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The greatest sports films of all time

From boxing to baseball, here’s a ranking of Hollywood’s best sports films
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Sports have been at the forefront of the film industry for years. Courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsJESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
Sports have been at the forefront of the film industry for years. Courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsJESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

Perhaps the only thing that can stir up an audience’s emotions like sports do is film. Much like watching a sports game, films have the ability to fill us with joy or make us shed a tear. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the two are often combined to create a truly remarkable viewing experience. In honour of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) coming to an end, here are my top five best sports films of all time.

5. Coach Carter (2005)

What better way to start off this list than with everyone’s favourite basketball coach! Samuel L. Jackson stars in this touching movie about a disobedient high school basketball team, which eventually learns discipline, teamwork, and what it means to be student athletes. Coach Carter may follow a predictable formula; however, the harsh realism of the film, along with the heart Jackson adds with his performance, makes it one to remember. For once, the film you’re forced to watch in gym class actually delivers. 

4. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

When an old, stuck-in-his-ways boxing coach meets a strong-willed waitress determined to transcend her circumstances, movie magic happens. Clint Eastwood directs and co-stars in what is perhaps the finest film of his career, which revolves around the story of an amateur, down-on-her-luck boxer bent on making it pro. The film focuses on Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald, and her efforts to prove to everyone — including herself — that she can become the welterweight champion. Million Dollar Baby delivers an inspiring, yet ultimately devastating, story. Eastwood also offers a refreshingly feminist twist to the age-old genre by presenting viewers with a relentlessly optimistic yet stubborn female protagonist who refuses to take no as an answer.

3. Moneyball (2011)

This modern classic takes the sports genre in a direction that was unexplored at the time of its inception: the intersection between sports and maths. Based on the true story of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, Moneyball deals with how an underperforming and poorly financed team recruits unknown yet effective players using sabermetrics — the use of statistical analysis in evaluating baseball players. This radical strategy implemented by young economics whiz Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, eventually pays off and the Athletics achieve a 20-game winning streak in the second half of the season, revolutionizing the sport forever. This film’s slow-paced yet heartfelt dive into unique subject material, combined with powerful performances, earns it a well deserved spot on this list.

2. Rocky (1976)

No sports-film list would ever be complete without this dramatic rags-to-riches story. Rocky Balboa, played by the charismatic Sylvester Stallone, is a small-time fighter who is selected by heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed to a title fight. Rocky finds a reliable coach and, one very iconic training sequence later, overcomes the odds to take Creed on for the full 15 rounds. 

The film can be seen as a metaphor for Stallone’s life; struggling with homelessness as an unknown actor in his early years, he persevered until finally realizing his dream of being a star through the making of this movie. Perhaps that’s why Rocky turned out to be a surprisingly human film. In the end, it doesn’t matter that Rocky ultimately loses. What matters is that he goes the distance.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

The top spot goes to Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus. Working with long-time collaborator Robert De Niro on their fourth film together, Scorsese’s black-and-white masterpiece explores sport in an unusually brutal way. De Niro plays 1940s boxer Jake LaMotta, whose anger, jealousy, and paranoia are as useful to him in the ring as they are destructive to him outside of it. Fighting not only his boxing opponents but anyone in his life — whether it is his brother, wife, and colleagues — LaMotta finds himself winning title fights while simultaneously ruining relationships with those he loves. 

The film’s greatness ironically lies in Scorsese’s general dislike for the sport. Labelling boxing as “boring,” Scorsese’s disregard for sport has led to a thoroughly unromanticized portrayal of LaMotta’s career. This allows for a more blunt and realistic account of the athlete’s life, while avoiding the cliche aspects seen in other sports films. This, combined with an Oscar-winning performance by De Niro — who gained 60 pounds to portray a retired LaMotta later in the film — gives Raging Bull the edge. As LaMotta’s manager Joey says, “If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win!”