The Best Sports Movies on Netflix
These titles hit a home run, slam dunk, touchdown, etc.
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 both drives an athlete to compete and makes us love watching other people play games. The next time you fire up Netflix, hit play on one of these titles.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Oliver Stone has a penchant for making movies about controversial American systems—so a film about the ins and outs of the NFL fits in well to his ouvre. Zeroing in on the fictional Miami Sharks as they struggle to qualify for the Associated Football Franchises of America, Any Given Sunday is about what makes a team function, parsing all the roles involved, from players to the coach and owner, in the lead-up to a charged game day. It may be a long one leaning into the technical side, but Stone recruited the likes of Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, Jamie Foxx, and Cameron Diaz, who all give scene-stealing performances, making this a touchdown.
Athlete A (2020)
Not to be confused with HBO's At the Heart of Gold, Athlete A is Netflix's original documentary about the US gymnastics team scandal that shook the sports world when it was uncovered in 2017. It focuses on the heinous sexual crimes committed by former team doctor Larry Nassar, who abused the young athletes for years, and dives into the work of the investigative journalists at the Indianapolis Star who first broke the story. It's unforgiving, but allows these young women a catharsis for healing.
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, from the directing duo of Wild Wild Country, 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.
The Fighter (2010)
David O. Russell’s The Fighter packs a punch. The Oscar-nominated biographical drama stars Mark Wahlberg as underdog boxer Micky Ward alongside Christian Bale, in yet another transformative role as Ward’s older half-brother/trainer Dicky Eklund. Lined with action and grit, the film follows Ward’s unpredictable rise in the ranks in the world of championship welterweight boxing with the contested help of his washed up brother who descended into drug addiction and a life of seedy crime. Tethered to his success is the strength of the destructive closeness of his family, including his mother played by Melissa Leo, and the relationships outside of it, like that of his girlfriend played by a scene-stealing Amy Adams—meaning The Fighter is a hard-knocks lesson in what it means to look out for someone, as well as a masterclass in acting.
Before he starred in director Brian Helgeland's sturdy and perceptive biopic of Jackie Robinson, the late Chadwick Boseman had only appeared in a handful of movies and made stray appearances in network procedurals like Third Watch, CSI: NY, and Law & Order. He was a struggling New York actor, teaching drama and working on his craft. Only a couple years after moving to LA, he landed the role that would completely change his career and put him on a path to mega-stardom. In a revealing profile of Boseman from 2019 in the New York Times, Helgeland mentioned how he cast Boseman in the role because he displayed "a stillness" and projected the gravitas of '70s icons like Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood. Unlike many stars who take many movies to find their footing on screen, all the gifts he would bring to bear on later projects are right here in the beginning.
Happy Gilmore (1996)
Adam Sandler has returned to the dude-friendly, cliché-filled sports movie well over the years, but this slobs vs. snobs comedy about a hockey player-turned-golf pro earns its gold jacket. In the ridiculous flick, Sandler plays a wannabe hockey player who isn’t quite a slap shot on the ice, so he decides to take what skills he does have to the driving range and the PGA tour in order to make money to save his grandmother’s house. Over two decades of people incessantly quoting the movie out on the links still can't zap this thing of its long-drive-hitting, magical power. Even if you can't stand Sandler, it's worth a watch.
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.
Adam Sandler's sweetheart deal with Netflix had already given us some Happy Madison gems (Hubie Halloween, Murder Mystery) and serious Sandler roles (The Meyerowitz Stories)—we'll just ignore The Ridiculous 6 of it all—and his latest brings together his biggest off-screen passion, basketball, with his recent bout of dramatic roles for the surprisingly impressive Hustle. In the movie produced by LeBron James, Sandler is a scout for the 76ers with dreams of becoming a coach, and spots a rare talent in Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez) at a pick-up game. Through all the tribulations of fostering Bo's career, there are trips and stumbles, but Sandler's Stanley Sugerman works doggedly to will the pieces of his vision into place.
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 Ip Man movies (2008, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019)
There aren't many biopics that also pass for decent action movies. Somehow, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and director Wilson Yip have made three separate movies based on the life of Chinese martial arts master Yip Kai-man, who famously trained Bruce Lee—all of those are on Netflix, plus an unrelated Herman Yau entry (Ip Man: The Final Fight) and a spin-off (Master Z: Ip Man Legacy) directed by Yuen Woo-ping and produced in part by Donnie Yen. What's their trick to keeping this series fresh? Play fast and loose with the facts, up the melodrama with each film, and, when in doubt, cast Mike Tyson as an evil property developer. The third movie in the series isn't necessarily the best—that's probably still the first film—but the fights are incredible, and Yen's portrayal of the aging master still has the power to draw a few tears from even the most grizzled tough guy.
The Last Dance (2020)
Even if you couldn't care less about basketball, you'll be captivated by this lengthy ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan and his legacy. Yes, it's worth watching for the memes alone, but Jason Hehir also crafted an incisive portrait that examines the intensity (and, in some cases, the insanity) of a person who is deemed "the greatest," framed by the Chicago Bulls' 1997-98 season with a team full of all stars (Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman, etc.) in their run for the NBA title. There's a pizza conspiracy, sick dunks, and, of course, Space Jam.
The Replacements (2000)
It feels gross to recommend a movie about union-busting scabs, but the ragtag team of amateur football players and Gene Hackman's old coach, called in for one last shot at glory, that cobbles together in The Replacements is just that charming. A feathered-hair Keanu Reeves is at the center as left-handed quarterback Shane Falco, a former All-American player in college who beefed his career in the pros, in Howard Deutch's film based on the real NFL strike of the Washington Commanders (when they still had their past offensive name) when the replacement team went on to win the 1987 Super Bowl. Though the surface message is icky, the movie itself digs around more gray territory, considering the intense pressure athletes face from ultra-competitive institutions, in its underdog story.
There simply aren't many really good movies about race car driving. But Rush, directed with nerve and wit by Ron Howard, is one that understands the appeal of the sport, specifically the idea of the driver as daredevil celebrity, and captures the intensity of sitting behind the wheel of a machine that might explode at any moment. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as rival Formula One drivers in the '70s, Rush boasts a sharp script from The Crown creator Peter Morgan, a vivid sense of place, and a pleasing swagger that makes it stand out in Howard's filmography.
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?
Gavin O'Connor, the director of similarly sturdy sports movies like Miracle and The Way Back, turned his attention to mixed martial arts back with this intense family melodrama. Following two estranged brothers, Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton), the movie bucks fight-film conventions by making you care deeply about both opponents as they head towards their inevitable confrontation at the end. With stellar fight choreography, plenty of MMA-world cameos, and a sensitive Oscar-nominated turn from Nick Nolte as the brothers' tortured father, Warrior is a movie that sneaks up on you with its candid, nuanced look at the often misunderstood world of combat sports.