. It’s a brilliant, fun, hip-hop filled film that is aging like wine.
4. Magic & Bird
director: Charles Olivier
Not a cinematic film at all, but one of the great stories in the history of sports. The two most dominant teams in NBA history, two of the Top 5 players of all-time, race relations, a league that was on its way out finally growing into a sensation.
If you like basketball and you don’t like this film, well, I’m not sure I’ll be able to accept your reasoning. It’s a brilliant, beautiful story of friendship, rivalry, and determination that I watch at least once a year.
3. Finding Forrester
director: Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant goes to New York City to make a spiritual sequel to his hit film Good Will Hunting. This time around the prodigy is a basketball player and writer named Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown in a breakout performance) and the mentor figure is a J.D. Salinger-like writer named William Forrester (Sean Connery). It’s very much an NYC film about family, basketball, literature, race, class, and trust.
Shot by the late Harris Savides, it’s also a gorgeous film that, despite maybe having a few cheesy story beats, would make my list of Most Watchable Films of the 2000s. Criminally underrated.
director: John G. Avildsen
What is there left to say about Rocky, the underdog film, the film that made Sylvester Stallone, the film that pushed the sports film concept to a new high. It’s gritty, emotional, and thrilling, and Stallone (who also wrote the screenplay) gives an all-time great performance in the role he was made to play.
Like Finding Forrester and He Got Game, Rocky is a movie I watch at least once per year. And unbelievably, the Rocky saga is still going with the recent Creed films. In 50 years or so, it’s very likely that we will consider the Rocky character to be the best, most fleshed out character in cinema history.
1. Hoop Dreams
director: Steve James
I saw this movie when it came out 26 years ago for three reasons:
1. I was obsessed with basketball.
2. Roger Ebert was obsessed with it.
3. I was obsessed with Chicago, where the film takes place.
Obsession is the keyword here, clearly. A sports documentary that follows two basketball prodigies over a five-year stretch, Steve James’ classic focused on much more than basketball, offering a whole lot of subtext about race, social class, education, and the economic divide.
Aside from seeing a whole lot of great basketball, we get to revisit the Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park neighborhoods of Chicago, both of which now look 100 percent different than they did when James was shooting his film in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One of the best documentary films ever produced.
NOTE: I haven’t yet completed ESPN’s 10-hour Michael Jordan film, The Last Dance.