The Best Underdog Sports Movies You've Probably Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition we take a look at some of the best underdog sports movies you've probably never seen.)

I'm not a big fan of sports films in general, and it's due at least in part to my disinterest in the sports themselves. The only ones I actively participate in, as a player and/or spectator, are tennis and racquetball. Neither sport has exactly lit up the multiplex, and while I have a soft spot for the goofiness of Wimbledon the dearth of truly good tennis movies means I don't see my sporting interests represented up on the screen.

That changes, though, when the subject is tweaked a bit into the form of underdog sports movies. That's a subject even someone like me can fully get behind, and thankfully filmmakers are happy to oblige. Were this a "best of" list with no other qualifiers, it would include the two actual best, but I think enough of you have seen Breaking Away (1979) and Lucas (1986) that adding them to a list of movies you haven't seen would be preposterous and unsportsmanlike. You have seen them right? Right?! Breaking Away is among the very best American films, period, and Lucas stands tall as an underdog sports tale that succeeds while subverting the myriad tropes of the sub-genre. Seriously, seek them out immediately if you haven't already seen them as they will re-calibrate the meaning of pure joy for you.

Keep reading for a look at the best underdog sports movies you probably haven't already seen.

offside

Offside (2006)

The Iranian soccer team has pulled off a minor coup and qualified for the World Cup, but women in the country, by law, are forbidden from attending men's sporting events. What's a female soccer fan to do but dress up like a man and risk imprisonment for a glimpse of the game?

Jafar Panahi's slightly satirical look at his country's ridiculous laws isn't quite the norm for an underdog sports tale. For one thing it's the fans, not the players, who are the underdogs hoping to pull out a win in accomplishing their goal. For another, we never really see the game in action. We hear it just as we hear the crowd of men in the stands cheering and hollering throughout the match, but the details of the game come to viewers solely through the play by play chatter of the guards sneaking a peek while standing over their prisoners – the women who risked jail because they wanted to watch a sporting event and support their home team.

Panahi's best known for more "important" films like The White Balloon, The Circle, and This Is Not a Film, but while this somewhat sillier entry in his filmography goes for laughs, it does so on very serious footing. It walks a fine line, as many of his movies do, between criticizing his country's strict laws and celebrating its people and culture. Much of this film's fun comes in witty exchanges between female prisoners and male guards as they debate the weak rationale behind such laws and bond over a shared love of the game. It feels absurd on its face, exactly the tone Panahi's looking for, while never quite shying away from its more serious implications sitting just beneath the surface.

Buy Offside on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

love and basketball

Love & Basketball (2000)

Two pre-teens meet, fall in and out of friendship, and chart their paths towards becoming professional basketball players. They're far different journeys, though, as only one of the pair is a man.

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood broke through with 2014's brilliantly satisfying Beyond the Lights, but viewers who'd been paying attention have been in her corner since her feature debut. As the title implies, the film explores the highs and lows of both romance and the game, and it treats both with equal affection and skill. The two head to college together, but while Quincy seems to have a road paved with golden access, Monica's is a path loaded with more obvious obstacles. Both navigate with success and failure, but their greatest struggle comes as they try to square their feelings towards each other with their ambitions on the court.

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps are both terrific in the lead roles and convince at every turn as determined individuals hoping to make it work with their team and each other. Both characters face challenges, but the film is smart enough to know that the ones facing Monica are far greater – and inordinately more frustrating as her talent is pure and clear. There are no easy answers here, but there are also no such things as insurmountable odds when it comes to love and sport ball.

Buy Love & Basketball on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

the foul king

The Foul King (2000)

A timid bank clerk grows tired of the "playful" abuse he experiences from his boss and decides to return to his youthful love of professional wrestling for help. He trains, practices, and fights his way toward respectability as a bad-ass wrestler in a mask, but that success doesn't quite translate as well outside of the ring.

Regardless of any plot details, there are two simple reasons that should be more than enough for you to want to find and watch this terrific little black comedy. Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) directs, and Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder) stars. It was an early film for both, but their various talents are on full display here delivering an intriguing story, some dark laughs, and a performance that shot Song into stardom.

While most underdog tales see viewers rooting for the characters to get better, succeed, and win, Kim's film follows a slightly different arc. We're with our hero-to-be early on as he's humiliated in headlocks he's unable to escape, and we're primed to cheer him on as his training commences and his talents reveal themselves. But as he gets better, he also gets meaner. Part of it is the character shtick prevalent in professional wrestling, but it's also coming from within his own being, and while much of it is played for laughs, we're left with an underdog who maybe, just maybe, was better off before he triumphed.

The Foul King is not currently available in the U.S.

prefontaine

Prefontaine (1997)

Steve Prefontaine was told he was a little guy and too small to make a mark in the sporting world, but that was all the inspiration he needed to prove otherwise.

It's become common practice to hate on Jared Leto, and to be fair, the scorn heaped on him is almost entirely self-inflicted, but watching this late '90s biographical drama is a reminder that somewhere inside that pee-swilling, method-acting, attention whore sits an incredibly talented actor. He's bringing a real person to life – really back to life as Prefontaine died young in 1975 – and he's doing so warts and all. This is a driven, charismatic man whose conviction towards winning still left room for helping others along the same trail. Whether competing locally, nationwide, or as a runner for the U.S. track team in two different Olympics, he was a man who refused limitations placed on him by others.

Leto's aided by playing an appealing character and by the sure hand of director Steve James (Hoop Dreams). There are elements of the man's life worthy of criticism, but they're human beats in a life offering far more extraordinary accomplishments. James presents his story with the eye of a documentarian, but if anything that highlights the humanity of it all even stronger. From little man too small to play to revered and respected champion, it's a true underdog tale that continues to inspire and educate.

Buy Prefontaine on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

when saturday comes

When Saturday Comes (1996)

An average Joe gets a chance to play for Sheffield United, but average might not be good enough.

Underdog sports movies are filled with stories of normal folks getting a shot at glory in the big leagues, and most leave you cheering for the poor sap to overcome adversity and the odds. This little British comedy hews closer to the Korean one above in that regard, though, as our hero is something of a jerk. Director/co-writer Maria Giese isn't against making her hero somewhat unlikable in his quest for greatness, and if anything, that's part of the guy's charm. He is every bit an average bloke who works, drinks, screws, and occasionally burns some energy on the field. He's a good player unaware – or uninterested – in discovering if he's a great one.

It's worth noting that Sean Bean plays the lead here, and while his violent mid-game beheading in the third act feels out of place in an otherwise lightweight narrative, it shouldn't surprise anyone who's been following his career.

When Saturday Comes is not currently available in the U.S.

tin cup

Tin Cup (1996)

A washed up golfer feels inspired by a love of the game and the love for a woman to take another swing at the pro circuit.

As the highest-grossing film on this list ,the odds are that many of you have seen it, but I've spoken with enough people who've avoided it for various reasons – golf is boring, they inexplicably don't like Kevin Costner, Rene Russo killed their mother – to warrant its inclusion here. Also, and I don't say this lightly, it's Costner's best sports-related movie. (The baseball ones are mostly great, but yes, this one is better.) Director/co-writer Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) crafts a film that's rich in character, witty and laugh-out-loud funny, very sexy, and fantastic enough to leave me wanting more even after its over two hour running time. Toss in Don Johnson going full bastard and you have an endlessly re-watchable sports comedy that scratches every itch.

I love the whole thing, every story turn and every supporting player, but what lifts the film above the fray is the ending. Don't worry, I won't spoil it here, but like Lucas, it contorts expectations in an even more extreme way and leaves everyone a winner... even the losers.

Buy Tin Cup on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

the best of times

The Best of Times (1986)

A small town that's seen better days still holds onto a football game it lost to a wealthier neighboring community decades prior. One man tired of looking back with regret decides it's time for a rematch.

I honestly thought this funny and warm comedy was far better known – just look at the two leads! – but after mentioning it on Twitter a few weeks back, I was hit with a surprising number of people who had never even heard of it, let alone seen it. The stakes are lower here in the traditional sense than in most of the films on this list, as the game is simply a match between middle-aged men from nearby towns, but the weight of its importance is no less heavy. These are people who've been beaten down by the economy, unfulfilled dreams, and an annual reminder of their greatest defeat, but while some hold grudges and others feel bitter, there's a very visible current of love and affection between these guys and their friends, their wives, and their community.

It's a fun, heartfelt tale, and two of the best talents in the business are anchoring it in Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. The pair shows a terrific chemistry here as best friends who occasionally rub each other wrong but always return to each other's company. Both are married and in equally loving yet rocky relationships, and all of it comes to the forefront as the film heads into the big game. It's Hollywood wish fulfillment to the very end, but its sweetness and good-natured humor warms the heart even as the players grow more and more caked in cold mud.

Buy The Best of Times on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.