Sports movies are just about always in fashion. With Will Smith recently winning Best Actor at the Academy Awards for King Richard (and absolutely nothing he did that night overshadowing his win, right?) and Adam Sandler’s Netflix basketball movie Hustle dropping in June, it’s always a good time to look back on the recent classics that have defined the genre in recent years.
For this list, we’ve only included narrative-driven films released this century, so no documentaries or TV series are included, so apologies to Michael Jordan he takes our exclusion of The Last Dance personally.
10. Rush (2013, Ron Howard)
With the recent surge in popularity of Formula One in the US, thanks to the Netflix series Drive to Survive, now is as good a time as any to revisit this hidden gem from Solo: A Star Wars Story and Apollo 13 director (as well as the voice behind Arrested Development’s brilliant narration) Ron Howard.
This tells the story of James Hunt and Niki Lauda’s (portrayed by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, respectively) legendary rivalry that fueled both men to reach new heights in the sport. This flick came and went a bit, but is one worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.
9. Friday Night Lights (2004, Peter Berg)
Based on the Buzz Bissinger non-fiction book recounting the story of a Texas high school football team in 1988, Friday Night Lights is an iconic football and high school movie. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a high school football coach trying to hold his team together through a turbulent season in the pressure-cooker of a small town in rural Texas obsessed with their high school team.
Later inspiring the NBC television show of the same name, Friday Night Lights was beloved when it came out in 2004. It holds an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and even nabbed the ESPY for Best Sports Movie. Not exactly an Academy Award, but it still shows how much audiences appreciated the story.
8. The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)
If you know anything about pro wrestling, you know sometimes the glory of Wrestlemania fades away and many longtime stars end up spending the twilight years of their careers in High School gyms, entertaining dozens of audience members. The Wrestler tells the story of a case like this, with Mickey Rourke portraying a former star who now just has the pop of the crowd left to live for.
Rourke is incredible as Randy “The Ram” in a career-revitalizing performance and Darren Aronofsky goes above and beyond the call to deliver a classic. This film was acclaimed when it came out, nabbing two Academy Award nominations and appearing on numerous critic’s top ten lists for 2008. Whether you’re a wrestling fan or not, you’ll be able to find something to latch onto here.
7. Damned United (2009, Tom Hooper)
One of the most underrated movies of the past 20 years, Damed United is about the 44-day tenure of legendary English football manager Brian Clough as the boss of then-champions Leeds United. It’s a fantastic look into what is one of the most overlooked stories of pre-Premier League English football.
Michael Sheen stars as Clough, with The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper and The Crown writer Peter Morgan working behind the scenes. A veritable who’s-who of the British film industry worked on this, and it’s a real diamond-in-the-rough.
6. The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
This Academy Award-winning boxing movie boasts a star-studded cast along with one of the most prolific filmmakers of the past couple of decades, David O. Russell. Mark Wahlberg stars as down-on-his-luck Boston boxer Micky Ward, with Chrisitan Bale and Amy Adams co-starring as his drug-addicted brother and girlfriend, respectively.
This was a bonafide hit, grossing $129 million against a $25 million budget, and was also critically acclaimed. On Oscar night, The Fighter was nominated for 7 awards, winning both supporting acting categories for Bale and Melissa Leo.
5. Miracle (2004, Gavin O’Connor)
While it may not be a better piece of cinema than others on this list, I personally would argue that Miracle is one of the best pure sports movies ever made. Telling the story of the US Olympic Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” win against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics, this movie gets the on-ice action right in a remarkable sense with intense action that brings you to the edge of your seat.
Kurt Russell gives a masterclass performance in the lead role, hitting all of the cliches you’d come to expect from a sports movie in all of the right ways. Miracle is inherently rewatchable and a bonafide classic sports movie.
4. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006, Adam McKay)
This technically counts, right? Talladega Nights is a modern classic starring the King of Comedy from the mid-2000s, Will Ferrell, in one of his most iconic roles. This NASCAR movie coined the term, “If you’re not first, you’re last” and has become a cultural touchpoint for racing.
The film has even undergone a critical re-evaluation, with many critics noting that Ricky Bobby’s winner-or-loser mentality is also a comment on the Bush-era masculinity of that time, especially considering Adam McKay’s more serious recent works like The Big Short, Vice, and Don’t Look Up. Maybe a bit lofty for a movie that contains an extended sequence where Will Ferrell runs around a race track in his underwear, but worth pointing out nonetheless.
3. Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)
Sometimes a reboot actually gets it right. This kickstarted the Rocky franchise with Michael B. Jordan in a star-making role as Adonis Creed teaming up with director Ryan Coogler, who he would later reunite with for Black Panther.
By any stretch of the imagination, this movie really shouldn’t be good. It’s a reboot of a franchise nearly 30 years after the last good installment with a story centered around an illegitimate son that wasn’t introduced in the previous entries and whose existence brings into question the timeline of the franchise. But Coogler’s brilliance behind the camera, Jordan’s star-turn, and arguably the greatest performance of Sylvester Stallone’s career make Creed arguably the best entry in the Rocky saga.
2. Uncut Gems (2019, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie)
The movie that launched a thousand Adam Sandler reaction gifs, Uncut Gems is one of the best movies about life as a sports fan that there is. Sandler stars as a jeweler in New York City’s diamond district, that spends a bit too much time betting on the online sportsbooks in New York available today.
This one features NBA Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett in a key supporting role and centers around the events of a real-life playoff series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers in 2012. As a Sixers fan who’s lost a bit of cash on parlays, this one hits close to home and is a personal favorite of mine.
1. Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)
The undisputed king of the modern sports movie, Moneyball is everything we look for as modern-day sports fans. Going beyond the day-to-day playing of the game into the thinking and strategy behind it, Moneyball tells the story of how the advanced statistics that have formed modern-day baseball came into fashion with the Oakland Athletics.
But, somehow, this film manages to have an incredibly warm heart behind all of the cold-hard stats. Brad Pitt does a masterful job portraying Billy Beane as a man trying to fight against the system as well as a father trying to balance his ambition with his family. This warmth at the center of the story prevents a movie ostensibly about turning sports into math from being too distant and still keeps pulling at your heartstrings.
After all, how can you not be romantic about baseball?