The Eight Best Sports Films. Ever
Get your pulse racing from the comfort of your armchair with MR PORTER’s guide to the most winning depictions of sport on celluloid
Mr Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, 1980 Kobal Collection
The biggest problem with putting sport onto film is that, well, the regular ways in which we experience it are already pretty exciting. In person you get the hum of the crowd, the thrill of the who-will-triumph uncertainty, sometimes even a hot dog or pie. On television, you encounter it from multiple angles, peppered with flashy idents, breathless commentary and always have a quick route to the facilities should nature call. Both are difficult to improve upon. Particularly as things such as football’s Premier League or America’s NFL continue to be presented as unmissable, hyper-exciting culturally seismic events. The challenge, then, for film-makers, is adding cinematic drama to something that’s naturally geared towards providing plenty of its own. How to make sport sportier? It requires a mastery of the art of directing to accurately mimic the shapes, sounds and feel of it, and a sense of balance between the action and the human stories sport inevitably tells. These eight films, among the most stadium-worthy of them all, pull off that difficult task with aplomb. Let the games begin.
Mr Zidane, 2006 Allstar Picture Library
Despite all the guff about football being the “beautiful game”, its on-screen representations have been anything but, ranging from kitsch (Escape to Victory) to just downright dreadful (the Goal series). Zidane cuts out the mess, removing dialogue, conventional narrative and unconvincing recreations of the sport to focus on a truly sublime talent. The film tracks Mr Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman best known for his red card in the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting an opponent in the chest. Seventeen cameras captured his every move during a game for Real Madrid against Villarreal and post-rock overlords Mogwai provided the soundtrack. Fortunately for the video artists, Mr Zidane delivered a convenient denouement, getting involved in a brawl towards the end of the game and being sent off. Utterly compelling.
Mr Pitt as legendary baseball GM Mr Billy Beane in Moneyball, 2011 Kobal Collection
There’s not much high-octane sporting action in this multiple Oscar-nominated vehicle for Mr Brad Pitt – in fact it’s a little unclear how it made it through the elevator pitch. Imagine being confronted with this as you bash at the button for your penthouse office: Mr Pitt plays Mr Billy Beane, a real-life failed player whose sabermetrics system revolutionised baseball with incremental gains from deep statistical analysis. Thrilling, right? However, a masterful directing job, aided especially by an outstanding supporting performance from Mr Jonah Hill as his geeky assistant, makes Moneyball more gripping than it has any right to be. The secret weapons are the source material – a bestselling book by Mr Michael Lewis and a screenplay by Messrs Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Slight and quiet in tone, a perfect match for its sport, it highlights the importance of some of sport’s less-heralded players, the ones who work in offices rather than on the field.
Messrs Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, 2009 Absolute Film Archive
A none-more 1980s combination of Mr Tom Cruise and producer Mr Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop) driving some very fast cars. Mr Cruise is Cole Trickle, a young driver who dreams of making it to Nascar, the thrilling American variant of motor racing which involves speeding around an oval track again and again and again. Inevitably, there’s a spectacular crash. Fortunately for our hero, his doctor Claire Lewicki is played by a wonderfully frizzy-haired Ms Nicole Kidman. Gloriously over the top, Days of Thunder was not kindly received at the time (The New York Times called it “a commercial for an unnamed product”) but it now stands as a rambunctious period peace, full of typically 1990s levels of self-indulgence (read: white teeth, screeching breaks, silhouetted smooching, car crashes, in-race POV shots and a token helicopter). Speed is conveyed beautifully and the overall tone is darker and moodier than the soundtrack (Guns N’ Roses! The guy from Whitesnake!) might suggest.
A film still from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962 Kobal Collection
The glory days of British kitchen sink realism bring us Colin Smith (Mr Tom Courtenay), a nihilistic borstal boy given a chance of conventional redemption by a prison governor who spots his athletic ability. His way out is through the world of white vests, short shorts and running in the mud for several hours at a time. Training looks suitably exhausting and the camera’s unrelenting close-ups on Mr Courtenay’s wiry, flailing frame convey the desperation of pushing yourself beyond your capabilities better than any big-budget sports advert. There’s something of the endorphin-charged delight which running can bring too, in a sequence when Colin is trusted to run his usual supervised route on his own: the soundtrack explodes into peppy jazz rhythms and the viewer is shown the gorgeous shaky sun through our runner’s eyes, temporarily free.
Mr Newman in 1961's The Hustler LFI
Proving that Mr Paul Newman could make anything cool, The Hustler elevates a sport associated with dreadful bars and men in possession of an array of questionable odours to the height of suave sophistication. Mr Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who’s seeking out the champion, the superbly named Minnesota Fats, played by Mr Jackie Gleason. Professional gambler Bert Gordon gets involved: broken characters, broken dreams and broken thumbs follow. Director Mr Rossen was aiming for a style he – rather unimaginatively – called “neo-neo realistic”, filming on location in New York City pool halls and hiring tough guys from the streets to act as extras. He tells a bleak story, addressing the human sacrifices necessary in the pursuit of getting to the top of any sport. There’s also a brief cameo from Mr Jake LaMotta, whose story was told in Raging Bull, who plays a bartender. Don’t ask us why.
A film still from Lagaan, 2001 Allstar Picture Library
A landmark Bollywood musical about an Indian village under frequently brutal British rule in the late 19th century. The titular “lagaan” is a tax the colonists want to hike. Heroic villager Bhuvan, played by Bollywood superstar and co-producer Mr Aamir Khan, accepts a challenge to a treble-or-quits game of cricket. England’s dire record on the subcontinent makes the locals obvious favourites, except – aha – in Lagaan none of the Indians know the rules of the game. Fittingly, for a film about cricket, it’s intimidatingly long, at almost four hours. But the sport sequences are muscular, culminating in a thrilling denouement far more intense than the vast majority of actual cricket games. And of course, as it’s a musical – there’s other welcome elements: the song and dance numbers are both incredibly catchy (depending of course, on how hot you are on your microtonal singing) and stylishly executed, working to best complement the film’s stunning rural setting and warm, amber-toned colour palette.
A film still from Hoop Dreams, 1994 Kartemquin Films
One easy way to get around pitfalls of the sport/ cinema equation is not to bother cooking up something fictional and to make a documentary instead. That’s what Mr Steve James did with his epic film, shot in Chicago, which follows aspiring young basketball players Messrs William Gates and Arthur Agee over the course of six years. As Hoop Dreams opens, both are recruited to a high school that, though a 90-minute daily commute, has a prestigious basketball programme – the first step, they hope, to a career in the NBA. Spoiler: neither makes it, but Hoop Dreams is that rare thing – a sports film more concerned with the 99 per cent of aspiring professional athletes that fail to make the big time. It’s also a singular look into inner-city existence in the mid-1990s, depicting the struggles and triumphs of Messrs Gates’ and Agee’s families, their lives continually balancing big dreams and daily desperation. It’s often heartbreaking, but somehow it’s not a bummer. Mr Roger Ebert called it “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen”.
Mr Robert De Niro stars as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, 1980 Eyevine
Mr Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece in black and white tackles the brutal sport of boxing with a combination of giddy reverence and an unflinching honesty about its violent excesses. Mr Robert De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Mr Jake LaMotta, the self-destructive boxer with ties to the mafia and an extremely short temper, especially when presented with an over-cooked steak. The fight sequences are without parallel, gory and grim but superbly orchestrated and as beautiful as ballet. Before the film Mr De Niro trained with Mr LaMotta until the boxer thought the actor ready to fight professionally. He also gained 70lbs to portray Mr LaMotta as an older man by eating in Italy and France’s finest restaurants for four months. Tough gig, that Method acting...