Sports stories usually make for some of the best mixes of drama, humanity and action on the big screen showcasing some of the most raw and real personal journeys as athletes glory from the thrill of competition. Sports films have made quite the impact over the past ten years helping define the 2010s by mixing in both fictional and real-life narratives that focus on the high and lows, rewards and sacrifices that are all part of the athletic experience. This weekend the first sports movie of the new decade, “The Way Back”, will hit theaters and it inspired me to take a look at the last ten years and pay homage to ten sports movies I felt were among the best of the best during the preceding ten years. These are my picks for the Top 10 Sports Films of the 2010s.
For today’s list I looked at the many sports related movies that hit theaters from 2010 through 2019 and picked out ten I personally felt were among the best in the genre. These films could be fictional stories or based on real life and could explore the lives and experiences of athletes or delve into more controversial and underlying elements of specific sports but all of them had to incorporate sports of some kind, be in motorsports, team sports or individual competition, as the main part of their narrative. However, I did not include movies focusing on recreational running on this list.
There were countless sports movies that hit the big screen over the last ten years, and I know for a fact there will be some I don’t include here that are still worth checking out. So let me know in the comments what your favorite sports film of the last ten years was after you enjoy my picks…ready…set…lets get to it!
10. “Battle of the Sexes”
Starting off this list is a film that chronicles the famed 1973 tennis match between two superstars, one man and one woman, thus the title “Battle of the Sexes”. That year Billie Jean King who won the French Open and Wimbledon the year before, took on Bobby Riggs, a champion of the 40s, coining the titular term that has since become a popular label for man-versus-woman exhibition matches. Their conflict originated from Rigg’s belief that the female game was inferior eventually leading King to take him on. In the film the two are portrayed by Steve Carell and Emma Stone each presenting some of their best work of the entire decade. It garnered several Golden Globe nominations and put the debate between male and female athletes front and center showcasing a relevant topic still debated to this day making it both a sports drama as well as a commentary on the glaring lack of progress we’ve made in terms of gender equality and respect in sports.
The oldest film on this list, “Fighter” tackles a subject well known to the movie world, boxing. Inspired by the lives and relationship between boxer brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale respectively, “Fighter” tells a story of determination while also exploring the dynamic between soblings as the elder Eklund attempts to train Ward and help him find success in a career he himself couldn’t capitalize on. Nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning both Best Actor (for Bale) and Best Supporting Actress for Melissa Leo, who plays the brothers’ mother, “Fighter” is a “Rocky”-esque picture melded with engaging family drama unafraid to delve into the harsh realities of seeking success especially in a sport that requires so much sacrifice and hard work to stand out from the crowd.
Speaking of movies that focus on harsh realities, “Foxcatcher” is by far one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences on this list. This 2014 drama is based loosely on the real life story of John du Pont, played by Steve Carell, and his training of two brothers, played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, to prepare them for competition as wrestlers at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It’s a downright tragic story showcasing the pressures put on athletes to success, especially by abusive coaches, leading to the unfortunate real-life events that became infamous in the mid-90s. The film garnered five very deserving Oscar nominations and while the filmmakers and actors walked away empty handed this true-crime story still remains an eye-opening examination of the reality hidden behind the curtain of fame and glory that comes with Olympic and sports success.
The 2002 MLB season for the Oakland Athletics might not have ended with a title, but it did end with one of the most unlikely success stories in the game’s modern history. Manager Billy Beane, constricted by a limited budget and forced to endure the departure of several key players, constructed a team of under-the-radar free agent signings that led them to 103 wins in the regular season. The story was retold in cinematic form in 2011 as “Moneyball” with Brad Pitt portraying Beane which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Co-Star Jonah Hill also earned a nomination while “Moneyball” garnered four more nominations including for Best Picture. While it was slightly overshadowed during the decade by a different baseball biopic I’ll touch on later, “Moneyball” showcased an important season in America’s favorite pastime that would go on to transform how managers would approach the game in the 2000s.
While motorsports isn’t for everyone the fact that the single drivers of the vehicles are the faces of their teams makes it a prime source for epic rivalries made for cinema. The rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda was one such example and in 2013 director Ron Howard brought it to the big screen in “Rush” with Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda. Both turn in amazing performances in what is in my opinion one of the best racing movies out there as the film focuses on their differing personalities and career paths that led them to form one of the most famous rivalries in racing history. While the movie does exaggerate some elements of the story it makes up for it with spectacular action and on-track visuals and a great leading pair who project a convincing and fun frenemy relationship that keeps you invested in their rivalry from start to finish.
A lot of movies on this list are based on real life, but one of the best fictional sports stories of the last decade came from one of the most treasured boxing movie franchises in history. Released in 2015, “Creed” served as both a spin-off and sequel to the “Rocky” franchise and even featured Sylvester Stallone returning as Rocky this time to train Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan. Considered to be one of the best films in the franchise and garnering a sequel a few years later, “Creed” breathed new life into the fictional sports drama genre as many of the best quality sports films in the first half of the decade were mostly based on true stories. “Creed” however was able to tackle unique and personal character-driven narratives without the limitations of historical accuracy using both its titular character and Rocky himself to explore themes like the struggle of leaving behind or living up to a legacy resulting in a pulse-pounding return to form for the “Rocky” movies.
Jackie Robinson is one of the most iconic baseball players in history. His number, 42, is the only number retired by every team in the MLB and thus the 2013 biopic about his life was simply titled “42”. His status as the first African American to play in the MLB in the modern era effectively desegregating the game made him not only a worthy subject but a timely one as well. The film, which stars Chadwick Boseman in his breakout performance, put the spotlight on the baseball legend and the prejudices he had to endure in the 1940s. Respectful but honest, “42” might take some liberties in how it tells the story of one of the most important and celebrated baseball players ever, but it does so in a way that builds on the narrative rather than corrupting it for the sake of entertainment. It’s an approach that had not only critics and audiences cheering but Robinson’s own widow complimenting the film as a proper interpretation of her late husband’s legacy.
3. “I, Tonya”
The funniest movie on this list tackles probably the most controversial real-life athletes of the 90s. Everyone knows about the infamous 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan that led to fellow figure skater Tonya Harding getting exiled from the sport. However, most people don’t know who Tonya is as a person and this dramady starring Margot Robbie as Tonya attempts to humanize the controversial former Olympian using the unreliable narrator trope to share her side of the story. While it does play fast and loose with facts, this 2017 Academy Award winner neither demonizes or glorifies its titular character instead showcasing some harsh realities of her career and life and letting the audience decide if she deserves all the hatred set upon her or just some of it. “I, Tonya” continuously reminds us that it’s an interpretation from the guilty party so what’s true and what’s not is never fully understood making it one of the more complex and entertaining based-on-true-events sports films of the decade.
Many people look at “Fighter” and “Warrior” as comparable films from the early 2010s but for me “Warrior” was the superior product. An original story focusing on two brothers, played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, who must come to terms with their lives and relationship when they both enter the same mixed martial arts tournament “Warrior” tackles not only the competitive nature of the sport but also the personal struggles and motivations both men juggle in their bid for glory. Its themes and powerful emotional core are huge reasons why it stood out and received immense critical praise. The fact that it uses one of the most masculine sports in the world as the backdrop for a story challenging the clichés of masculinity through the vulnerability of its characters only makes it that much more fascinating. While it has a lot in common with several films of the past “Warrior” transcends the sports drama as one of the best family dramas of the last ten years as well.
1. “Ford v. Ferrari”
The top film on my list is the newest as well, the 2019 Academy Award winning racing film “Ford v. Ferrari”. I’m in a minority putting it at the top of such a list, but few would deny that “Ford v. Ferrari” is one of the best racing movies ever made. Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale as automotive visionary Carroll Shelby and British racer Ken Miles respectively, “Ford v. Ferrari showcases this pairs literal and figurative drive to perfect the Ford GT40 in order to defeat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sporting some of the greatest editing and racing footage you’ll ever see in a movie, all shot with practical effects, and some fine personal drama delving into the motivations and stories of both leads pretty equally, “Ford v. Ferrari” goes beyond its specific sport and provides more than enough to satisfy racing fans and movie fans alike. There are a lot of movies over the last tens years that capture the passion, dedication and risks required to succeed in the world of sports, but in my opinion no other movie captures those elements as perfectly as “Ford v. Ferrari” which is why I’m calling it my favorite sports films of the 2010s.