Best Sports Movies

04 Mar 2024 | 6 MINS READ
Best Sports Movies
Siobhan Lawless

Sports movies aren’t just for sports lovers. While sport invariably forms an important part of their setting, the best sports films delve into universal themes. They explore how we can navigate ambition, perseverance, loss and redemption. Rather than strictly being tales of triumph, they show us how we can overcome life’s adversities. Great sports films focus more on the journey, less on the destination. They’re thrilling because they mirror life’s unpredictability. In each game, there’s everything to play for. Twists and turns are all part of the fun; Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming Challengers certainly isn’t short of these. 

Ever wondered what it's like to be caught in a tennis love triangle? Challengers gives us a good idea. Tashi (Zendaya) is a former tennis player turned coach. She has transformed her husband Art (Mike Faist) into a world-famous Grand Slam winner. But he’s now on a losing streak. Tashi arranges for Art to participate in a challenger event, only to find he’s playing against his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend Patrick (Josh O’Connor). As their lives entwine, tensions rise and Tashi must consider what it will cost to win. Guadagnino, the filmmaker behind Call Me by Your Name (2017), Suspira (2018) and Bones and All (2022), doesn’t disappoint. 

Ahead of Challengers, we’re revisiting the best sports movies to get you in the mood, including the greatest athletic films, best boxing films and sports movies based on true stories. Get your popcorn ready!


Far more than a boxing masterpiece, Raging Bull is regarded as one of Martin Scorcese’s best films. It’s a cinematic adaptation of Jake LaMotta’s namesake 1970 memoir. Robert De Niro stars as LaMotta, the American professional boxer and world middleweight champion. He’s a deeply troubled star, in the grips of paranoia, who rises to greatness. As LaMotta increasingly turns against loved ones and resorts to violence, we witness him unravel. Raging Bull is a tale of how toxic masculinity, brutality and ego can eat away at you. It’s captivating throughout – from the striking monochrome cinematography to the disorienting shots. Scorsese masterfully depicts one of the most ruthless periods in American boxing history. De Niro’s electrifying, transformative performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar. 


Coach Carter is based on the true story of the Richmond High School basketball coach Ken Carter. In 1999, Carter made headlines for suspending his basketball team on a winning streak, due to their poor academic performance. Carter transforms his struggling basketball team’s luck, along with their grades, by teaching them the art of discipline – on and off the court.  When asked who should play him in the film, Carter had one choice: Samuel L Jackson. Just as well, Jackson is perfectly cast. He convincingly delivers tough love as a mentor figure for his students, who are more likely to grow up in prison than go to college. The newfound hope Carter brings to this downtrodden team is inspiring to see.

I, Tonya (2017)

Filmed in 30 days, I, Tonya’s production mirrors the whirlwind that was Tonya Harding. Directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya follows the rise and fall of the American figure skater. Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. She was also one of the most vilified figures in 1994, after being embroiled in an assault scandal that rocked the world. I, Tonya is darkly comedic, exhilarating and disturbing. Harding contends with a tumultuous family life and abusive relationship with her odious ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Margot Robbie steps up as the complex Harding, delivering one of her best and rawest performances. Have we judged Harding too harshly? Is she misunderstood? Gillespie’s ice-skating film brilliantly grapples with these questions.

The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler stars Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke) as a faded wrestler, with his glory days long behind him. Randy finds himself faced with health concerns and haunted by personal demons. After one brutal beating, he parks his wrestling dreams. Randy focuses on reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and enters a serious relationship with stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). But Randy finds it hard to resist the allure of the ring. Will he give in, or choose a more stable life? The Wrestler is a powerful, gritty human story of redemption. This film marks a comeback both for Rourke, who landed this role at 52 after a fall from Hollywood grace, and for its director Darren Aronofsky, whose previous movie had bombed.

Moneyball (2011)

In Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, two sharp minds pioneer a new era of baseball. We learn about how the flailing Oakland Athletics baseball team began using data analysis to recruit new players for their team, picking cheaper athletes who can get runs instead of established stars. This unorthodox strategy enabled them to maximise their success on a limited budget and accounted for their historic 20-game winning streak. An affable, easygoing Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager and Jonah Hill is his nerdy, Yale-educated assistant Peter Brand – both received Oscar nominations for their performances. Moneyball is a fascinating sports story that remains gripping as it unfolds, with its fluctuating team dynamics and heartwarming father-daughter dynamic between Beane and his tweenager (her acoustic cover of Lenka’s ‘The Show’ is a real high point). 

King Richard (2021)

Reinaldo Marcus Green’s crowd-pleasing biopic King Richard remains one of the most inspirational sports movies. Will Smith portrays Richard Williams, the father of future world-number-one tennis stars Venus and Serena, tirelessly working to solidify his daughters’ success in the face of racism and classism. Smith is pitch-perfect as the indefatigable, yet lovable Richard, a father who is razor-focused on doing what’s best for his daughters and letting no one tell him otherwise. The Williams sisters were producers on this tennis movie – which also features a punchy original song by Beyoncé – and created it as a love letter to their father who helped them make it to the top. Richard Williams undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest tennis coaches of all time.

The Novice (2021)

Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice is a gripping rowing film with the pulsating energy of a psychological thriller. When college freshman Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman) joins her university rowing squad, she becomes consumed by her mission to make it to the top varsity boat, and trains to mental and physical breaking point. But what happens when winning isn’t enough? Where do you draw the line between determination and obsession? There are echoes of Black Swan (2010) in The Novice, since it too is a dark, tense and disconcerting depiction of what happens when you compete with yourself until you are ragged and bleeding.

Rocky (1976)

Now for a boxing classic that inspired a generation of filmmakers. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a down-on-his-luck boxer from working-class Philadelphia. As fate would have it, he’s chosen to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the reigning world heavyweight champion, after his opponent becomes injured. Suddenly, we’re on the edge of our seats to see if Rocky’s luck might change. It’s an empathetic tale of a boxer trying to better himself. Rocky’s backstory is equally compelling. The script was written in three days by Stallone, a little-known actor at the time who would only sell the script if he could play the lead role. Despite the film’s shoestring budget, Rocky went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1976, spawning an entire franchise and spin-offs. But nothing quite beats the original.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Steve James’ critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams is considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time. Over the course of five years, three filmmakers follow two disadvantaged African American high-school students, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who dream of playing in the NBA. In this intimate portrayal, it’s impossible not to root for Gates and Agee’s success, when the odds are stacked against them. Hoop Dreams highlights the importance of basketball as a form of social mobility for its players and their families, alongside the failings of America’s social and education system riddled with class and racial divisions. Upon its 1994 release, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams captured the hearts of audiences around the globe. This is compassionate filmmaking at its best.

Foxcatcher (2014)

If Bennett Miller’s Moneyball inspires hope, Foxcatcher is a sombre contrast. This sinister wrestling film is a slow burner, full of impending doom. It’s based on the true story of the Schultz brothers, and their nonconformist wrestling coach and wealthy benefactor John E du Pont (Steve Carell, in an exciting pivot to drama). When Du Pont recruits Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) for his wrestling team, he’s hellbent on them winning gold for the US in the 1988 Olympics. But at what price? The cast is superb; Carell is almost unrecognisable as Du Pont, delivering a performance that’s chilling to the bone. Foxcatcher is a tale of toxic masculinity, brotherhood and obsession, with explosive consequences.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Hugh Hudson’s first feature Chariots of Fire was lauded at the Oscars four decades ago and remains an absorbing watch today. Chariots of Fire follows the story of two male athletes with wings on their heels, both competing in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. It’s based on the true story of Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) who navigated prejudice and hostility, in addition to their faith and moral convictions, as they competed for gold. Chariots of Fire’s legendary musical score by Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassíou drives the action forward.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning sports drama Million Dollar Baby is worthy of its accolades. Coming from a troubled upbringing, aspiring boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank), has been a fighter all her life. Maggie’s determined to join the ‘boys club’ and go professional, but is refused training. When her gym’s veteran boxing coach Frankie (Eastwood) reluctantly agrees to train her, Maggie becomes his protégée. Million Dollar Baby is a story of pure grit and determination. The pseudo father-daughter chemistry between Frankie and Maggie is deeply moving, as is both characters’ relationship with boxing-gym janitor Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris (Morgan Freeman). With superb performances throughout, nail-biting fight scenes and heart-wrenching humility, it’s difficult to tear your eyes away. 

Bring It On (2000)

When Bring It On came out, the concept of a female-led sports film was fairly novel. Thankfully, its tongue-in-cheek humour, sassy dance routines and peak Noughties aesthetic made it an instant hit. Directed by Peyton Reed and written by Jessica Bendinger, Bring It On follows two high-school cheer captions, the Toros’ Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) and the Clovers’ Isis (Gabrielle Union), competing for the national championships. Buckle up for one entertaining ride featuring stolen routines, a cursed cheer stick and a flirty toothbrush scene. This smart teen comedy boldly tackles intersectional feminism, cultural appropriation and homophobia. It was ahead of its time.

Invictus (2009)

Director Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman rejoin forces after Million Dollar Baby for Invictus. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the film stars Freeman as President Nelson Mandela, who is trying to unite his people by supporting a rugby team in their bid to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Matt Damon stars as the team's captain, Francois Pienaar. Invictus is about uniting a nation that’s wrought with tensions and trying to heal from its past. It’s an inspiring glimpse of how sports can break down barriers.

Cool Runnings (1993)

Named as the UK’s favourite sports film of all time, Cool Runnings is undeniably feel-good viewing. Jon Turteltaub’s 1993 film is based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics. What explains Cool Runnings’ enduring charm? It’s the ultimate story of underdogs who, against all odds, pursue their wildest ambitions. John Candy of Uncle Buck (1989)  fame stars as the bobsleigh team’s reluctant coach. Equally heartwarming, funny and touching, Cool Runnings considers what it’s like to be an outsider and how you can remain true to yourself.

Siobhan Lawless