Good sports movies are tough to make. The most successful have to transcend the drama and excitement inherent in sports themselves; why watch a movie about basketball when you could simply watch a great basketball game?
But when done right, sports movies offer more depth than the average game, illuminating not just the sport depicted, but the deeper part of human nature that makes us love watching other people play games. The next time you fire up Netflix, hit play on one of these titles.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
Kurt Russell, who interrupted his acting career to play baseball professionally in the 1970s, is one of the highlights of this documentary about his father’s legendary minor league team, the Portland Mavericks. But he’s just one piece of a highly entertaining true story that chronicles the independent baseball club and its ragtag team of rejects, who seem more tailor-made for an underdog sports comedy than reality-no surprise, there’s a Hollywood remake in the works.
Beyond the Mat (1999)
Unsurprisingly, the athletes who go by names like “Mankind” and “The Snake” and devote their lives to wrestling are just as eccentric and intriguing as the sport itself. Lifelong wrestling fan and comedy writer Barry Blaustein explores the ins and outs of the World Wrestling Federation and Extreme Championship Wrestling in this sports doc, while primarily turning to the sport’s personalities, like Mick Foley, Terry Funk, and Jake Roberts, to see what their lives are like beyond the ring. Even if you came for the rumbles and smackdowns, the behind-the-mask look at the pros’ lives may change your perception of the sport altogether. Nevertheless, it is still fun to get a reminder of what extreme eyebrow raiser The Rock was like before he became action and Disney star Dwayne Johnson.
Bleed For This (2016)
This biographical film features one of sports history’s greatest comebacks. In the early ’90s, world champion boxer Vinny Pazienza thought he was never going to get back in the ring again, let alone walk again, after surviving a car crash with a broken neck. Miraculously, that didn’t stop him, and the excellent Miles Teller brings Pazienza’s tenacity and recovery to life in this flashy boxing drama. Of course, the movie pulls from the boxing classics like Rocky and Raging Bull, trying to reach that unparalleled level of oomph and rawness, but this true story stands on its own with the way the cast brings the soul of the family to the screen.
Jean-Claude Van Damme made a career out of good-not-great fluff. Universal Soldier is serviceable spectacle, Hard Target is a living cartoon, Lionheart is his half-baked take on On the Waterfront. Bloodsport, which owes everything to the legacy of Bruce Lee, edges out his Die Hard riff Sudden Death for his best effort, thanks to muscles-on-top-of-muscles-on-top-of-muscles fighting and Stan Bush’s “Fight to Survive.” Magic Mike has nothing on Van Damme’s chiseled backside in Bloodsport, which flexes its way through a slow-motion karate-chop gauntlet. In his final face-off, Van Damme, blinded by arena dust, rage-screams his way to victory. The amount of adrenaline bursting out of Bloodsport demands a splash zone.
The Dawn Wall (2017)
This sports doc will get your adrenaline pumping as it closely follows climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempting the near impossible: free climbing the vertical, 3000ft Dawn Wall of El Capitan for the first time in history. Their mission, which took six years of planning, is laid out in great detail by the documentarians of this film who scaled the cliff alongside Caldwell and Jorgeson to capture the most intense and magnificent shots that bring you as close to that experience as the average person will likely ever have. Even those with a fear of heights will find it hard to look away from the stunning vistas of Yosemite National Park.
High Flying Bird (2019)
High Flying Bird is a basketball film that has little to do with the sport itself, instead focusing on the behind-the-scenes power dynamics playing out during a lockout. At the center of the Steven Soderbergh movie-shot on an iPhone, because that’s what he does now-is André Holland’s Ray Burke, a sports agent trying to protect his client’s interests while also disrupting a corrupt system. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, and, as you might expect, the conditions of the labor stoppage constantly change the playing field. With his iPhone mirroring the NBA’s social media-heavy culture, and appearances from actual NBA stars lending the narrative heft, Soderbergh experiments with Netflix’s carte blanche and produces a unique film that adds to the streaming service’s growing list of critical hits.
Fascinated by doping scandals and Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace, Brian Fogel, a playwright and amateur cyclist, fell deeper into the chemical trend than he could have possibly imagined after connecting with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who would reveal himself to be the director of the Russian laboratory in charge of aiding Olympic athletes. Icarus traces a line through a history of doping and Rodchenkov’s whistleblowing, which ignited fury in Russia and turned him into a political target. Fogel’s film is the rare science-minded doc that also plays like a Tom Clancy thriller.
The Longest Yard (1974)
There’s a lot of football movies, but The Longest Yard remains one of the most classic of them. Starring Burt Reynolds in his cool guy prime, the movie follows a former pro quarterback now serving time (for some seriously ruthless acts) who agrees to a prison warden’s deal of putting together and coaching a team of inmates to face off with the guards. Forget the 2005 Adam Sandler-starring remake that strips this movie of its larger commentary-the Robert Aldrich-directed 1974 version has something important to say about race and the prison industrial complex underneath all of the laughs, and you’ll be rooting for the antiheroes the whole way through.
Like everything else, sports were elevated to another level of competition during the Cold War, and the Olympics were like the final showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the percolating nuclear fallout. The 1980 Olympic hockey tournament between the favored-to-win, four-time gold medalists Soviets and America’s hodgepodge team was no different. The real-life underdog story is documented in 2004’s Miracle, chronicling the Americans’ preparation for the games, lead by the unorthodox, inspired coaching of college hockey coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), culminating in the “Miracle on Ice” during the semi-final match. Miracle is a remarkable, triumphant look at one team’s determination in a particularly contested period in history.
Moneyball is a baseball movie bearing the mark of its writer, Aaron Sorkin. That, among the lead performances by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, propelled the movie to wrangle in a handful of Oscar nominations in its portrayal of how real life failed baseball star-turned-general manager of the Oakland Athletics Billy Beane transformed the game with his analytics-based approach to scouting. Your eyes might glaze over when the jargon-heavy dialogue gets deep in the weeds of Beane’s tactics, but Pitt humanizes the role to carry this story of a man who was ignored, when really he was in a league of his own. Ultimately, you don’t have to understand the sport or its spreadsheets to be a fan of this drama, and recognize it’s one of the best baseball movies ever made.
Ayrton Senna is regarded as one of the best Formula One racecar drivers of all time, even though his career was cut short when he tragically died on live TV at just 34 years old in 1994. In this biographic look at the Brazilian athlete, documentarian Asif Kapadia provides as intimate portrait of the figure, who was beloved by racing fans and his home of Brazil. By excluding talking heads and using only archival footage, Kapadia reveals just how tender and personable the three-time F1 championship title winner was. Instead of providing a sports history lesson, you’ll never feel closer to such a famous athlete, or so moved.
Soul Surfer (2011)
In 2003, 13-year-old rising pro surfer Bethany Hamilton thought she would never be able to surf again after losing her arm in a shark attack. Soul Surfer chronicles the athlete’s recovery and determination to eventually be able to get back on the board, featuring AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents. Fans of inspirational stories will find the film particularly compelling based on its biographical story and commitment to providing hope, but its ardent message (no matter how enthusiastically drilled in it may be) that one can overcome whatever obstacle, no matter how great, in pursuit of their passion will strike even the biggest cynic.
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
In the ’80s, millionaire John du Pont was determined to help the USA Olympic Wrestling Team come home with the gold. He pumped funds into the team and even convinced world-class wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz to join what he called “Team Foxcatcher” and live on his expansive property, which featured its own state-of-the-art training facility. In the Netflix original doc Team Foxcatcher, director Jon Greenhalgh chronicles this eccentric story, primarily through the life of Dave Schultz, and how his association with du Pont eventually cost him his life. This unsettling film features rare, original home footage that adds a chilling depth to the story told in the 2014 film Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz.
The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (2019)
This really is the unauthorized Bash Brothers experience. Famed home-run hitters Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, who buddied up on the Oakland Athletics in the ’80s, never released a rap album together-and it’s totally nonsensical to imagine they might’ve. So The Lonely Island turned that fantasy into a short film that’s everything fans of the group could want and more. Andy Samberg is Canseco, Akiva Schaffer is McGwire, and for 30 minutes they deliver a bitchin’, extremely ’80s visual album with songs that are actually kind of a grand slam. Just watch it: It’s a home run.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated tells the remarkable story of Memphis, Tennessee’s Manassas Tigers, who have a storied tradition of losing. When a new coach turns the program around and the team is on the verge of actually winning something, the tension builds as everyone wonders: Do they actually have what it takes?Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.
Follow the Thrillist Entertainment editors on Twitter: @ThrillistEnt.
Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.
What is special about the year of the Rabbit?
As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.
What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?
There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.
New South Wales
Darling Harbour Fireworks When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.
Dragon Boat Races When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.
Lion Dances When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.
Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.
Auntie Philter When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.
Lunar New Year Festival When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.
BriAsia Festival When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.
Chinatown Adelaide Street Party When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.
Crown Perth When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.