We are officially in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer, with Major League Baseball just finishing up their annual All-Star festivities and their season hitting its midpoint. Football mini-camps are right around the corner (Go Jets!) and the frenetic chaos that was the NBA period to sign free agents has come to and end. The World Cup is over and The U.S. Open hits Flushing, NY at the very end of August. So I thought that now would be a fitting time to come up with my personal Top 15 List of the Greatest Sports Films of All-Time. Two things I love in this world are sports and film — and I love when those two elements are put together to make an inspiring, stimulating and emotional sports flick. I brainstormed about 120 sports films and whittled it down to just ten movies – but much like my “Greatest Comedies of the Decade” list, I was upset that a few of my favorites were left off, so I branched out to 15 great movies. Then there was the question as to whether or not I considered certain films to be classified as “sports films” (the debate on this continues for films like Jerry Maguire, Field of Dreams, The Hurricane, and Raging Bull). There are also a number of very good films that did not make the list, so I included some honorable mentions as well. Hope you read and enjoy — and, as always, I look forward to your own thoughts and comments on this topic.
#15. Miracle (2004)
Before all of the fun and purity was sucked out of the Olympic Ice-Hockey games by letting professional players compete, the amateurs ruled the ice. And in 1980, one of the biggest upsets in sports history took place when the United States Hockey team defeated the seemingly unconquerable team from the Soviet Union in Lake Placid and then winning the Gold Medal by defeating Finland. Miracle focuses on the player-turned-coach Herb Brooks and how he led the underdog Team USA to their extraordinary run. Kurt Russell does an admirable job as the ever-demanding, workaholic coach and the film does a terrific job at staying true to actual events and capturing the moment that shocked the world and made America proud.
#14. Eight Men Out (1988)
A superb film, with a stellar cast and directed by one of our very best filmmakers in John Sayles. If you like sports movies and haven’t seen this one yet, put this one in your queue right away! Most recently, Major League Baseball’s black eye was the use of ballplayers taking performance enhancing drugs, but for decades it was the infamous “Black Sox” scandal – when the Chicago White Sox of 1919 deliberately lost the World Series. Sayles does a brilliant job of telling this unbelievable true story in which eight players (including Shoeless Joe Jackson) are suspended for life. A wonderful period piece, the film does a great job of putting you in a different time and place. The costume design and dialogue are completely authentic and the cast (including John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney) does a marvelous job. You truly empathize with the characters and the dilemmas they are going through — and if you are an avid baseball fan like myself, you will really lose yourself in watching America’s greatest pastime during its real Golden Age.
#13. Caddyshack (1980)
This movie is the main reason I augmented this list from 10 to 15 films. I don’t know if it’s a “guy thing,” but there was no way I could create a “Best Sports Movies” list and not include this comedy classic from Harold Ramis. Rodney Dangerfield is at his crude and arrogant best, and every Bill Murray scene is hilarious, but it is Ted Knight who is my absolute favorite here as Judge Smails, the owner of the illustrious Bushwood Country Club. The funniest scene here (out of so very many) is when Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) has to play through Carl Spackler’s (Murray) hovel. I also love the ever-growing conflict between Judge Smails and Al Czervik (Dangerfield), the eccentric millionaire. This film always makes me laugh and for my money, is the better “golf film” than The Legend of Bagger Vance or Tin Cup. “In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher!’”
#12. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
This film won the “Best Picture” Oscar and deservedly so as it truly packs a devastating right hook. Warner Brothers did an incredible job of keeping the story under wraps when it was released so when I went in to see it, I just thought this was going to be a movie about a female boxer. Boy, was I wrong! Some people think this Clint Eastwood flick is overrated, but my guess is that they either heard about or were made aware of the emotional roller coaster ride this movie takes you on beforehand. The father/daughter-like relationship between Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn and Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald is a beautiful one to behold and so elegantly crafted. Eastwood also does a very nice job of interspersing some well-needed humor at just the right moments. There are some great boxing sequences and Swank creates a character who comes from nowhere and has a dream; she is fiercely competitive, and has the heart of a lion. There are also some great, atmospheric scenes around Dunn’s gym where all the regulars go on a daily basis (including Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris played by Morgan Freeman). A magnificent piece of storytelling that breaks your heart every time. Mo Cuishle…
#11. Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The true story of the “Iron Man” himself, Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest baseball players ever to don the infamous Yankees pinstripes. Gary Cooper’s portrayal of Gehrig is a commendable one as the film follows him from his childhood in New York, through his years as a New York Yankee and ending, tragically, with his now famous “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech before succumbing to the fatal ALS disease at the very young age of 37. You learn a lot about the life of this talented ballplayer here, including the unhealthy relationship he had with his mother (Elsa Janssen does a terrific job in the complex role). Teresa Wright is very well cast as the woman who loves him and Babe Ruth is played by…well, the Babe himself! A classic sports film — and a must-see for any baseball fan…or any fan of inspirational and moving films.
#10. Remember the Titans (2000)
I just love this film. It’s a great sports film, but so much more than that, covering the real life events of the early 1970′s when two high schools integrated and formed T.C. Williams High School. Racial tensions were at their peak and it doesn’t get any easier for this small town when the popular Caucasian coach is replaced by Herman Boone, an African-American coach from North Carolina. Denzel Washington is dynamic as Coach Boone — demanding nothing but 100% from his young players on and off the football field. Will Patton gives a moving performance as well, playing Boone’s assistant coach. The film does a great job of putting us in this place and time — and the great soundtrack only intensifies the atmosphere. Little by little we watch as the locker room grows from one of contempt and segregation to one unified alliance. A tear-jerker of a movie with some terrific moments throughout — and some great football too. This movie leaves a lasting impact and you can’t help but cheer at times and even shed a few tears. The true essence of competition, teamwork and what it means to be a true teammate is fully illustrated here. A great movie!
#9. Seabiscuit (2003)
A story of second chances for each of our main characters here and another film based on a true story. Set in the Depression-era, Gary Ross’ film examines one of the most famous racehorses in history — and how he helped to lift the spirits of a nation that was in desperate need of it. A true underdog story, the movie actually tells the story of a few long shots — the owner, the trainer, the hot-tempered jockey and Seabiscuit, the undersized racehorse. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the movie features wonderful performances by Chris Cooper, Tobey Maguire, William H. Macy, and the mega-awesome Jeff Bridges. Real life jockey Gary Stevens is also excellent in a supporting role and the racing scenes are so skillfully shot — the costumes and sets capture the time period perfectly. On the surface, the movie appears to be about the inspiring story of this magnificent racehorse and those who loved him, but it tells us so much more about attaining the American Dream. You don’t have to be a fan of horseracing to truly appreciate this film — another work that is brimming with a blazing spirit and tugs at your heart.
#8. The Hustler (1961)
Paul Newman shines as Fast Eddie Felson, an up-and-coming pool player with an ego as big as his game. He wants to be known as the best player in the world and to do it he seeks out the legendary champion Minnesota Fats so that he can take him on. You honestly couldn’t cast a more suitable actor to play Minnesota Fats than Jackie Gleason, and for his electrifying performance, he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The back-and-forth between the two is a treasure to watch, as is Eugen Schüfftan’s amazing cinematography. Piper Laurie gives a tender performance here and George C. Scott is captivating, as always…and a real shit to boot! The pool shots are real and exquisite, as Gleason was well-known as being a terrific pool player. The seediness of this culture and its inhabitants is shown quite well here. But the movie is all Eddie’s — as we watch him burn out, mature, and learn from his mistakes. An all-encompassing drama and though pool may not be on the tip of your tongue as being a riveting sport to watch, this film succeeds in doing just that. A film for the ages — far superior to the sequel that would be released 25 years later.
#7. Bull Durham (1988)
The love triangle is an entertaining subplot here, but the true greatness of this terrific sports film is seeing how a minor league baseball team goes through a season — on buses instead of private planes, in cheesy little ballparks rather than the gorgeous monuments of MLB, in seedy rooms at the Motel 8 instead of the Four Seasons. Kevin Costner plays the cerebral, aging catcher Crash Davis, who is just trying to hold on to one more year to play the game he has loved his entire life. He watches with envy as the new phenom pitcher ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh (Tim Robbins)comes to the Durham Bulls to be groomed for the Big Show. The chemistry between the two actors is solid and Susan Sarandon was the ideal actress to play Annie Savoy — here she is the perfect mix of sexy, smart and tomboy. Writer/Director Ron Shelton has written a hilarious and moving script; one that accurately depicts the life of minor-leaguers. There are some classic lines scattered throughout, and the baseball scenes are done quite well. One can’t help but root for and feel sympathy for Costner’s Crash – he has played a baseball player a few times, but this was his first time doing so, and he brings a tremendous authenticity to the role. No sports film list would be complete without this one…
#6. Hoosiers (1986)
Where in the world do people live and breathe high school and collegiate basketball? Hoosiertown, that’s where. Set in rural Indiana, David Anspaugh’s film is basketball through and through. Gene Hackman is astounding as the highly volatile Coach Norman Dale, a man with a checkered past who has just been hired to coach this small-town high school basketball team. His style and methods are immediately met with raised eyebrows, but this guy knows how to coach in a very Bob Knight kind of way. If you had a son, this is the guy you want coaching him. We watch as he prepares his underdog team throughout the season and on their way to becoming a shocking contender for the state championship in 1954, which is just about everything in Indiana. Dennis Hopper plays the father of one of the young players and he gives a heartfelt and moving performance as the town drunk who everyone seems to have given up on. Hopper earned an Oscar nomination for his work here. Hoosiers is a classic tale of redemption for many of its characters and it is another sports film that you cannot resist rooting for. Based on a true story, this movie has everything for the sports/film lover — heart, resilience, courage, teamwork, loyalty and attitude. This is a movie I can never turn away from if it’s on — and I get caught up in it each and every time.
#5. The Natural (1984)
Barry Levinson directs this fairy-tale baseball movie about Roy Hobbs, a middle-aged man who comes out of nowhere to become one of the greatest baseball players to ever live. Robert Redford is perfect as the midwestern Hobbs who is now enjoying the renowned career he should have had in younger days when he was a pitcher. However, that life was tragically sidetracked and is just now becoming a household name. Here is another period piece that does a marvelous job of taking us back to a time when every gentleman in the stands wore a fedora. We root for Hobbs throughout this film and though it may not be as authentic as some other sports films, that is not what this film is about. We go along for the ride and we enjoy every bit of it — right up to the point where Hobbs hits a ball that soars high in the sky, shattering the ballpark’s lights. Richard Farnsworth, Wilford Brimley, Robert Prosky, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger are all great in their supporting roles and all having a tremendous impact on the life of Hobbs in some way. With a rich and intricate screenplay, along with the great costumes, sets and period props, this is a baseball movie for the kid in all of us!
#4. Field of Dreams (1989)
This is very easily one of my all-time favorite movies and it makes me cry every time I see it. Yes, the background is the legendary baseball field built by Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), but the film is not really about baseball at all. At its heart, we have a family man who is destined to go on a journey for reasons he cannot fathom, while his farm hemorrhaging money and is about to be lost; a man who was never able to apologize to his father with whom he had a more than strained relationship. And that is the crux of this movie — a father, a son and the game of baseball. It all comes together so gorgeously in the end that it never ceases to move me in so many ways. Phil Alden Robinson does a wonderful job at adapting W.P. Kinsella’s book and directs the movie so skillfully, while getting the most out of his stellar cast. James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, and the legendary Burt Lancaster are a joy to watch. The banter between Ray and Jones’ Salinger-like author is great fun and Lancaster is nothing short of extraordinary as “Moonlight” Graham. The ballpark itself is its own character in the film and is ever-present throughout. A great, feel-good movie that has everything we look for in a great sports movie without much of the sport actually in it.
#3. Hoop Dreams (1994)
There are some wonderful documentary films that focus on athletics, but this, for me, is the quintessential achievement. Some of the films on this list are based on true stories, which adds a special element to the viewing experience. This does one better as director Steve James and his crew followed two Illinois high school students for over five years and collected over 250 hours of footage. William Gates and Arthur Agee want to be professional basketball players like their idol, Isiah Thomas. they are recruited by St. Joseph High School, which is renowned for its basketball program. The film does a phenomenal job of showing you what each of these boys is going through as they try to get recruited by the top-notch collegiate programs. In addition to seeing the highs and many devastating lows that the boys must face, Hoop Dreams raises a number of important societal issues such as race, education, economic status, and what our values in America are. You feel as if you are a fly on the wall throughout and you really get to know James’ subjects. It’s better than almost any sports movie because it isn’t just based on real life — this is real life.
#2. Raging Bull (1980)
This may be the greatest movie on this list for the sheer brilliance of its filmmaking, so if you have this as #1 on your own list, you will get no arguments from me. I wasn’t sure if this could be categorized as a “sports film,” but it does examine the real life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta – his bouts in the ring and his self-destructive nature outside the arena. Robert DeNiro gives perhaps his greatest performance as LaMotta — completely uninhibited, crude, raw, authentic. He’s like Stanley Kowalski, but on mega steroids. The way this man treats those he presumably loves is at times, so uncomfortable to watch. On top of this mesmerizing performance, we have perhaps Martin Scorsese’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker. I’m not sure there has ever been more realistic footage taken in the ring and Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography is nothing short of resplendent. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and economical, as always. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are fantastic in their respective roles and play off DeNiro quite well. The film plays like a Greek tragedy as we watch this man slowly bring about his own tragic demise — and it makes for a riveting, masterpiece of a film.
#1. Rocky (1976)
The quintessential underdog film — and an American classic, winning the “Best Picture” Oscar in an ultra-competitive year. For those of you who think Sylvester Stallone isn’t all that talented, I would ask you to remind yourself that he is the man responsible for creating this truly inspiring film, writing its screenplay and playing the legendary Rocky Balboa character – on his way to receiving two Oscar nominations that year. Balboa is an uneducated, small-time boxer who works as a ”collector” for a local mafia man. His time is up and he has nothing in his life but a tiny apartment and his dog, Butkus. When he is unexpectedly given the opportunity of a lifetime — to fight the heavyweight champion of the world (as kind of a publicity stunt) — he takes full advantage of it and shows how far a resilient heart (and solid jaw) can go. John G. Avildsen directed this inspiring and wholly entertaining work, featuring an iconic score by Bill Conti, precise editing, and some great boxing sequences. Talia Shire gives a subtle, lovely performance as Adrian and Carl Weathers does a great job as Apollo Creed, the champion who takes his opponent way too lightly. Of course, Burgess Meredith is the ideal choice to play Mickey, Balboa’s stubborn, feisty veteran trainer. The city of Philadelphia is prominently displayed here — its actually another character in the film and you can almost smell the cheesesteaks through the screen. The fight keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout — and the ending is just perfect. This may not be the greatest film achievement on the list (or maybe so, I’m not sure), but I think it is the epitome of what a classic sports film should be – the benchmark that other sports films should strive to emulate. I can’t think of a sports film with more heart, one that shows the courage and will of the human spirit so effortlessly or one that can so easily bring me to my feet in applause. Rocky – you will always be the champ!
Some Honorable Mentions for Good Measure:
1. I do love Rocky II and Rocky III (could have easily been in the Top 15)
2. Everybody’s All-American (1988)
3. Blue Chips (1994)
4. Major League (1989)
5. Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)