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The Greatest Sports Films of All Time
by Jason Frank Koenigsberg
Since it has been well over a month and it does not look like professional sports are coming back anytime soon you way want to relive some of your favorite sports moments that were produced by Hollywood. Rather than list the greatest sports movies ever made I decided to break it down by each sport. For some sports it was hard to narrow it down to what films to select for this article, and for others it was hard to recall enough quality movies that were made based on a particular sport. I am sure some of your favorites may have been overlooked in this article but perhaps it could inspire you to check out a movie that you have not seen. Hopefully some of these films can hold you over since there are no clear signs on the horizon that real sports will be returning in the near future. So until they resume here are some ideas to keep you busy, let’s start with the sport that should be underway into its newest season…
The Best: Field of Dreams (1989)
Runners Up: The Natural (1984), The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
So many great baseball movies especially kids movies from the 1990’s it was hard to narrow it down. Americas greatest pastime has inspired some of Americas greatest sports movies and you may find that your favorite did not make the final cut. Field of Dreams is not only one of the best baseball movies ever made but it is also a great emotional tale about fathers and sons and the ties that bond them together. It uses sports as a motif to allow men to explore their softer side and if there ever was a film that manly men could say made them cry, Field fo Dreams is probably the one. The Natural is an equally impressive albeit slightly less emotional baseball story about an aging veteran finding the spark again to energize a team with his magical bat ‘Wonderboy’. The Pride of the Yankees is an undeniable classic sports film with All-American icon of masculinity Gary Cooper portraying one of the greatest baseball legends of all time Lou Gehrig. It does not get much better for than that for athletic idol worshipping. Plus, Pride of the Yankees also stars baseball great Babe Ruth as himself.
The Best: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Runners Up: He Got Game (1998), Love and Basketball (2000)
Significantly less basketball movies than there are baseball movies but it was still difficult to taper it down to a top three. White Men Can’t Jump stood out as the front runner not only because it was a fun movie about basketball, but also is one of the best movies about male friendship and male bonding from the 1990’s. It combines elements of romance, sports, humor, gambling, and Jeopardy into a two hour hilarious and heartfelt romp. Wesley Snipes was an up and coming star who would later excel and be type-cast in action movies but he was a natural for comedy as shown here. This would be Woody Harrelson’s first leading role in a motion picture since earning fame on Cheers and to this day he is still a bankable actor and has starred in a many major movies for almost thirty years. Together Wesley and Woody created one of the best buddy movies that does not center around mismatched cops. He Got Game is a great father-son story revolving around basketball which starred Denzel Washington as a father in prison and his son was played by real life NBA star Ray Allen. Love and Basketball is a powerful romance about a couple that grows up and falls in love while chasing the dream of playing for the pros and is an outstanding film that deserve a lot of recognition.
The Best: Any Given Sunday (1999)
Runners Up: Remember the Titans (2000), Rudy (1993)
Oliver Stone’s earthshaking powerhouse drama Any Given Sunday is possibly the best football movie ever made and it helped launch the career of Jamie Foxx. At that point he was known as a stand up comic and not a serious actor, well he proved to the world that he could handle his own with scenes opposite heavyweight actors such as Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, and James Woods. This was also Al Pacino’s last great role for twenty years until he teamed up with Scorsese to play Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman (2019), plus Cameron Diaz and James Woods give two of the best performances of their careers. Remember the Titans is a Disney movie about integrating sports during the Civil Rights era but thanks to the performances from Denzel Washington and Will Patton it has been elevated to one of the greatest football movies ever made, and Rudy is a great underdog story for anyone who was ever told they were too small to fulfill their dreams.
The Best: Rocky (1976)
Runners Up: Raging Bull (1980), Cinderella Man (2005)
The quintessential underdog movie and the best sports movie of all time is Rocky. Its many sequels range from great (Creed) to wretched (Rocky V) but there is still no topping this Best Picture Oscar winner. A drama crossed the action and suspense of boxing with romance, over forty years later filmmakers use it as a template for their inspiration and few have ever come close to harnessing the magic director John G. Avildsen was able to create with his talented cast and Stallone’s superb screenplay. There are so many terrific boxing movies Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is arguably the better film in terms of its direction, editing, cinematography and Robert De Niro gives one of the greatest performances of all time as Jake LaMotta, but it feels more like the story of a man and his weaknesses and insecurities than it does a movie about sports. Jake LaMotta could have been a plumber for all intents and purposes. Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man is the kind of triumphant sports movie like Rocky that makes you want to stand up and cheer, but it is also a moving drama about trying to survive life during the Great Depression. If it were not for some personal issues that involved beating up a deliveryman, Russell Crowe should have been nominated and possibly won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of James J. Braddock in Cinderella Man. I did not even mention Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Fighter (2010), or When We Were Kings (1996) among others, man there are so many great boxing movies.
The Best: Slap Shot (1977)
Runners Up: Miracle (2004), The Mighty Ducks (1992)
A raunchy slapstick comedy with the prestige of actor Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill propels Slap Shot to being the best hockey movie of all time. This movie is hilarious, and the hockey scenes are pretty great too, plus Newman, ever the tough guy in real life, did a lot of his own skating and puck handling in the film. The two runners up are both from Walt Disney Pictures. Miracle is a faithful and dramatic retelling of USA’s winning of the Gold Medal during the ‘Miracle on Ice’ Olympics of 1980 with Kurt Russell giving a stellar performance as Coach Herb Brooks. The Mighty Ducks is a kids sports movie, one of the many that were dominant during the 1990’s and its success somehow inspired a real life NHL team a few years after its release. No other movie ever made can say that. These are three solid movies about overcoming adversity.
The Best: The Wrestler (2008)
Runners Up: Fighting with My Family (2019), Beyond the Mat (2000)
Not that many great wrestling films to choose from. There are a lot of great movies starring wrestlers, but very few that deal with the “sports entertainment” business in a serious or positive light. Darren Aronosfsky’s The Wrestler is a heart wrenching film mostly due to the fact that Mickey Rourke gives the most physical and emotional performance of his career. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood also shine in this powerful and poetic film about grief and the hardships of giving up your identify with the job you love. Fighting with My Family on the surface is just a long commercial for WWE which makes you ask why they have not made more of these. But beneath that it is a powerful and emotionally engaging picture that the whole family can enjoy. Beyond the Mat is sort of the documentary version of The Wrestler and focuses on the real life struggles of WWE stars, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, Mick Foley, and Terry Funk. It manages to get a deep inside look at all aspects of the business from high up top by interviewing Vince McMahon, to down at the bottom seeing independent circuits and the hard lives their wrestlers live with hopes to one day make it to the big time. I thought about putting Vision Quest (1985) or Foxcatcher (2015) on here so there was some representation of “real” olympic-style wrestling but instead went with the movies that I felt were more dramatic and had more universal appeal.
Track and Field
The Best: Chariots of Fire (1981)
Runners Up: Prefontaine (1997), Race (2016)
Not a lot of memorable movies about runners. The best movie on the subject actually did win the Academy Award for Best Picture over the likes of superior movies Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds. British import Chariots of Fire is an intelligent sports film that deals with prejudice in athletics and academics all with a sense of class that few sports movies outside the ones in this article actually ever manifest. The music score by Vangelis and the image of the runners jogging on the beach over the opening credits remains one of cinemas most indelible moments but the actual film itself is a drama of the highest order. Prefontaine is one of two biopics about the tragically short life of the American long distance runner, and Race is an admirable albeit predictable sports movie about Jesse Owens and his participation at the 1936 Olympics.
The Best: Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Runners Up: Days of Thunder (1990), Rush (2013)
2019 ended up being one of the best years for movies in a long time. Last year gave us the second best wrestling movie and the greatest movie about race car driving of all time with James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, and despite that acclaim, neither of those movies were on my Top 10 list. This movie transported me when I saw it on the big screen in a way few others can with its seamless sound design, cinematography, sets, and terrific performances from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Ford v Ferrari has an honor to it that not a lot of conventional films based on true stories are able to illustrate. This is the most enthralling film about racing that has ever been put to celluloid. Days of Thunder was always my favorite race car picture until last year and is a fun vehicle for Tom Cruise to drive really fast. Rush, Ron Howard’s second movie mentioned in this article is the best non-Marvel movie for Chris Hemsworth and features Daniel Bruhl in his best part since Inglorious Basterds (2009). All of these are must see sports movies for not only racing fans, but also should be required viewing for all movie lovers.
The Best: Enter the Dragon (1973)
Runners Up: The Karate Kid (1984), Bloodsport (1988)
There is a myriad of great martial arts movies out there, it is an entire genre. So for this article I narrowed it down to movies that deal with martial arts as a sport and the films considered have to involve some sort of martial arts tournament. All three of these films do and Bruce Lee’s only major American production Enter the Dragon is the best of all of them. The movie involves him working as a secret agent who needs to enter the tournament on a mysterious island to stop an evil drug dealer who owns the island and runs the tournament. The martial arts scenes, especially the fight sequence at the end with all of the mirrors are spectacular and some of the best ever filmed. The Karate Kid was directed by John G. Avildsen, the same man who directed Rocky, and it shows. He does so much to get the viewers into these characters lives that by the end we feel that we know them and it is easy to cheer for Daniel as Mr. Miyagi trains him and watches him fight the Cobra Kai bullies at the climactic tournament. Bloodsport introduced the world to Jean-Claude Van Damme who would go on to have a decent run as a Hollywood action star during the 90’s. Bloodsport is the true story of Frank Dux and his matches at the Kumite competition in Hong Kong. The fights scenes in this movie are all astounding and rank just below the ones in Enter the Dragon.
The Best: Caddyshack (1980)
Runners Up: Happy Gilmore (1996), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Not a large array of golf movies to choose from. Caddyshack is a comedy classic. One of the funniest and most quotable movies of all time. It happens to involve golf and take place at a country club, but other than giving these characters something to do and a setting for their shenanigans it really does not matter that much. The banter between Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Ted Knight are funny enough that they could all just be standing around in an office and it might have been hysterical. Happy Gilmore a lot of people consider a hockey movie, the main character only plays hockey for about the first five minutes then it becomes a golf movie and has become the heir to Caddyshack for a certain age group. The Legend of Bagger Vance is a solid old-timey golf movie directed by Robert Redford about the good old days with it being a friendly game between gentlemen with some mythical elements thrown in.
Best Movies that Revolve around Sports but are not Actually Sports Movies:
Kingpin (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), Jerry Maguire (1996), Back to School (1986), Ace Venture: Pet Detective (1994)
I really wanted to mention Kingpin as the best bowling movie, but other than that and The Big Lebowski, there really are not any bowling movies I have seen, let alone heard of. Plus calling The Big Lebowski a sports movie is like calling The Flintstones a historical documentary. There are elements of both but it hardly matters to the movie. They just keep showing the main characters hanging out at a bowling alley, or mention going bowling. Bowling aside, Kingpin and The Big Lebowski are two of the funniest movies from the 1990’s and should be seen or seen again by everyone who needs a good laugh during this mandatory quarantine. You could add Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to that list as well. The movie that made Jim Carrey a star. In his breakout role he is actually hired to investigate a mystery about who stole Snowflake, the Miami Dolphins mascot, right before their big game. It even stars Dan Marino as himself. He gets kidnapped near the end and Ace Ventura has to save him. Silly, but a very fun movie with football in the backdrop of an absurd comedy. Back to School could also be categorized as the same type of movie. Rodney Dangerfield (his second movie in this article) joins his son in college and the comedy antics ensue, including the fact that his son is on the schools diving team. I know there are so few movies about competitive diving, but Back to School counts as one, a hilarious one at that especially when we see a young Robert Downey Jr. heckle a diver from the opposing team. Back to School is Dangerfield’s best leading role. The final movie worth mentioning is Jerry Maguire which stars Tom Cruise as a sports agent who gets an attack of his conscience and leaves his firm to go out on his own with only one client, Cuba Gooding Jr. in his Oscar winning role as a football player. Football is just in the backdrop and only mentioned when absolutely necessary as the majority of the movie focuses on Tom Cruise and his romance with a single mom played by Renee Zellweger in her breakout role. So there you have it, some movie watching options for you as you try and reduce your boredom during the quarantine.