What was the best sports movie ever made? This seems to be a question that has been on the minds of sports fans and film buffs lately. Listening to my XM Radio I’ve caught a promo spot for a talk show where the hosts are discussing the merits of “Rudy” versus “Raging Bull.” And to my surprise, when I went to one of the websites to which I contribute movie reviews, Midwest_Freelancer, last Monday, I was surprised to see one of my colleagues, Eric Williams, a sports writer, writing about movies in an article entitled “The Greatest: A look at the Top 10 sports movies ever.”
Having already put some thought into the subject, I quickly jotted down a list of films before reading Eric’s article with not just a little excitement. Having never met Eric, nor discussed films with him in any medium, I was fascinated to see the difference between what a sports fan felt were worthy sports movies as opposed to what a film buff thought were significant entries. I was shocked to see the similarities in our lists. Seven out of the ten films on each of our lists were the same. The order of the lists different, but the evidence seems quite clear that the films on his list and mine are quite solid candidates for the best sports flicks ever made.
When it comes to sports, I am a football fan who just looks in on other sports. Eric and I would certainly differ on football. Although I am from the East Coast, I am a Giants fan and would probably not be welcome in Eric’s Philadelphia arena. But it isn’t really the sports themselves that make a sports film great. It is usually the characters and often a story that is comprised of universal issues of acceptance and loss. Here is my list of ten favorite sports films.
Hoop Dreams (1994).
This documentary presents basketball as a way of life for two black inner-city Chicago kids who are recruited by a predominantly white private school outside the city limits. It depicts the highly competitive high school basketball program as a high stakes game where these kids find their entire futures on the line at an age where their dreams to become NBA stars are powerful tools for those who might want to exploit them and are their only hope to escape the tumultuous street life that surrounds them. Interestingly enough, the ups and downs within each of these boys’ family lives provide as much drama and suspense as the free throws on the court.
Field of Dreams (1989).
Proving you don’t have to be deeply rooted in sports to appreciate a film based around one, Ray Kinsella, portrayed by Kevin Costner in this baseball fantasy, isn’t even an athlete. He is a man whose bumpy relationship with his father ended without closure until the day his Iowa corn field spoke to him. “Build it and he will come,” became one of the most quoted prophetic lines in film history and is just a hint of the mystery and magic this enchanting film has in store for its audiences. With a sure-footed cast including Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, Amy Madigan and Ray Liotta as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of the infamous “Chicago Eight” White Sox players who were banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series; “Field of Dreams” offers the fantastic escapism that only movies can provide and the hope that even a simple farmer can realize a dream as genuine as wanting to share one last game of catch with his dad.
Who hasn’t run up a set of steps humming the “Rocky” theme under their breath, holding their arms in the air once they reach the top, turning to show the world they are a champion. And Rocky didn’t even actually win his championship bout with Apollo Creed. It was a draw, but no one can deny the power of this ultimate rags-to-riches story of a loser in life who climbs his way to a shot at a boxing title through perseverance and faith in himself, with only a few fellow losers backing him. Rocky’s training run through the slums of Philadelphia to the top of the steps of the Museum of Art acts as a summary of his personal journey throughout the film. It is also a well acted drama and romance. This one has it all.
Raging Bull (1980).
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Martin Scorsese’s abject look at real-life boxer Jake LaMotta’s life. Unlike “Rocky”, LaMotta’s success in the ring is not reflected in his personal arena where the pugilist in him boils out into the living room. His wife (Cathy Moriarty) and brother (Joe Pesci) take the brunt of his self-destructive disposition. Robert De Niro provides one of his career defining performances as LaMotta, gaining 60 pounds to portray the retired champion. His sad attempt as a night club comic fulfills his failure at all but his boxing career. Not exactly an uplifting story of hope, but a masterpiece of cinema.
Brian’s Song (1971).
Sappiness and sports movies seem to go hand and hand sometimes, but I challenge any grown man not to cry at this true-life story of friendship in the National Football League. Gayle Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) was the fresh upstart to seasoned veteran Brian Piccolo (James Caan) for the running back position when he joined the Chicago Bears in 1965. Although, they played the same position they become close friends through tragedy and triumph. Piccolo even nurses Sayers through a serious injury, but the tables are turned when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer. Made with the full co-operation of the NFL, this original version of the story is rendered more realistic with the casting of many of the Chicago Bears players as themselves.
Touching the Void (2003).
Yes, there are films made about sports other than baseball, football, basketball and boxing (and golf, that one’s coming). While mountain climbing is a sport that can only be understood by those with the thrill seeking (or is it suicidal) nature to actually participate in it, this movie proves it is fraught with the suspense and drama necessary to make for compelling filmmaking. “Touching the Void” is a documentary based on the bestselling first hand account of mountaineer Joe Simpson about his near death experience with climbing partner Simon Yates. Told in their own words, documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald recreates their harrowing experience on the face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes with stand-in climbers on the actual location. The story of Simpson’s survival after a fall results in a broken leg near the summit of the mountain and Yates’s unfathomable decision to cut Simpson lose when another fall threatens to take both of their lives is a visceral look into the strength of both the human will and the resilience of the human body to survive.
Comedy is also something that goes along frequently with sports. I suppose the athletic crowd like their fart and boob jokes, but very rarely is the classless so pitch perfect as it is in this send up of the country club set. Giving the audience the point of view of the golf version of blue collar by focusing on a caddy who is trying to win a scholarship to pay for college helps to sell this absurd look at what is supposed to be society’s upper crust, but the true key to this movie’s success are the totally whacked out characters. The cast doesn’t so much provide great comedic characters as offer their own zany personalities to them, from Chevy Chase’s burnt out club pro to Bill Murray’s spaced out assistant grounds keeper. The gopher is the only one who isn’t out there.
Gene Hackman stars as a second chance coach with an opportunity to bring a small town high school basketball team to the Indiana State Championship. Hackman is at his best as this volatile coach who faces several hurdles, including his own spotty past and a town determined to keep him an outsider. Dennis Hopper puts in another powerful performance as a drunk who signs on as the assistant. While proving one of the more archetypal pictures on this list, rarely has the second chance sports picture been presented so well.
Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winner “Million Dollar Baby” is almost like two movies in one. For much of the film it is a great boxing picture about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) with more will to win the most professional boxers out there, and her determination that eventually persuades an old veteran (Eastwood) to take her on his training schedule. As always Eastwood provides insightful human observation to go along with the boxing mold of a nobody rising through the ranks. That human observation pays off when the story takes an unpredicted dramatic turn and becomes something very different than your typical sports flick. Eastwood’s years of experience as a filmmaker afford him the knowledge to make a message picture without providing the audiences opinion on the message for them. Morgan Freeman rounds out this intimate cast of compelling performances.
Jerry Maguire (1996).
While not technically a movie about sports, Cameron Crowe’s personal look at the life of a sports agent who must lose everything before he discovers how to truly attain what is good from life is so immersed in the sports industry that I can hardly overlook it as a sports film. Yes, it is about romance and discovery and determination; it is about life, which is what we are all trying experience when we partake in activities such as sports. Cuba Gooding, Jr. provides the life of the party as Rod Tidwell, the Phoenix Cardinals wide receiver who is the only client willing to stick it out with Tom Cruise’s titular character through his journey of self-discovery.