Top Five Sports Movies Ever

This post was inspired by my having inadvertently run across someone else’s list of best sports movies. There are several others out there — such as this and this and this — if you want to go look. My own may be incomplete, because I have yet to watch “Raging Bull” all the way through (I’ve got the DVD, I just need to block out the time), and I really need to go back and see “Body and Soul,” which I may have seen once when I was too young to appreciate. Those are the two that crop up on other people’s lists that I haven’t adequately vetted.

But unless one’s life is over, one’s Top Five list is always incomplete, right? So here’s mine:

  1. Hoosiers (1986) – This just has it all – the more or less obligatory underdog storyline, the nostalgia, Gene Hackman (in his best role ever), Dennis Hopper (ditto, and then some – he’s the best thing in it), Barbara Hershey (and not a seagull in sight), and a team of non-actors who succeed as no actors could in making the action more real than real. You may surmise I have a particular affinity for a story about a fiftyish coach in need of professional and personal redemption (starting with a job). And yet, I was first impressed with that theme 24 years ago, and even then there was a personal identification. And I suppose we could have a long discussion about the difference between White Ball and Black Ball, and the nostalgic pleasure that a gray-haired White Guy might get from watching some basketball from back in the days when traveling was still against the rules, and everybody wore black Chuck Taylors. But beyond all that, just an awesome flick. And don’t forget, it’s based (loosely) on a true story.
  2. Rocky (1976) – When this came out, it was the first new film I could remember as plain and simple and sincere as this. And there’s been little to touch it since. This is like a plain granite block of a movie – the basic, unadorned stuff from which all good movies that touch the heart are made.
  3. The Natural (1984) – Thank goodness they went all Hollywood on this one, and slathered on the gauzy sentimentality, because it was exactly what this story needed. In Malamud’s novel Roy Hobbes was a brutish antihero, a case of natural talent invested in an unworthy creature, not a guy you particularly wanted to see succeed (and he didn’t, by the way; the ending leaves you feeling dead and empty inside). Redford’s frayed farmboy stoicism, modified only by a tendency to get misty-eyed and lyrical on the subject of baseball, worked perfectly. The ultimate baseball movie, when you’re feeling reverential about the game (when you’re feeling less so, go with “Major League”). Favorite little slice of life: Pop and Red in the dugout during practice, trying to stump each other with “Name that Tune.”
  4. Vision Quest (1985) – As a former high school wrestler myself, I can attest this is THE definitive high school wrestling movie. OK, there isn’t a lot of competition, but that just makes me grateful that when Hollywood made this one attempt, they got it right. Matthew Modine perfectly expresses the awkwardness of being an intelligent, introspective young guy trying to figure out life (favorite example: – he’s trying to impress the girl by complimenting her musical taste and when she says it’s Vivaldi, he says, “Yeah, Vivaldi – he’s great” in a way that utterly fails to convince that he’s ever heard of the guy. Another: He confides to his teacher that he thinks he’s suffering from priapism. Also, before I let you out of this parenthetical, the scenes shooting the bull with Elmo the dishwasher are gems.), and while “coming of age movies” constitute one of Hollywood’s most overworked genres, this is possibly the best such attempt ever. While there was never any danger of my becoming state champ and I never had a hot 21-year-old semi-bohemian chick come to live with me when I was in high school, this feels like what life was like at that age.
  5. Chariots of Fire (1981) – Just thought I’d throw in a posh, arty, nonAmerican film to round out the five. Not that this one doesn’t deserve the honor. Like all good sports flicks, it displays what is best about sport, in terms of its capacity to lift the human spirit (as Elmo explained to Loudon in the clip linked above). Favorite scene – the quiet little homily Eric Liddel offers in the rain after a race, which is as powerful an expression of faith as you’re likely to find in a major Hollywood movie.

That’s my Top Five, and I’m sticking to it — for the moment. But a couple of those choices were a little arbitrary in light of the competition. And as much as I want to preserve the unities of Nick Hornby’s Top Five concept, here’s what I would include also in the second five of a Top Ten:

  1. Breaking Away (1979) – Almost made the Top Five, but it seemed that it was only marginally a sports movie. Wonderfully goofy film about a young guy trying to find his place in the world and meet chicks, and the lengths he’ll go to. Kathryn may be offended by what the kid’s Dad says about “all them “eenie” foods… zucchini… and linguini… and fettuccine. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”
  2. The Endless Summer (1966) – The classic surfing quest movie. The documentary travels the globe in search of the perfect wave. Which is what all of us surfers (and I’m really stretching the definition of “surfer” when I say “us”) would do given the time and money.
  3. Major League (1989) – Also almost made the Top Five, but I only wanted one baseball movie there, and this one wasn’t reverential enough. But this one captures how much FUN the game is, both for players and fans. Favorite line: Bob Uecker’s gloriously goofy hometown-announcer’s understatement when he describes a pitch that goes about six feet astray as “JUUUUST a bit outside…”.
  4. Tin Cup – (1996) Throw me out for including a Kevin Costner flick, but this is WAY more apropos than “Caddyshack” as an evocation of what golf is about. And it’s got Cheech in it, advising Cup that he can win the bar bet with “a hooded four-iron.”
  5. Eight Men Out (1988) – Nice treatment of a key chapter in real-life baseball mythology, helping you understand how the Black Sox scandal could have happened, and how Shoeless Joe could have gotten caught up in it. D.B. Sweeney’s Jackson is a thousand times better than Ray Liotta’s generic effort in the overrated “Field of Dreams.” A great cast, including John Cusack and Charlie Sheen, and a great baseball movie. Say it ain’t so, Joe.

You’ll note that all of my Top Five are from the 80s except for “Rocky,” which just missed that decade by four years. And if you drop out “Endless Summer” and “Tin Cup” (which would stretch the span to 30 years), my whole Top Ten covers a 13-year period, from 1976 to 1989. I don’t know what it is about that period. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I was particularly impressionable. Or maybe it’s that film-making reached just the right pitch during that era. “Rocky” came along when irony had taken such a hold that such a simple, sincere film seemed a throwback, although with modern grittiness — and to some extent that describes something all of the best ones had in common. It’s hard to imagine a character as layered and conflicted as Norman Dale in a movie made in the 30s or 40s (and absolutely impossible in the 50s). Hollywood didn’t think enough of its audiences then. Movies were less frank, less realistic. There’s no way, for instance, a character would have been as obsessed with his sexuality (in a healthy way) as Loudon Swain in an film made before “The Graduate.” Not that that’s everything; it’s just an example. Except for wonderful quirky films like “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (far better than the remake “Heaven Can Wait,” by the way), sports figures were just a little too monolithic, and their treatment too hagiographic, for my latter-day tastes.

Or maybe there’s some other explanation. In any case, these are the ones I see as best. What would be your picks?

8 thoughts on “Top Five Sports Movies Ever

  1. bud

    Breaking Away is a classic. Best sports movie hands down (IMHO). I also liked Field of Dreams very much. Wasn’t crazy about Raging Bull. Bull Durham was pretty good. Rocky was a bit too sappy for my taste but not awful. I never saw Hoosiers but maybe I’ll check it out since Brad regards it so highly.

  2. Brad Warthen

    Definitely check out Hoosiers, bud. It’s right up there, by any standard.

    As for Slapshot — that’s one I’ve missed, and need to check out. I’m not much of a hockey fan, although I did enjoy Happy Gilmore (so, does that count as a golf movie, or a hockey movie?)…

  3. Doug Ross

    Raging Bull
    Remember The Titans
    Bull Durham
    Rounders (hey, poker is on ESPN)
    Breaking Away

    While I was a big fan of Slapshot at the time, I don’t think it will hold up to the test of time if I were to watch it now. Sort of like Porky’s and Revenge of The Nerds. Hilarious when you’re 18-22, not so much at 40+.


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