Sports movies have been a staple of Hollywood since the silent days and no sport offers as much natural drama, pathos, emotion and raw energy as the noble art of pugilism. The great boxing movies have a timeless quality and we can now add David O Russell's 'The Fighter' to their number. It has the added advantage of being a true story: the fighter here is 'Irish' Mickey Ward, a welterweight who earned a reputation in the 1980s for his tenacity in the ring.
Russell is more concerned with the activities and people who surrounded the fighter (well portrayed by Wahlberg) outside of the ring; notably his blousy, controlling mother (Melissa Leo), his supportive girlfriend (Amy Adams) and his half-brother (Christian Bale), a fighter himself who once floored Sugar Ray Leonard but now spends more time in the crack house than the ring. All are remarkable characters and it comes as no surprise that all four roles have been prominent during awards season.
In terms of Oscar shouts, Bale (again doing his dramatic weight loss thing) and Leo are the best bets, but everyone's a winner in this compelling drama.
Other boxing movies of note:
'Body and Soul' (1947)
The brilliant John Garfield is in terrific form as the palooka that fights his way from the ghetto to the top of the world but loses sight of the important things in life along the way. Production wise, 'Body and Soul' is peerless. Robert Rossen is behind the camera, the great cinematographer James Wong Howe gets his roller skates on for the ring scenes; and Robert Parish won an Oscar for his tight editing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_zX8BtUClw
One of the great boxing films of all-time finds Kirk Douglas as Midge Kelly punching his way to the top and then promptly forgetting all those who helped him on the way up, including loyal brother Arthur Kennedy. As an examination of the murky world of prizefighting, 'Champion' is a treat, but it's also one of Kirk's finest performances for which he was rightly Oscar nominated.
Those who consider Sylvester Stallone to be nothing other than a musclebound piece of wood would do well to watch this, the original and best of the 'Rocky' series. In addition to delivering a thoroughly convincing performance as the washed-up pug who gets his crack at the big time, Stallone actually wrote the script to the film by night, while doing a variety of mundane jobs by day, and he was Oscar nominated in both disciplines. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP3MFBzMH2o
'Raging Bull' (1980)
Martin Scorsese takes the Jake LaMotta story and delivers a masterpiece. Everyone praises Robert De Niro for his astonishing weight fluctuation throughout the film, but 'Raging Bull' is more than just an exercise in supreme method acting: it's a truly visceral cinematic experience, heightened by the director's use of monochrome and complemented by Joe Pesci's astonishing supporting turn. Though there are very few boxing sequences in the movie (unless you include the ones where Jake punches his wife, his brother, his enemies, his friends...) , such is their power that they linger long in the memory.
Honourable mentions: 'Fat City' (1972); 'The Set Up' (1949); 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' (1962); 'Cinderella Man' (1999), 'The Boxer' (1997)