Sports movies are not a particularly popular genre among filmgoers. Of course, there are acknowledged classics such as Rocky and Rudy, but a number of them remain undiscovered.
Sport and cinema, to this day, remain the two prominent sources of entertainment for our civilisation. A Serena Williams or Usain Bolt enjoys the same worldwide recognition as a Brad Pitt or Jeniffer Lawrence, and are even more widely respected for the achievements in their field of sport.
The drama, the stakes involved, the underlying narratives, the suspense – all the important elements of a good story are present in any sport. And, cinema realised this as long back as 1915 when Charlie Chaplin made ‘The Champion’, and later the genre gained Academic recognition when ‘Rocky’ won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976.
Here is a list of five sports films that are not as widely recognised as a ‘Rocky’ or ‘Million Dollar Baby’. Nonetheless, powerful and highly motivational, these are not to be missed.
1. McFarland, USA (2015)
Directed by Niki Caro
Disney’s love for sports movies has given us some gems like ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’, ‘Miracle’ and ‘Coach Carter’. ‘McFarland, USA’ is one of the production house’s more recent efforts, that probably got lost in Disney’s own barrage of Marvel superhero movies.
Sticking to Disney’s age-old formula of inspirational sports drama and Kevin Costner, McFarland tells the story of a football coach who moves his family to a Mexican town after losing his job and turns seven students with no hope into one of the best cross-country teams.
With a talented director and an extremely likeable cast heralded by Costner, McFarland yet again proves that when a formulaic movie is executed well, it can show you how appealing the formula can be.
2. He Got Game (1998)
Directed by Spike Lee
When you think of basketball on the silver screen, probably the first name to come to mind will be ‘Hoosiers‘, which is considered one of the greatest sports movies ever made.
There will be more names to follow before you think of Denzel Washington’s terrific performance as Jake Shuttlesworth in ‘He Got Game’, which is perhaps the most honest basketball film made till date.
The film tells the story of Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), a highly regarded high school basketball prospect and his father Jake (Washington), an incarcerated man who’s given one week to convince his estranged son to attend the alma mater of the state governor in exchange for a shortened prison sentence.
Devoid of the usual basketball cliches, this rise of a basketball star is explored through the people in his life and how they try every which way to get a bit of the glory and the money. At the same time, it maintains the focus on the star’s dream and how close he is to achieving it.
3. Senna (2011)
Directed by Asif Kapadia
The only documentary to make the list, ‘Senna’ tells the story of the Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, who won the F1 world championship three times before his death at age 34.
Senna is probably one of the most compelling biographies of all time, the portrait of a man who was at the top of his profession and who felt closer to God because of it. Made out of just archive material and old interviews, the film is a powerful unified narrative of a life lost too soon.
The movie transcends its niche subject matter and takes you on an exhilarating and unbelievable ride that will stay with you long after it is done.
4. Friday Night Lights (2004)
Directed by Peter Berg
Based on H.G. Bissinger’s book, which profiled the economically depressed town of Odessa, Texas and their heroic high school football team, The Permian High Panthers – ‘Friday Night Lights’ is a rousing sports drama that is so much more.
Before there was a beloved TV series with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, there was Peter Berg’s feature film starring Billy Bob Thornton about the football-obsessed heartland that lived for its Fridays.
The film perfectly captures the emotion of high school athletics and is a must watch for anyone who has ever experienced the emotion that is synonymous with sports.
5. Sugar (2009)
Directed by Anna Boen and Ryan Fleck
This 2009 indie drama follows the Dominican pitcher Sugar, aka Miguel Santos, who is attempting to make the leap to the majors to save his family from poverty.
Part baseball movie and part immigrant tale, Sugar is a rich and moving reminder of how aspirations of being a professional sports player can shape the destiny of someone in the real world.
Highlighted by poignant performances, Sugar is ultimately an uplifting baseball drama that leaves out the normal cliches of overdone “feel good” sports films to deliver a fascinating and heartfelt journey. Yet, tragically remains a hidden gem.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.