Thibault Grabherr/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection; A24/Courtesy Everett Collection
The opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics was supposed to light up the big torch and our TV screens this month, but with the games postponed because of COVID-19 until 2021, we're all feeling a little Olympics deprived. To feed that love of sport and drama (not to mention marathon TV sessions), we've got this summer's Olympics best: 14 inspiring, gold-medal movies — including two outstanding documentaries — that you can stream in the comfort of your living room (or basement gym). Cue the theme music … it's Olympics time!
Chariots of Fire (1981)
When most people think of this best picture winner about a pair of British runners at the 1924 Olympics, they tend to focus on one of two things: that it somehow unfairly managed to beat out Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark for Oscar's top honor, and its indelible slow-motion, Vangelis-scored running-on-the-beach sequence. But Chariots of Fire has actually aged better than its reputation would have you believe. In fact, it remains a beautifully moving drama about the power of sport to overcome prejudice and lift the human spirit. It's time for the naysayers to give it a rewatch.
For a movie about no less an Olympic icon than Jesse Owens, Race remains shockingly unknown. Stephan James is quite good as the African American track and field legend who won a record-breaking four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games while sticking it to Hitler in the process. And Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis proves he can dig deeper than just delivering punch lines as Owens’ ornery coach, Larry Snyder. Jeremy Irons also pops up memorably in this stirring biopic about a trailblazing hero who deserves to be remembered for more than just what he accomplished at the Olympics.
Snicker if you must at Kurt Russell's hairpiece, but director Gavin O'Connor's rousing, rah-rah chronicle of the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team and its unlikely “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid is the kind of sports movie that will get you out of your seat and onto your feet cheering. Russell, 69, is perfect as the squad's surprisingly complex coach, Herb Brooks. And the film's reenactment of the metaphorical Cold War showdown between the ragtag band of American amateurs and their professional Soviet counterparts is like Rocky IV on ice.
RELATED: Can't get enough of sports movies? We've got all your bases covered with our list of 17 Great Baseball Movies to Watch at Home Right Now.
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Personal Best (1982)
Written and directed by Robert Towne, the screenwriter behind some of the greatest movies of the 1970s (Chinatown, The Last Detail, Shampoo), Personal Best stars Mariel Hemingway, now 58, and Patrice Donnelly, now 70, as two female track and field hopefuls who fall in love while training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. After the U.S. ends up boycotting the games, all of their pain and preparation ends up being for naught. But Towne proves that the spiritual journey (the training, the passion, the sacrifice) is always more important than the destination.
Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
For my money, this is the best film ever made about the Olympics, and a fitting way to wait for the Olympics to return to this city in 2021. Kon Ichikawa's stunning 2 ½-hour documentary captures the poetry, the pageantry and the personalities of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. What makes the movie so moving is how it focuses as much on the losers as the winners — and in some cases how losing can be its own form of victory. A highlight: Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila entering the stadium to the roars of 75,000 spectators for the final lap of his gold-medal performance — a race he would win by more than four minutes.
Downhill Racer (1969)
Robert Redford, 83, at the very peak of his blond-Adonis good looks, gives one his subtlest and most interior performances as a hotshot American skier named David Chappellet who refuses to listen to his teammates and his coach (a wonderfully gruff Gene Hackman, now 90). For him, skiing isn't a team sport and he isn't a team player — he's a loner with a chip on his shoulder and an icy determination to be the best. Only a star like Redford could make you root for a character this selfish. Michael Ritchie directs the film with an almost-documentary realism that makes you feel the velocity of danger of the sport in your frozen bones.
RELATED: In the mood for more great films from the turbulent, exciting 1960s? Check out our list of the best of the decade, here: Stream the Best Movies From the 1960s.
Without Limits (1998)
Believe it or not, Hollywood actually cranked out two biopics about the life and tragic early death of Olympic running sensation Steve Prefontaine within 12 months of one another back in the late ‘90s. Without Limits arrived in theaters second, but it's the better one, thanks to Billy Crudup's sensitive, intelligent turn as the distance runner. Donald Sutherland (who turns 85 on July 17) adds a mighty assist as his sympathetic trainer, Bill Bowerman (who later cofounded Nike). Like Personal Best, this is a running film directed by Robert Towne, but it manages to dig deeper and reveal more soul.
I, Tonya (2017)
Margot Robbie soars as the Olympic figure skating hopeful and tabloid villainess Tonya Harding in this deliciously arch black comedy about class, the media and the amoral extremes one will go to when a gold medal is at stake. Thanks to some jaw-dropping digital effects, the skating scenes are dizzying and seamless, and Robbie's trailer-park turn manages to evoke some actual sympathy for a woman who may or may not have just fallen in with a couple of Keystone Kop losers because her mother (Oscar-winning Allison Janney, 60) never showed her any warmth unless she was on the ice. A gold-medal satire.
Technically more a war film than a sports movie, this is the tragic, stranger-than-fiction true story of Louis Zamperini, an American runner who competed in the 1936 Olympics and whose B-24 was later shot down over the Pacific during WWII, leaving him adrift on a life raft for 47 days. Directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Jack O'Connell, the movie cuts back and forth between Zamperini's track career and his harsh treatment at a Japanese prison camp. Unbroken is a stirring testament to resilience, the human spirit and the heart of a champion.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Here's a light, fizzy antidote to some of the seriousness on this list. This fish-out-of-water comedy actually has a ton of heart, but it will always be known as “The Movie About the Jamaican Bobsled Team.” Oh well, why fight it? John Candy plays a washed-up former bobsledder who finds a last chance at redemption in training a quartet of Jamaican pals (Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis and Malik Yoba) for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Problem is, these laughingstocks have never seen a bobsled before. Heck, they've never even seen snow! Candy gives the film some heart, but this is a giddy trifle that the grandkids will absolutely eat up with grins on their faces.
Sony Picture Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection
One Day in September (1999)
There have been some powerful films made about the deadly terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Games (1973's Visions of Eight, 2005's Munich), but director Kevin Macdonald's Oscar-winning documentary gets at the heart of the tragic standoff with a haunting sense of you-are-there immediacy. Combining archival footage and contemporary interviews, One Day in September captures the moment when an event designed to bring the world together lost its innocence.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo star as Mark and Dave Schultz, two 1988 Olympic-hopeful wrestlers who fell under the spell of the eccentric millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell, 57, grim beneath a putty nose) with tragic consequences. Directed by Bennett Miller (Moneyball), this film loosely based on real events is about the struggles of amateur athletes in non-glory sports, the drive for excellence, blind ambition and how the American dream can curdle in an instant. This is powerful, powerful stuff.
Jim Thorpe—All-American (1951)
Burt Lancaster and his granite chin take on the role of one the greatest athletes America ever produced, Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe. Helmed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, this surprisingly sensitive (if occasionally melodramatic) biopic not only traces Thorpe's legendary track and field triumphs at the 1912 Olympics, but also the heartache that came with having his medals stripped when his amateur status was questioned (the medals were eventually returned to Thorpe in 1983, decades after his death). An oldie and a goodie.
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
Behind Coke-bottle glasses and a simpleton's grin, Taron Egerton plays Michael Edwards — a real-life British folk hero with a heart the size of Big Ben. Ironically nicknamed “Eddie the Eagle,” what Edwards lacks in athletic skill he more than makes up for with his naïve determination to become the first man to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping since 1928. This is one of those holy-fool heart-warmers that miraculously manages to stick the landing thanks to Egerton, but also to Hugh Jackman, 51, who plays an alcoholic snow groomer who becomes a believer and ultimately helps the Eagle take flight.