For sports fans worldwide, COVID-19 has wrought cancellations and delays the likes of which no lockout, strike or scandal ever has — or could.
Fortunately, the world of sports has been chronicled on film and video like few other aspects of human life, and nearly every sport, (with the exception of volleyball, for some reason) has a large collection of stories, both real and imagined that viewers can enjoy.
While there are literally thousands of films to choose from, I’ve attempted to pare them down into a shortlist of recommendations, sport by sport. Each entry featuring a documentary that, in my opinion, paints an accurate picture of the sport in question, along with a film that, at the very least, doesn’t distort the sport into something unrecognizable as it attempts to entertain.
And so, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my picks to satisfy your sports fix:
— Documentary: “A Sunday Day in Hell” (1977, NR) Considered by many fans to be the essential cycling documentary, this film follows the riders as they struggle against rough terrain, the elements and each other during the 1976 French Paris-Roubaix spring classic in northern France.
— Fictional Film: “Breaking Away” (1979, PG). Dennis Christopher stars as a working-class 19-year-old from the Midwest so obsessed with European cycling that he adopts a persona based on his favorite Italian riders. Now he must convince his parents, his friends and the girl he loves that he’s not crazy — he’s just pursuing his dream. Ranked No. 9 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Cheers” list of the most inspiring films of all time, this comedy also stars Paul Dooley and Dennis Quaid.
— “Venus and Serena” (2013, PG-13). The story of the world-famous Williams sisters is chronicled from their humble beginnings to their establishment as world champions and eventual legends of the game. With commentary from fellow players, coaches and observers, it focuses on their battles with injuries and illness as they both work to stage comebacks and remain in competition.
— Fictional Film: “Borg vs. McEnroe” (2017, R). Considered one of the greatest rivalries in tennis, Shia LaBeouf stars as the hotheaded rising star John McEnroe, who faces top-ranked Swedish player Bjorn Borg, played by Sverrir Gudnason, at the 1980 Wimbledon tennis championship in this intense drama.
— Documentary: “The 24-Hour War” (2016, NR). The true story of the battle between motorsports powers Ford and Ferrari in the early 1960s is told through archive footage, photographs and interviews with those who witnessed the family dynasties collide at Le Mans firsthand.
— Fictional Film: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006, PG-13). Will Ferrell co-wrote and stars in the title role in a movie both so funny and so NASCAR that NASCAR drivers quote lines from it to this day.
— Documentary: “Court & Spark” (2013, NR). As previously stated, there aren’t a lot of volleyball documentaries out there, but one that is sure to inspire almost any athlete is the story of Courtney Thompson. Undersized as a setter, Thompson not only made up the difference but also surpassed her peers by putting in thousands of hours of hard work, leading her high school and college teams to championships and the U.S. women’s national team to a world championship in 2014.
— Fictional Film: “The Miracle Season” (2018, PG). Based on a true story, Helen Hunt stars as the coach of a high-school team devastated by the loss of their star player, Caroline Found, when she’s killed in an accident. Together, the coach and her players must figure out how to move beyond their grief, function as a team and find a way to return to the state championships.
Note: If you’re pressed for time, check out “Live Like Line: The Story of Caroline Found,” an episode of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which tells the same story in about 15 minutes (and it’s free on YouTube).
— Documentary: “Class of ’92” (2013, NR). There are many worthy soccer documentaries out there, but none that document the rise of six international superstars from one team. Covering the years 1992 to 1999, the film follows the careers of Manchester United players David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Phil and Gary Neville from their beginnings with the team to their triple win (or “treble”) during the 1998-99 season.
— Fictional Film: “Bend It Like Beckham” (2003, PG-13). Parminder Nagra stars as Jess, a talented West London teenager who secretly joins a girls’ soccer club to get around her strict, disapproving Sikh family. Events become more complicated as Jess helps lead her club to league finals in this coming-of-age comedy co-starring Kiera Knightly.
Honorable Mention: “Fever Pitch” (1997, R). Colin Firth stars in this comedy/drama about an obsessed British soccer fan whose love for his favorite team saturates every aspect of his life.
— Documentary: “Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team” (2001, TV-PG). The title basically says it all. Viewers follow a group of American college players as they face off against the highly experienced and heavily favorited Soviet team during the 1980 Winter Olympics.
— Fictional Film: “Slap Shot” (1977, R). Paul Newman is the player/coach of a failing minor-league hockey team. Desperate to keep his team going, the coach turns to a trio of “goon”-style players and unabashed dirty tricks to win games and attract fans in this raunchy comedy.
— Documentary: “Jack Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion” (2015, NR). This one-hour documentary covers the unparalleled career of the player known as “The Golden Bear,” with family members and fellow golfers, including Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, recalling his championship style of play and sportsmanship on and off the course. This film also follows Nicklaus’ other careers as an acclaimed businessman, philanthropist and golf-course designer.
— Fictional Film: “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000, PG-13) Stars Matt Damon as a former pro golfer who struggles to recover his swing after returning home from World War I. Help arrives in the form of a mysterious caddy, played by Will Smith. Fluctuating between dark and light-hearted moments, this sports-themed fantasy also stars Charlize Theron and features Jack Lemmon in his final big-screen appearance.
— Documentary: “Facing Ali” (2009, R). There are several good documentaries available about Muhammad Ali, but none, in my opinion, are as moving or as complimentary to Ali as this one, with his story told by those he faced in the ring. Stories by George Foreman, Joe Fazier, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and others demonstrate why Ali was a champion among champions.
— Fictional Film: “Cinderella Man” (2005, PG-13). Russell Crowe stars in this telling of the life story of James J. Braddock, a broken-down fighter who stages a comeback in the midst of the Great Depression.
— Documentary: “Hoop Dreams” (1994, PG-13). Esquire magazine accurately describes this film as “the Citizen Kane of sports documentaries.” Filmmakers spent five years following two African-American players from the inner city as they struggled to improve their game, overcome injuries, keep up their grades and attempted to earn basketball scholarships to pursue their dreams of someday playing in the NBA.
— Fictional Film: “Hoosiers” (1986, PG). Gene Hackman gives the quintessential pre-game locker-room speech against which all subsequent sports movies have been judged in this classic tale of a small-town high-school basketball team playing a big-city team for a chance to make it to the Indiana state finals.
— Documentary: “The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players” (2010, NR). Originally produced as a 10-part series for NFL Network in 2010, you can now watch it piecemeal on YouTube. This Who’s Who of pro-American football is narrated by Ken Burns’ favorite Peter Coyote and features commentary by celebrities, fans, coaches and players, covering the gamut from Jim Thorpe, who kicked off the NFL in 1920, to its all-time greatest wide receiver, Jerry Rice, who retired in 2006.
— Fictional film: “Paper Lion” (1968, NR). Alan Alda stars in this comedy/drama as Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton, who attempts to infiltrate the Detroit Lions’ training camp and try out for quarterback. When his cover is blown, he learns a lot more about the team, including their hazing rituals. A fictionalized account of Plimpton’s nonfiction book, this film features several players and coaches from that era playing themselves, including Alex Karras and Vince Lombardi.
HM: “North Dallas Forty” (1979, R). Nick Nolte stars in this fictional account of an NFL team loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys. This was one of the first feature films to show professional athletes abusing painkillers and an NFL system that treats them as commodities rather than human beings.
— Documentary: “Baseball” (1994, 2010, TV-PG). Ken Burns’ 19-hour, 11-part series is essentially the baseball Bible, covering America’s pastime from its beginnings in the early 1800s. The original series included nine episodes and took viewers through 1994. Burns added another two episodes in 2010 to take viewers through the first decade of the 21st Century.
— Fictional Film: “Bull Durham” (1988, R). This was a hard one, because of all sports, baseball probably has the most movies to choose from. In my humble opinion, this comedy has stood the test of time both in its accurate portrayal of baseball as a business alongside its expressed love for the game. Kevin Costner stars as an aging minor league catcher who’s hired to mentor a highly talented (but intellectually dim) pitcher, played by Tim Robbins. While they knock heads on the field, they also vie for the affections of a free-spirited self-proclaimed worshipper of the sport, played by Susan Sarandon.