Two years have passed since I composed my original top ten list on this subject, charting my picks for the ten greatest sports movies of all time. If you haven’t read the list you may want to check it out for some context against part two, below; otherwise you may wonder why, seemingly, such classics as “Raging Bull,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “He Got Game” aren’t mentioned. Remember, today’s list starts at #11, although that film, as you’ll read in just a moment, should have made my original top 10 list instead. Alas, hindsight is 20/20.
Here is a new ranking of ten more great sports movies (and a few more besides). Thanks for reading!
11) Hoop Dreams (1994): When composing my original list, I didn’t think about including “Hoop Dreams.” Perhaps this was because the film is a documentary, or perhaps it was because, unlike most movies on this list, I had only seen it once. Well, I gave the acclaimed 1994 film, which captures the high school, college, and professional basketball “hoop dreams” of Chicago teens Arthur Agee and William Gates, another view, and the only way I can think to correct this remarkable motion picture’s achievement is to rank it at the top of my second top ten list. The basketball footage is good enough – and fans will have fun spotting cameos by Isaiah Thomas, Dick Vitale, and Spike Lee – but what makes the acclaimed film, which originated as a 30-minute PBS special and morphed into a three-hour Sundance feature, truly special is the way it simply captures the nuances of everyday life. A miraculous achievement, and the fact that director Steve James only just last March collected his first Oscar (for the inferior “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”) seems like a too-little, too-late consolation prize by the Academy.
12) The Natural (1984): The 1980’s were good to director Barry Levinson. He helmed the Robin Williams dramedy “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1987, and won an Oscar for the following year’s “Rain Man.” His only foray into the sports genre that same decade, “The Natural,” was an instant, Capra-esque classic, and some would say that it holds up even better than either of the other Levinson films that I mentioned. Robert Redford, cinema’s fair-haired boy, plays the title character, a baseball phenom (real name: Roy Hobbs) who gets involved with the wrong woman, then disappears for several years before making a triumphant return at the twilight of his athletic career. The story is simple yet rich, and the golden-hued look conveys the feel of days gone by. Redford and co-stars Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Wilford Brimley, and Barbara Hershey have seldom been better. Remember, kids: long before Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar, there was Roy Hobbs’s lightning bolt bat, Wonderboy.
13) Bend it Like Beckham (2002): Despite the popularity of soccer around the world, I can count on one hand the number of movies about soccer. The little-seen WWII-era “Victory,” starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and Brazil’s Pelé, each portraying allied POWs facing off against German guards in a high-stakes footy game, was certainly one of the better ones…but better still was “Bend it Like Beckham,” a British indie and breath of fresh air for 2002-03 movie-going audiences. Parminder K. Nagra, who will later have a recurring role on television’s “ER,” plays Jess, a young Sikh woman living in London. Her dream to play women’s soccer, where she could “bend it like Beckham,” is tested by her sister’s upcoming marriage and by her traditional-minded Indian parents. But a friendship with free-spirited tomboy Jules (a pre-stardom Keira Knightley) brings Jess out of her shell, with delightful and humorous results. This one will make you smile.
14) Eight Men Out (1988): John Sayles may be the most underrated director in Hollywood. His movies, character dramas all, are quietly compelling, and feature fine work by such regulars as David Strathairn, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Morton, and/or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. His little-seen indictment of sports gambling, “Eight Men Out,” is perhaps his best film, and it features the kind of meticulous attention to period detail that you’ll rarely find in a period sports movie. The characters: the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox, including DB Sweeney as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, John Cusack as Bucky Weaver, and the aforementioned Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte. Let us not forget the gamblers (led by Michael Lerner as Arnold Rothstein), who convinced the Sox to throw the World Series, essentially banning them from the Hall of Fame forever. If “Eight Men Out,” based on Eliot Asinof’s non-fiction book of the same title, doesn’t rank higher on this list, it is simply because mainstream audiences may not be as moved by the tale as die-hard baseball fans. Still, the film is worth seeking out.
15) Hoosiers (1986): High school basketball is to Indiana what college football is to Tennessee and what professional hockey is to Canada. “Hoosiers,” the 1986 sleeper hit triumph by director David Anspaugh, treats this fact with the respect it deserves. In his film, a fictionalized account of actual events, the 1951 Hickory Huskers have little chance of winning unless the players – and townspeople – can buy into the controversial coaching style of Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, in one of the best performances of his career). Dale is new to high school coaching and seems to have left his previous coaching job, college ball ten years prior, in disgrace. But if a hardened teacher (Barbara Hershey) and the town drunk (Oscar nominee Dennis Hopper) believe in him, maybe that’s just the edge he needs? This is vintage Hackman, and is a triumph of a movie as well, right down to its stand-up-and-cheer ending.
16) Invictus (2009): The stirring pseudo-biopic “Invictus” is half of a great sports movie – the tale of the majority-white South African rugby team, the Springboks, that needs the support of all post-Apartheid South Africans, white and black. The other half of the movie follows the efforts of the newly-elected Nelson Mandela to keep the peace, to get black men to embrace rugby, and to bridge the gap to Truth and Reconciliation. As Francois Pienaar, the Springboks’ captain, Matt Damon shows us a righteous young man who was the son of racist parents. As Mandela, who else but Morgan Freeman could show us “Madiba’s” heart, wit, brains, and steadfast resolve? Both actors received Oscar nods for their work here. As the film’s director, Clint Eastwood gives audiences another well-received hit. In sports lingo, he keeps batting 1000.
17) Blue Chips (1994): Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) is my nominee for Hollywood’s best screen caricature of Indiana University coach Bobby Knight; he even wears a similar sweater (albeit blue, not red). Pete, hot-headed coach for the fictional Western University Dolphins, faces alumni pressure following a losing season and is forced to throw his better judgment to the win and bribe a trio of promising young phenoms (including one played by Shaquille O’Neal in his acting debut) to play ball at his school. Although “Blue Chips” doesn’t carry the emotional resonance of Spike Lee’s “He Got Game,” the two films are otherwise similar for how they track the morals of their lead characters, and for the sheer number of cameos by real basketball coaches and athletes, including Larry Bird, Rick Pitino, and Bobby Knight himself.
18) The Pride of the Yankees (1942): “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” lifelong New York Yankee Lou Gehrig said at the trophy presentation in his honor following his retirement from baseball. Gary Cooper, who won an Oscar the year before for “Sergeant York” (and another one years later for “High Noon”), didn’t especially resemble baseball’s Iron Man, but looking back some 70 years later, Cooper – who ranks up there with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Tom Hanks as Hollywood’s perfect Everyman – seems the perfect choice. To today’s jaded audiences, “The Pride of the Yankees” may seem a bit too corny and “whitewashed,” but all accounts have it that Gehrig really was a stand-up guy who promised an invalid boy that he would hit two home runs in a single game – and did, and who, unlike teammate Babe Ruth (playing himself!), remained faithful to his wife (Teresa Wright, a bit cloying). The film could have used a bit more baseball, but as a feel-good biopic, it’s a home run. Side note: Gehrig, whose early retirement was brought on by ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), died just one year before the movie’s release.
19) Rush (2013): I wanted to have at least one movie about auto racing in here, and the contenders from which to choose included such disparate movies as “Days of Thunder,” Pixar’s “Cars,” and the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights.” A full lap ahead of any of those, though, is the Ron Howard pseudo-biopic “Rush,” which details the competition between wild, fair-haired golden boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and humorless, safety-conscious German Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they compete on the Formula One track until a fiery crash derails Lauda’s career. “Rush” isn’t as funny as “Talladega Nights,” nor as cute as “Cars,” nor as cheesy as “Days of Thunder,” but it is a triumph of sound mixing and you-are-there camerawork.
20) Chariots of Fire (1981): For all the sports movies out there, remarkably few revolve around Olympic athletes. Fewer, still, win Oscars for Best Picture. “Chariots of Fire,” the staid drama about two competing British sprinters at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Scottish Christian missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and persecuted English Jew Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), did just that. Despite their different backgrounds, their motivations for running are similar: Liddell runs to glorify God, and Abrahams runs to beat anti-Semitism. Full disclosure: “Chariots of Fire” is not a fun sports movie the way that “Hoosiers,” “Blue Chips,” or “Rush” are. But it is a classic in its own right, thanks largely to the immortal synthesizer score by Vangelis, who won an Oscar. Worth seeing once.
A few runners up:
Stealing Home (1988): A washed-up minor league baseball player (Mark Harmon, remember him?) gets a second chance to re-prioritize his life after learning of a death of his childhood crush (Jodie Foster, luminous). Funny and tender, if sometimes unbelievable, but featuring a wonderful score by David Foster and a message about second chances that resonates strongly with this particular reviewer.
Slap Shot (1977): Riotously funny and a hard-R, “Slap Shot” follows the exploits of a minor league hockey team whose player-coach (Paul Newman), upon hearing that the team will be dismantled at the end of the season, decides that the only way to go out is to do so in controversial style. Newman hires the violent Hanson Brothers, who pummel their way to victory on the ice. A handful of derogatory gay slurs stand out today, and keep the otherwise-funny sports comedy off the “proper” top 20 list.
Cool Runnings (1993): A movie whose box office success was as improbable as the courageous showing of the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1998 Winter Olympics of Calgary, “Cool Runnings” is a winner. It doesn’t crack my top 20 because of its numerous historical inaccuracies, but it is family friendly, and about as feel-good as sports movies get. A fine, late career vehicle for John Candy.
Creed (2015): Much more than yet another “Rocky” film, Sylvester Stallone takes a supporting role in this entry, his Italian Stallion enjoying a quiet life as a Philadelphia restaurant owner, drawn back into the boxing limelight to coach Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan of “Black Panther”), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Engaging, well-acted, and unexpectedly moving, “Creed” is better than anyone, save Stallone perhaps, thought it would be.
Rudy (1993): Despite the film’s surplus of cheese, I *dare* you not to smile during the more triumphant moments in this popular biopic about Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, son of a Joliet steel mill worker whose dreams of playing football at the University of Notre Dame are threatened following a family tragedy. Although I’m a fan of neither football nor Notre Dame, not giving this movie at least cursory mention would seem like an oversight.
61* (2001): This well-received HBO film earned Barry Pepper a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. He plays Roger Maris, the little-known New York Yankee who gives beloved, hard-living Mickey Mantle a run for the first MLB player to hit over 60 home runs. It isn’t exactly a secret that Maris, not Mantle, broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60, but I won’t say what happened that resulted in an asterisk accompanying the magic number of 61.
Tin Cup (1996): Why did I chose this 1996 Kevin Costner-starring, Ron Shelton-directed pro golf rom-com over the 1988 Kevin Costner-starring, Ron Shelton-directed minor league baseball rom-com “Bull Durham?” Simple: “Tin Cup” is a better movie. Blasphemy, you say? Watch the film; Costner, who some claim is a jerk IRL, has an easy-going charm here that the actor rarely uses to such winsome effect. And the ending? Perfection.
What are your favorite sports movies? Were they included on my list above?