Healthy competition builds character, and we encounter it all the time — or manufacture it where it needn’t exist. Whether we are choosing our favourite kind of pizza or voting for a political candidate we believe in, picking a side is something we do all the time. This is probably why so many of us are thrilled by sports — they embody this essential facet of the human condition. And great sports films can be almost as satisfying, even if you don’t particularly care for sports, manifesting in metaphor the personal struggles of our daily lives. Even if you don’t know the first thing about boxing, you understand what drives a character The Fighter’s Mickey Ward, who lives only to excel at something he loves.
We love to see people train hard and overcome obstacles to win, because it makes us feel like we can win as well, even if it’s a work instead of on the field. These 13 sports films are fun and inspiring whether or not you know the ins and outs of the games they portray.
Creed & Creed II
Building upon the classic Rocky saga, Creed follows Adonis “Creed” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky Balboa’s rival-turned -ally Apollo Creed. When Adonis decides to make a name for himself in the boxing world, he relies on Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) to get him into fighting shape. While it’s nice to see Rocky again, Adonis’s journey is a compelling story on its own, as he struggles to forge his own identity, away from his father’s legacy.
Keanu Reeves stars as Conor O’Neill, a gambling addict who takes up coaching to pay off his debts. He accepts a gig coaching a team of underprivileged kids in little league baseball for a $US500 ($656) check each week, if only to keep him out of hot water with his bookies. Since his only goal is to pay down his debts, he doesn’t plan to do a stand-up job, but once he meets the team, his heart melts. One young kid can only pitch while listening to Big Poppa by Biggie, others have anger issues because of their tough home lives, some are just adorable and trying to do something constructive with their time. The bond between the coach and the players outshines the game.
In West Canaan, Texas, high school football is what drives the entire town. The Coyotes are reigning champions, and intend to remain so. When star quarterback Lance Harbour (Paul Walker) is injured, second in line Jonathon “Mox” Moxon (James Van Der Beek) must lead the team to victory. The pressure from Mox’s father, the team, the school, and the whole town begin to get to him. All Mox wants to do is leave Texas and football behind to start his college career at Brown University. Knowing football is not a prerequisite; Van Der Beek’s famous utterance “I don’t want your life” says it all. Mox’s struggle to make his own way in life is really what the move is all about.
High Flying Bird
Andre Holland plays Ray Burke, sports agent to basketball player Erik Scott (Melvin Gregg), who, during a league lockout, comes up with a plan to change the industry. In the NBA, power in the league belongs to the team owners and managers. Burke plans to transfer deciding power to the players, giving them agency and autonomy in their careers and lives. Directed by indie auteur Steven Soderbergh, and famously filmed on an iPhone, High Flying Bird focuses more on the the business of sports and its players’ mental well-being than the game of basketball.
Ride Like a Girl
Ride Like a Girl tells the true story of Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer), the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. Having background knowledge on horse races may put you at an advantage when watching this film; knowing more of the terminology means you’ll understand the impact of the fact that Payne’s horse is a six-year-old gelding (a castrated horse). But the core of the story is not lost on those who know nothing of horses — watching Payne overcome the stumbling blocks on her path to greatness trumps any nuances lost in translation.
Battle of the Sexes
In the early 1970s, tennis pros in the female division spoke out against unequal pay for a tennis tournament organised by professional player Jack Kramer. Despite the ticket prices being the same, the women’s division winner would receive an eighth of the male winner’s prize. Emma Stone plays tennis champion Billie Jean King, who was among the women to challenge Kramer’s (Steve Carrell) point of view that women in tennis were inferior to men. The film shows King’s battle for equality against Kramer. While tennis is the game, the battle for equality is much more moving.
The Main Event
After finding a magical wrestling mask behind the walls in his room, young outcast Leo (Seth Carr) gains the power of a professional WWE wrestler. He uses his newfound skills to stop school bullies and join the pro-wrestling league. Watching an 11-year-old boy fight trained wrestlers 10 times his size is adorable and empowering. He finds his self-confidence during the process; the sport is simply the vehicle for his inner transformation.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Will Ferrell plays famed race car driver Ricky Bobby, who has everything from a successful career to a beautiful wife. Everything changes when he has a terrifying accident on the track, leaving him with PTSD and an inability to get behind the wheel. Whether you follow Nascar or know anything about racing does not change how funny this film is, as Ricky Bobby prays to “little baby Jesus” that he regains his courage and defeats his (ex-) best friend Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), who has assumed his position in the racing ranks and married Ricky Bobby’s ex-wife.
Bobby Boucher (Adam Sandler) is a shy guy who lives with his mum Helen (Kathy Bates) in backwater Louisiana. One day while working as the waterboy for the football team at the University of Louisiana, Boucher tackles a player to the ground with precision while overcome by rage. The football coach Klein (Henry Winkler) decides to use Boucher’s talents to his advantage and puts him on the team. After sacking player after player, Bobby finds himself and finally stands up to his overpowering mother, branching out and trying to live his own life. If you know anything about football, you probably know the film’s accuracy when it comes to the intricacies of the sport is…questionable. The fact that the climactic big game is known as the “Bourbon Bowl” is a dead giveaway that laughs are the rule of the day, not the, er, rules.
Adam Sandler continues his sports parodies playing washed-up hockey star Happy Gilmore. Happy uses his hockey skills to enter a golf competition in hopes of winning enough money to save his grandmother’s home from foreclosure. The comedic film exaggerates the rules of golf to serve the main character’s story arc. (I don’t play, but I am pretty sure players can’t win a tournament after ricocheting the ball off of a car.) This is a “sports” movie for anyone who wants a laugh. Knowing the rules of golf is probably a detriment, actually.
Bring It On
Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) has inherited the role of cheer captain for the Rancho Carne High School Toros in San Diego. She must maintain the Toros’ status as national champions with their multi-year winning routine. Unfortunately, she discovers their routines have been stolen from the East Compton Clovers, a predominantly Black school across town. Shipman will need to train the Toros with entirely new choreography to garner an honorable win. Bring it On is a little bit of parody of the genre blended with a bit of commentary on race relations, all under the colourful guise of cheerleading. There is more in its message of equity and fair play than its accurate depiction of the ins and outs of competitive cheerleading.
Based on the book Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, this unusual entry in the sports film genre follows Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager for the Oakland As. Beane is determined to build a major league winning team on a very tight budget after losing some valuable players. He decides to go against the grain and hires economist Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to assemble a team based on numbers and probability, assembling a ragtag team of players who defy every expectation. The film isn’t about baseball, but about the tenacity and cunning it takes to outsmart the game.
This Oscar favourite is based on the true story of an underdog fighter, Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), from Lowell, Massachusetts, who wants to prove to his town he can be somebody great. Ward is a hopeful boxing champion but needs to execute a winning streak if he hopes to rise to the top. His brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is a former boxer and Ward’s trainer, and both brothers have been run down by the trials and tribulations of small-town life. Eklund’s drug addiction gets him in trouble with the law, while Ward is convinced to take on a new trainer. The story is less about sports and more about the two brothers’ drive to better themselves. Boxing is just the vessel.