With the Madness that was March, I was reminded of a few of my favorite basketball movies. Basketball can be really fun to watch but its entertainment isn’t always guaranteed. A basketball movie, on the other hand, is essentially required to be entertaining. In terms of sports movies, you're bound to find a simple thrill anywhere you look within the genre, but I would argue that the basketball movie has the most to offer out of the bunch. There’s more than your average biopic or family–oriented redemption story, and even when the basketball movies employ those common conventions, they can still often prove to be novel or meaningful in some way. With that in mind, here are some basketball movies are either culturally significant or grossly overlooked in the popular conversation.
He Got Game, dir. Spike Lee
Although it's one of Spike Lee’s least recognized films, He Got Game has the same style and life as many of his other movies. The film in part succeeds due to the fantastic performance by one of Lee’s acting regulars, Denzel Washington, who plays an estranged father trying to reignite a relationship with his son. Washington’s character and relationship with his son also serve as a representation of the dark reality of college recruiting and the almost impossible expectation to succeed that comes with it. The film doesn’t necessarily have the sports movie’s quintessential feel–good spirits, but the drama and significance of its story definitely make it deserving of its praise.
Hoop Dreams, dir. Steve James
Hoop Dreams clearly stands out from the other films on this list in more ways than just its documentary stylings. Following the real lives of two young boys (William Gates and Arthur Agee) and their different journeys playing basketball from high school into adulthood, Hoop Dreams offers an answer to the question: “How realistic are your dreams?” Tragic at times, the film provides a real look into the life of those with a dream of playing basketball and the obstacles that living in poverty poses to that dream.
Hoosiers, dir. David Anspaugh
A Gen X sports classic, Hoosiers is largely applauded for its depictions of small town life and the community politics around sports in a local, rural high school. Like many sports stories and some of the other films on this list, Hoosiers’s underdog narrative can appear cliché, but there's a reason why this movie hits so close to home for so many folks. The story of a somewhat controversial coach bringing a ragtag team to glory is basic now—but Hoosiers is what helped make it so popular in the first place.
Hustle, dir. Jeremiah Zagar
With a small Penn connection via its brief shoot at the Palestra, Hustle seems close to home in location and emotion. It's also a fantastic feel—good sports movie that doesn’t shy away from its theme of redemption. Although somewhat simple and familiar in terms of plot and character arc, Hustle completely drew audiences to its love and admiration for basketball. Also featuring a great performance by Adam Sandler in his more recent turn to drama, this isn’t the only time he will find himself on this list.
Love & Basketball, dir. Gina Prince–Bythewood
The basketball movie may seem like a straightforward subgenre, but Love & Basketball proves that it can offer so much more. A romantic story that spans generations, following a similar structure to a four quarter basketball game, the film aims to tackle the realism of long–term companionship and how pressure to achieve can affect this relationship. The movie is equal parts relationship study and basketball story, and they’re perfectly connected and humanistically explored.
Space Jam, dir. Joe Pytka
It is somewhat obvious why Space Jam remains a crucial cultural phenomenon. Technically speaking, the movie misses quite a few marks but, if you love Looney Tunes, Michael Jordan, or really just want to have a good time, then Space Jam is all you could ask for. The premise is absurd and much of it is completely nonsensical, but that's just part of what makes the film so iconic.
Uncut Gems, dir. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
The only thing that could maybe top the suspense and anxiety of a high–intensity basketball game is Uncut Gems. Though basketball is more of a background to its foregrounded plot of a gambling–addicted jeweler attempting to pay off his serious debts, it still plays an incredibly important role in the movie. As is similar with the aforementioned Hustle, basketball is a major motivation for Adam Sandler and, in Uncut Gems, it really works.
White Men Can’t Jump, dir. Ron Shelton
Though it's an iconic basketball movie, White Men Can’t Jump isn’t always recognized as one of the best comedies—even though it definitely deserves that distinction. The soundtrack is incredible, the chemistry between leads Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson is terrific, and the early 90’s patterned aesthetic gives the movie such a warm feel. These stellar elements make it an easy crowd pleaser—but in a way that's uniquely fresh and cool.