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The Best Sports Films of All Time

Some of the best stories ever told don’t come from the painstakingly crafted scripts of Hollywood film writers. Instead, they come from the triumph and glory of sporting events. People love rooting for the underdog, and sport naturally creates many of these. 

There’s an iconic moment in each sports fan’s life, either of great elation as they witnessed their team’s triumph, or of great sadness when their team came close, but ultimately went home empty-handed.

In Formula 1, this was the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix when Felipe Massa and his crew thought they’d won the World Championship until Lewis Hamilton gained a place in the final corner earning enough extra points to take the title himself. 

In basketball,l it was the moment when the Toronto Raptors made history as they won the NBA Championship for the first time after beating the Golden State Warriors in 2019. 

Occasionally, these stories get recreated on the big screen as directors attempt to show the emotional and personal side of the story that doesn’t always get seen in sport. Here are some of those great films.

Senna (2010)

Senna doesn’t tell the story of a particular sporting moment, but the story of a peerless sporting genius. Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian Formula 1 driver who died tragically during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. His death left a legacy of improved safety that has kept drivers safe for more than two decades onward. 

Senna won three World Driver’s Championships during his 10 years in the sport. A large part of the film covers his rivalry with the French driver Alain Prost while the two drove for McLaren.

Using TV footage and interviews from the period, the film helps the viewer understand the incredibly tense relationship between the two drivers had and how this boiled over during the 1989 season which eventually saw Senna get disqualified from the penultimate race in Japan, resulting in the championship win for Prost. 

Raging Bull (1980)

It took a lot of persuasion for Martin Scorsese to consider creating a sports film. He has been famously quoted saying “anything with a ball, no good” as well as describing boxing as boring. 

Raging Bull is much more than a sports movie though. It’s a story about men, women, pain, and violence, showing the viewer the many negative consequences of abusive relationships. 

Its boxing scenes are incredibly well done, portraying the disorientation and pain that boxers experience while in the ring. It helps the viewer to understand the sport and how brutal it can be and inspire a true passion for this often underappreciated sport.

The Longest Yard (1974)

The Longest Yard is a sports comedy film that’s set in a prison. It tells the story of a former NFL player who is sentenced to 18 months in prison after stealing a car. When inside, he recruits a team of prisoners to take part in a football game against their guards.

The NFL itself produces incredible stories every year. They capture the imagination of the entire United States as 100 million watch the Super Bowl every winter, and many place bets on it and other NFL games. Yet, The Longest Yard doesn’t touch on the drama of grand championships and instead creates a fictional plot that appeals to a wider audience while still keeping links to the NFL. 

Adam Sandler remade the film in 2005, but it’s best you watch the original instead. 

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Rush (2013)

Rush is another film about Formula 1, telling the story of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976. Like Senna, Rush was a box office success because it appealed to a wider audience and not just motor racing fans. 

Although it contained recreations of on-track action, it was done in a way that engaged the average user but didn’t frustrate followers of the sport. It’s not surprising since the film was directed by Ron Howard who was also behind Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. 

It perfectly encapsulates the risks that Formula 1 drivers had to take during the 1970s, where fatal collisions were so common they were widely accepted by fans, teams, and officials. In 1976 Niki Lauda was severely injured in a crash that left him badly burned both internally and externally. The film depicts the physical and mental struggle that he went through to make it back into his car and challenge for the title. 

It also shows perfectly the contrast between the two protagonists. Lauda is a quiet, methodical, by-the-book guy, while Hunt is a charming playboy who was only focused on having a good time. 

Rocky (1976)

Rocky is one of the most successful sports films in history. Although it was released in 1976 it remains a popular film and has had a total of 7 sequels, the latest of which was released in 2018. There are also two more planned, with no firm release dates set.

Sylvester Stallone has starred in all of the films, playing Rocky Balboa, an unknown boxer who’s selected to take on a heavyweight world champion. The film is a classic rags to riches story, with Rocky as the underdog. 

The film’s famous scene where Rocky is seen running up the stone steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has become a popular site for tourists who come to recreate the scene for themselves.

There’s even a statue of Rocky positioned to the side of the steps. It was erected in 1982 ahead of the release of Rocky III.

While there are many more sports films that have been released by Hollywood, these films stand out. Their commercial and critical success has come from the fact that they’ve focused on the human elements of their stories and not on the mechanics of victory and loss. 

The many mediocre sports films fall into this trap. Their outcomes can be very predictable, even if they are fictional, and they don’t bring up the emotions associated with a true struggle for victory.

By focusing on human elements, the filmmakers can come up with scripts that help the audience empathise with the characters and develop an attachment that makes them invested in the outcome. These films execute this perfectly.