Everyone is very familiar with the likes of Rocky, Field of Dreams, and Remember the Titans. Those three are some of the most popular – and greatest – sports films of all time. They are routinely included in articles covering the finest of the genre and justifiably get all the plaudits.
A good sports movie is not as simple as just telling an underdog story, or a rags-to-riches tale, of overcoming adversary and winning the championship – or, at the very least, learning a valuable lesson about life itself. Those elements and plotlines are all very familiar when it comes to sports movies, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.
Sometimes the actual sports action in a movie can let it down, but when the director and the actors get it right, it can be captivating. We thought we would bring together some of the greatest – but cruelly underrated – films of all time. The subjects and teams might not be the ones you would use up your online sportsbook betting bonuses on, but the movies deserve to win championships.
Boxing is a sport that lends itself easily to cinema. The underdog stories of fighters making their way out of poverty the only way they know how can produce classics, as well as a few duds along the way. But when it is done right, it can be magical. Add a fully committed Jake Gyllenhaal to the mix and you have cinematic gold.
Although the plot of a boxer with anger issues attempting to get his life back on track after losing his wife and daughter is nothing new, Gyllenhaal’s performance is astounding. His physical condition is something in itself, but the emotion he brings to the role elevates Southpaw from the crowd.
High Flying Bird (2019)
Filming a movie entirely on an iPhone and releasing it on Netflix may be a way of getting some attention from particular markets and demographics, but it is no surprise that this one flew a little under the radar. Nevertheless, anyone who did catch it on the popular streaming channel was royally rewarded.
Steven Soderbergh concentrates on the machinations of a quick-thinking sports agent, rather than sports itself, in a film that captures the streaming generation perfectly. The story follows a struggling agent who hits on the idea of live-streaming a one-on-one game between two stars with the NBA during the league’s lockout. This is a really good modern twist on the sports movie genre.
Eddie the Eagle (2015)
There is simply no doubt, everyone loves an underdog story – and this is probably the biggest underdog story of all time. It only helps that the subject is ultimately not rewarded with championships or gold medals. It tells the story of Michael “Eddie Edwards” becoming the first British Olympic ski jumper in 60 years.
Taron Egerton plays the unlikely sporting hero who has always dreamed of competing at an Olympics and ends up going with ski jumping as his route in. Although derided by officials and other athletes, Eddie is loved by the fans and the media as representing the true spirit of the games.
If you are not exploring an underdog story with your sports movie, then it should really be about a simmering rivalry – and Rush captures that perfectly. This strangely underrated Ron Howard film looks at the battle between two F1 drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda, but escapes taking sides and just tells the compelling story.
Chris Hemsworth plays Hunt much like he does most of his roles – think Thor in a racecar – while Daniel Bruhl is the far more reserved Lauda. As with any great bitter rivals plot, the two drivers come to respect each other and realize that the other may be the only person who truly understands their desire to win.
Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
Sometimes a great sports movie just needs some incredible archive footage and a great story. It also doesn’t hurt if the sport in question is more of a niche, rather than a movie about the more conventional boxing or football. This film also has an expert director, as Stacy Peralta was actually one of the Z-Boys of the movie’s title.
This engaging documentary looks at how a group of skateboarders (the Zephyr team, or Z-Boys) took surfing moves as an inspiration to take their craft to a whole new level in the Santa Monica and Venice areas of L.A. (known as Dogtown). The tricks pulled off in the dry pools of California in the 1970s will have you digging out your own board to give them a go.
Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
We mentioned how popular rivalry stories can be when it comes to sports movies and the 1970s and 80s seemed to be a golden time for cinematic inspiration. In Borg vs. McEnroe we follow the story of a tennis champion going for his fifth-successive Wimbledon title and the young, brash, upstart looking to knock him down.
As we see flashbacks to Borg’s earlier life, we understand how the two tennis players are not so different. But the crowd’s reaction to McEnroe’s outbursts on the court makes the Swede the big favorite. As with any good sports movie, the two protagonists end up understanding each other better, and we are treated to some dramatic moments along the way.
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Maybe it was the two exclamation marks at the end of the title, but this teen comedy drama written and directed by Richard Linklater was inexplicably ignored by the public – even if the critics universally loved it. There are not many better at these types of movies than Linklater and it is a travesty that more people haven’t watched this film.
There actually isn’t that much sports action in the movie. The focus is instead turned onto the players of a college baseball team in the early 1980s, chronicling their lives and loves as they navigate the start of college life. You will feel as if you are part of the team when you finish this nostalgia-filled delight.