Photo by Getty
I’ve always thought there was something absurdly romantic about sports movies. While rooted in a history of crude brawniness, sports are an arena in which – even in a Godless world – miracles are permitted to happen. In a good sports film the near impossible may come true and when it doesn’t, sports films still manage to speak the language of miracles. Often this happens by way of the hero learning something profound about the world they wouldn’t have understood without loosing the game. A good sports movie connects the body to the soul and whether crude, uplifting, or unearthing – stowaway underneath the surface are always the profound contradictions that exist in our everlasting love of the game.
With that, here is a much debated, oft delayed list of the top ten sports films of all time. Disagree? Leave a comment and let us know.
Years before #tigerblood and #winning made Charlie Sheen a legend, he was known to many for his role as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the Major League franchise. While baseball movies conventionally romanticize the sport as a metaphor for all things pristine and American, Major League was shameless in rendering a little sleaze into the canon of baseball on film. Major League earns the number ten spot for being a sordid reflection of the raunchy, steroid-addled world of 1980’s Major League baseball.
Movies-for-teenagers-about-high-school-football is such an enormous beast in the sports film genre that a list like this would be incomplete without at least one film that fits into the category making the cut: Varsity Blues provided fodder for teenage girl locker “hunk-collages” everywhere, and was the choice movie for many successful pimply date-nights. Meanwhile, the film also served as a commentary on what happens when you combine the recklessness of youth with the godlike sense of immortality bestowed upon high school football players in American culture.
Similarly to Varsity Blues, I would argue a list like this requires at least one feel good, lesson-teaching, root-for-the-underdog family film. My vote goes to the somewhat true story of the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings. An original concept within a formulaic structure, with standout performances by comedian Doug E. Doug and the late John Candy, and enough teachable moments that parents can afford to slip up a few times so as long as their kids are watching Cool Runnings on repeat.
You have to hand it to the creator’s of Tin Cup for following through with one of the most unsatisfying endings in
sports film history. While in a typical sports narrative the hero may loose the game, but in turn learn there are more important things in this world than winning, Tin Cup debunks the myth that loosing is always humbling and graceful. In a world where we’ve seen ears get bit off in boxing matches, calves kicked with skates in hockey, and heads butted against on the soccer field, what’s great about the ending of Tin Cup is how it reflects the feeling of painful existential failure more often felt than inspiration after loosing a sports game.
Slap Shot is the only movie on this list which I could properly name a cult film. It’s raunchy, hilarious, and so despondent at times it becomes borderline depressing. Still, Slap Shot may surprise you – underneath the f-bombs the backbone of this film is a well written, strangely clever screenplay. People are often surprised this film was actually written by a woman – the sister of a small town hockey player – which may provide some insight as to why Slap Shot has more of a fly on the wall feel that separates it from brain-dead films like Scary Movie and the Jackass franchise.
When Bend it Like Beckham hit theatres the film defied pretty much everyone’s expectations by being both a commercial success and critical darling. In the shadow of British “girl power” Bend it Like Beckham reminded women of the finer points lacking in the plastic action-figure world of Spice Girl feminism.
Period pieces and sports films are the framework from which Kevin Costner has built an acting career. Combining the two genres, you have Field of Dreams – a good old fashioned baseball story one could just as easily imagine Mark Twain reading on his porch one hundred years ago than as a contemporary, Oscar nominated sports film. Field of Dreams follows the ever popular Costner narrative of sports and rebirth, set in an idyllic America of open skies abound where any dream can come true. In the end, Field of Dreams takes the Number 4 spot for accomplishing something resoundingly simple: it’s an honest film created out of love for the game of baseball.
In Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind argues that theScorsese biopic Raging Bull flagged the end of the 1970’s era of American rebel-auteur filmmaking. As a genre, the boxing movie often represents human conflict between body and soul – which may be a reason why boxing movies can so easily serve as metaphors for the time in which they’re made. In Raging Bull, Robert DeNiro plays the perfect anti-hero. It’s a performance arguably still forgiving his later mishaps in films such as Meet the Fockers and Being Flynn.
At it’s core, Hoop Dreams is a story about American life – and it’s the only film on this list that strips away film’s many illusions and attempts to tell that story for what it really is. The documentary follows the story of two inner city kids facing enormous pressure from early ages to make it in the world of professional basketball, and follows them through the ups and downs of their high school careers while dealing with obstacles like poverty, addiction in the family, and the absence of father figures. So compelling the story would be unbelievable had it been fiction, and so honest about life it leaves your stomach feeling pitted, Hoop Dreams is not only one of the best sports documentaries of all time, but has been argued by some critics as being one of the best documentaries of all time, period.
Rocky was the first of only two sports films to be awarded best picture at the Oscars and contains some of the most iconic scenes and phrases in the film history. The rags-to-riches story of a boxer with a heart of gold, who “looses the match but wins something greater” may sound like films biggest cliche nowadays – but I would argue that’s because Rocky perfected that story and it no longer bares repeating . Quotable, memorable, and – admittedly – almost unfortunately, the only movie on this list which makes a strong enough case to earn the number one spot.
A few notable sports movies that didn’t make the cut
Chariots of Fire: An Oscar winning snooze-fest about track runners. A film better remembered for Vangelis’ score than for it’s sports related content.
Million Dollar Baby: An Oscar winning boxing film. Again.
Moneyball: Attempts to put the romance back into a type of sports analysis designed to remove all the romance from sports.
Jerry MaGuire: A great film, but it isn’t really about sports, is it?
The Sandlot: There was a serious toss-up on this list between The Sandlot and Cool Runnings. Unfortunately for Sandlot fans, this list is subject to my own personal bias and I think Cool Runnings totally rules.