Ranking the Best Sports Genre Films of All Time


When starting your journey in filmmaking, there are many different types of films to explore. These different avenues can often be broken down into different film genres. Genre theory is worth a deep study and can be quite helpful in learning how to develop your overall filmmaking craft properly.

But for every “classic” film genre like horror, sci-fi, or comedy, for example, plenty of genres can be just as essential to study and understand.

One of the most famous film genres across the globe is the sports genre which focuses on individual and team heroics and is some of the most simple examples of filmmaking themes like man vs. man, good vs. evil, and the hero’s journey.

To help you truly understand the sports genre from the ground up, let’s do our best to highlight the best sports films of all time and explore how the different sports sub-genres fit into the genre overall.

And, if you’d like to preview some individual rankings of different sports sub-genres, check out these in-depth articles first:

10. He Got Game (1998)

Starting off our top 10 sports movies of all time list, we have a basketball film. And not just any basketball movie, mind you, but one directed by one of the most talented and bombastic filmmakers of all time.

By the time Spike Lee made He Got Game he was almost synonymous with the sport of basketball itself as he was famous for his Michael Jordan “It’s gotta be the shoes” commercial spots for Nike as well as infamous for his courtside antics at New York Knicks games.

However, despite any off-the-court activities, Lee was indeed at the top of his game for this film and gave Denzel Washington one of the best roles of his career, as well as doing a great job of accurately capturing the zeitgeist of the sport and how it is very much a part of urban culture and father-and-son family bonding.

9. Slap Shot (1977)

Next on our list, we have our lone selection from the sport of hockey as its own chilly sports sub-genre. While not as revered as baseball or boxing, which we’ll get to later, hockey has its unique slice of North American culture to explore. The films that stand out in this genre do a great job of bringing these northern locals to life on the big screen while finding timely tales that transcend the ice arena.

Slap Shot is also one of the best examples of the popular ragtag group of misfit sports team narratives anchored by Paul Newman in his prime. This style lends itself well to comedy bits while being backed by enough ethos and reverence for the sport to find a home with audiences who follow sports like hockey year round.

8. Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Probably the most unique film on our list of great sports movies, Stephen Chow’s football (aka soccer for us folk in the US) film is truly one of the most innovative and fun movies of any genre or type.

While Chow would expand upon his action and comedy stylings in the critically and commercially acclaimed film Kung Fu Hustle, you can see much of Chow’s genius in action in this high-flying comedic take on that same ragtag team against the well-established opponent narratives.

Starring Chow himself as the lead, Shaolin Soccer turns the sport into a cartoonish yet fantastic version of itself while utilizing expert wirework stunts and CGI to make it entertaining for hardcore sports fans and casual viewers alike.

7. Bull Durham (1988)

Moving onto one of the several films on our list (and in this genre itself) to feature Kevin Costner in a leading role, Bull Durham is arguably considered the best baseball movie of all time. However, unlike our other selection listed below, Bull Durham’s charm mostly comes from how it draws back the curtain on the glitz and glamor of the major leagues — opting instead to focus on characters down on their luck in the minors hoping to get called up.

Bull Durham is also one of many sports genre films that crosses over very clearly into a romantic film, or rom-com at times, as it focuses on a very well-written love triangle between its three leads Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

6. Rocky (1976)

While there’s so much to say about Rocky as one of the most inspirational and essential films for filmmakers to study that we’ve written a whole article about it, we also have to remind ourselves that it’s also simply one of the greatest sports films of all time.

Of course, famous for launching the career of its writer and star Sylvester Stallone as America’s favorite never-give-up fighter Rocky Balboa, the story of Stallone the actor and filmmaker, and his lead character can very quickly get tied together in the folklore of the film.

Still, Rocky was a huge commercial and critical success for its time and still stands out in a crowded field of great boxing films (perhaps the most significant sports sub-genre there is). Rocky would become a worldwide phenomenon and media franchise, as well as spawn eight sequels (with even more still perhaps to come).

5. Tin Cup (1996)

Moving on to the best golf film of all time, we sadly had to leave Happy Gilmore (which came out the same year, oddly) in our honorable mentions. However, while Happy Gilmore showcased how the golf genre is rife for comedy and poking fun at its boring and pretentious nature, Tin Cup uses these same motifs to tell a very heartwarming and uplifting love story that explores perseverance (and stubbornness).

Tin Cup is a sharply-written and expertly executed sports rom-com which is perhaps the best example of a film that knows how to treat its sport seriously (and not dumbing down its rules and customs so that die-hard fans can enjoy it) while also knowing how to make it accessible to everyone (especially for those wanting to enjoy it as romantic fodder).

4. Friday Night Lights (2004)

While we already featured a football film on our list, we need to showcase one of the best American football films (not soccer) to come out in the past few decades. And while there might be some other football films more notable for their nostalgia (like Rudy) or great big-name performances (like Any Given Sunday), Friday Night Lights is the best example of how indie filmmaking fundamentals can be used to tell a big, powerful and impactful story.

Shot in a narrative-documentary style, Peter Berg’s adaption of the best-selling non-fiction book about the high stakes of high school football in West Texas is the north star any aspiring sports filmmaker should shoot for. The film created a style and look that has since been copied and used to launch a TV show version as well as plenty of documentary-style productions in its wake—yet with no project reaching its original level of authenticity and interest for audiences worldwide.

3. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

For some sports films, the name of the game is capturing the grandiose, the cinematic, and the dream-like qualities of achievements, victories, and conquest. However, for other sports films, the path to success is found with simply creating authentic characters and putting them into real situations just to let them shine.

White Men Can’t Jump the best example of the later as it uses its up-and-coming (at the time) cast of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as streetball hustlers to give audiences a slice-of-life look into their antics and tribulations—with of course basketball at the heart of all of their cinematic endeavors.

2. The Natural (1984)

It was a tough call putting The Natural over Bull Durham as our pick for the best (or least most important) baseball film of all time. However, having The Natural as number two on our list feels appropriate because of its most glorious and purely cinematic sequences—and most notably, its firework-laden walk-off home run of endings.

Starring Robert Redford in perhaps his most famous all-American role as Roy Hobbs, The Natural is a love letter to sports at their most pure and primal. While it can come off as a “when men were men” type of story today, it does enough to present a period piece love story at its core that ultimately gives way to let cinematographer Caleb Deschanel deliver some of the most beautiful sports scenes ever shot.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

Finally, as mentioned above, we have to finish our list with another boxing movie as this subgenre of sports films has proven to be the most versatile, narratively appealing, and cinematic of all the different sporting options.

And at the heart of the boxing film, we find some of the best filmmakers and actors at the top of their game with Martin Scorsese‘s epic sports biopic drama Raging Bull starring Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta. Shot in a beautiful black-and-white and presenting another period drama hearkening back to the tough days of early Hollywood cinema, Raging Bull is Scorsese at his absolute best.

Also, for a film that came out over forty years ago and at times shot quite conservatively in its dialogue scenes, Raging Bull still feels surprisingly innovative and even experimental at times in how Scorsese was able to shoot its chaotic, personal, and poetic action and fighting sequences.

If you’re interested in making a sports film or project of any sort, Raging Bull would be a great place to start understanding the ethos of how a sport can connect with a film audience.

To read more on different genre theories and explore more filmmaking tips and tricks, check out these additional articles below.


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