What can be said about Rocky? Of all the films on this list, probably none are as well known and well loved as the inspirational story behind the Philadelphian Southpaw Rocky Balboa. It tells the story of Rocky, a debt collector working for a loan shark. An amateur boxer, Rocky sees a road out of his miserable life when he is given a shot at the world heavyweight championship. Featuring one of the most recognizable scores in movie history, Rocky has inspired countless audiences to go the distance. Winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Rocky also spawned a massive film franchise that continues to this day.
Sports films have always been a favorite at the Academy Awards, but few have won as many as the English classic Chariots of Fire, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Few will argue its right to the little gold men, as Chariots of Fire has been hailed as one of the most inspirational films ever made. It tells the true life story of two athletes competing in the 1924 Olympics, one a devout Scottish Christian running for Christ and the other an English Jew running to overcome prejudice and racism. Featuring one of the most memorable musical scores of not just the sports genre, but of all time, Chariots of Fire will sweep you off your feet.
The true life story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a young man who dreams of being on the University of Notre Dame football team, Rudy has been hailed as an all-American classic. Rudy dreams of sports glory, but is much too physically small to be on the team. So he spends his time working on the sidelines. But this changes one day when he is given just one chance to prove himself on the field. Directed by David Anspaugh, also the director of Hoosiers, Rudy is an unforgettable tale of personal victory and triumph in the face of impossible odds.
Who didn’t see this film growing up? It’s a beloved underdog classic about a lonely outsider being trained by a wise old man to become a karate expert. Daniel LaRusso is an awkward young man who moves to Los Angeles with his mother. Unable to find any friends, he finds solace in a local Okinawan immigrant named Mr. Miyagi. A tight bond forms as Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate and subsequently helps him get his life back on track. But the greatest challenge awaits Daniel when he must defeat a local gang of bullies in a martial arts tournament. I have only four words for this movie: Wax on, wax off.
The sports genre has never mixed well with the supernatural. People want to see realistic sports films. So the idea of a baseball film featuring acts of God and the ghosts of great baseball players would seem unfilmable. But Field of Dreams proves them wrong. It all starts when an Iowa farmer, played by Kevin Costner, hears a strange voice commanding him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his fields. When he finally does, it is visited by the ghosts of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. A touching and emotional story of not just baseball, but of faith, Field of Dreams is a numinous masterpiece.
While the other entries on this list feature more traditional and popular sports such as basketball, football, and boxing, Breaking Away is about competitive bicycling. It follows Dave Stoller, a wanna-be professional cyclist who idolizes European cyclists, particularly those from Italy. When he hears that a professional Italian bicycling team is coming to his small town for a race, he sees a chance to escape his boring life and make something of himself. Winner of the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Breaking Away has since been hailed as one of the greatest sports movies of all time.
Baseball has always been America’s national sport, and the game has become an intrinsic part of our cultural and spiritual identity. While other sports films aim for realism, The Natural embraces the themes and legends that make the game so beloved. It follows Roy Hobbs, a baseball prodigy with a bat carved from a tree hit by a bolt of lightning. He quickly rises through the ranks to the majors where he becomes a pawn in a massive gambling scandal. Told to throw the pennant, Hobbs must choose whether to follow orders or do what’s right. Argued by many to be the greatest baseball film of all time, The Natural will leave you cheering.
Considered by many to be Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull tells the true life story of Jake La Motta. The film is a chaotic story of betrayal, masculinity, and single-headed devotion to the sport of boxing. Renowned for its gritty and realistic boxing scenes, the film’s centerpiece is the stunning performance by Robert De Niro as the gifted, but paranoid title character. This is not a boxing movie for your kids. But that doesn’t stop it from being hailed as not only a masterpiece of the sports genre, but as one of the greatest films ever made.
Long thought to be the quintessential basketball film, Hoosiers tells the true life story of a rural, small-town Indiana high school basketball team that defies the odds and wins their state championship. Set in the early 1950s, Gene Hackman stars as Norman Dale, an old coach hired to train the high school basketball team in Hickory, Indiana. The team is small, the town is hostile, and Dale has a past that serves to hold him back. But they prove that no matter where you come from, if you work hard enough, you can accomplish great things.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction. This has never been more apparent than in the classic documentary Hoop Dreams. This massive documentary, following two African-American high school students in Chicago over a period of five years as they pursue dreams of becoming professional basketball players, is both a penetrating look into a culture of exploitation on the part of young black men by the sports industry and a haunting portrait of inner city life. One of the rare documentaries to receive both critical and popular acclaim, Hoop Dreams is a story that will stay with you for the rest of your life.