The Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies Part I – 50 to 25

Why 50?
Because 100 is too much work and 10 seems lazy.
The Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies

50 to 25

With the final four set, the Masters and Opening Day of the near horizon and the ridiculous amount of football news being generated this off season, this seemed like a good week to get one of the obvious Top 50’s out of the way – The Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies. I did set for myself what I will call The Big Lebowski parameters, to prevent cheating. The Big Lebowski is the perfect cheating example, they leads are bowlers and some % of the film takes placing in a bowling alley, so does that make it a sports movie? Of course not, but it is a great movie so some justify the loophole (Diner is another popular cheat on this list). So, to prevent this kind of malfeasance I have decided that to qualify for inclusion on this list you must meet at least one of the following criteria:
  • The movie is building toward a single competition
  • The Lead Actor or Actress must be a professional or full-time athlete
  • The film is a documentary about athletes or athletics
  • The “sport” only qualifies as a sport if it is or has been covered by ESPN*
*there are plenty of things ESPN covers that I do not consider sports (spelling bees, poker, etc.), but they are the World Wide Leader of Sports, so it seemed they were a better arbiter of the definition than myself.
All it took was four and all the loopholes were covered. So, without further ado, the 50 greatest sports movies of all-time:
50.  The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh (Level VIII) – Let me be honest about this movie, it isn’t good. “Wait!” You may be screaming to yourself, “he made it a Level VIII movie and said it wasn’t good, how can that be?” It is simple really, Level VIII movies are awesome and awesome is as subjective a term as there is. To me this movies is was and always will be awesome. It cracks me up from start to finish, in no small part because it is horrible. Dr. J acting (not his strong suit, but he is still my favorite basketball player ever), Jonathan Winters and Flip Wilson selling out like it is no one’s business. Meadowlark Lemmon (he of Harlem Globetrotters fame), Kareem Abdul-Jabar, even an actor whose name is James Bond III. If you see it, you will probably hate it, but, if you speak to anyone who was in now in their mid-40’s and was a sports junkie/nerd growing up, I can guarantee that they will have a soft spot for this movie (and for White Shadow the TV show).
49.  Blue Crush (Level VI) – Surfing movies are all about one thing, cinematography. This movie looks amazing, particularly the stuff in the water and on the waves. Is the story a little obvious, sure. But it isn’t the T&A fest you may think it is, the people hold up well enough, and like I said, the movie looks amazing.
48.  The Replacements (Level VI) – I am a huge sports fan and I know that there are times where sports can and does serve as a powerful metaphor to struggles that are much more serious than a bunch of guys and gals throwing a ball about. I know that sports can touch on and highlight social issues whose importance reaches far beyond the stadium or ballpark. But I also know that sports is mostly just good old fun and so is The Replacements. No greater meaning here, no striving for some point about the brotherhood of man or the courage to overcome. Just a by the numbers sports story that is good for a few laughs and will kill a couple of hours in a pretty enjoyable way.
47. White Men Can’t Jump (Level VII) – The truth is there are not a lot of great sports movies and there is one major reason why – actors are not athletes. Someone who has spent a life say, playing basketball, moves a certain way, with a degree of smoothness and lack of effort that can really only come from a lifetime of built up muscle memory. Some actors can get close if they have a natural athletic smoothness about them (Kevin Costner) or have clearly played a fair amount of the sport they are portraying in their own life (Woody Harrelson is a great example of that in this movie). Sadly, what you more often than not end up with is Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump. There is nothing about the way he plays basketball that rings authentic, let alone great which is what he is supposed to be (just look at the picture and then go watch someone who really plays, the way old Wes is standing anyone would be by him in a step). It’s not his fault, you can’t be what you are not, and the movie does its best to make up for it with filming tricks and allowing him to shine in the rest of the movie. Still, it is the critical flaw of this and many a sports movie. Funny, still like it, but I now find myself doing something else during the basketball scenes or watching them and laughing at the problems with them.
46.  Major League (Level VI) – Some years ago I was truly and sincerely shocked when a Major League baseball player said the this movie was the most accurate baseball movie he had ever seen (admit it, you think I am making that up). Not Bull Durham or Bang the Drum Slowly or Pride of the Yankees, nope, Major League was the movie he said captured what it was like to play in the Majors best. Do you want to know what is even more surprising, I’ve heard a lot of people say it. Go figure, a silly sports movie with two of the guys from Platoon, the sleazy guy from LA Law, the man destined to become the Allstate Insurance voice and Wesley Snipes is the most true to life. Shocking, sincerely shocking.
45.  Pumping Iron (Level VI) – So, you’re saying you were surprised by all the crazy stuff that has come out over the last year or so about Arnold. Then you never saw this movie. Arnold in all his narcissistic, bodybuilder glory. I like Arnold in most of his movies, but I’m not sure that this wasn’t the one where he was the most dynamic. You really can’t take your eyes off of him, and its a documentary about the growth of Bodybuilding on Venice Beach. But, like any good documentary, it is somehow about more than just that while never not being about its subject (it may take reading that a few times, but I think it makes sense). Oh, and it’s got the incredible hulk in it, so that is pretty cool too.
44. Miracle (Level VI) – The other most common problem with sports movies (after the actors aren’t actors thing I talked about with White Men Can’t Jump) is that it is nearly impossible to live up to what really happened. It is one of the things that is truly remarkable about sports, that events that would strain the bonds of believability happen, but how do you make a movie out of it? Either you do a fictionalized thing, which never works, or you tell the story again and we all sit there and pick it apart using our own memories as guide. Secretariat was a reasonably good movie, but anyone who has even seen the tape of the Belmont Race knows that the movie doesn’t do it justice. Same thing here. However, what they do really well here is not make it about the game, but make it about the coach. Yes, it will never live up to my memory of the actual miracle on ice, but I didn’t hate it, which is kind of an accomplishment. And, of course, Snake Plisken is awesome!
43.  Bang the Drum Slowly (Level VII) – A completely un-DeNiro performance that I am not sure he could have ever managed after his rise to fame, Robert DeNiro plays a mentally slow catcher with a terminal condition who is trying to make through the baseball season with the help of his friend and the teams star pitcher played by Michael Moriarty. Both guys are terrific is what could have been an unbearable and unbearably obvious tearjerker. It still overtly pulls at the heart strings, making it ultimately flawed, but the two lead performances make it worth watching in and of themselves.
42.  The Great White Hope (Level VII) – While it plays more like a stage production (which is, of course, where it began) than a movie, James Earl Jones is undeniably brilliant as is Jane Alexander. It is the fictionalized story of the first truly dominant african-american heavyweight champion (Jack Johnson in real life, changed to Jack Jefferson for this fictionalized account). The boxing powers that be were so worried that they would loose all their fans if a black man remained champion that they and the press openly called for a “great white hope” who might defeat the champ and restore boxing to what they believed it should be (yes, that part really did happen). While Jack is fighting this slight and lack of acceptance he is also having a relationship with a white woman (played, again brilliantly, by Jane Alexander). It is kind of hard to find, but if you do stumble across this is is most definitely worth checking out.
41.  He Got Game (Level VII) – You know, it wasn’t on purpose, but it sure seems like I have bunched up a bunch of silly sports movies followed by a bunch that have more serious aspirations. Kind of weird how unintentional patterns can appear. Anyway, He Got Game is Spike Lee’s sometimes rambling sometimes effective look at the recruitment of inner-city basketball players by big time colleges. Denzel is really good as the father brought out of jail to try to convince his son to go to a big state school. Ray Allen is surprisingly good as the son (and, obviously, didn’t have to worry about the Wesley Snipes problem as he is now nearing the end of a very solid NBA career that was just starting when this was made). Like a lot of Spike Lee films, it goes off on the accessional tangent that seems unnecessary and there is a cynicism that seems stiflingly pervasive. But all in all more parts of this movie work than don’t and there is no other fictional work that illuminates how distasteful a lot of college recruitment can be (sorry Blue Chips).
40.  Cobb (Level VII) – For me this movie is more fascinating now than it was in 1994 because we have now seen the modern day Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds. Everyone involved in the game as a reporter, player, coach, manager or anything else when pressed will say Barry Bonds is the best of this generation and most will admit he is the best they have ever seen. And, nearly everyone associated with the game will also tell you he is a detestable human being (let me say, I do not know Barry Bonds or whether he is a detestable human being, that’s just what people say). That is the plot of Cobb. The movie starts with what was reportedly a real happening … a room full of long time baseball reporters and hall of fame voters ask each other “who is the best ball player you ever saw?” And all but one say Ty Cobb. Not Babe Ruth (well, one said Babe Ruth and was laughed at) or “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or Lou Gehrig or Joe Dimagio or Ted Williams or any one else who played ball before integration, they all said Ty Cobb. And the next thing they all said was they hated him. As Al Stump (a real sportswriter who wrote Ty Cobb’s real autobiography, played by Robert Wuhl in the movie) spends sometime with Ty Cobb while writing his biography we get to see why they all hated him.
39.  Diggstown (Level VI) – Randall “Tex” Cobb (no relation to Ty, at least I don’t think they were) provided me with one of my random favorite sports memories. In 1982 he was given a heavyweight title bout against Larry Holmes (on my short list of the most under appreciated athletes of all time). Tex lost. Tex lost, but refused to go down as jab after jab after jab pummeled his face. It was at once a disturbing and awesome sight. This was reportedly the fight that made Howard Cossell quit doing boxing telecasts as he screamed and screamed they should stop the fight, but they didn’t and Randall Tex Cobb is glad they didn’t. He became a bit of punchline and a bit of a hero and it launched him on his strange little acting path. In the 1980’s if you were making a comedy and you needed a sleazy, scary looking biker dude, you cast Randal “Tex” Cobb. These are the names of some of his characters; Til, Moon, Box, Bad Guy in Gas Station, Swede, Zack, Wolf, Cyrus, Kosnic, Slag, Wolf (again, this time in Diggstown), The Burglar, Gruff Man, Big Hairy Con and Skull. Does that not tell you everything you need to know about who he was as an actor (I particularly liked the run where they stopped using even pretend names and just went with descriptions). 

What does this have to do with Diggstown? Not much, other than the fact that he is in it and is probably asked to do more acting here than in any other movie I can think of. For its part, the movie is both effective as a “grifter” tale and it works reasonably well as a boxing movie. The fights aren’t to the level of some movies, but most aren’t supposed to be and the twist at the end is well played.
38. Mystery, Alaska (Level VI) – I am not a huge David E. Kelley guy. He is not just hit or miss for me, sometimes even his hits are misses in my book. I like him when he is going for funny and slightly quirky (Boston Legal and Lake Placid are two such examples) and that is pretty much what he does here. The story is laughably implausible on just about every level, but it never feels that way and the hockey seems genuinely good (if you think getting good basketball playing actors is hard imagine how hard it must have been for hockey).
37.  Eight Men Out (Level VII) – So, the black sox, what can you say? The black sox are baseball lore and John Sayles does his best to bring it to light. The movie absolutely forgets to have any fun, which is both part of the point of the story (Comisky, who owned the Sox, by being cheap and taking advantage of his players steals their fun which leads, in no small part, to their downfall) and yet part of the flaw of the film (it feels a little bit like a chore at ties to watch). The baseball feels legitimately good (except for John Cusak at third, but you can’t have everything). There is little question that the players at some point agreed to throw some games, whether they did or not has always been of some debate, particularly where shoeless joe jackson is concerned. This movie’s best attribute may be they show how that might work. How simple and complex it would be to get that many players to throw that big of an event.
36. The Endless Summer (Level VII) – I can’t think of another film on this list that has become more synonymous with its sport than The Endless Summer is with surfing. This is Kerouac’s On The Road of sports movies. A journey where every moment, every wave is its own conclusion and continuation of the the story. If you aren’t converted the movie will drag at times, but even for the non converts it is fascinating to watch what these guys do and what they are looking for.
35.  North Dallas Forty (Level VIII) – The Cowboys of the late 60’s early 70’s think this is entirely about them. The Raiders of that same era think a lot of the stories are stolen from them. Basically, there doesn’t seem to be a team or a player from 1969 to 1975 who isn’t sure that this movie is about them … and they are all proud of it.  Should they be? Well, let me put it this way, if my mother had watched even a moment of this movie I would never have been allowed to play a single down of football, and that statement would be true of nearly every mother I know. By the way, the movie is clearly about the Cowboys.
34.  Rounders (Level VI) – Have you ever caught the poker bug? I’m not talking about wasting hours in online games or anything like that, I am talking about the poker fascination bug. I caught it about a year before this movie came out. I would watch the tournaments on line, I would read books that had some strategy and more importantly got into all the crazy surrounding it. I even watched that short lived ESPN tv drama about poker starring Michael Madsen. I quickly learned that I have neither the patience or self-discipline to be a good poker player, but I did learn a fair amount about those who are. Which is why I think this movie works, they basically nailed it. The nailed all of the different types of players, from the old pros who play all the time and make a nice living by being conservative and knowing the odds like the back of their hands, to the grifters and low life’s who are always looking for the faster buck. And they nailed the Matt Damon character, the smart law student who is in a constant debate of doing what they think he thinks he is supposed or what he knows he can. 
“People always think it is about luck”

33.  The Set-Up (Level VIII) – “Over-the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from tough gambler Little Boy…without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” Tiger Nelson, unaware of what will happen to him if he does.” That is what Rod Crawford wrote for IMDB and frankly I couldn’t have said it more succinctly. This is the pre-cursor to Rocky and Raging Bull. Its dark, its depressing and tense and entertaining in the way good noir is. In fact, this may be the one real noir sports movie, femme fatal and all.

32. Friday Night Lights (Level VII) – My parents moved from Connecticut, where I grew up and went to high school, to Dallas, Texas just as I was leaving home for college. I will never forget, as I was visiting in Dallas during a break from school, seeing how different they viewed high school football. The gym in the Dallas high school my younger brother was then attending was bigger and nicer than that of the University I was going to (the University was BYU and the year was 1984, the year they won the NCAA championship for football). I learned right then that Texas high school football is a whole different animal and this movie does a terrific job of capturing that.

31.  Tin Cup (Level VIII) – I feel oddly compelled to make a point about Tin Cup that may seem out of place here … it was NOT a big hit. I make this point because this is a movie that seems to have some ardent fans who are under the impression that Tin Cup is a part of the pantheon of most successful sports movies, its not. No real shame because most sports movies aren’t big hits, but please stop pointing to this as a Kevin Costner blockbuster because it is not. It is however a solid sports movie/romantic comedy that Ron Shelton has been capitalizing on for years (not an insult, just a statement, in fact, no one else seems to have been able to crack that particular code). Costner is good, Cheech Marin is funny as always and Renee Russo is Renee Russo. All good things.

30.  Cinderella Man (Level VII) – Hey look, another odd coincidence, a Kevin Costner movie followed by a Russell Crowe movie. Why is that a coincidence? Well, because if I were making a list of actors who can play athletes the most convincingly these two would be at or near the top of that list. They both move like athletes, with natural action accompanied by a purposefulness of thought. What do I mean by that? Well, like I said earlier, muscle memory is so much of what an athlete does and great athletes are never concentrating on the physical they are focussed on the mental so they can tweak the physical and pour effort into the action, but the action is natural. Kevin Costner isn’t concentrating on doing a perfect swing, he is concentrating on the ball so that his effortless swing is perfectly placed. This may seem like a subtle thing, but its not, not if you watch a lot of real athletes. Boxing and golf are two sports this really shows through, which is why Costner was great for Tin Cup and Crowe is great here. You can’t be concentrating on “how” you are throwing a punch, you concentrate on when and where. Russell Crowe apparently put in a massive amount of gym time and it shows here. Paul Giamiatti steals the movie, but it falls apart really quickly with most other actors looking not quite right in the ring.

29. Victory (Level VIII) – No, Michael Cain is not a particularly convincing soccer player and frankly Sly really isn’t either. However, this crowd pleasing soccer tale has Pele and they use him well. It makes up for a lot of other on field failings and allows for an amazing finish. Yes it is a movie that panders and you can see the end coming a mile away, but it panders well and you don’t mind the telegraphed ending.

28. Heaven Can Wait (Level VIII) – I’m not going to lie, I have really find memories of going to this movie with my family and just loving the heck out of it (that may have sounded hokey, but hokey is how it felt, in a good way). Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were terrific as were Charles Grodin and Buck Henry and Jack Warden and James Mason (I don’t think I can add another and to that sentence). More romantic comedy than sports movie I will grant you, but it still absolutely qualifies as a sports movie and deserves its spot, Chris Rock’s horrid remake aside.
27.  Sandlot (Level VI) – Whether your summers were ever quite like this or this is just how you choose to remember them, Sandlot does a great job of capturing youth (or the way we view youth as we get older). It silly and funny and is ladled with all of the kinds of things all men remember from when they were boys (playing ball with your friends, being stupid with your friends, gawking at older girls with your friends, going places you shouldn’t with your friends), A fun little film.
26.  Fast Break (Level VIII) – I watched this movie again, for the first time in probably 15 years, about two months ago and I am happy to say it was as awesome as I remember. Bernard King wins as the best actor for an active NBA player (Ray Allen is second in He Got Game and there really isn’t another performance that isn’t quite dreadful). Michael Warren is funny as “preacher” (and, as a former point guard for the UCLA Bruins he definitely adds a level of basketball skill that makes the movie hum). And, I don’t know where they found Mavis Washington, but she pulls off the hardest part, not just by being believable as a girl dressed like a boy for most of the movie, but also on the court where she has some real game. Gabe Kaplan, we miss ya Mr. Kotter, come back and see us sometime.
25. ESPN presents 30 for 30 (Level IV to IX) – The 30 for 30 series were a number of documentaries, made by various directors, looking into stories that had occurred in the last 30 years as part of ESPN celebrating their 30th anniversary. Now I am sure plenty of you see my listing them as a whole as a huge cheat, and I suppose it is, but let me quickly explain why I did. If I had added them individually I would have taken up at least 4 and possibly as many as 8 spots on this list. The Two Escobar’s definitely would have made it. Muhammad and Larry for sure. “The U” would have been close, same with Without Bias and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. June 17, 1994 would have been a definite yes, same with The Best That Never Was and Pony Excess would have been on the bubble. That just seemed like a little too much for me. So, yes, I am cheating, I am putting 30 documentaries in as 1 entry and I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it.
That is the end of part I. Part II, The Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies 24 to 1 will be available soon