Sports Films: The 25 Best (IMHO) – The Top Ten

film-crewOne thing that almost all great sports films have in common is an intense final act. The concluding installment of this venture might not be all that dramatic, but hopefully it’s a good read. If you haven’t done so already please catch up by checking out Part 1 and Part 2. After all, a good ending is meaningless without the enjoyment of the preceding crescendo.

 

 

 

 

10 We Are Marshall
I fully admit my extreme prejudice in overrating this film. I am a proud alumnus of Marshall muUniversity, and the 1970 plane crash that killed the entire football team is a deeply emotional event for anyone who has ever attended Marshall and lived in Huntington, WV. There is a wonderful 2000 documentary called Ashes to Glory that tells the story of the plane crash & its aftermath best, but We Are Marshall is a pretty good fictional account that has grown on me thru repeat viewings. Matthew McConaughey’s performance as head coach Jack Lengyel is somewhat quirky, but not too distracting. Englishman Ian McShane is grossly miscast as a West Virginia steel worker, but again it’s no big deal. Matthew Fox’s heartbreaking portrayal of assistant coach Red Dawson is superb and perhaps should have received an Oscar nomination. It is difficult for me to gauge how this movie is viewed by the general public because of my personal connection, but I think it is deserving of a spot in this particular cinematic potpourri.

 

 

9 Happy Gilmore
For many people of a certain generation it is Happy Gilmore, not Caddyshack, that is the golf happycomedy of record. This is Adam Sandler in his goofy mid-90’s prime. It isn’t going to win any awards or garner critical acclaim, but it’s a really fun way to spend a couple of hours vegging on the couch. Happy is a hockey player wannabe with anger issues who must find a way to raise money to pay his grandmother’s back taxes so she won’t lose her house. Enter Carl Weathers as the clichéd mentor/guru, a golf pro with a hilarious wooden hand after an unfortunate run-in with an alligator. Happy ends up on the pro tour challenging top dog Shooter McGavin (a fantastic name), with the two ending up in a climactic battle on the course. Along the way Happy romances a pretty girl, gets into a hysterical fistfight with Bob Barker, & becomes the talk of the golf world due to his unconventional style. If you’ve seen Happy Gilmore once I’m willing to bet you’ve watched it dozens of times.

 

 

8 Major League
What would happen if the Bad News Bears were adults and played on a MLB team?? That’s Major-Leaguepretty much the idea of this movie. The Cleveland Indians haven’t won a World Series since Harry Truman was President, and at the time Major League was in theaters in 1989 hadn’t even won a league pennant since the 1950’s. They are perfect fodder for a loveable loser story. The setup here is that the owner has died and his bimbo widow has inherited the club. She devises a scheme to sabotage attendance so the team can be relocated to sunny Miami. The devious plot involves putting together a hilariously ragtag motley crew, including a pitcher who just got out of prison and is as likely to reach the bleachers as the strike zone with his fastball, an outfielder who practices voodoo, a speedy center fielder that couldn’t hit water with a baseball bat if he was sitting in a boat, & a bunch of old, washed up veterans with personality conflicts. Of course we know how it ends, but the journey is engaging and the characters are unique & funny, so the sports movie clichés aren’t at all bothersome. It is interesting to note that the film climaxes (spoiler alert) with the Indians winning a one game tiebreaker to capture the division and get into the playoffs. We learn in 1994’s Major League II that they lost the ALCS. In that inferior sequel Cleveland wins the ALCS but we still never see them in the World Series.

 

 

7 The Karate Kid
I’ve written on previous occasions about time capsules. If one were to open an 80’s time kkcapsule full of movies I suspect that The Karate Kid would be among the treasured loot, alongside The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Back to the Future trilogy, & two of the first three Star Wars films (the original came out in 1977). Kid stars Ralph Macchio as a high school student (Macchio was 47 years old at the time) who has relocated from New Jersey to Los Angeles and is being bullied in his new school. He turns to martial arts for assistance, with guidance from a sagacious old Japanese building super. Kid paints inside the lines of the sports movie blueprint, but the characters are so interesting and the martial arts setting is different enough from the usual football/baseball/basketball scenario that this film has become an indisputable modern classic. There were a few tepid sequels, but none can hold a candle to the original. Oh, by the way, I was just kidding…Macchio was only 23 when he played Daniel Laruso. He is now 53 years old.

 

 

6 All the Right Moves
Am I crazy or does this movie fly way under the radar?? Tom Cruise is a megastar who has made a plethora of notable films, some that are popular with the masses and others that are critical darlings. One must give Cruise credit for being a versatile performer even if it seems like he might be kind of an out-of-touch crackpot diva in real life. ATRM was one of Cruise’s earliest efforts, released in 1983 (the same year as Risky Business). It is the quintessential high school football movie. Cruise is a talented player whose goal is to use his skills to score a movescollege scholarship and escape his dreary Pennsylvania hometown, rising above a dead end life in the steel mills. Being trapped in a small town and yearning for something more is hardly an original plot, but it works really well in a sports movie because it rings so true. Many athletes that fans watch on TV almost daily come from working class families in economically challenged neighborhoods. What we view as a fun way to relax on the weekend is, for a lot of young men, their ticket to a better life. ATRM captures the essence of that struggle really well, and portrays just how important a game can be to a town that has nothing else to look forward to. Craig T. Nelson is well known for his role in the 90’s sitcom Coach, but here he plays an entirely different kind of coach, the type of guy who is way too intense and has just a bit too much power. ATRM holds up really well after three decades and provides much food for thought while also being quite entertaining.

 

 

5 Tin Cup
My father loved to play golf until he got older and his knees went bad. Once he gets them replaced I am hopeful he can get back out on the course and knock a few balls around with my eldest nephew, who has inherited Dad’s fondness for the game. At any rate, even though I am physically unable to play I too love golf. Many people find it kind of boring on TV, but I have spent many a Sunday afternoon watching the entertaining final round of a tournament. There aren’t a lot of golf-centric movies, but a couple stand out amongst the crowd, including this 1996 Kevin Costner rom-com in which he simultaneously romances a shrink while also trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. He’s a failed professional golfer who now owns a rundown tin-cup-560driving range, lives in a camper, & drinks a lot. He’s kind of given up and just doesn’t give a damn. What motivates him to get his act together?? A woman of course. Don Johnson is great as a smooth talking pro golfer. I mean he’s no Shooter McGavin, but there’s got to be a bad guy, right?? And of course there is a faithful sidekick played by one half of Cheech & Chong. I believe it is Cheech. Anyway, like a few other flicks you’ve read about here the plot leans a lot more toward romantic comedy than sports, but there is an appropriate amount of golf action, including the requisite climactic showdown. This one has a fantastic twist. Anyone who’s ever watched Tin Cup knows what I mean and I won’t spoil it. The combination of Costner’s charm, a solid supporting cast, a well written script, & the always reliable sports movie playbook make this one that is likely to stand the test of time.

 

 

4 Hoosiers
Youngsters in The Manoverse may not be familiar with Gene Hackman, an award winning actor whose career peaked in the 70’s with classics like The French Connection, The Conversation, The Poseidon Adventure, & Superman. However, since then he has had a few notable crusty old man roles in films like Mississippi Burning, Unforgiven, The Firm, & Hoosiers…one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Here Hackman is a disgraced former college basketball coach who lost his job after hitting a player. He’s given a second chance by an old friend, a high school principal in Indiana. Most sports fans know how significant basketball is there, and the small town of Hickory is no exception. It’s the kind of dead end hoosierstown where folks toil too hard for too little and don’t have much hope for a better future. You know…like we’ve seen in a hundred other sports films. But my philosophy has always been that things become formulaic because the formula seems to work. The townsfolk don’t understand the new coach’s ways and aren’t shy about offering input. The team…like all great underdogs…is outmatched & undermanned, but somehow they pull together and win. The wildcard is an enigmatic lad named Jimmy Chitwood, a basketball prodigy who doesn’t know whether he wants to play basketball. Of course he does play, and he hits the last second winning shot that we all know is coming. Sports films are usually David vs. Goliath. David almost always wins. That is the accepted norm. What separates the wheat from the chaff is the quality of the writing and the performances. Hackman adds necessary gravitas to Hoosiers. The 1950’s setting is quaint & nostalgic. A solid supporting cast doesn’t hurt. It’s the total package, and that’s why we love it.

 

 

3 Bull Durham
Stop…collaborate & listen…Costner is back with another edition. Okay okay…I’m sorry…I just couldn’t resist. Anyway, as Forrest Gump might say, Kevin Costner and sports films go together like peas & carrots. Here he plays a veteran catcher who has spent most of his time in baseball meandering in the minor leagues. His career is nearing its conclusion, but instead of getting one last cup of coffee in The Show he’s sent down a couple of rungs on the ladder to the lowest of the minors to mentor a young pitcher whose arm is superb but isn’t mentally or emotionally mature enough to be taken seriously. Hilarity ensues. And yes, there is a bdrom-com element, with Susan Sarandon as a philosophical baseball groupie who tries to have her cake & eat it too with the older catcher & the younger pitcher. Bull Durham is a really fun look inside the world of minor league baseball, where the players aren’t making a bazillion dollars, there’s very little if any TV coverage, and there aren’t any perks like first class flights or luxury hotel rooms. The script is sharply written and Tim Robbins, in one of his earliest roles, is hysterical as the goofy pitcher. I had an opportunity a few years ago, while hanging out with my friend The Owl in Columbus, OH, to see a game involving the real Durham Bulls, and scenes from this movie kept flashing thru my mind. It holds up really well after nearly three decades, and I suspect that’ll continue to be the case for many years.

 

 

2 Field of Dreams
Back to back Costner!! The dude has three films in the Top 5. That’s amazing!! And it’s not like I’m a hardcore Kevin Costner fan. Outside of the plethora of sports films he’s starred in there are a lot of snoozers like Waterworld and The Postman. But sometimes one finds their niche and it’s just a perfect fit. I heaped about as much praise as possible on Field of Dreams a few years ago when I named it 3rd amongst my 100 Favorite Movies, and one of the things I said was that calling it a sports film is an “epic oversimplification”. It is much more than that. I even stated that Field of Dreams “is not about baseball”. I stand by that declaration. However, FieldofDreams_1636642cin hindsight I realize that most sports films aren’t only about whatever sport they feature. Sports themselves are about more than winning or losing a game. Due to my disability I was never able to play competitive sports which is unfortunate because I believe that many valuable lessons can be learned thru involvement with such activities. Teamwork. Responsibility. The importance of following rules. Dedication. Focus. Work ethic. Respect. Honor. Tact. Diplomacy. The value of fitness & physical well-being. Integrity. Leadership. How to win & lose graciously. Overcoming obstacles & failure. I could go on, but you get the point. Field of Dreams is about things even more metaphysical than any of that, and it uses the backdrop of baseball to perfection. It’s a beautiful story that I’ve probably watched a hundred times over the years, and I’ll probably watch it a hundred more. It just never gets old.

 

1 Rocky
This list could reach its epic conclusion no other way. There were sports films produced before 1976, but Rocky re-wrote the rulebook and redefined the genre. It is THE classic David vs. Goliath story. Everything else that has come afterward is a derivative variation on the theme. But have you watched it recently?? Everyone remembers the big picture…the broad strokes. Characters like Rocky, Adrian, Mickey, & Apollo Creed. Rocky pounding on raw meat or running up the steps of a Philadelphia museum. That theme song!! Yet Rocky has been copied & parodied so much that people forget that it is a REALLY great movie. Stallone was a 29 year old struggling actor when he wrote the screenplay. Yes that’s right…Sylvester Stallone created Rocky!! He had to fight the suits to star in the film though. They wanted a big name like Burt Reynolds, James Caan, or Robert Redford to play the titular role. What would that rockyBhave been like?? Obviously we’ll never know, but, though now the masses couldn’t imagine anyone else as Rocky Balboa, the truth is that the script is so good that it likely would have worked anyway. Were there too many sequels made?? Probably, although I think the only one that was really terrible was Rocky V (the one with the late Tommy Morrison as a bitter former Balboa protégé). The rest were sufficiently entertaining popcorn cinema…they just lacked the heart & depth of the original. Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture, overcoming competition from Network, Taxi Driver, & All the President’s Men, and is a rare film that is beloved by both critics and normal people. Stallone became only the third person to ever be nominated for Best Actor & Best Original Screenplay in the same year. The other two were Charlie Chaplin & Orson Welles (since 1976 Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Billy Bob Thornton, Roberto Benigni, & Matt Damon have all had similar double nominations). As much as I love sports movies I must admit that they rarely have this kind of elite pedigree. Not even Raging Bull or Field of Dreams, though nominated, won Best Picture. That’s not what this is about though. Awards are merely icing on the cake and just mean that a bunch of other people agree with my assessment. Good for them. The world would be a better place if more people acknowledged my wisdom.

The Not Quite Top 100 Movies – Honorable Mentions

I mentioned in my introduction to this series that I am taking my task a little more seriously the second time around, and that one rule that I’ve imposed upon myself is “no ties”. This is a difficult tenet to follow and necessitates an Honorable Mention List. These films, for one reason or another, just didn’t quite make the cut. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, they just aren’t quite good enough. Nevertheless, I do enjoy them and feel compelled to give some love.

 

 

All the Right Moves
A 1980’s ode to high school football, and one of Tom Cruise’s earliest (and best) performances. Friday Night Lights years before there was a Friday Night Lights. Plus, if I may be perfectly candid, there’s a love scene involving Leah Thompson that by today’s standards is rather docile, but it sure was seared into the minds of all preteen boys of that era.

 

American Wedding
You’ll see the original American Pie in The Top 100. And while the bland second part of the trilogy doesn’t even merit a second thought (or a second viewing), this conclusion of the adventures of the hapless Jim, his obnoxious friend Stifler, and Jim’s well intentioned but clueless father (played perfectly by Eugene Levy) is an admirably amusing effort.

 

Austin Powers Series
Thus far there have been three Austin Powers films, and I suspect there are more to come. I’ve never watched an entire James Bond movie, nor any of the other spy flicks that Austin Powers apparently spoofs. But that doesn’t distract from the enjoyment factor for me.

 

Broadcast News
History shows that this film was released at about the same time as Moonstruck, Good Morning Vietnam, Wall Street, Three Men & A Baby, Throw Momma From the Train, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles..…and during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season…..so it’s not surprising that it seemingly got lost in the shuffle. Still, it’s an amusing look at the TV news business with a scene stealing performance by the vastly underrated Albert Brooks.

 

Deep Impact
In 1998 two blockbusters were released within a couple months of each other, both of them about an asteroid destroying Earth. One was the Bruce Willis/Ben Affleck film Armageddon, the other was Deep Impact, whose biggest stars are Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall. But despite the lack of star power aimed at the younger demographic, Deep Impact is a better movie.

 

Fever Pitch
Fever Pitch is based on a British book, and there was a British film made as well. But the movie I am referring to is an American version of the story in which Jimmy Fallon plays an obsessed Boston Red Sox fan and Drew Barrymore is his new girlfriend. Is it high art? No. But it is a pleasant diversion, and almost every film I can think of in which baseball is used as a backdrop offers some level of amiable pleasure.

 

Grumpy/Grumpier Old Men
I am including both films here. The legendary screen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau did most of their work together before I was born or atleast when I was too young to notice. But these two movies, about bickering neighbors in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, brought their charmingly hilarious magic into my consciousness and onto the radar of a whole new generation. Appreciation must also be shown to Burgess Meredith, best known to movie audiences as the crusty old manager of underdog boxer Rocky Balboa, who steals every scene he’s part of in these two movies, both made when he was well into his 80’s.

 

Liar Liar
It may be heresy to admit, but I’m not a huge Jim Carrey fan. He’s amusing to a point, but few of his movies are really that good in my opinion. Liar Liar is my favorite Carrey comedic performance hands down. He plays a lawyer forbidden to lie for an entire day (it’s not important why), and hilarity ensues.


M
ASH

Traditionally when television shows are created based on feature films it’s a bad idea. However, one shining example of a television show which was actually better than its big screen predecessor is MASH. But that doesn’t mean that the movie is subpar. It’s actually quite good.

 

PCU
I detest political correctness, so it’s no surprise that a movie that takes it to task would be to my liking. This little seen early 90’s gem (starring Jeremy Piven and Jon Favreau) draws comparisons to Animal House, but it’s not really a fair association. Animal House is just a rollicking good time. This movie tries to weave in a message. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of personal discretion.

 

Rain Man
It almost made The Top 100, it really did. But one of the things I take into consideration is repeated viewings. There are those movies that one has seen literally dozens of times, and if it happens to be on TV one just automatically stops and watches. With Rain Man neither of these applies. I don’t see it on television much, and if it were to be on I’m not sure I’d jump for joy and immediately cease whatever else I might be into.

 

The Comedies of Adam Sandler
I’m lumping together a half dozen films here – 50 First Dates, The Wedding Singer, Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, The Waterboy, and Big Daddy. Admittedly Sandler flicks aren’t targeted at a mature and educated audience, but they are fun in a gratuitously dim-witted way.

 

Smokey & The Bandit
I LOVED this movie as a kid. It was funny, plus it featured fast cars and chase scenes. When you’re a small boy that’s all you need in a movie. It’s still amusing 30 years later, but it doesn’t hold up well enough to make The Top 100. Even back then I didn’t understand what the big deal was about driving a truck full of beer from one state to another, and now that frame of reference is completely obsolete.

 

The Spiderman Series
Out of all the movies on this Honorable Mention list, this was the toughest selection. The Spiderman movies achieve a rare feat….they are popular and made a ton of money, plus they are well written and critically acclaimed. It’s probable that my affection for all things Batman clouds my judgment when it comes to other superheroes. However, I have to be honest with myself, and I just don’t put these movies into the category of “must see” in my universe. Your mileage may vary.

 

The Upside of Anger
A perfect example of the term “hidden gem”. Take a poll of 1000 random people and I’m betting less than 20% have even heard of The Upside of Anger, and even less has actually seen it. The film stars Kevin Costner (in his best performance since Tin Cup nearly a decade before) and the underrated Joan Allen as two neighbors with only one thing in common…..their love of booze. He’s a retired baseball player (imagine that), and she’s a mother of four lovely daughters who is dealing with all the inherent responsibilities and stress that comes with that role. Her husband has apparently ditched her and taken off with his secretary, so she bonds with Costner’s character and a relationship evolves. The characters are nicely developed and the actors are top notch. The ending is one of those that you don’t see coming, and I like that. The Upside of Anger doesn’t make The Top 100 yet because it’s a fairly new movie that I just caught for the first time a couple of years ago. We’ll see how my affection for it grows over time.

 

Very Bad Things
This is a really peculiar film, one that takes the concept of “black comedy” to a whole new stratosphere. It’s got an outstanding cast – Jon Favreau, Cameron Diaz, Jeremy Piven, Daniel Stern, Christian Slater. In a nutshell, the story revolves around a raucous bachelor party that goes wrong…..very, very wrong. I cannot stress how badly this party and its aftermath goes for all involved. I guess one has to have a certain type of macabre sense of humor to really appreciate Very Bad Things and I suppose I have that mentality on occasion.

 

Wall Street
Sometimes a movie isn’t necessarily remembered for the actual story as it is for one truly memorable character. Michael Douglas won an Academy Award for his superb turn as Gordon Gekko, the man who etched in our minds the life lesson that “greed is good”.

 

We Are Marshall
Okay…..so I’m biased. Marshall University is my alma mater. But I’m not TOO biased…..this movie didn’t make The Top 100 because as a film it could have been better. I understand that the powers-that-be needed a big name to sell the product, but I’m unconvinced that Matthew McConaughey was the correct choice. Meanwhile, the other Matthew..…Matthew Fox of Lost and Party of Five fame…..gives an understatedly moving performance. We Are Marshall is an emotional tale for those of us who know the real life story well, but I suspect that the average moviegoer was underwhelmed.