Sports may come and go as the season progresses (what’s on right now?). Baseball? Football? Is hacky-sack a competitive sport? Isn’t it true that the Olympics are over? , but there’s never a bad time for a good sports film. Do you dislike sports? It makes no difference. If it’s done well, a sports film can give gripping drama, a thrilling underdog narrative, a glimpse into history, or all of the above.
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Even better, Netflix has a slew of outstanding sports films, both narrative and documentary, that cover a wide range of sports (basketball, baseball, gymnastics, soccer… sorry, football) and hit all of the right notes. “Athlete A,” “Icarus,” and “Operation Varsity Blues” provide a more in-depth look into recent big tales, while “Million Dollar Baby” and “Battered Bastards of Baseball” provide unforgettable underdog stories. And what about “Talladega Nights?” You’ll be high on Mountain Dew after seeing “Talladega Nights.” So go ahead and log in to see what’s new in the world of sports – just don’t ask us what a first down is.
Table Of Content
“Athlete A,” a film directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, deftly puts Larry Nassar, a USA Gymnastics doctor accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of young women and girls, in context, integrating Nassar’s decades of abuse with the system that allowed it to go unchecked. Nassar’s situation is quite new and well-known in the media. The fact that the film focuses on the reporters and survivors whose efforts led to Nassar’s final conviction rather than Nassar’s specific offenses is to the film’s credit. It also examines the elite gymnastics culture in the United States, where physical and psychological abuse of young girls is condoned as long as victories keep rolling in.
Two of the most prominent survivors are Maggie Nichols, whose abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, which did not follow proper protocol in reporting it to authorities, and Rachael Denhollander, one of the first women to come forward about Nassar’s abuse. While Nassar has been convicted and sentenced, and former USA Gymnastics chief Steve Penny may face prison time, the rest of the players have yet to face legal penalties.
High Flying Bird
Please excuse the confusing metaphors, but Steven Soderbergh’s “High Flying Bird” examines basketball more closely, particularly the attempts of an agent (Moonlight’s André Holland) to defend the career of a rookie ball player (Melvin Gregg) during an NBA lockout.
Even for those unfamiliar with the business of basketball (like, say, someone who didn’t know what a “lockout” was or that the NBA had ever had one — not naming any names), the film remains entertaining and comprehensible thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s zippy direction and a smart, sleek script from “Moonlight” scribe Tarell Alvin McCraney’s smart, sleek script. Among the outstanding ensemble cast members are Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn, and Bill Duke.
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“Icarus,” directed by Bryan Fogel and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, begins as a single film: Fogel, a long-time Armstrong fan who has been disillusioned by revelations of his long-standing doping habit, wants to record his effort to race in the world’s most demanding amateur cycling event while on a doping regimen without getting found. When he goes on the hunt for a doctor to help him, the movie takes an entirely different turn. For instance, “our major interview subject is in risk of being assassinated by the Russian government” is not the same as “our key interview subject is in danger of being assassinated by the Russian government.”
Like “Athlete A,” “Icarus” elevates a topic that most people are at least somewhat familiar with — in this case, the state-sponsored Russian doping epidemic — into a feature documentary. The film has an immediate, urgent feel to it because Fogel assisted whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran Russia’s anti-doping lab, in breaking the story of how the Russian government helped its Olympic athletes use illegal substances without getting caught (allegedly, at least — Putin still denies it).
Million Dollar Baby
“Million Dollar Baby,” which won acting Oscars for Swank and Morgan Freeman, directing Oscars for Clint Eastwood, and best picture at the 2005 Academy Awards, is undoubtedly a superior pick. What appears to be a standard upbeat sports film — a grizzled trainer (Eastwood) takes on a talented but inexperienced aspiring boxer (Swank) who, through hard work and determination, wins not only her way into pro boxing circles but also into Eastwood’s cold, shriveled heart.
Both Swank and Eastwood’s characters are dealing with personal tragedies, and while Eastwood’s heart has hardened, Swank remains hopeful about human nature; if you think that combination would result in anything bland and syrupy, keep in mind that you’re watching a Clint Eastwood film. Make sure you have a plenty of Kleenex.
Operation Varsity Blues
The story of rich, entitled jerks who lie about their children being athletes so that they can get into a good school is told in director Chris Smith’s third and final “plucked from the headlines” documentary, which combines more traditional documentary techniques with re-enactment footage (with Matthew Modine as the most recognizable face).
“Operation Varsity Blues” is more about the investigation that brought down the college admissions scam, with sports serving as a convenient red herring in both the film and the real-life scandal, in which parents paid a group of conspirators to make it appear as if their children were extremely talented in sports like water polo and fencing. Here, sports aren’t about competition or hard work; they’re a method for the wealthy to improve themselves at the expense of those who can’t afford to spend money on a solution. Make a conscious effort not to fling your television across the room.
If your only knowledge of soccer legend Pelé is “…well, he was a really good soccer player, wasn’t he?” It may sound odd to call a film about Pelé, one of the best — if not the best — soccer players of all time, an underdog story, but it is… with Brazil as the underdog.
In this film, Pelé comes out as a humble, gentle man who adores his country above everything else. Throughout the tenure of Brazil’s President Médici, who sought to capitalize on Pelé’s celebrity for political gain, Nicholas and Tryhorn largely avoid converting their film into a hagiography, questioning Pelé’s resolve to remain politically neutral.
We visit the world of Formula One racing in this chapter of our Netflix sports film series, where drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda had a legendary rivalry in the 1970s. Ron Howard dramatized the rivalry between the drivers in 2013’s “Rush,” which boasts some of the best and most immersive motor racing scenes ever filmed.
Chris Hemsworth portrays the British Hunt as a loud, boisterous playboy, while Daniel Brühl’s Lauda, an Austrian driver, is methodical and quiet to a fault; Olivia Wilde and Natalie Dormer complete the supporting cast.
“Rush” showcases Howard at his best: a talented, seasoned director who understands how to tell a compelling story. Is there a cinema dedicated to fathers? Maybe. We’ll take it if that’s the case. And there’s one more motor racing film to watch on Netflix to cap off a fantastic weekend of sports.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
“Dear Baby Jesus, who is eight pounds and six ounces in weight, I have yet to learn a single word. I was a little infant at the time. Despite his adorable appearance, he is omnipotent.” To say “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is more quotable than the rest of the films on this list combined is an understatement; recite a line from any of the others, except “The Karate Kid,” and I’ll personally deliver a crate of Bojangles and Cheerwine to your house in honor of “Talladega Nights.”
“Talladega Nights” is one of the most quotable comedies of the twenty-first century, if not all time; it also shows Will Ferrell at the height of his comedic powers, which is no minor achievement (Will Ferrell at his dramatic high is, of course, “Blades of Glory”). Throw in an Oscar nod for John C. Reilly (“Don’t you put that evil on me, Ricky Bobby!”) and Michael Clarke Duncan (“Don’t you put that evil on me, Ricky Bobby!”) while you’re at it.
The Battered Bastards of Baseball
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is such a beautiful underdog story that you’d think it was made up — but no, actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt, who acts in the film) did indeed leave “Bonanza” to manage a minor league baseball team in Portland, Oregon in the 1970s. The Portland Mavericks were a gang of scrappy misfits, washouts, and average Joes (and, briefly, a young Kurt Russell) who were all united by one thing: their love of baseball. They were an independent team not affiliated with a major league franchise. After then, they started to win.
Take “Throw in a little baseball drama (“He couldn’t endure them.”) and you’ve got yourself a winner.” “They couldn’t tolerate him!” Kurt Russell remarked of his father’s relationship with baseball, plus a bunch of beer-swilling, fun-loving ballplayers with thick ’70s facial hair, and you get “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.”
The Karate Kid
Netflix has a big presence in the field of sports documentaries. Five of the ten films on this list are documentaries, while the platform’s sports-themed limited series, which includes the Emmy-winning “The Last Dance,” may have its own rating. However, there are times when you want something fictional, nostalgic, and involving a shower.
“The Karate Kid” comes to mind as an example. Check out the sequel series “Cobra Kai,” which pits middle-aged Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) against one-time meathead Johnny “Sweep the Leg” Lawrence after you’ve seen (or re-watched) John G. Avildsen’s ’80s kids classic (William Zabka). If you’re a “Karate Kid” completist, Netflix also has “The Karate Kid II,” “The Karate Kid: Part III,” and “The Next Karate Kid,” starring Hilary Swank. If you have a strong desire to watch a Hilary Swank sports movie on Netflix, though….
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