Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

I thought it was high time that The Lantern finally give one of America’s greatest filmmakers his due. In all honesty, I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to post a list honoring the legendary Martin Scorsese. But to make up for my negligence, I thought it would be a good idea to get two separate Top 5’s composed by two huge Marty fans…Phil Carbo (who writes the ‘Ludovico Files‘ page) was gracious enough to share his personal favorites…and I have my own 5 faves here as well. And we are both in agreement…with so many classic films to choose from (including his many documentaries & shorts) since the late 1960’s, this was one challenging task. Five slots go way too quickly, and many great films are unfortunately left off both lists. Not only is he a master director constantly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but he has done so much for the preservation of film – and that, my friends, is pretty awesome. I mean really, is there anyone you would rather learn about the history of film than this guy? The man is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can hear him speak about movies for hours and still want more. And to think that before becoming one of our most cherished directors, he was seriously considering a life as a priest. Instead, he became one of the most influential directors of the modern era — and at age 68, is still hard at work and entertaining us all. Here are our lists…they are surprisingly similar (so much for diversity…sorry guys), which surprised me just a bit. ENJOY!

Phil Carbo’s Top 5:

5. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

I’m sure many will think this is an odd choice and question whether this is truly one of the top-5 films of Scorsese’s storied career but to me, while not bringing the best plot or pacing to the table, Bringing out the Dead is a film that is quintessential Scorsese.  First, it reunites him with screenwriter Paul Schrader and the two have an undeniable chemistry.  Schrader’s scripts typically reveal the darker side of New York and this film is, despite its slow pace, a perfect vehicle for Marty’s trademark, hyper kinetic style: close-ups, dolly shots, lightning edits, fast motion and all enhanced with a classic rock soundtrack that is prototypical Scorsese.  Sure Nicolas Cage is over the top — but when is he not?  Marty’s vision here actually lends itself to the hyped-up, manic performances.  Filmed almost entirely at the darkest hours of the night, it progressively exhibits a surrealness and frantic absurdity that feels born out of a nightmare.

4. After Hours (1985)

Speaking of nightmares, the kinetic pace and off-the-wall oddness of this black comedy plays out like a bad dream for both Griffin Dunne’s character and the viewer. Little known fact: Tim Burton was originally attached to the project, which would have been interesting because After Hours seems like more of a Burton film…but Scorsese, of course, makes the material his own.  One of his few comedies, he once again exposes the darker side of New York as the city becomes a central character.  As mentioned, the film taps into many of the motifs we all find in our dreams (the reoccurrence of locations, the feeling that one is running and running but can’t seem to get away, and a seeming randomness to everything going on).  The film ends strangely (apparently a point of contention during filming), seeming to imply that the “normalcy” of a 9-5 office existence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Whatever you take from it, one thing is certain – this is one of Scorsese’s more visually arresting films.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

This film and my next are pretty much no-brainers.  When one thinks of Scorsese, it’s impossible for Taxi Driver to NOT come to mind.  It is a dark and deliberately paced film and contains one of DeNiro’s top 5 best performances.  Story aside, it is impossible not to marvel at the craft of filmmaking Scorsese brings to this film.  From the opening shot of the taxi driving slowly through puffs of city steam to the shocking and graphic shootout (that ironically turns Travis from psychopath to hero – at least in the public eye) the entire film has an uneasy edge.  Marty developed his trademark themes of alienation and Christian guilt in early films such as Mean Streets, but with Taxi Driver he was at the top of his game, and in the process helped to define the gritty, maverick style that 70’s film is known for (and sadly missed).

2. Raging Bull (1980)

From opening frame to end, Raging Bull showcases the artistic genius of Scorsese like no other. Filmed in black and white (with one amazingly inventive color sequence), Raging Bull lays bare the tragic despair of Jake LaMotta, a man so full of self-loathing, that he abuses and alienates everyone around him, including his wife and brother with unspeakable brutality. Robert DeNiro once again proves his incredible ability to morph into character like no other actor of his time.  The violence both in and out of the ring is graphic, with close-ups of blood spurting from open wounds, and dialogue that makes some scenes downright uncomfortable to watch; all ultimately help us understand this unrepentant character.  This film was made during a difficult time in Scorsese’s life.  He was battling addiction and saw a bit of himself in LaMotta’s fall from grace. In this sense, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal and autobiographic films (the theme of redemption comes up in many of his more accomplished works).  As a side note: It’s also the first time Joe Pesci would give an ass-kicking to Frank Vincent (a recurring cycle in several subsequent films until Vincent gets his ultimate revenge in Casino).

1. Goodfellas (1990)

I could easily write a Masters’ thesis on Goodfellas.  In my opinion, it’s not only Scorsese’s best, but it also happens to be my favorite film of all-time. It’s the first film that made me understand the medium as an art form. Goodfellas takes all the elements of great cinema to create the feeling that you are experiencing all of the joys, anger, paranoia, and desperation of each character.  And truth be told, I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it when released in 1990.  My friends had to convince me into going.  This probably had something to do with the fact that I had recently watched Sergio Leone’s ganster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and while a good film, is just too slow for my taste.  At nearly 2 ½ hours, I suppose I expected the same from Goodfellas, but boy… was I wrong.  From the very moment the title zooms across the screen to a revving engine to Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” over the end credits, the movie never fails to electrify in its brilliance.  Scorsese has since made other phenomenal films in the genre (Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed come to mind), but Goodfellas sets the gold standard for a plethora of the modern crime dramas that followed and remains the high-water mark of Marty’s career.

Peter’s Top 5:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

I had about three different films in this slot before finally deciding on this ambitious work. More than any other Scorsese film in recent years, this one for me most resembles his stellar films of the 70’s & 80’s. I love the historical context of Lower New York’s “Five Points” district (1846 – 1862) and how Scorsese creates this past world. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another towering performance here as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of the natives looking to oust all of the immigrants making their way to shore. John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent give fine supporting performances. I’m not a Leo-hater by any means and his performance here is adequate, but his irregular Irish accent does bother me. The production design and period costumes are stunning – and the camerawork is gripping. A majestic American tale – and my favorite Scorsese movie of the past 10+ years.

4. After Hours (1985)

I know many would put his other black comedy King of Comedy (1982) on the list instead, and I would have no problem with that. But for me, this cult classic is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Joseph Minion’s script is an absolute trip, the camera never stops moving, and the all-star cast turn in some great performances. This is a wonderfully quirky and imaginative “New York movie” following the many misadventures and dangers that sheepish Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) encounters one evening as he simply tries to make his way home. As Phil cites above, Tim Burton was slated to direct this first – but seeing it now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. This is a genuine Scorsese flick and a must-see for any fan of his work.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

A classic, gritty New York motion picture. Seeing it years later gives you such an authentic sense of how Manhattan (especially the seedier parts of it) was in the 1970’s. This is early Robert DeNiro, which means he gave it his Method-best (wish he were still here with us, btw). As the lonely, dejected ex-Marine Travis Bickle, DeNiro gives us one of the silver screen’s most terrifying characters – a ticking time bomb that can go off at any time as he drives through the streets of New York late at night, disgusted at what he sees. Scorsese assembled a great supporting cast – led by a young Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Cybill Shepherd. Paul Schrader’s script is authentic and inspiring and Bernard Herrmann’s music captures Bickle’s state of mind perfectly. A graphically violent movie, it’s surely not for the faint-of-heart. But it remains a mesmerizing character picture with a fantastic denouement that resonates long after.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

A beautiful & explosive piece of filmmaking – and one of the very best mobster movies of all-time. I was always fascinated by how beautifully Scorsese and his creative team captured the many decades that this epic film spans…from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Goodfellas encapsulates each period so well. The costumes, art direction, and music featured…all marvelously executed as we watch the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family. Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito is scary as hell, Lorraine Bracco was robbed of what should have been an Oscar-winning performance, DeNiro gives another well-crafted performance – and Ray Liotta does a terrific job of holding the entire film together. In fact, he has never been better. As impressive as the film is from a moviemaking standpoint, Scorsese managed to make this one hell of an entertaining flick – its 2 ½ hours breezing right by and you want another hour of it all. Love the “Layla” sequence and that impressive long tracking shot through the Copacabana is always a wonder to watch.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

In my opinion, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is in no way one of those films I can turn on and watch at any time. I need to emotionally brace myself for this one because it is hard to stomach at times. Let’s face it…the guy is a fucking animal. Robert DeNiro is at the top of his game here as the brutish middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta,  giving arguably the best performance of his career and one of the greatest performances in film history. Joe Pesci is terrific as his brother. Calling Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography breathtaking and stunning is still not doing justice to his work here. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and fierce. One of the greatest bio pictures ever made and an instant classic to be sure. This is a haunting, powerful film that is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. Marty’s best work to date.

Peter’s Honorable Mentions:

My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Casino (1995)

Gimme 5: Awesome Sports Flicks!

Ah, yes! You can smell it in the air…that special time of year has come and the new NFL Football season is finally upon us, with last night’s Saints/Vikings game (God, I hate Brett Favre) kicking off the festivities! I know a few weeks ago I came up with my own Top 15 list of what I consider to be the greatest sports films ever made (click here to see the Almighty list) — but what I failed to do was get YOUR opinions on what your favorites are, as there are certainly many to pick from. Two things in life I have great passion for — movies and sports. It’s great when the two are put together to make an extraordinary, inspiring film — and this week, I’d like you to GIMME 5 of Your Favorite Sports Flicks! No surprises with my Top 5, as I will simply stick with the five I chose for my earlier list…this one is all about you and I wanted to time it right with the new football season! So huddle up, put your gear on, and…

GIMME 5 AWESOME SPORTS MOVIES!!!

Here are my Top 5:

#1. Rocky (1976)
(the quintessential underdog film. Totally inspiring!)
#2. Raging Bull (1980)
(DeNiro at his best; masterfully shot; a tremendous character exploration)
#3. Hoop Dreams (1994)
(powerful & genuine moments from 5+ yrs of footage – a cinematic triumph!)
#4. Field of Dreams (1989)
(A father & son reconcile, elements of fantasy, & the purity of the game of baseball…a magical film)
#5. The Natural (1984)
(I love Roy Hobbs & his story is one that makes you cheer throughout!)

Hoosiers could very easily be in my Top 5 as well. Love that movie!!!

Now It’s YOUR Turn!!!

Gimme 5: Favorite DeNiro Flicks!

Today marks the release of the highly anticipated Machete (directed by Robert Rodriguez & Ethan Maniquis). I’m not very excited about it at all, but since it co-stars Robert DeNiro, I thought it would make for an opportune time to get your feedback on the legendary, Oscar-winning actor. I figured there are plenty of movies to pick from, so this week I am asking you to Gimme Your 5 favorite Robert DeNiro Movies — they can be what you think his 5 best performances are or the 5 best movies he has been a part of…you decide!

Once upon a time, Mr. DeNiro put everything into his craft and gave us some of cinema’s most magnetic characters. That was a long while ago. Now, it seems he is more businessman than artist; cashing paychecks and busy making lousy Fockers sequels and other nonsense such as Hide and Seek, Godsend, Showtime and yes, sadly, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  A far cry from The Mission, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Regardless, he is a heavyweight talent and there is always hope that he will return to top form. Here is his extensive acting resume — now:

GIMME 5 FAVORITE DeNIRO MOVIES/ROLES!!!

I will start…(going strictly with his actual performances here)

#1. Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull 
(still, the performance of his life…)
#2. Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II
(brilliant in his subtlety and taking on the persona of a young Brando. Exquisitely crafted)
#3. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
(cinema’s most notorious vigilante. Raw and uninhibited approach)
#4. Michael in The Deer Hunter
(the nucleus that holds this awe-inspiring film together. Absolutely captivating)
#5. Sam Rothstein in Casino
(I think a more multi-layered performance here than in Goodfellas & shows more range)

Hmmm….3 out of the 5 were directed by Martin Scorsese. I would think it’s high time to start collaborating with the master filmmaker again…Leo will be just fine for a while.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!!! 

The Top 15 Sports Movies of All-Time!

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)

%d bloggers like this: