Friday, August 08, 2014

Top 7 Sports Movies of All-Time

If you’re going to post a “Top” movie list, there has to be some explanation behind the choices because every list like this is subjective. For me, a great sports movie taps into the mythology of both the sport and the culture it’s based on. I expect a Great Sports Movie to:

a) Still register culturally

b) Isn't so acutely interested in inspiring that they’re playing the “inspire music” after twenty minutes

c) Actually showcase a sport at the center of a film

d) Bring me to (honest) tears or make me laugh or both

e) Push me to go play that sport, or work on something I'm passionate about.

f) It MUST be a Vacation Spot, a place you can go back and watch and be all inspired again.

In keeping with the theme of this website, here are my other guidelines in choosing my Top Seven.

Guideline #1: Recency bias. I’m 42, which means some of the sports films were shot before I was born. (The Pride of the Yankees, Brian’s Song) That doesn’t necessarily preclude them from making the list, but I was less apt to include them.

Guideline #2: The avoidance of overly treacly or saccharine sports movies that seemed too interested in getting me to cry. Hey, I’m watching a sports movie. I want to be a) entertained and b) genuinely inspired. If I want to cry for the sake of crying, I can watch one of those Tom Hanks movies from the nineties or put on the news or chop some onions.

Guideline #3: No documentaries. Hoop Dreams is an extraordinary documentary, but it doesn’t make the list. A movie based on a true story is acceptable, but I’m only interested in fiction. No video memoirs.

Guideline #4: The Raging Bull Rule. Every list you see of top sports movies includes Raging Bull, which makes sense. It’s probably one of our greatest film director’s best movies, perhaps his best (Scorsese), De Niro is amazing, and it’s a boxing movie. However, nobody watches Raging Bull twice.

(Okay, nobody with an ‘F,’ in their Myers-Briggs personality test watches it twice. If you’re a ‘T,’ you process your entertainment intellectually, which means you can appreciate the technical genius of the film. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go to this site and take the test. It’s enlightening.)

So then, three things. Raging Bull is a brilliant and disturbing film. Raging Bull is the story of Jake LaMotta, who was an abusive, arrogant piece of human dirt and since the movie is working from his autobiography, understates just how terrible a human he was. Raging Bull is depressing as hell. So no, it didn’t make my list. Raging Bull does not inspire a Kind Life. (The literary equivalent would be Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie McDonald, a wonderful novel that will cause you take to take a ballpeen hammer to head… and never, ever read it again even as you recommend it to others.)

So you got all that? Okay, on to the ‘close but no cigar’ list.


(What? You didn’t think I’d just drop the list on you, did you? Just scroll down if you’re impatient.)

Here are a list of the contenders, names that I’ve seen on other lists, that didn’t make the list.

A League of Their Own – My Favourite Geena Davis role of all time. Tom Hanks, brilliant. Not one you want to re-watch though, and while it entertains you, there’s no inspiration here.

Remember the Titans – Too much self-awareness. It knows that it is a VERY IMPORTANT film and never lets you forget. That self-awareness means the ending didn’t do much for me. I was aware that I was watching a CULTURAL MOMENT, and Denzel, who we all love, wasn’t allowed to “full” Denzel because, well, it was a Disney movie.

Caddyshack – This isn’t a sports movie. Stop putting on your list people. And oh yeah, GO GOPHER!

Million Dollar Baby – Wow. This movie was so good, right until the ending. Doesn’t make it due to the Ragin Bull rule. (Man, Eastwood may be a laugh on the set, but his movies are such downers. Dude needs to lighten up. Come with this website.)

Jerry Maguire –All-time sham that Cruise didn’t win an Academy award this role. I almost put this one on the list. It has the climactic moment, Renee Zellwegger when you could still recognize her, lots of humour, and is pretty re-watchable. However, “you complete me” and everything about the end of this film lets us know that it’s a romance in disguise. Nothing wrong with that, but not good for this list.

Chariots of Fire – Wonderful story, brilliant score by Vandelis, well-acted, but just a bit too precious for me.

Breaking Away – From what I hear, it’s a great movie. I’ve never seen it, so it doesn’t make the list.

42 – I loved this film. Let’s wait a few years and see how it sticks.

The Natural – If they’d followed the book (a fantastic novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud) Redford would have struck out in his last at-bat, so that great scene, with the lights exploding and cascading down like fireworks, never would have happened and I would have had to leave it off the list based on the Raging Bull Rule. As it is, if I extended this list to a Top 10, The Natural makes it. Therei isn't anything that isn't great about The Natural, and any sports movie with Wilford Brimley being Wilford Brimley deserves its accolades.

Tin Cup – Hardest to leave off the list. Kevin Costner doing a sports movie is always a Good Thing, and he’s even better when he plays quirky characters. This movie is eminently re-watchable, hilarious, and that last moment when the ball finally crosses the pond and sticks is an all-time killer.

(For those of you who scrolled down to see the Top 7, before you start yelling at me because a certain movie didn’t make the cut, scroll back up and read why. Or, just throw your vitriol in the comments below.)

7. Cinderella Man – Boxing and baseball are two of the most cinematic sports (along with golf) and the ones we have most deeply mythologized over the past century. And Cinderella Man fits that narrative as the anti-Raging Bull. Based on a true story, James J. Braddock was a fighter on the verge who ended up in the poor houses before rising one more time to become champion. Russell Crowe’s Braddock is a man with a good heart, a man who just wants to support his wife and kids as the Depression sweeps across the country. After so many anti-heroes, I appreciate a film that has a humble athlete, a good person, which by all accounts, Braddock was. Zellwegger and Crowe are both terrific here, the boxing scenes are convincing, and by the time the end credits roll, you feel a bit lighter than you did before the film started. Great "Sports Movie." 

6. Field of Dreams – “Hey… Dad? Wanna have a catch?” is one of the all-time tear jerker scenes in great sports movies. And as much as Field of Dreams is a baseball fairy tale, thanks to the grounded work by Kevin Costner (sorry, he’s fantastic as an Everyman), and Amy Madigan, the film keeps it feet firmly on the ground even as it reaches for the stars. Beautiful, and in this rare case, better than the book. (Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella)

5. Rudy – The quintessential inspirational sports film about a “five foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’” Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who managed to earn a place on the legendary Notre Dame football practice squad and then the field for a single game his senior year in the mid-seventies. There are reasons why people don’t like this movie. One, it has a touch of narcissism to it, Rudy’s single-minded individualism can be annoying from a certain perspective. Two, it’s been hacked to pieces by a number of satirical skits and movies. Three, it can be cloyingly “American Dream-ish,” and if you’re Canadian, like me (where we tear down our heroes) it can rub you the wrong way.

HOWEVER, I’m a dreamer. (I’m a writer, we’re all dreamers.) I challenge you to watch it again. Listen to the people telling Rudy he’s an idiot for following his dreams, listen to how they’re really trying to help him. Sound familiar? Us dreamers hear that all the time. But the movie doesn’t hate his father or anyone else who tells him he’s being foolish any more than our parents tell us we need job security. Watch the performance by Charles S. Dutton, and how his cynicism has honed into wisdom, and yet, his character still leaves room for being inspired. Sean Astin plays Rudy as being so earnest as to be on the edge of annoying, but the “want” is there in such a big way, it’s impossible not to cheer for him.

There was a time in my life when things were going nowhere. I was a struggling writer (well, that part is still somewhat true), just divorced, with only a handful of dreams and unwilling to give them up for a “practical” career that I hated. Back then, Rudy was my Vacation Spot. This is the movie I turned to, so if seems like I’m biased, well, of course I am.

The greatest scene in this movie isn’t the climactic moment when the players give up their jerseys or when he rushes onto the field or when he sacks the Georgia Tech quarterback. The greatest moment is when Rudy opens the acceptance letter down by the river and sobs softly to himself when he realizes that he’s been admitted into Notre Dame. That is a gut punch for me every time, because that’s EXACTLY the right emotional response. For something that important, you don't whoop it up. It's relief and joy and exhaustion, all rolled into one. They don’t drag the scene out, either. It’s masterfully acted and filmed, and twenty years after its initial release, the movie remains a hammer.

4. Rocky – Before Stallone became a caricature of himself, the dude could really write, and he could really act. (Or play himself, but whatever) I wasn’t aware that Rocky was based on a true story the first few times I watched it, but it doesn’t matter. The end result is a boxing film that plays on the mythology of the underdog, and instead of offering us treacly nonsense, gives us complicated relationships, very few cardboard characters (Paulie, anyone?), and a very plain Talia Shire.(Who was truly beautiful.)

The film was shot on a budget of $25,000 (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Transformer Blockbuster Toy Movie Garbage) and if you watch it enough, Stallone never looks like he’s close to getting hit in the ring. But between the great theme music, the slow, building pace, and the kick that offers not a “Championship,” but an “I Earned Respect” moment, Rocky still wins thirty years later. Awesome.

3. Major League – The funniest mainstream sports movie of all-time. Period. Major League, featuring a young (and still normal) Charlie Sheen, an in his prime Tom Berenger, Wesley Snipes in his best role, Rene Russo being, well, Rene Russo and giving the movie some heft in what could have been a throwaway role, and of course, the late, great James Gammon as Lou Brown.

I can watch this three or four times a year, and feel great every time. It might seem odd to place a straight comedy so high on the list, but name another that’s had this kind of staying power. (And no, Caddyshack is no longer funny. Why do people like that movie so much?) If you haven’t seen this one in a while and want to spend a couple of hours smiling, watch it again.

2. Bull Durham – Kevin Costner in his best role. Susan Sarandon not being too annoying. Tim Robbins the perfectly clueless and un-self-aware Kid with the Big Arm. And the writing, did I mention the writing? Ron Shelton, the screenwriter, played in the minor leagues, and he gets all the small touches right here. (Listen to the PA announcer in the background. Perfect.) And if you grew up playing the game, there’s nothing better than a sports movie that gets the damn sport right.

There are moments where you wish they’d focus less on Annie Savoy, but for her part, Sarandon gives what’s really a “groupie” character an almost regal bearing. In her world, in her town, she is not just another horny older woman going after young athletes, she’s a queen, respected by both the players and managers. (That probably would never happen in real life, but she pulls it off so succinctly that we buy it. And her.)

I memorized Crash Davis’ speech in high school, the one when he tells Annie what he believes. (I can still recite it), but for my money the best scene in the movie is the "cocksucker" scene, the one where Crash gets thrown out of the game. (It’s here, and it’s brilliant and hilarious.) There’s a soulfulness to this movie that, to me, is unique to baseball and the solitary challenge it represents within a team sport. It’s the best baseball movie ever made, and for my money, the second best Sports Movie of all-time.


#1. Hoosiers – No other sports movie captures the American mythology of sport and life quite like Hoosiers. No other sports movie hits every single underdog cliché like Hoosiers. And no other movie character or Indiana basketball legend ever inspired a legion of suburban white kids playing an urban sport to pick up a ball and shoot hoops like Jimmy Chitwood. (Uh, wait) And yet, AND YET, the movie never hits a false note. Never. It’s remarkable and such an achievement that when I watched the film again last year, I was shocked how well it still plays.

The key to the film, which is loosely based on the Milan high school basketball team that won the State championship before Indiana separated schools according to size, is Gene Hackman’s performance. He’s riveting here, grinding out a second chance to coach in a place like Hickory. We learn about his past, but by the time we realize why he’s coaching in a backwoods town like Hickory, we don’t care.

Some people might suggest that the romance between Norman Dale and Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) is played too quickly. But think back to those times. Was it? I don’t think so, and I liked the way they kept the team and the sport in the forefront. This isn’t a romantic sports drama. This is a Sports Movie.

As for the basketball, what’s not to like. As a coach, I still use some of Hackman’s well-worn truisms (“Five men functioning as one single unit, no one player greater than another”) with my teams. I use them because I believe in them. Just as Hackman’s character believed in them, just as he believed in his boys.

Feel like being inspired? Get a copy of Hoosiers, watch the Greatest Sports Movie of All-Time, and see if you don’t still believe. 

NOTE: Disagree? Did I miss one? Throw it in the comments!