There’s nothing like a seemingly outmatched hero to make you smile, cheer and cry at the movies. That’s why we love underdog films, and why we’re counting down our favorites right here!
Our list is rife with inspirational, triumphant narrative feature films that tell diverse, David-versus-Goliath stories that we can watch again and again. Here are 17 of the best movies about underdogs.
Best underdog movies of all time
1. Miracle (2004)
“Do you believe in miracles?!” We’ve seen so many sports biopics over the years that it’s rare for one to really stand out. Miracle is based on one of the most inspiring true stories in the history of athletics, the triumph of the U.S. men’s hockey team over the Soviet team at the 1980 Olympics during the Cold War—possibly the greatest upset in all of sports. The strength of the true-life story, along with some muscular direction by Gavin O’Connor (FX’s The Americans) and touching performances (from Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson and others), elevate Miracle to compelling and patriotic entertainment for all ages that’s downright lovable and exciting to watch.
2. Straight Outta Compton (2015)
One of 2015’s most noteworthy, influential box-office success stories was F. Gary Gray‘s impressive, entertaining account of the rise and fall of N.W.A., whose formation had a permanent impact on hip-hop and popular music. Straight Outta Compton grossed over four times its budget, was selected as one of the year’s 10 best via National Board of Review, and received an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay.
3. Legally Blonde (2001)
It’s quite a thing for a performer who’s only been in the game for a matter of years to headline a $144-million smash that seemingly came out of nowhere and delights millions as a fan-favorite to this day, but that’s exactly what happened when Legally Blonde cemented Reese Witherspoon onto Hollywood’s A-List. In Robert Luketic‘s uproariously funny and entertaining comedy—which isn’t as fluffy as it might have been, thanks to Witherspoon’s deathly serious conviction just beneath the chipper exterior—Elle Woods goes after a boy who underestimates her, discovering herself along the way. If you can’t fall under the spell of this heartwarmer, check for a pulse.
4. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Based on Chris Gardner‘s eponymous memoir about his nearly one-year struggle with homelessness while raising his very young son, The Pursuit of Happyness could have turned out schmaltzy, but it’s grounded by one of Will Smith‘s best performances. Acting alongside real-life son Jaden Smith, he’s at his most natural and appealing here, and Gabriele Mucino‘s film is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways, earning Smith his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Gardner initially thought the charismatic action star wasn’t the right choice to play him, but his daughter Jacintha set him straight. “If Smith can play Muhammad Ali,” she told her father, “he can play you!”
5. Spotlight (2015)
Winner of two Academy Awards including Best Picture, Tom McCarthy‘s riveting drama follows The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism “Spotlight” team as it investigates sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. A gripping, Oscar-winning script and uniformly excellent cast make Spotlight a truly stunning piece of work, a film hailed by virtually every major critic and audiences worldwide. Spotlight stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Mark Ruffalo.
6. Rocky (1976)
Few “overnight sensations” in Hollywood history—if any—have ever risen to the top as quickly as Sylvester Stallone, whose script about an aspiring boxer falling in love with a painfully shy girl shot the down-on-his-luck actor to international fame and Oscar gold. He also starred in the drama directed by John G. Avildsen, an inspiring sports picture full of raw, schmaltz-free emotion that always knocks us out.
Related: The Most Inspiring, Uplifting Movies on Netflix
7. Boy Erased (2018)
In Boy Erased, writer/director Joel Edgerton adapts Garrard Conley‘s 2016 memoir about surviving gay conversion therapy. This is a touching and satisfying family drama that benefits greatly from sensational performances.
8. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Critically acclaimed and nominated for seven Oscars, Frank Darabont‘s adaptation of a Stephen King novella was a commercial disappointment in 1994, no match for the pop culture phenomena of Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. However, the popularity of The Shawshank Redemption has only grown, and it’s currently IMDb’s top-rated movie of all time.
It’s rare enough to see a big-screen story about the friendship between men, and the bond between Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) is extra weighty and rich because it begins in such a dark place (within prison walls), ultimately filling them with a good thing called hope, driving them to better days. Shawshank is unflinching—then it rewards us with one of the most triumphant, hard-earned happy endings we’ve ever seen.
Related: The 100 Best Movies of All Time, Ranked
9. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
All three vibrant films in this series are highly recommended. The sequel is deeper, darker, more artistic and ambitious than its predecessor. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda 2 grossed $665 million. It was the highest-grossing film directed by a woman until Frozen two years later and the highest-grossing film directed solely by a woman until 2017’s Wonder Woman. The voice talents of Bryan Cranston, Kate Hudson and J.K. Simmons helped 2016’s part three end the series on a high note.
10. Wild Rose (2019)
A star is born feels like a sheepish understatement when the topic at hand is Jessie Buckley, whose turn as a Glasgow girl with her heart in country music is one of the year’s best performances by any measurement. Wild Rose will make you laugh, and it will move you to tears. It will lift you up, and it will give you an even deeper appreciation for one of the great American art forms.
Related: Jesse Buckley Talks Country Music and Why There’s No Place Like Nashville
11. A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell star in Penny Marshall‘s much-loved fictionalized account of real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This is one of the most popular sports films ever, great family entertainment.
12. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Arguably the best Hollywood studio release of the past decade—and the finest all-around action film of all time—George Miller‘s long-gestating sequel stars Tom Hardy as Max, wandering aimlessly through dystopia when he’s caught into the midst of a daring escape by the imprisoned “wives” of tyrant and predator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), spearheaded by one of Joe’s former victims, war rig driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
Fury Road is a rare thing, a film of non-stop violence that advocates for peace. And it actually works. The character of Furiosa is its beating heart, and it’s hard to imagine any other actor than Theron pulling this off. A lesser action movie would have, of course, given Max and Furiosa a romantic arc and a makeout scene. but Fury Road ends with nods of hard-won mutual respect.
13. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Clint Eastwood‘s sports drama, starring the veteran actor as a grizzled boxing coach who reluctantly trains a girl (Hilary Swank) from the wrong side of the tracks one of the finest sports films in history. Roger Ebert hailed the picture as a “masterpiece” that holds nothing less than the secrets of life and death. Million Dollar Baby was released around Christmas 2004, ultimately upsetting early frontrunner The Aviator in major Oscar categories, with wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Best Actress.
14. Rudy (1993)
Sean Astin stars in one of the least cynical motion pictures you’re likely ever to see (and that’s a beautiful thing indeed), as the real-life Daniel Ruettiger, who dreamed of playing football at the University of Notre Dame despite enormous obstacles and setbacks.
This is a perennial favorite for American audiences; the American Film Institute named it one of the most inspiring movies ever made in its 2006 “100 Years, 100 Cheers” special. Film critic Ebert said the picture “has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film, we accept Rudy’s dream as more than simply sports sentiment. It’s a small but powerful illustration of the human spirit.”
15. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
At its worst, the coming-of-age picture is formulaic and forgettable. At its best, it looks a lot like Stephen Chbosky‘s big-screen adaptation of his own Pittsburgh-set novel of the same name: funny and tender, hopeful and haunting. The uniformly luminous young cast includes Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller.
16. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
A quotable, laugh-out-loud zany farce/sports picture hybrid starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, about lovable misfits who compete in a brutal Las Vegas dodgeball tournament in hopes of saving their beloved gym from snotty fitness elite.
17. Erin Brockovich (2000)
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for a titanic, sexy, often hilarious turn in Steven Soderbergh‘s triumphant feel-good dramedy about the real-life single mom-turned legal clerk who brought corrupt mega-corporation PG&E to its knees. The Oscar-nominated script is quotably funny, with plenty of heart-tugging emotional moments. Two decades later this is still a hell of a good watch.
For even more inspirational movie selections, check out 65 of the best movies based on true stories.