As I compile, what I think, are the finest sports movies ever, I kick myself in the balls for leaving some out. There are only ten I will be writing about, but films like “North Dallas Forty”, “Cobb”, “Rocky”, “A League Of Their Own”, and others pop up in my mind as close runners-up, only distanced by the following ten you will see here. What makes a great sports movie to me is the idea of sports as poetry. You can tell when a impassioned sports fan makes a movie, and a director that has no interest in sports whatsoever makes a movie. Go see “Silver Linings Playbook” and you’ll see what I mean. A good director who loves sports knows how to integrate the love of the game into the passion of life, and astute viewers can tell the difference. These ten movies somehow use sports to make a greater statement on life, without shutting out the people who couldn’t care less about balls and fields.
10. Tin Cup (1996) Directed by Ron Shelton
When most people think about sports movies, they’ll more than likely think of Ron Shelton. At the very least, one of his sporty little films will probably enter into your brain without even knowing it was a Shelton movie; Bull Durham, Cobb, and Blue Chips are all examples of his direction or writing where sports is the main theme. A forgotten little gem in his repertoire happens to be this, a movie about a down-and-out golfer who drinks all day with his buddy, Cheech, and becomes distracted by the latest hottie who happens to need some lessons that only he can provide.
On the surface, this film is just an obnoxious premise — dude pulls himself up from his boot strings, steals the woman from his nemesis, becomes comedy-relieved by his stoner pal, and everyone lives happily ever-after. I just vomited a little explaining the setup, as it happens. But what transpires in this movie are some pretty solid performances and plenty of genuine laughs that will make the alert viewer want to revisit several times afterwards.
The glue that holds this hilarious movie together are the performances, with Kevin Costner’s volatile-yet-loveable attitude, Cheech’s ball-busting wisecracks, Don Johnson’s smug arrogance, and Rene Russo’s exasperated, incredulous eye-rolling to all of the men’s behavior. It doesn’t take a golfer or lover of sports to appreciate the accessibility of such an inaccessible game that “Tin Cup” chooses to set its flag on. It’s a predictable little romcom at its heart, but sometimes that works just fine.
9. Point Break (1991) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
You better believe I’m counting surfing as a sport. Especially when it comes to a film that’s as scarily perfect in its execution as “Point Break” is. And don’t even begin to think I’m referring to that horseshit remake that got farted out a few years ago, I’m talking about the pristine and perfect Patrick Swayze original. Sometimes movies are so sublimely executed that the genre they’re hoping to fit into falls apart, and the film can only stand on its own as something to behold in its stupefying originality.
On the surface, Point Break is the story of a dude, who meets another dude, who meets a chick he really wants to fuck, who happens to be an ex-football player named Johnny Utah, who’s now an undercover agent, all the while being played by Keanu Reeves, who can barely grunt out a coherent sentence because of his slack-jawed inability to emote anything more than a “whoa, dude” level of energy. When you strip this film to its basic mechanics, there is just no fucking way “Point Break” should work. But it does. For days.
Kathryn Bigelow has proven that she can take these super-machismo tropes in film, and do wondrous things with them, and I would argue that a woman’s touch is what the manly viewpoint needs. Surfing is the common denominator between the relationships these shirtless testosterone-filled monsters have, and Bigelow observes it rather than disdaining it. Sure, the guys in the film are all inspired by fighting, pussy, drugs, and all the other commonly meat-headed aspirations that make stereotyping so fun in movies. But Bigelow isn’t afraid or disgusted to celebrate those men and their motivations.
“Point Break” has a glorious “boys will be boys” approach to it, being more intent to let the story unfold rather than make sweeping judgments of the character’s choices. Great sports-themed movies don’t ever let the chosen game wander too much from frame, and even in its last scene, “Point Break” reminds the viewer that athletes live and die by the tools of their trade.
8. Kingpin (1996) Directed by The Farrelly Brothers
Have you ever been bowling? Sure it’s a sport, don’t even argue about it. The art of the pins flying, the precision of the balls teetering just centimeters from a strike, the fat and sweaty men taking themselves far too seriously, the seedy gambling and filthy exchange of money wagered on crooked betting and drunken choices…you’re goddamn right this is a sport. It’s also a hilarious backdrop to “Kingpin”, which only seems to get better and better with each viewing.
The Farrelly Brothers had a knack for producing massive hits in the 90s even though they haven’t done much of any note for quite some time. Considering their hilarious output of films, “Kingpin” stands at the top of the heap in terms of direction, performance, and bowling-balls-out hilarity. The addition of Bill Murray as the bad guy doesn’t hurt, but this movie is all about Woody Harrelson and his effortless performance as the prototype sad-sack bowler, lurking in alleys and working other shady characters out of their filthy cash. There’s a reality here to the sport genre that’s hard to ignore, however funny and wacky the storyline is.
The Farrelly Brothers have never been able to shy away from those obnoxious montages of characters doing funny things to each other which is always a distraction to their movies, but somehow those tendencies don’t mar the experience of watching “Kingpin” like they do in their other efforts. There’s a weird truth and melancholy to “Kingpin” that just doesn’t exist in their other pictures, and it’s the “coulda been” angle that makes that ring true. This is something that any athlete can relate to, having been at the precipice of something potentially great, only to fuck it up in the moment of truth, then spending an entire life trying to live it down. Harrelson bangs that home with his performance, and amidst a ton of really great roles, “Kingpin” would arguably be his best acting effort yet.
And Bill Murray’s hair. That alone is reason to celebrate what this film has to offer. One of the best scenes in the movie is in the beginning, when Murray, disgusted by Harrelson’s eating habits, tells him to “finish that up outside, then come back in when you’re finished”. True athletes don’t have time for the chagrin of mere mortals, for they have winning to do.
7. White Men Can’t Jump (1992) Directed by Ron Shelton
Not having at least two Shelton movies on the list is like having an ambient music top ten without two Brian Eno albums. “White Men Can’t Jump” is one of those rare instances in a “feel-good” sports tale where the ending doesn’t quite come out the way you expect it, and the characters experience some true pain and anguish over their decisions. It also happens to be absolutely hilarious.
What makes this movie tick is the chemistry between Harrleson and Wesley Snipes, bantering back and forth, seemingly ad-libbing their way through the lines, and never being anything less than very funny. There’s an authenticity to the film, too, with the actors being true basketball players, or at the very least, being pretty decent at the game. Harrelson, for example, is obviously a true athlete as he dribbles and snakes his way through the lanes and posts up pretty-looking jump shots to give the film some realism. Snipes doesn’t look like he has a clue what to do with the ball in his hands in real life, but it doesn’t take away from his charming repartee with Harrelson.
Shelton movies always have a love interest that can distract in the hands of a lesser director, but he always finds a way to make the women in his movies more than just a sexy distraction to the leads. Never is this more so in a Shelton film than here, with Rosie Perez. She owns every scene she is in, trying to pull Harrelson away from the sport he loves and depends on, representing something bigger and better than anything a sport can provide. Her presence is made all the more powerful with how she ends up dealing with the situation, and how it affects Harrelson and his decisions.
Mainly, though, “White Men Can’t Jump” is about as good as sports movies get. There are great performances, inspired direction, and a good dosage of basketball scenes that end up really lending to the drama rather than distracting from it. More than any other Shelton film, the director knows these characters, and creates dialog that flows, and words that make sense. It’s a rare instance in movies where a maniacal sports fan can not feel cheated while the average viewer who knows nothing about basketball can still have a great time.
6. Major League (1989) Directed by David Ward
“Jesus Christ, Cerrano!” It’s lines like these that make “Major League” one of the most quotable sports films of all time, and one of the most hilarious. It gets very montage-y and stereotypically predictable at times, but the scenes that shine outweigh any other distractions this movie offers up. Throw in some genuine onscreen chemistry with the performers, and you end up with one of the funniest comedies ever, sports-themed or otherwise.
“Major League” is the ultimate sports movie in a lot of ways. It tackles the most American sport there is, baseball, and spends 90 minutes borrowing from all the tropes that make people love the game in the first place — the grandstanding, the billboards, the fan-favorites, the beer, the hot dogs…it’s all here. Seeing this in the theater back in 1989, I remember the feeling of actually being at a game, with the “NUTS” sign emblazoned on the stadium display after grounding out to first, and Bob Uecker mumbling into the mircophone to the fans at home listening on the radio. It was American pastime being handled in a way that a baseball fan could ease into without feeling alienated. For those people who didn’t care about baseball, well, that’s where the humor came in.
This movie is a fucking riot. There’s no other way to describe it. I still quote this movie with my friends over 30 years later, and it still brings the same gut-busting laughter whether we’re watching the film at that moment or not. The charm of “Major League” is the dialog in the locker room and on the field. Any athlete can attest that dudes talk to each other in a way that would make the rest of the world blush, and while the dialog isn’t necessarily an eerie reality in “Major League”, the bluntness of the words always leads to some really funny moments. The chatter between players and the taunting of the newbies are steeped in the real world, but lines like “up your butt, Jobu” aren’t afraid to step away from the sports world in favor of just being funny.
The energy between Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen was already apparent after films like “Platoon”, so it’s fun to see the two actually be friends here, with the comical assistance of Wesley Snipes and Corbin Bernsen. Rene Russo is here, too, as the broad’s broad, as the beauty queen turned athlete turned librarian who admirably plays the roll of the love interest without much to do. She brings some much-needed sass and resistance to the manliness of the film, but never enough to block out the dick jokes.
“Major League” has a lot of problems with writing and pacing, but it’s a pure sports movie at its heart, and displays some serious comedic power. It’s feel-good ending is in stark contrast to what makes “White Men Can’t Jump” so unique, but in sports, someone has to win.
5. The Wrestler (2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky
I wrestled (pun alert) with putting this movie on the list as I’m not sure one can consider something that is scripted entertainment as being a sport, but Aronofsky is a powerful enough director where he changed all the doubter’s minds. The fatigue, the body-breakdown, the mental anguish, the exhaustion — the behind-the-scenes pain of sports all gets represented here in a heartfelt and agonizingly real way.
When you need to illustrate the world at large that deeply resonates with people in an earthen fashion, you go to Aronofsky to display it. Just like he was unafraid to scare the piss out of us with “Requiem For A Dream”, he likewise doesn’t shy away from the horror of being an aging wrestler with Mickey Rourke’s performance. The inner turmoil is something that sports movies like “Major League” shy away from, but we all know it’s there, and “The Wrestler” grabs that fear and suplexes it into oblivion.
What makes this film work is the brutal honesty of a man dealing with his chosen path, and the poetry lies in the grappling of how he must, or must not, go forward. The “wrestling” he does with balancing his life is the obvious thematic angle, but scenes where Rourke buys drugs, tries to reach out to his estranged daughter, and grasps for a relationship with another woman are what makes this flick so unforgettable. It’s the space between the heroism, real or imagined, that causes this movie to sing so loudly.
Not many movies deal with life after sports, perhaps because it’s just too much of a downer for most viewers to want to deal with. “The Wrestler” wholly focuses on this aspect, and comes out the other side being a rather inspiring piece of art in the face of exceeding unpleasantness. The path to glory isn’t always rosy, and the path to obscurity hurts even worse.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998) Directed by The Coen Brothers
If this was just a straight-up “best movies of all-time” list, “The Big Lebowski” would be ahead of everything else on here. As a sports movie, though, it’s in its rightful place. The bowling dance numbers, the numerous comparisons made with life’s trials and tribulations, and the licking of balls all create the space for “Lebowski” to not only be one of the finest comedies of all time, but one of the greatest sport’s-themed triumphs ever.
The film is permeated by bowling reference, to The Dude remarking that his life has been a series of “strikes and gutters”, to Walter demanding that Smokie mark it “fucking zero!” After all, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling, there are rules. Considering all of the myriad ways to articulate how this movie has changed people, it’s bowling that remains at the film’s heart, from the first opening sequence, to the very last scene. While The Dude is thrust into a convoluted web of intrigue and madness, it’s the rolling that brings him peace, no matter how anxious everything else in his life becomes. To say “The Big Lebowski” treats sport as religion is no overstatement.
Just as people cite bible passages to help get through their day, Lebowski and Walter refer to their alter of bowling shoes and ten-pin framework to explain their lives. They retire to the comforts of the ball striking maple wood to make sense of their moral ablutions, and why not? To paraphrase another Coen brother classic, “Barton Fink”, there’s plenty of poetry right there in that bowling alley. Which happens to include fucking your opponents in the ass, and drawing a firearm during league play.
I can’t imagine there isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about this film, but the meditation of bowling lovingly shines true in “The Big Lebowski”, and when that ball strikes in the last frame, the glory of sport hits us right in the heart strings.
3. Slap Shot (1977) Directed by George Roy Hill
It’s difficult to express how warm and fuzzy this movie makes me feel. Maybe it’s the nostalgic wave I get when I think of being a youngster watching this movie in the early 80s, too young to really understand what’s happening, but being fascinated by the dirty dialog and boobies on the screen. Or maybe it’s the picture-perfect casting and direction, with each character blurting out line after line of memorable dialog, creating a quote machine for people to refer to the rest of their days. As I rewatch it now, what makes this movie so special is its timeless way of showing humans as they really are, warts and all. And that’s not an easy feat in film.
The first thing that struck me then and still strikes me now is how accurate the dialog is. The locker room scenes are equally hilarious and shocking to the casual outsider, but as an ex-athlete, I can you tell you that “Slap Shot”, better than any other film, represents how these men really talk. The writer, Nancy Dowd, does a truly heroic job cutting to the quick of these insecure men trying to blur their inadequacies with talk of dicks, fags, tits, and cocksuckers. This is no exaggeration to the way things are in sports, and its refreshingly represented in “Slap Shot” like no other film before or after. And come on, to hear Paul Newman get up close and personal on the screen and yell, “Suzanne sucks pussy!”, is a thing to celebrate, not deride. These are men being men, and a single generation of feminist propaganda won’t halt what it’s taken evolution millions of years to create.
The most intriguing element of “Slap Shot”, however, is the idea that women are always in charge. This is a fascinating twist to the movie, when we learn that the hidden owner of the Chiefs is, indeed, a woman, and has no interest or sympathy for any of the men toiling away on the ice and sacrificing their bodies for the sport they depend on. When Newman discovers this, he has his most vulnerable on-screen moment, and decides to change things the best way he knows how. Even when Newman sleeps with the wife of an opposing-team’s goalie, she casually mentions she’s been sleeping with women. His manhood is tested, and for the first and only time in the movie he lays speechless. It’s this juxtaposition of manliness and feminism that makes “Slap Shot” really pop.
At its heart, though, “Slap Shot” is an absolutely perfect meld of sports, comedy, drama, and performance, all pulled together by some truly great direction. The humor that flies back and forth is constant and vulgar, and it’s not for the average snowflake. It’s the type of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, and that’s a shame. “Slap Shot” shows us there is no room for woke-ness in sports, but it reminds us there is room for some massive improvement.
2. The Bad News Bears (1976) Directed by Michael Ritchie
First of all, get that shitty Billy Bob Thornton remake out of your minds immediately. Just don’t even go there. It’s a fucking disgrace and mockery of this, one of the finest comedies ever. Like “Slap Shot”, “The Bad News Bears” is a film that couldn’t get made today. It owns an honesty and realism that gets repressed in today’s entertainment, and despite parents wanting to believe their perfect child would never talk this way, trust me, they do. Your precious little Johnny not only talks this way, but is proud of it. The 70s wasn’t at all interested in political correctness, and films in that decade have a rare and wonderful quality because of it.
As someone who played baseball since he was 8 years-old all the way through his teens, what has always struck me great about “The Bad News Bears” is how accurate the relational aspects between parents and kids are in the movie. Children’s sports are well-represented here, especially baseball; parents yelling at their kids, and even striking them in front of everyone else. This shit happens. I’ve seen it and experienced it. However over-the-top it seems to see Walter Matthau throwing gear at his players and calling them a bunch of pansy-ass quitters, it also represents a reality in children’s sports rarely looked at before or since. Does this obvious child abuse in the film make it great simply because it’s unafraid to tackle the subject? In some ways, yes, I think it does. But more than that, it shows a genuine attempt to address this culture, and that dedication to avoid disingenuous positivity for the sake of not offending should be applauded.
Forgetting all that, this movie is just really goddamn funny. When Ahmad tells Butterworth he doesn’t have time for his “honky bullshit”, and gets the response of, “let’s leave race out of this, we have enough problems as it is”, it sets in motion a great interplay of ideas between the kids and adults, and lets us have fun with the idea that Butterworth is a big kid at heart anyway. There is no distancing between the coach and players at a respect level, and that’s an important thing to focus on when it comes to kids and sports. Butterworth seems to be at more peace with the kids anyway, with all of the other adults focusing on business ventures or unrealistic perfection than their children leading happy and balanced lives. Butterworth inspires the kids through his gruffness, and they all come out the other side happier and more complete people, even though their desired outcome falls short. The tender turn of the film is when the kids basically say a “fuck you” to their parents, who are obsessed with their kids winning over all else, and have a raging beer party on the field with their who-gives-a-shit coach. This movie reminds us it’s the small stuff that falls to the side as we’re trudging forward that makes the most difference in our lives, and what better message for a kid? I can’t think of any.
“The Bad News Bears” is a beautiful movie, and should be shown to all children, everywhere. If I were to compare it in spirit to any other film, it would be “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” in that it isn’t interested in babying its younger views. In fact, what makes these movies special lies in their ability to talk to children like adults, but exclude the parents from all the fun. It’s a very punk rock way to approach a film, and “The Bad News Bears” is the Sex Pistols of sports movies.
1. Raging Bull (1980) Directed by Martin Scorsese
There isn’t another sports movie in history that touches this. I dare you to try. This is arguably the greatest movie ever made period, but as a sports movie, it stands as Mount Olympus, tall and true. It does get a bit boring seeing this movie towards the top of all the greatest-of-all-time lists, but there comes a point where you just have to accept what’s obnoxiously true: “Raging Bull” is one of the most glorious moments in film, ever.
The hallmark of any tried-and-true classic, in any genre, is its ability to transcend our conceptions of what we feel the film is trying create. “Raging Bull” accomplishes that, and effortlessly. It uses the background of boxing to show us all what’s true about ourselves. It’s Shakespearean in the way it unfolds the ups and downs of Jake LaMotta’s true life story, acted to obscene perfection by Robert De Niro. For those of us who believe De Niro is the finest actor to ever grace the screen (which he is), “Raging Bull” is the film you point to as evidence. This is his crowning achievement, and to say this considering his performances in “Taxi Driver”, “King Of Comedy”, “The Godfather Part II”, “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “Cape Fear”…you know the rest. The guy is the best ever. It’s just a proven fact. Boxing is the metaphor for life in this film, and there may not be a better sport to use as poetry.
For one, boxing is an intensely singular activity. You can only draw on your own energy, life experience, and training to the ring in order to make it out alive. You have only but yourself to depend on and no one else, blocking the jabs of your opponent and scrambling for your life when you get knocked on your ass. Somehow, tennis wouldn’t have done the job here. Scorsese and De Niro create a piece of art here that is 100% entrenched in the boxing world, and equally dedicated to the idea that sport and our lives are completely intertwined, every second, of every day. It’s just not something you put aside as the majority of us do at the end of our work days, but something else entirely: a way of life, obtrusive to its core, and unrelenting by definition. There are things in life you can’t escape, and wouldn’t even know it was something to escape from in the first place.
Once LaMotta realizes he cannot escape from his choices, his life crumbles and he loses everything. He finds love, then burns bridges. He trains to perfection, then gets beaten down. He’s on top of the world, then scurries with the cockroaches. “Raging Bull” is as simple a parable about life as you’re likely to ever see, all wrapped up in the facade of a boxing match. The boxing ring proves to be LaMotta’s canvas where he grunts out his innermost shit, only to return to a life he can’t relate to. He’s himself in that ring, if only there. Boxing is the only thing he has to create a communication with others, and he’s nothing without it. When he loses that communication, he becomes stuck in a prison, trying to pound his way out, the only trade he’s ever bothered to learn. It’s one of the most emotional scenes in cinema history because most of us have been in that very position, having exhausted all we know to still come up short.
“Raging Bull” would be a great movie only with De Niro’s performance, but Scorsese’s direction only makes the film dance even brighter. The slow-mo boxing scenes, the brush strokes of blood splashed upon the canvas, the minimalist black and white approach lingering with all of the colorful performances. It’s a stunning achievement in the world of art, and, by far, the greatest sports film ever made.