Foxcatcher – nominated this week for three Oscars – tells the true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion brother duo Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) who trained for the 1988 sporting ceremony under the guide of sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carell) – a union which ended tragically.
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), the film has not only embedded itself as an Academy frontrunner but a strong entry into the sports film canon.
To mark its awards recognition, we've picked our ten best sports films of all time. Game on.
10 | Downhill Racer (1969)
Based on the 1963 novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall, this adaptation – which came 6 years later – follows Robert Redford’s talented downhill skier, David Chappellet, who joins the US ski team in Europe to compete internationally. Filmed on location in Austria, Switzerland and France, the film tracks Chappallet’s journey to Gold medal success at the Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympics. Also starring Gene Hackman, Downhill Racer was awarded the honour of being “the best movie ever made about sports – without really being about sports…” by the late beloved film critic Roger Ebert.
9 | Field of Dreams (1989)
“If you build it, he will come” – or so goes the oft-misquoted mantra from what is surely everybody’s favourite Kevin Costner film: Field of Dreams. From director Phil Alden Robinson (whose Oscar-winning script was adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe), it follows Costner’s Iowa corn farmer Ray Kinsella who – upon hearing voices – decides to build a baseball pitch in his field. Solid supporting turns from Ray Liotta as real-life deceased baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson and James Earl Jones, as the radical author Terence Mann, elevate this fantasy sports film to must-see status. Laughs, tears, tension: Field of Dreams really does succeed in becoming the Costner film it shouldn’t be cool to like, but you can't help but love.
8 | Slap Shot (1977)
Let’s be honest: we wanted an ice hockey film in this list and Slap Shot was going to be it (we couldn’t justify The Mighty Ducks). George Roy Hill – director of such classics as Butch Cassidy… and The Sting – cast Paul Newman (again) in the lead of this comedy which tracks a minor league hockey team who resort to violent play in order to gain popularity in small-town America. The screenplay, written by Nancy Dowd, was inspired by her brother’s experiences playing the sport, which led to an inventively rollicking film which has since fallen victim to the Hollywood rip-off (see 2011’s far inferior Goon).
7 | The Wrestler (2008)
In Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Mickey Rourke was handed the role of his career. Interestingly, The Wrestler – directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) – almost plays as an anti-sports film, shunning the well-trod formula of following a troubled figure who only seem to find success playing the sport they love. Instead, in Randy, we’ve a character whose sporting heyday has long since passed, and Rourke's performance was rightly celebrated for the kind of raw emotion rarely seen in sports films. Just imagine how different the film would have been had original choice Nicolas Cage won the role… Actually, let’s not.
6 | This Sporting Life (1963)
Based on David Storey’s novel, 1963 British film This Sporting Life recounts the fictional story of unpredictable rugby league footballer, Frank Machin. The film, written by Storey himself, boasts the first starring role of the late Richard Harris and, brilliant as those on-field scenes filmed at Wakefield Trinity’s ground in Yorkshire are, is just as much about working class angst as it is rugby league.
5 | Moneyball (2011)
Adapted from Michael Lewis’s book by screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Traffic) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Bennett Miller’s biographical baseball drama Moneyball focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of Oakland Athletics, and his attempts to assemble a team based on players who look statistically better on paper than on pitch. Miller’s film manages to eke out sports-like tension from Beane’s office-based schematics – a scene in which he barters to draft in a crucial player while the transfer window’s on the cusp of closure will increase the heart rate as much as any home run – and bolstered by a stellar supporting cast (Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright), Moneyball knocks it out of the park.
4 | The Hustler (1961)
Paul Newman’s role of small-time pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson – a worthy input to any ‘Greatest Newman Roles’ conversation – remains one of the coolest sports films of all time. Robert Rosson’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel also has just enough grit to ensure The Hustler remains a nail-biting experience from start to end. Newman reprised his role 25 years later in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, winning a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts; notch that decision down to the Academy cleaning up their past messes – Judgment at Nuremberg’s Maximillian Schnell 8-balled Newman at the 1962 ceremony.
3 | Jerry Maguire (1996)
The best sports film not strictly about sport, Jerry Maguire stars Tom Cruise as the eponymous agent who, when fired from his job, puts a new-found philosophy to the test as an independent sports agent representative of sole athlete, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr. on Oscar-winning form). Writer-director Cameron Crowe crams in everything required to make a successful film for the ages (90s poster bloke, check; funny kid, check; quotable dialogue, check – by the bucket-load) ensuring that Jerry Maguire is just too damned difficult to dislike and one that – wait for it – completes any worthy sports films list. Sorry.
2 | Rocky (1976)
Cast your mind back to a time before The Expendables and Rambo; 1976, to be precise – the year when Sylvester Stallone burst onto the scene with an acclaimed rags-to-riches tale which mirrored his own off-screen success. Inspired by a Muhammed Ali-Chuck Wepner fight, so enthralled was Stallone with the match that he went away and wrote Rocky in three days straight – a screenplay that would win him an Oscar. Rocky remains not only the franchise highlight, standing tall above its five sequels (shout out to Rocky V), but a sports film heavyweight that packs some serious clout.
1 | Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro’s performance as the self-destructive Italian middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta – which famously saw him gain approximately 60 pounds – is just one of the many elements which make Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull the finest sports film there is. The stunning work of cinematographer Michael Chapman, shooting in black-and-white, makes those blood-drenched boxing ring scenes all the more effecting. So memorable are those scenes, it’s difficult to fathom that they amount to a mere 12 minutes of screen time. This classic represents the peak of the Scorsese / De Niro creative partnership.