‘Moneyball,’ ‘Raging Bull’ among top 10 best sports biopics originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
You can’t write the script for the greatest moments in sports, but that hasn’t stopped those stories from being told on the silver screen.
There are plenty of truly iconic sports movie moments. Who could forget Rocky Balboa calling for Adrian after falling to Apollo Creed at the end of “Rocky”? Or Roy Hobbs rounding the bases after smashing a home run into the lights in “The Natural”? Or a golden retriever stealing basketballs, playing time and dignity from middle schoolers on the court in “Air Bud”?
Along with fictional tales, Hollywood has also taken some of the most memorable games, upsets and athletes in sports and turned them into motion pictures. When it comes to examining the lives of legendary competitors, filmmakers have given sports fans a long list of exceptional biopics.
Muhammad Ali. Jackie Robinson. Jake LaMotta. These are just a handful of the transcendent athletes who have been brought to the silver screen by Oscar-winning actors and directors. Serena and Venus Williams joined that list earlier this fall with “King Richard.” Next up this holiday season is NFL legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner.
With “American Underdog” in theaters, here’s a look at the best sports biopics going all the way back to 1980:
Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese are like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick if the latter pair collaborated for five decades instead of two.
The famed actor and director teamed up for their fourth collaboration with 1980’s “Raging Bull,” which follows troubled and obsessive boxing champion Jake LaMotta. De Niro became fascinated with LaMotta while reading the boxer’s memoir, “Raging Bull: My Story,” on the set of “The Godfather Part II” and later trained with him to prepare for the role. The black and white film was an acting and technical showcase, particularly with its immersive scenes in the ring.
The movie earned eight Academy Award nominations and two wins. De Niro took home the prize for Best Actor and Thelma Schoonmaker won for Best Film Editing, while Scorsese earned the first of nine career Best Director nominations.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
This film’s lasting legacy is a slow-motion running scene on the beach with Vangelis’ titular theme playing over it, but “Chariots of Fire” was an undeniable hit at the 1982 Academy Awards.
The movie follows two British runners, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, and their path to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell, a Scottish Christian portrayed by Ian Charleson, and Abrahams, an English Jew portrayed by Ben Cross, overcame different obstacles on their way to earning gold medals in the French capital. While chronicling the paths of two athletic champions, the film carries patriotic and spiritual themes.
“Chariots of Fire” earned seven Oscar nominations and four wins -- Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score -- in a movie year that also featured “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Reds.”
“Rudy” follows Daniel Ruettiger, a student who grows up aspiring to play football at Notre Dame and definitely was not offsides when he finally made it into a game.
The university clearly felt this was a story that needed to be told. “Rudy” was the first movie the school’s administration allowed to be filmed on campus since “Knute Rockne, All American” in 1940. The climactic final scene was shot during halftime of Notre Dame’s 54-7 beatdown over Boston College on Nov. 7, 1992.
Joe Montana has since admitted that the movie took some liberties in telling Ruettiger’s story, and lead actor Sean Astin said the former Fighting Irish and San Francisco 49ers quarterback was “absolutely right.” Still, a 5-foot-6 walk-on making a sack in front of Touchdown Jesus is a remarkable feat.
The Hurricane (1999)
Between “He Got Game” and “Remember the Titans,” Denzel Washington has a storied sports movie catalogue. In 1999, he returned to the genre and took the movie world by storm with “The Hurricane.”
Washington stars as Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a boxer who was wrongly convicted of triple homicide in New Jersey. Like De Niro, Washington trained with the boxer he went on to play in the movie, but the heart of the movie takes place in prison and the courtroom.
With Washington front and center, the movie was welcomed with critical acclaim. The performance earned him his fourth career Oscar nomination and second in the Best Actor category.
Cinderella Man (2005)
Five years after Russell Crowe conquered the coliseum in “Gladiator,” he entered the ring.
The 2001 Best Actor winner stars in 2005’s “Cinderella Man,” the story of heavyweight champion James J. Braddock in yet another boxing biopic. Braddock was forced to leave the sport after breaking his hand during a bout and had to turn to manual labor to try and get by during the Great Depression. He got another shot thanks to a late cancellation and rode an initial upset over Corn Griffin all the way to a victory over the seemingly invincible Max Baer to claim the heavyweight title.
Ron Howard’s movie was nominated for three Oscars. Paul Giamatti received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as Joe Gould, while Crowe was left off the ballot for Best Actor.
The Blind Side (2009)
Based on Michael Lewis’ book “The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game,” the movie follows Michael Oher, an offensive lineman who overcame poverty and made it to the NFL after being adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy.
John Lee Hancock’s movie faced some backlash for being presented as a white savior narrative, though that did not keep the movie from becoming a hit at the box office and in the eyes of the Academy. The movie earned a Best Picture nomination in 2010, the same year the Academy Awards expanded the field in the category. Sandra Bullock took home the hardware for Best Actress, giving her the first Oscar of her career..
Oher played eight years in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers. He won some hardware of his own in the form of a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens in 2013.
The Fighter (2010)
Mark Wahlberg took top billing in “The Fighter,” but it was two supporting cast members that took home Oscars.
Wahlberg, a Boston native, plays Micky Ward, a boxing champion from Lowell, Mass. The movie, directed by David O’Russell, looks at Ward’s rise in the ring while he deals with family troubles inside and outside of boxing. The boxing scenes are not nearly as spectacular as movies like “Raging Bull” or “Creed” and the storyline is somewhat predictable, but “The Fighter” stands out because of its transformative performances.
Christian Bale, famous for changing his body and appearance for roles, and Melissa Leo steal the show as Dicky Eklund and Alice Eklund-Ward, respectively. Bale and Leo won Best Supporting Actor and Actress at the 2011 Oscars, making “The Fighter” the first movie to earn both awards since 1986. On top of the two wins, the film received Academy Award nominations in five other categories, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Another Lewis adaptation became a well-acclaimed sports movie.
“Moneyball” follows Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in the early 2000s as he dealt with a financial disadvantage in the front office. Beane’s cost-efficient and number-crunching approach to team-building catapulted the A’s to surprising success even after losing several key players.
The movie is a collection of All-Stars in front of and behind the camera. Right off the bat, Brad Pitt plays the role of Beane. Rounding out the main cast are Jonah Hill as assistant general manager Peter Brand (based off Paul DePodesta), Chris Pratt as catcher-turned-first-baseman Scott Hatteberg and Philip Seymour Hoffman as manager Art Howe. On top of the great cast, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian were the screenwriters for director Bennett Miller.
With strong source material, a fantastic story and a stellar lineup of actors and directors, “Moneyball” was a critical success, even receiving a four-star review from famed critic Roger Ebert. The movie earned six total Academy Award nods.
A late great brought one of the most important athletes in American sports history to the silver screen.
Chadwick Boseman wore Jackie Robinson’s titular No. 42 jersey in the 2013 movie written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Along with Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni and more, Boseman brought Robinson’s heroic story to life, showing how the Brooklyn Dodgers infielder endured and fought racism on his way to breaking baseball’s color barrier. While the movie may not ultimately live up to the legacy of Robinson -- or Boseman -- it was still a commercial and critical success.
MLB players have celebrated Robinson’s legacy on Jackie Robinson Day each season since 2004, with players wearing his iconic No. 42 on the day league-wide each year since 2009. Athletes have also honored Boseman’s legacy since his shocking death in 2020.
One of the most riveting sports movies of the last decade was 2013’s “Rush.”
Howard was back behind the camera for this pulse-pounding biopic that looks at James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda’s (Daniel Brühl) racing rivalry in the 1970s. Hunt is a flashier racer and celebrity, while Lauda takes a more calculated and precise approach. Between personal drama and a pair of rain-soaked races, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat with great performances, direction and other strong technical work. The movie came up empty in terms of Oscar nominations, but Brühl received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a movie.
Formula One fans now have the Netflix series “Formula One: Drive to Survive” -- along with the races themselves -- to dive into the sport, but “Rush” provides a fascinating look back at one of F1’s top feuds.