“Greatest sports movies” is one of my all-time favorite barstool debates. Really any conversation boils down to criteria. What makes something a great sports movie? In compiling my list I accepted all applicants: dramas, comedies, documentaries, etc. I also asked myself a number of qualifying/disqualifying questions: Is the movie really about sports? (a simple yet very important factor. Even if it’s a fringe sport the movie has to be ABOUT a sport, and cannot simply have sports in it. Goldfinger and Finding Forrester have sports in them, but aren’t sports movies. I also tried like hell to justify putting Best in Show on this list but I just couldn’t make a case for it) How are the action scenes? (The actors have to be at least somewhat believable when they are playing athletes. This is where Tim Robbins almost disqualified Bull Durham and Charlie Sheen DID sink Major League). Does the film stand the test of time? Is it well acted? How is the overall story irrespective of the sports scenes? I also considered a films “intangibles”. This factor includes but is not exclusive to this scenario: It’s 2AM and I’ve just gotten home from the bar. I turn the television on and a given sports movie is half-way thru. What are the chances I stay up the extra hour to watch the end of the movie? (I loved Million Dollar Baby but I’m sorry, not staying up an extra hour to watch Hilary Swank try to swallow her tongue. Once was enough).
Without any further ado, the list:
25. Cinderella Man (2005) – The story and pacing are predictable, Rene Zellweger as Jim Braddock’s wife is the ultimate wet blanket, and the Max Baer role is littler more than a caricature…however this film makes the list on the strength of Russell Crowe’s turn as Jim Braddock. He looked and sounded every bit the part of a down and out Depression-era Jersey fighter. Seriously, I’ve met guys from Hoboken with less believable Jersey accents than Crowe. Terrific individual performance.
24. Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)- Unknown movie but has the best raw story on this list. True story: in 1913 a 20 year old unknown caddy named Francis Quimet won the US OPEN in a playoff against the two greatest golfers in the world.
23. Pumping Iron (1977)- Documentary that shed light on subculture of body building. Only makes this list because the main subject went from being a dirt-poor Eastern-European immigrant, to Mr. Olympia, to the Terminator, to the Governor of California. Wouldn’t you have liked to buy some Arnold stock back in 1977?
22. The Rookie (2002)- Little corny and little predictable (hey it is a Disney movie), but its well acted and the role fit Dennis Quaid.
21. 61* (2001) - Longtime Yankee fan Billy Crystal’s greatest turn was behind the camera in this HBO movie he produced and directed. He got every detail right. Barry Peper looked like Roger Maris. Thomas Jane WAS Mickey Mantle. He made old Tiger Stadium look like Yankee Stadium from 1961.
20. Pride of the Yankees (1942) – “Today….I consider myself….the luckiest man….on the face of the earth.”
19. Slapshot (1977) – Does it bother anyone else that Paul Newman isn’t around anymore?
18. Talladega Nights (2006)- Highest rated film in terms of the “intangible” factor. I’ll never get tired of watching this movie. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I watch it I pick up some subtle line that I missed previously. Not sure how Ricky Bobby would view being 18th on this list however, seeing that “If you’re not first you last.”
17. Tin Cup (1996)- The “Bull Durham” of golf movies. Looses points with “O Cmon!” moments. The wooden driver with the metal driver sound effect….O Cmon! The 3-wood shot on the last hole that hangs in the air for 15 seconds and then SPINS back into the water…O Cmon!!!
16. Riding Giants (2004)- Documentary about big wave surfing. Amazing visuals. You could watch this flick with the sound off.
15. Jerry Maguire (1996)- This film is humming along like a top 10 all-timer in the first hour, until a sappy Tom Cruise romantic movie breaks out in the second half (Thanks Cameron Crowe) Question….in 1996 was there a 22 year old Terrell Owens watching this movie somewhere taking the Rod Tidwell character a little too seriously?
14. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)- An unknown Robert De Niro before he was typecast. This movie is 1 and 1A with Brian’s Song for movies with “man-cry” moments
13. Millon Dollar Baby (2004)- Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank. Brilliantly acted movie that should warrant loftier positing on this list, but as stated earlier, it’s strictly a one time viewing for this movie.
12. Bull Durham (1988)- I don’t like this movie as much as most. Tim Robbins is at best laughable as a fire-ball hurler, and Susan Sarandon just doesn’t do it for me. But this movie does seem to capture the collective psyche that makes baseball players….well baseball players.
11. Heaven Can Wait (1978)- Can we please move the Rams back to Los Angeles?
10. Friday Night Lights (2004) – Is it melodramatic? Yes. Is it overly sensational in parts? Yes. But does it perfectly capture a fascinating culture in West Texas that glorifies high school football and venerates 18 year olds kids? Absolutely.
9. Caddyshack (1980)- I cannot remember the last time I played or watched golf that I didn’t quote this movie. It doesn’t even have to be golf. I “Noonan” David Ortiz every at bat.
8. Raging Bull (1980)- This black and white film is more of an art house flick than a sports movie and more impressive than enjoyable. The portrayal of Jake Lamotta by De Niro is total transformation.
7. Hoop Dreams (1994)- A documentary shot over 5 years following two inner-city black high school students in Chicago and their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Way more real than any reality tv will ever be. You watch this film rooting for the two kids to make it, yet fully aware that the writing on the wall says they probably will not.
6. Rudy (1993)- “You're 5 foot nothin', 100 and nothin', and you have barely a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in there with the best college football players in the land for 2 years. And you're gonna walk outta here with a degree from the University of Notre Dame. In this life, you don't have to prove nothin' to nobody but yourself.”
Admit to yourself you’ve cried when he runs onto the field at the end? Yeah I know.
5.Rocky (1976)- The real Rocky story was behind the camera. Sly Stallone wrote, directed, and starred in this Best Picture Winner from 1976. He also personally funded the movie almost down to his last dollar. Stallone built up goodwill with Rocky and then went about trying to give it all back over the next 30+ years (Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot, Over the Top, Rocky V, Cliffhanger, Driven, Get Carter, Cop Land….and this is just to name a few!)
4. The Natural (1984)- The story has a few holes (“Where did you go for all those years?....I just went away for a while”) and maybe its a little bit of an idolatry piece to Robert Redford. But Redford looks completely comfortable with the bat in his hands (he was a scholarship baseball player at the University of Colorado), Robert Duvall plays the perfect newspaper man, and dammit in Little League I drew a “Wonderboy” lightning bolt on my aluminum bat.
3. Hoosiers (1986)- A very good movie and terrific underdog story that has been a little over-hyped through the years and ends up being #1 on a lot of sports movie lists. Quick question: with Dennis Hopper in this movie….what are the chances the producers handed him a bottle of gin, let him loose in rural Indiana, and just simply followed him around with hidden cameras?
2. When We Were Kings (1996)- Documentary film about the lead up to Ali and Foreman’s 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. Shows Muhammad Ali at the height of his pied-piper-like power captivating the entire nation of Zaire without even speaking the language. Then at the height of his ring power using the ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy to beat Foreman.
1. Field of Dreams (1989)- It’s got everything. It’s got a great story, terrific acting down to the smallest roles, Burt Lancaster, "Shoeless" Joe and "Moonlight" Graham, James Earl Jones’s deep baritone, Kevin Costner at his peak, its got Iowa, corn, and a touch of the supernatural, and most importantly it’s got “baseball Ray….America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”