Exploring The Best Basketball Sports Genre Films of All Time
Let’s explore the filmmaking elements behind these popular basketball sports films, from He Got Game to Hustle.
As a birthday gift several years ago, a friend got me one of my prized possessions: a hat that says movies on it. (Which we featured as one of our best filmmaking gifts, by the way.) However, as much as I love that hat, I felt that it was a bit too broad for me. What I really love are movies about sports—and a hat that says “movies about sports are awesome” doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know?
Regardless of your thoughts on movies, and hats for that matter, it is undeniable that sports films are a genre that has stood the age of time. Since the earliest days of cinema, we’ve had great sports films create iconic elements and scenes to the delight of audiences across the globe.
Today though, we’re going to focus on one type of sports genre film and explore the legacy of basketball movies throughout film history. From Spike Lee’s He Got Game to Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix standout Hustle, let’s look at the most outstanding basketball sports films of all time to see if we can pick out the filmmaking elements that make them so lovable.
So before we get to our top picks and genre filmmaking lessons, we need to shout out a few films that didn’t make our list. Some of these are worth talking about and studying for other filmmaking and storytelling principles but don’t quite fit into this sports film genre.
For example, Uncut Gems could be considered a basketball movie in some senses, but overall is more of a high-octane kinetic drama. There are some other basketball films that I love but are more of the kid’s sports genre, including Space Jam (and a 2021 reboot), Air Bud, and Teen Wolf.
There’s also a vast selection of basketball documentaries (one of which we do include on our list) focused on different stars that are great (and excellent documentary filmmaking inspiration). Still, we couldn’t focus on them all. But if you love the sports doc genre, check out Jumpshot: The Kenny Sailors Story, Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot, and the 10-part Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance.
7. Amateur (2018)
Our first pick is the 2018 Netflix film Amateur, directed by Ryan Koo. If you aren’t familiar with Koo, alongside being a talented filmmaker, he’s also the founder of the website No Film School.
He even documented his filmmaking process for Amateur in a 10-part podcast series that covers everything from his initial ideation and Kickstarter throughout the writing, directing, and editing process—all great inspiration and insights into this basketball sports genre filmmaking process.
6. High Flying Bird (2019)
Another modern basketball film that explores not just the on-the-court elements but more so the off-the-court drama of life in the sport, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird has quietly been one of the best films of this director’s career. It’s also noteworthy as one of the recent films by Soderbergh to be shot on an iPhone—a practice of his which we’ve covered in-depth here.
As far as basketball movies go, this is a great watch that doesn’t try to do too much but focuses on empathetic storytelling and solid DIY filmmaking principles. You can honestly go out and copy these techniques and shoot yourself tomorrow with your friends.
5. Hoosiers (1986)
Regarded as one of the best sports movies of all time, it’d be hard to have any list of notable basketball films without including Hoosiers. Set in the 1950s, this 1986 sports film was written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh and helped to create the prototype for this classic sports genre story.
It includes all the hallmarks of feel-good Americana and pits a ragtag ensemble of underdog characters anchored by one star leading actor (in this case, the coach Gene Hackman) up against odds both on and off the court.
While maybe a bit dated against some of our more modern examples, Hoosiers is required viewing for anyone curious about this classic basketball sports genre style.
4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
As mentioned in our honorable mentions, the 1994 documentary film Hoop Dreams might be the single greatest documentary project of all time. Originally intended to be a 30 minute short produced for PBS, filmmaker Steve James and his crew spent over five years filming the stories of two up-and-coming basketball prospects in Chicago.
The final film beautifully captures the ethos and true emotions at the center of basketball culture as well as provides plenty of context into the racial and socio-economic structures at play in the sport. For documentary filmmakers or basketball film fans alike, viewing is required.
3. Hustle (2022)
Now there might be some recency bias to this list as Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix basketball film was just released. But Sandler’s Hustle, starring Sandler as a down-on-his-luck NBA scout, is the new perfect template for the modern basketball genre movie.
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar and from a screenplay by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, Hustle is a perfect blend of on-the-court realism and off-the-court drama as we follow Sandler’s scout and his new prize prospect from Spain.
The film also expertly uses all the modern styles of social media (and even some fun mirrorless camera-shot hype videos) to showcase what the future of this beloved sports genre might hold.
2. He Got Game (1998)
If we talk about great basketball movies, we have to talk about one of the greatest basketball-adjacent directors of all time, the great Spike Lee. After famously bursting onto the film scene with Do the Right Thing, Lee found mainstream fame with his iconic Michael Jordan “It’s gotta be the shoes” commercial spots for Nike.
However, his 1998 sports drama He Got Game might also be one of his greatest films. It follows a father-son duo portrayed by actor Denzel Washington and NBA star Ray Allen. While a bit more focused on the off-the-court than the on, He Got Game is a perfect summation of basketball culture owing a debt to films like Hoop Dreams before it and Lee’s love for cinema and the sport itself.
1. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Finally, our top pick for the best—and most filmmaking-ly significant—basketball films is the 1992 drama-comedy film White Men Can’t Jump. Starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as streetball hustlers in two of their most iconic roles, director Ron Shelton’s work behind the camera really lets these actors shine as they built pretty much the perfect prototypes for sports heroes.
The film relies on some familiar narratives as it centers around the buddy comedy love triangle relationship as well as training and competing in a big “grand prize” tournament. Its characters and heart are top-notch.
Any basketball film from now on must owe at least a bit of debt and inspiration to these two characters and the streetball culture it perfectly captures.
Cover image via Netflix.
For more genre filmmaking insights, inspirations and lists, check out these additional articles below.
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