We talked to filmmaker and photographer Lily Colfox about her most recent collaboration with Todd Speakerman from ELIDI in providing music to soundtrack her documentary telling the stories of dancers in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi.
THE BEST SPORTS MOVIES OF ALL TIME
- 22 Jan
Sports movies are great for telling every kind of story – whether it’s one of impossible underdogs, the triumph of team spirit, the power of determination – or the importance of relationships when it comes to dealing with both the highs of success and the lows of losses.
Part of what makes sports movies one of our favourite genres is the sheer range of emotion they can make you feel – from joy to sorrow, laughter to edge-of-your-seat tension. Not to mention that some of them have equally iconic soundtracks (and if you’re looking for sports soundtrack music, check out our expert selections.)
What we’ll cover on the best sports movies
Want to check out the Oscar winners? The heavyweights in the boxing movie genre? Racing - from plucky horses to devout Christian runners? The best sports biopics and documentaries? The ones that’ll leave you helpless with laughter? We’ll be looking at them all.
The Best Sports Movies of All Time
There are good sports movies, and then there are great sports movies. For the best sports movies of all time, we’ve picked a selection of iconic Oscar winners and nominees.
1. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Leading to screenwriter Colin Welland’s triumphant assertion that, ‘the British are coming!’ at the 1982 Academy Awards, Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven and won four Oscars – Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design and Best Score. It tells the true story of Olympic sprinters Eric Liddell – a devout Scottish Christian running for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams – an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice - at the 1924 Olympics.
With themes of commitment, integrity, overcoming obstacles and personal sacrifice, it’s no wonder that this is regarded as a classic sports movie.
Director Hugh Hudson cast unknown actors Ian Charleson and Ben Cross in the two major roles, backed up by veterans such as John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson and Ian Holm. The film’s title was inspired by the line ‘Bring me my Chariot of Fire’, from the William Blake poem that was adapted into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, which is heard at the end of the film. However, it’s the iconic electronic theme tune by Vangelis that everyone remembers best – definitely a bold choice for a period film at the time, and his score earned him an Oscar.
2. National Velvet (1944)
With Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing, and nominations for Best Director, Cinematography and Art Direction, National Velvet made a star of 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor as horse-crazy Velvet Brown, who wins a horse in a raffle and decides to train him for the Grand National. It’s a classic underdog story, as women weren’t even allowed to ride in the race till 1977 and no female jockey has actually ever won it – Katie Walsh, on Seabass, came closest, finishing third in the 2012 race.
3. Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro piled on the pounds to punch his way to the Best Actor Oscar in Scorsese’s boxing extravaganza. The story of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta’s struggles was nominated for eight Academy Awards and in 1990 became the first film to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
As a film, Raging Bull might technically be about boxing, and feature expertly-shot fight sequences, but movie buffs know that it’s got much more to say about brutality, cruelty and what’s now become known as ‘toxic masculinity’.
For one of the best sports movie soundtracks, Scorsese decided to assemble a selection of music that was popular during the 40s, 50s and 60s (when the film is set), using a personal collection of 78s. The ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni was chosen at the main theme, showing that classical music can create both an epic and tragic feel in sports movies.
4. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Oscar voters sure love their boxing films, and Million Dollar Baby became a heavyweight contender, picking up four – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.
Hilary Swank won her second Oscar for her bravura performance of aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, who dreams of becoming a professional and begs cantakerous Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood – who also directs) to train her. Million Dollar Baby is definitely a sports film that you assume is going to follow the traditional arc (underdog devotes their life to training, and emerges triumphant), but actually does a screeching handbrake turn in its third act and is unexpectedly tragic and bleak.
5. Rocky (1976)
Thought we’d have Oscar-winning sports movies without including Rocky? No chance! Not only is it a stone-cold classic, but it beat iconic films All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory to claim the Best Picture Oscar – together with Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad).
Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor when he wrote the screenplay – in just three and a half days. Its budget was a mere $1 million and it became the ultimate rags to riches success story – spawning a series of seven sequels that have brought in over $1.7 billion at the box office. Plus, Stallone has written seven out of the eight, played Rocky in all of them, and also directed four of the six Rocky installments.
A huge draw for the films is the love story between Rocky and Adrian, which, in Rocky, is shown when he doesn’t care whether or not he’s won the climactic, gruelling 15-round fight against Apollo Creed, just that Adrian can get to his side. Other than that, the Rocky films definitely ceated the template for the training montage – can you even call a sports movie great without one?
6. The Wrestler (2008)
The Wrestler stars Mickey Rourke in a tour de force performance that earned him a BAFTA, a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as washed-up Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. When he’s not performing, Randy has a minimum-wage job in the suburbs and a strained relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) – the only place he feels alive is in the ring, despite the fact that his doctor has warned it’s likely to kill him.
The film’s blue-collar credentials are sealed by Bruce Springsteen’s title track – which Rourke asked him to write, and which The Boss gave his old friend, and director Darren Aronofsky, for no fee. It definitely ranks as one of the best sports movie songs, despite being overlooked for an Oscar nomination.
The best sports biopics and documentaries
7. Senna (2011)
It’s now more than quarter of a century since the death of one of Formula 1’s greatest drivers, Ayrton Senna. Oscar-winning documentary maker Asif Kapadia used historical footage from Senna’s career, documenting his humble beginnings and his remarkable rise to the podium-topping heights as an F1 superstar. The key moments – such as his rivalry with Mclaren teammate Alain Prost – are accompanied by interviews with key people in Senna’s life.
Antonio Pinto’s hauntingly beautiful score makes the horrific accident in which Senna lost his life at the age of just 34 even more of a gut-punch.
8. Diego Maradona (2019)
Diego Maradona, from the makers of Senna, is, according to Phil McNulty, the BBC Sport chief football writer, ‘a masterpiece chronicling the rise and fall of the man many regard as the greatest to have graced the game. It is a brutal portrayal of his agony and ecstasy’. An examination of stardom and genius, and the burdens of both, the footballer’s links to the Mafia and dramatic fall from grace, this is an epic, fascinating documentary – even for those who aren’t particular fans of the beautiful game.
9. Hoop Dreams (1994)
A three-hour epic that follows the lives and basketball journeys of two African American boys from Chicago, Arthur Agee and William Gates, between the ages of 14 and 19. Can the boys make it through the education system? Will they fulfil their potential and make it as players in the NBA? Gritty and realistic, Hoop Dreams offers a unique insight into people striving to succeed against a backdrop of poverty and broken families – not to mention racism.
10. Free Solo (2011)
‘Imagine an Olympic gold-medal-level athletic achievement that, if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die. That’s pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly.’
Not one for those who suffer from vertigo, admittedly, but if you’ve a head for heights, then this documentary about free solo (ie, no ropes or safety equipment) climber Alex Honnold is about as close as you’re going to get to experiencing what the sport’s all about. Alex takes on the 3,200 foot of sheer granite that makes up Yosemite’s El Capitan, and by the final twenty minutes, we defy you not to be clinging to the edge of your sofa – the stakes are, literally, very high.
The Best Boxing Movies
As well as Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby, there are masses of other great boxing movies – and as Screenrant.com says, ‘a great movie about boxing is really a great movie about humanity’. Here are some to check out:
11. Creed (2015)
An extension of the Rocky franchise, the two Creed films star Michael B. Jordan as Adonis ‘Donnie’ Johnson Creed, Apollo Creed’s son, with Sylvester Stallone reprising his role as Rocky. He takes on Donnie – whose father was his fierce rival and then became his closest friend - as his protégé and decides to train him. Can Donnie develop not only the drive, but also the heart of a true fighter? Stallone earned a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, together with an Oscar nomination, and the film received a slew of awards and nominations for Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler – who were later to work together on Black Panther.
Creed also brings the boxing movie up to date with a soundtrack featuring hip hop tracks by artists such as Future, Meek Mill and White Dave.
12. The Fighter (2010)
Directed by David O. Russell, this is another boxing film garlanded with Academy Award nominations – seven in total, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale) and Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), winning in the latter two categories.
Based on a true story, former boxing legend Dicky Ecklund (Bale) squandered his talents after going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. His life has been shattered by drug abuse, but his half-brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) has the chance of a lifetime as he earns a shot at the World Championship.
Both are battling against the odds – can training for the fight unite their family, redeem their pasts and give their hard-luck town back its pride?
13. When We Were Kings (1996)
Leon Gast’s documentary about the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman is ‘one of the best and most emotionally affecting documentaries ever made’, according to Empire magazine. The 1974 heavyweight fight has been enshrined as one of the century’s great sporting events, but it was also a cultural and political happening – the film blends sports drama and biography with political analysis, splicing together old news footage, photos and contemporary interviews (including Spike Lee).
Foreman was younger, bigger and stronger than Ali – who at 33 was thought to be over the hill; the odds were definitely against him. For Ali, the fight in Africa was payback for the hammering he’d taken in the US press for his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and he steals the show here with the sheer force of his personality. The film, which picked up the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, also has an expert breakdown of the fight itself and Ali’s use of he famous ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic, where he used his quick feet to tire out his opponent.
The Best Female-led Sports Movies
14. Battle of the Sexes (2017)
‘I’m gonna put the “show” back in “chauvinism”’ – so says former world number one Bobby Riggs as he goads Billie Jean King into an exhibition match in 1973. In this true story of an iconic battle to challenge sexism and the idea that women players shouldn’t be paid as much as the men (an argument that still, sadly, persists – and not just within the sports arena), Emma Stone and Steve Carrell square up to recreate a match that attracted an audience of over 90 million on TV in the States. Plus, it’s about more than tennis - off court, Billie Jean was fighting a more internal battle, as she formed a relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett.
15. Bend it Like Beckham (2002)
For more ‘battling against the sexist odds’, there’s the film that launched Keira Knightley’s career. She plays Jules Paxton, who, along with her mate Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), is desperate to play football. The two girls have to overcome sexism, romance, homophobia and disapproving mothers to reach their goal (pardon the pun), in this uplifting comedy from director Gurinder Chadha.
16. I, Tonya (2017)
‘Everyone has their own truth’ says Margot Robbie as figure skater Tonya Harding in her voiceover on the I, Tonya trailer – setting up all the characters in this bleakly funny biopic as being unreliable narrators. It tells the story of ‘white trash’ outsider Harding’s rise and subsequent career implosion after she was implicated in a violent assault on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.
The Guardian’s Mark Kermode’s view was that, ‘Craig Gillespie’s darkly comic film (from a sharp Steven Rogers script) filters its story through a prism of conflicting narratives that clash like blades on broken ice. The result resembles an adrenalised mashup of To Die For and Blades of Glory, with the stylish zing of American Hustle and a hint of the bruising domestic violence of Raging Bull.’ It was a passion project for Margot Robbie, whilst Allison Janney (who used to skate as a teenager) scooped the Oscar, the Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress as her chain-smoking, abusive skater mom, LaVona Golden.
The Best Funny Sports Movies
17. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Director Ron Shelton was an expert at nailing the sports movie, with huge hits including Bull Durham, Tin Cup and Hoosiers, and was a regular in his local pickup games, drawing inspiration for the film from his time on the court.
Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson play two basketball hustlers, and Shelton said that they, ‘had magic instantly. Woody’s a great counterpuncher. Wesley could come up with a funny line, and Woody could steal the moment with his reaction. That’s the key to chemistry, and you don’t get it very often. You need two people who can’t do what the other one does.’ But it wasn’t just about the gags and the trash talk - both were on the court six days a week, perfecting their slam dunks to make the basketball sequences authentic.
White Men Can’t Jump also has a great soundtrack, featuring everyone from Queen Latifah to Boys II Men, The O’Jays, Aretha Franklin and, er, Go West.
18. Blades of Glory (2007)
Ron Burgundy meets Napoleon Dynamite – on ice. Well, not quite, but Will Ferrell and John Heder playing the first all-male couple is a hilarious take on the world of professional figure skating and expertly spoofs the usual inspirational sports drama.
Between 2005 and 2008, Will Ferrell became the official King of the Sports Movie, via football (Kicking and Screaming), car racing (Talladega Nights) and basketball (Semi-Pro), with Blades of Glory sandwiched in the middle. Sporting a fantastic name (Chazz Michael Michaels) a superlative mullet and the skills that make him an ‘ice-devouring sex tornado’, Ferrell and Heder both sport eye-popping costumes and create a lot of enjoyably silly spectacle.
19. Cool Runnings (1993)
The best way to get yourself to the Olympics? Pick a sport you know nothing about, that relies on a climate you’ve got no experience of! Cool Runnings is the true(ish) story of the Jamaican bobsled team, made up of failed sprinters and a pushcart driver, who team up with a disgraced former Olympic gold medallist to try to get them to the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Following your dreams! Teamwork! Fish-out-of-water fun AND a Hans Zimmer score (better known these days for doom-laden Christopher Nolan soundtracks)? Count us very much in.
20. Eddie the Eagle (2016)
‘You been jumping long?’
‘Since yesterday afternoon.’
Another star of the Calgary Winter Olympics (though ‘star’ may be debatable) was the man who became known as ‘Eddie the Eagle’. A pre-Rocketman Taron Egerton plays the plucky outsider Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards, who wanted to be a ski jumper and was determined to prove the doubters wrong.
And if you’re a fan of 80s music, you’re in luck – the soundtrack features new songs penned by Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, and Midge Ure from Ultravox for period authenticity (together with some real footage from the Games). Shortlist said, ‘It’ll make your heart soar’ and we agree.
The Best Baseball Movies
Much like boxing movies, baseball movies are almost a genre of their own. Here’s our selection of the top three.
21. Field of Dreams (1989)
Let’s hear it for the tough-guy weepie! Kevin Costner’s under-achieving Ray Kinsella tries to work out what the universe – or the voice in his cornfield – is trying to tell him, and decides it’s ‘build a baseball diamond in your field’. It’s a bonkers premise, it’s cheesy, it’s soppy, it’s really sincere, and all of that is why it’s great. Does it matter if you don’t really know anything about baseball? Nope. Just go along with the idea that men hitting balls around a field represent all that’s great about America – (‘it reminds us of all that once was good’), not to mention the fact that being a sports fan will bridge the generations. And that, as a hopeful mantra for businesses everywhere, ‘if you build it, they will come’, remains pretty darn good.
22. Bull Durham (1988)
Need some more Kevin-Costner-playing-baseball action? Get Bull Durham lined up. Costner plays weary veteran catcher Crash Davis (great name), who’s made his career in the minor leagues. He’s hired to tutor pitcher Tim Robbins and the two are then pitched (sorry) against each other as they both fall for Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon).
It’s a battle between youth and age, talent vs effort, the past and the future.
23. A League of Their Own (1992)
For an idea of how far women’s sport has come in nearly eight decades, check out A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall (Big), a comedy which tells the story of the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Set up in 1943, when World War II stripped the professional men’s teams of most of their players, our heroines are the Rockford Peaches, with Tom Hanks as their alcoholic manager.
The actresses – including Geena Davis and Madonna – trained for eight hours a day, six days a week to nail the baseball scenes, and the time together no doubt gave them the edge when it came to rounding out their characters as athletes, sisters, friends, mothers and wives, not to mention an unlikely sisterhood.
So, there you have it – some of the best sports movies to enjoy, whether you’re a competitor or more of an ‘armchair athlete’. If you’re looking to recreate the kind of thrills and drama from sports movie soundtracks, then our tension beds playlist is a great place to start.
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