I believe that a man can be either a sports geek or a movie geek, but not both. This sentiment is sort of like that deleted scene from “Pulp Fiction,” in which Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) interviews Vincent Vega (John Travolta) before their big date, and asks him if he is an Elvis fan or a Beatles fan. “Elvis fans can love the Beatles, and Beatles fans can love Elvis, but no one loves them both equally,” she says. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment (and I’m a Beatles fan, for the record), and I believe that the sentiment applies to sports/movie geek-dom as well.
You can put me firmly in the latter category. I like sports…but I love movies. I don’t follow NFL football or NCAA basketball, but I’ll happily see a movie on the subject. I have never attended a boxing match, but I always enjoy watching a good mano-a-mano, pugilist drama on the big screen. It does seem to me that boxing and baseball movies strive for greater realism than other sports films, and you won’t be surprised to find three of each on the list below.
With the advance disclaimer that I have never seen “The Bad News Bears” (gasp!), I present my ranking of the top ten sports movies:
- Raging Bull (1980): This study in film-as-art was filmed in black-and-white, but remains one of the most brutal sports films ever made – as well as the best screen biopic of any athlete. Jack LaMotta, the Italian-American middleweight boxing champion of 1949, was a monster in and out of the ring. He annihilated his opponents, beat both of his wives, nearly killed his brother in a dispute over jealousy, and repeatedly smashed his head against the cinder block walls of his prison cell during a stint behind bars. Somewhat remarkably, LaMotta mellowed later in life, and became a successful nightclub owner and emcee. As LaMotta, Robert DeNiro (who won an Oscar for his work here) brought commitment to a whole new level; he played LaMotta as a rampaging gorilla, and production was suspended midway through shooting so that DeNiro could go on an eating binge to play the aging LaMotta in the film’s third act. A tough film to watch and an impossible one to forget.
- Jerry Maguire (1996): “I’m 35. I’ve started my life.” So sayeth Tom Cruise during the voice-over narration that opens Cameron Crowe’s 1996 dramedy, an enduring movie about sports, about business, about life, and about love. In the film, Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, a high-octane Los Angeles sports agent with more clients than he has time for, suffers a crisis of conscience and writes a manifesto entitled “The Things We Think but Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business.” “It was just a mission statement,” he later insists, but it gets him fired anyway. He starts his own business, anchored by a single, high-demand client (Rod Tidwell, played to Oscar-winning effect by Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and they help each other become complete human beings. Jerry teaches Rod to play football with his heart, not as a mere paycheck player, while Rod teaches Jerry to commit fully to his romantic relationships. There is so much truth in this movie, and the whole picture ages like a fine wine.
- Field of Dreams (1989): “If you build it, he will come,” a mysterious voice whispers from the endless cornfield belonging to Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner). It is a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere, and he is legendary “Black” Sox ballplayer “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Or is he Terrence Mann, the radical, J.D. Salinger-esque reclusive writer played by James Earl Jones? Or could he be Ray’s long-lost father (Dwier Brown)? And after facing financial ruin and ostracism by the community as a result of putting his farm on the line to build that ballpark, will Ray go the distance? “Field of Dreams” stirs the soul with its whimsical mesh of old fashioned Americana and Capra-esque fantasy. The film was something of a sleeper hit, and earned a nomination for Best Picture in 1989 – a very good year for movies and for baseball movies in particular.
- He Got Game (1998): This past January, I ranked “Chi-raq,” Spike Lee’s incendiary, musical call to action about Chicago gang violence, as the director’s best film in years. You can read my review here. In my opinion, prior to “Chi-raq” Lee hadn’t made a truly great movie since 1998, when his outrageous, truth-drenched “He Got Game” premiered. There are two “he’s” in “He Got Game.” The first is Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA player Ray Allen in his film debut), a high school basketball phenom scouted by colleges everywhere. The second is Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington at his best), Jesus’s father. Jake raised the Coney Island-born Jesus to love basketball, but anger filled the boy’s heart instead after Jake went to prison for accidentally killing his wife, Jesus’s mother. Jake is given a tentative early release if he can convince his son to play college ball at the governor’s alma mater, but Jake’s real modus operandi is to reconnect with his estranged son and keep him from falling into the dishonest hands of agents and hustlers. Powerful stuff, both realistic and heartfelt.
- Rocky (1976): Speaking of Spike Lee, the wunderkind director didn’t have nice things to say about the original “Rocky.” For those few of you who haven’t seen it, “Rocky” follows the journey of Philly meat market worker Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who finds love and trains for the big fight, earning the moniker “The Italian Stallion” for going the distance against the more talented Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). To Spike Lee, Rocky’s final fight, which had audiences cheering, was all about watching a white man beat up on a black man. Well, “Rocky” was released in 1976, when racial harmony was still something of a pipe dream. But Lee apparently forgot that Creed ultimately fought Rocky to a draw. And his criticisms completely miss the point. “Rocky,” despite having a bit too much cheese involving Rocky’s courtship of Adrian (Talia Shire), remains the ultimate underdog story. And more than the aforementioned “Raging Bull,” “Rocky” is really about athleticism at its finest – two athletes facing off against each other in the ultimate endurance test.
- Major League (1989): The year 1989 was a good one for baseball films, as this is the second film from that year to make the cut. I have seen “Major League” at least 20 times, and it never fails to make me laugh. Behind the slapstick humor and salty language, there is a pretty good story here: the Cleveland Indians, the AL’s notoriously bad Central division team, have a new owner, an Ohio-hating widow who stocks the team with the worst talent she can find, hoping to take advantage of an ownership clause that would allow her to relocate the team to Miami should attendance fall beneath a certain level. The motley crew of has-beens’ and never-will-bes’ that cover the field include Tom Berenger as an aging catcher with bad knees, Charlie Sheen as an ex-con pitcher with control problems, and current Allstate spokesperson Dennis Haysbert as a power slugger with a penchant for practicing voodoo.
- Moneyball (2011): I wasn’t impressed by the trailer for this Bennett “Capote” Miller-directed drama, but I gave it look after it received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I am glad that I did. “Moneyball,” like “Jerry Maguire,” is a terrific movie about the business of sports, except this one focuses solely on stickball. “Moneyball” is the true story of how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) turned his cash-strapped franchise into World Series contenders by utilizing metrics that were previously undervalued by scouts and managers. As of 2016, the real-life Beane, a promising player himself until burn-out sidelined him to the back office, has yet to actually win a World Series, but his tactics appear to have changed the back-office game forever. Pitt leads a strong cast that also includes Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, while the screenplay, by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, hits all the right notes.
- We Are Marshall (2006): This tearjerker, released in late 2006 to modest box office, is the fact-based tale of the “Thundering Herd” – the college football team of Marshall University – that perished in a 1970 plane crash, devastating the Huntington, West Virginia steel mill town that hosted the campus. More specifically, the film chronicles the efforts of the university president (a well-cast David Strathairn) and replacement coach Jack Lengyel (a winning Matthew McConaughey) to heal the community by continuing the football program the following season despite an uphill battle. A strong supporting cast includes Matthew Fox as grieving assistant coach “Red” Dawson and future “Avenger” Anthony Mackie as a guilt-ridden athlete who should have been on the doomed plane but wasn’t. The clichés are many and the music is bombastic, but I couldn’t help but cheer anyway; “We Are Marshall” is a cinematic touchdown.
- Million Dollar Baby (2004): Few sports movies cover the female point-of-view, so “Million Dollar Baby,” a sleeper hit from 2004 that beat out Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” for Best Picture and Director, was something of a breath of fresh air. The athlete of the title is Maggie Fitzgerald, a spunky, dirt-poor LA waitress who convinces crusty boxing gym owner Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood at his grumpy best) to train her, despite his own reservations. I won’t spoil the ending, which is something of a sucker punch itself, but the movie, like “Rocky” and other boxing dramas, goes the distance. Morgan Freeman pitches in good supporting work, and finally won himself an Oscar as well, for Best Supporting Actor (he plays trainer and gym handyman Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris), while Swank, as the scrappy Maggie, won her second Best Actress statuette.
- The Wrestler (2008): With so many different sports categories, I wanted to include at least one entry that wasn’t a football/baseball/basketball/boxing movie. I thought about “Rush,” Ron Howard’s 2013 Formula One drama, and about “Chariots of Fire,” the 1981 Oscar winner about Olympic distance runners with chips on their shoulders. But I ultimately decided on “The Wrestler,” director Darren “Black Swan” Aronofsky’s love letter to such performance artists as Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the latter of whom died in 2011. The title character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is a has-been wrestler who yearns for a personal and professional comeback, despite having the deck stacked against him. Mickey Rourke earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Randy and frankly should have won; he’ll have you struggling to hold back tears as the “broken down piece of meat” whose weak ticker is exactly that.
What is your favorite sports movie, Loyal Reader? Let us know by commenting below!