You all love movies, right? And you’re obviously a keen sports fan if you’re reading this, so that must mean you love sports movies, right? You probably don’t though, and with good reason too. For years, filmmakers have tried to capture the natural drama that exists in sport and, to a large extent, they’ve failed miserably. The biggest hurdle is trying to replicate the speed, agility and technique of top-level athletes. If we could get actors to move the way Messi does, then they wouldn’t be actors and Messi wouldn’t be a once-in-a-generation talent.
So, the best sports films focus on the story behind the sport. They usually use sport as a vehicle, rather than as a plot. Some sports work better on film that others too. Boxing has a long history in Hollywood and films like Raging Bull and Rocky are classic films, not just classic sports films. Football might be the world’s game, but the single notable football film has Sylvester Stallone in goal and Pele plus half the early 1980s Ipswich Town team facing the Nazis.
However, we still love sport, and we still love movies, so sports movies are still being made. We’re here to help you sort through the noise and find the best sports films of the last decade. We’re going to hand out a Best Sports Film award (considering both features and documentaries) for each year of the last decade and unlike the stuffy AMPAS, we won’t steer you wrong:
2011 – Moneyball (baseball)
Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is credited with bringing the sports analytics revolution away from number crunching baseball nerds and into the general populace. Eight years after the book, the film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill garnered Oscar buzz and received widespread acclaim from critics. There’s limited footage of actual baseball in the film as the director focuses more on the battles facing Billy Beane and colleagues as they try and convince the old guard of their newly developed methods.
2012 – Silver Linings Playbook (American Football)
You don’t get to see any sport in Silver Linings Playbook but sports and sport fandom runs throughout the movie. And it’s not the kind of sports fandom that regularly appears in American movies. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles are basically a central character with the city’s other teams playing minor roles too. Bradley Cooper is excellent as a flawed Eagles fan just trying to make his way back to normality with the help of Jennifer Lawrence. The film essential hangs on a bet made on the Eagles so this might qualify as a great gambling movie too.
2013 – Rush (motor racing)
While the 2010 documentary Senna may be the greatest ever film set in the world of Formula One, 2013’s Rush makes a decent effort at dramatising the battle for the 1976 championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. The story of two drivers who don’t like each other racing at hundreds of miles an hour is a regular plot in Hollywood, but this movie is given an extra edge as we know it’s based on a true story. The racing scenes are very well done.
2014 – Foxcatcher (wrestling)
Wrestling, freestyle and Greco-Roman “Olympic style” wrestling, is a big deal in the US. Well, it’s a big deal in the way figure skating and swimming are a big deal in that every four years the sports have a massive spotlight on them. Eccentric millionaire (it’s illegal to use any other phrase for him) John du Pont wants to support wrestling and headhunts the Schultz brothers (both gold medal winners at the 1984 Olympics) to be part of a programme that will make US Wrestling unbeatable. It goes horribly wrong. Steve Carell is exceptional as du Pont slowly becomes unhinged. Watched the documentary of the same name to see how accurate it was.
2015 – Creed (boxing)
Critics may argue that Creed is merely a remake of the original Rocky. To this I say: “Shut up and enjoy the film.” Michael B Jordan is a better actor than Sly Stallone ever was, and he gives Adonis Creed a deep sense of righteous anger throughout the film. Director Ryan Coogler used Stallone sparingly, and effectively, and the action scenes are incredibly well put together. You watch films like Creed knowing the ending, so the storytelling must be exceptional for you to buy in at early stage. Thankfully here, it is.
2016 - There was no award in 2016 due to insufficient quality and quantity. (Sorry Eddie The Eagle)
2017 – I, Tonya (Figure skating)
As a sports fan in the 1990s, you may have heard of British Olympic champions Torville & Dean, but you definitely knew of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. The attack on Kerrigan orchestrated by Harding shocked the world and the perceived tranquil view of figure skating was blown apart. The movie takes a sympathetic view of Margot Robbie’s Harding and uses black comedy to expose some of the more absurd events surrounding the incident and Harding’s tough upbringing.
2018 – Free Solo (rock climbing)
Free Solo, immediately upon release, joined the likes of “Hoop Dreams” and “When We Were Kings” in the discussion for the greatest documentary ever made. The plot, such as it is, is a simple one. We follow Alex Honnold as he attempts to climb the mythical “El Capitan” without the aid of safety ropes or harnesses. Hannold is obsessed by the challenge, and that obsession has led him to making some iffy life choices (there’s a scene with a new girlfriend asking what’s more important, her or the mountain…) but you’re definitely on his side as he attempts to make that free solo climb. If you can watch this movie without sweating, you’re probably incapable of feeling emotion.
2019 – Maradona (Football)
Asif Kapadia’s masterful portrayal of Ayton Senna in 2010’s Senna had established him as one of the finest documentary makers working today. 2019’s Maradona put him on another level altogether. Primarily focusing on Diego Maradona’s rollercoaster experience in Naples, the movies does a great job and showing how revered the little magician was. It doesn’t shy away from the dark clouds around (and in) Maradona, and if you haven’t seen it already, you’ll leave with a much better sense of how the aura around him was created.
2020 – Cheer (Cheerleading)
I can hear you groaning from here. Let me explain a couple of things. Firstly, the movie world basically shut down during the pandemic. We have to go to TV land for 2020. Secondly, Netflix’s Cheer is *absolutely* a sports documentary. In many ways it is the archetypal sports documentary. The tale of young wannabees from different backgrounds coming together for a legendary coach with one shot at glory. That’s effectively the plot of every underdog American sports movie. And Cheer is better than all of them. It isn’t long into the show before you care deeply about which of the Navarro team make mat. Cheer is that good, it just edges the also brilliant Michael Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance” which was released in March to widespread acclaim.
There you have it, a Best Sports* film** Oscar award for each year of the past decade. Do let us know what we got wrong!