We recently came across somebody’s list of the best sports movies of all time and disagreed with many of their top 10 selections – which is the way it should be, since these lists are always subjective and different movies strike different nerves in different people.
Anyway, with that in mind, here is our list of the top 10 sports movies of all time, and there is one qualifier – these movies can be based on true events, but documentaries don’t count. So, a terrific film like Hoop Dreams doesn’t make the list. Also, comedies don’t count, so Caddyshack doesn’t make the cut, either, even though it would make our Top 10 comedies list.
Looking back on these selections, there seems to be a consistent theme – almost all of the films we chose reflect a certain point in history, and the time and the place of these movies are as important as the plot and characters.
So, here is one man’s list of the top 10 sports movies of all time, starting at No. 10 and working down (up?) to No. 1.
Feel free to disagree because nobody is wrong here unless your list includes the Adam Sandler version of The Longest Yard. I mean, Adam Sandler as an All-Pro quarterback? That’s more far-fetched than William Bendix starring in The Babe Ruth Story, one of the worst sports movies of all time, which is a subject for another column, another day.
Anyhow, the countdown begins:
10 – The Pride of the Yankees. Yeah, the bio-pic of baseball hall-of-famer Lou Gehrig – who died from the disease that is now unofficially named for him – is hokey and over-sentimental at times, and I don’t know if Gary Cooper ever picked up a baseball in his life. But this is still a great flick that even has Babe Ruth playing the role of Babe Ruth.
It also immortalized Gehrig’s/Cooper’s iconic, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…” speech, which was never completely recorded live, and there are several versions of it out there. But this is the one everybody remembers, and the American Film Institute named it No. 38 on its list of Top 100 movie quotes of all time.
9 –The Great White Hope. This film reminded and/or enlightened people about one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time, Jack Johnson, who was also the first African-American champion.
The movie also reveals his foibles and failures as he makes his way through a white world in the 1920s and 1930s that wants nothing to do with a black champion. James Earl Jones gives a great performance as Johnson decades before he chillingly became the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.
8 – Breaking Away. It’s not a comedy, but there are plenty of funny characters and funny bits in this film about bicycle racing in the 1970s. The climax comes during a 500-lap race (the movie was filmed in Indianapolis, which knows something about 500 races) in which our hero, a local loser, has to single-handedly take on the cocky frat boys from Indiana University.
It was a low-budget film that became a classic and the exciting finish is worth waiting for.
7 – Slap Shot. You don’t have to be a hockey fan to love this movie, which is a good thing because I’m not. Paul Newman gives a great performance as a fading player/coach who never made the big time, and this film made cult heroes out of the geeky-looking, cheap-shot Hanson Brothers. But the best part of Slap Shot is the gritty look it gives to playing semi-pro sports in a Rust Belt town in the 1960s and 1970s, long before ESPN put a shine on everything.
6 – North Dallas Forty. A fun film to watch if you can get past country singer Mac Davis playing an NFL quarterback (a thinly-disguised Don Meredith) and Nick Nolte as an NFL wide receiver (a thinly-disguised Pete Gent, who wrote the best-selling book on which the film is based) and some of the cliched characters.
This movie also takes viewers to a different time period, the 1960s, before the NFL became the monster that it is now. It’s irreverent and loose and gives us one of the first looks into how dehumanizing professional sports, especially football, can be.
5 – Chariots of Fire. First off, the theme song (by one-hit wonders Vangelis) is epic and became the focal point of a best-selling album and also won the Academy Award for best song of 1981, although it can get a bit annoying at times. Again, a film where time period sets the tone for the entire movie – England before the 1925 Olympics in Paris – as a bunch of mostly blue-blood students from places like Eton and Cambridge compete for the chance to chase Olympic gold.
Based on a true story, it focuses on two runners who became real-life British heroes – Eric Liddle, a Scotsman and Christian minister who refuses to run on Sunday because it’s the Sabbath, and Harold Abrahams, a middle-class Jewish lad who must blend into a Gentile world.
4 – McFarland USA. Kevin Costner has made a million sports movies and this is probably his least known, but it’s also his best performance (although Tin Cup is a reasonably close second). He stars as a reluctant cross-country coach in the Imperial Valley of California in the 1980s who turns a group of poor Latino kids – who also labor as fruit and cotton pickers when they’re not in school – into a state championship team. It’s based on a true story and is the kind of rousing sports movie that blends personalities with performances that lead to a compelling finale.
3 – Seabiscuit. Once more, a sports movie that is about the era as much as the plot and characters. In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, the racehorse Seabiscuit became a national hero and millions were glued to their radios whenever he ran. His equine-a-equine duel with War Admiral – where heavy underdog Seabiscuit wins a smashing victory – is still one of the biggest sports events in American history.
Plus, there are terrific performances by the three main characters – Jeff Bridges as owner Charles Howard, Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith and Toby Maguire as jockey Red Pollard. I’m not sure who played Seabiscuit, but he did a pretty good job, too.
2 – Rocky. Sure, the plot is thin and some of the fight scenes are poorly staged – nobody could be hit in the face as many times as Rocky was and still be alive, much less on his feet. Plus, it lacks the stark reality of other famous boxing movies like Regium for a Heavyweight and Raging Bull.
But this movie has become a cultural touchstone and more people come to Philadelphia to run the Art Museum steps than to see the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. Plus, you have the rousing theme song that every high school marching band in the country still plays, more than 40 years later. And this movie made a simple expression like “Yo, Adrian!” into a classic movie line. Those two simple words were named as the 80th best movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute, one spot behind “Surely, you can’t be serious.’’ … “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley” from the movie Airplane!, which would also be on our list of best comedies of all time.
1 – Hoosiers. Jimmy Chitwood – enough said.
Also considered: Cinderella Man; Remember the Titans; Miracle; The Sandlot; Raging Bull; One on One; We Are Marshall; The Natural; Friday Night Lights; A League of Their Own; Eight Men Out; Mystery, Alaska; Major League; Brian’s Song; Tin Cup; The Rookie; Invincible, and The Longest Yard (the one starring Burt Reynolds, of course).