Because 100 is too much work and 10 seems lazy.
The Top 50 Greatest Sports Movies
24 to #1
I liked the first part. It ended up with a nice mix and the big movie I didn’t include should still be a mystery. I am sorry Prefontaine didn’t make it in there (to use the March Madness vernacular, it was the last one out), but you have to stop somewhere. To recap, here were 50-25:
50. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
49. Blue Crush
48. The Replacements
47. White Men Can’t Jump
46. Major League
45. Pumping Iron
43. Bang the Drum Slowly
42. The Great White Hope
41. He Got Game
38. Mystery, Alaska
37. Eight Men Out
36. The Endless Summer
35. North Dallas Forty
33. The Set-up
32. Friday Night Lights
31. Tin Cup
30. Cinderella Man
28. Heaven Can Wait
26. Fast Break
25. ESPN presents 30 for 30
Once again (for those who read part I, if you haven’t you can check that out here) here are the The Big Lebowski parameters, which I used to prevent cheating. The Big Lebowski is the perfect cheating example, the 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 top 24 greatest sports movies of all-time:
24. Jerry Maguire (Level VI) – I suppose you could argue that Jerry Maguire is more of a sports adjacent movie than a sports movie, but it does build up to a sporting event as the catalyst for the resolution of the film so I’m going to count it. My favorite thing about this movie is that it starts in a place that most stories end with, the epiphany. Jerry Maguire becomes an interesting examination of what we do after we have figured out what we should do, after we have found clarity and purpose. Maybe the great lesson of Jerry Maguire is that we are still who we are and changing that takes some time. Anyway, like Ron Shelton’s movies, it is a romantic comedy for guys and it works as such and you had me at hello.
23. The Karate Kid (Level VI) – First, we are talking about the original here, not the remake with Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s kid (although, as remakes go, it wasn’t bad). Second, if I were a few years younger my guess is I would have this movie higher on my list. I was a freshman in college when this came out in 1984 so I recall it fondly but it was never an “important” movie to me (talk to guys between 35 and 42 and you will find a shocking number who talk about this film with childlike reverence). And third and finally, I am trying to figure out in my mind if “you had me at hello” is bigger than “wax on, wax off”. I think it might be “wax on, wax off”.
22. Bend it Like Beckham (Level VI) – It occurs to me that if one were to read about the first three movies listed here they would come to the conclusion that if you want to make a good sports movie you shouldn’t make it about sports. It sounds ironic, but it is kind of true.This is a movie about culture, progress and “girl power”. The soccer may no be really convincing, but the story is good, the actors are more than solid and it has enough funny in it to keep you entertained from beginning to end.
21. Million Dollar Baby (Level VII) – Clint Eastwood’s female boxer oscar winning movie is definitely too long. There isn’t one fight in it that stands out the way most boxing movies have one. But, Hillary Swank is undeniably impressive in her transformation into a very believable boxer and for all of the movies flaws it still is effective.
20. Slap Shot (Level VIII) – There is one truth about sports, Hockey players are the coolest athletes. Don’t believe me, just watch Slap Shot and then tell me I’m wrong. This is the movie Semi-Pro wanted to be.
19. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Level VIII) – I will not now or ever apologize for my love of this movie. Rip Torn is so good. Alan Tudyk as Steve the Pirate, Justin Long (as Justin, what is he Tony Danza), Stephen Root are all amazing. But the person who makes the movie to me is undeniably Gary Cole as the sports announcer. “Do you believe in unliklihoods?” is one of my favorite lines in any movie ever! And if you want to argue that dodgeball isn’t a sport I refer you to the criteria listed at the beginning of this article, dodgeball is covered on ESPN 8 “The Ocho”. And if Lance Armstrong can’t get enough of The Ocho than neither can I. So “Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to witness the greatest happening in sport: sudden death dodgeball”. Of course, before you get to that you must learn how to play dodgeball and no one can teach that quite like Patches O’Houlihan:
18. Field of Dreams (Level VII) – So, for those of you who are in shock right now, are you more upset that I put Field of Dreams at #18 or that I am saying it is ambitious but flawed (the definition of a Level VII film)? Let me say this before you go too crazy — I love Field of Dreams. Like many of you my eyes filled with tears when finally gets to play catch with his dad at the end or when Burt Lancaster gives up baseball to save Costner’s daughter. It is great stuff. Does the movie hold up well to multiple viewings? No. Is the movie a bit too long? Yup. But it is still great and moving, just not better than the next 17 movies.
17. Seabiscuit (Level VII) – Easily the best horse racing movie of all time, it is the only movie that makes the races close to as exciting as going to the track (nothing can quite capture being at the track and watching the ponies run, it is a truly breathtaking thing that is you ave never experienced I highly recommend going — and you don’t have to gamble to love it). Unlike Secretariat, Seabiscuit was an underdog, was the last horse to be inexplicably great and this movie captures all of that. This just missed being on my book adaptations list, but it could never not be on my sports movies list. By the way, here is the actual race with War Horse at Pimlico.
16. Breaking Away (Level VI) – Did you know its Denis Quaid playing Mike, the ex jock friend? Just a little “before they were stars” casting note. In a lot of ways Breaking Away is the anti-sports sports movie. It is about someone pursuing a sport that no one knows (before Breaking Away cycling was never talked about in the USA) as a way of escaping the culture that he doesn’t fit into at home, and a part of that culture is sports. Even the more obvious story, about their homes and lives being stolen by the University while they are just the kids of “cutters” is highlighted by sports being taken away (Dennis Quaid’s Mike, who has had football taken from him). Having said that, if your heart isn’t racing when he tells the guys to tape his feet to the peddles you don’t have the heart racing gene.
15. The Bad News Bears (Level VIII) – Back to back Jackie Earle Haley movies! Remember how I said if I was younger I would have had Karate Kid higher? Well, here is the proof. It is impossible for me to separate how this movie resonated with 10 year old me (how old I was when it came out). I was playing Little League. I was close to the same age as the kids in the movie. My Little League team wasn’t very good. All of those factors increase my love of this movie, fortunately my love is justified in that it is a really good movie (and it holds up remarkably well).
14. The Longest Yard (Level VIII) – Again, we are talking about the original, not the remake (which wasn’t nearly as good). I could go on and on about how clever this movie was for using real NFL players so the football looked and felt real (it also helped that the star was himself an ex-football star at Florida State University). Or how smart it was to cast Eddie Albert as the warden since he had always played such likable people (most famous for Green Acres and Petticoat Junction). But who cares. This movie is just a ton of fun from start to finish. Just like a good football game.
13. Chariots of Fire (Level IX) – From the music to the casting and direction and pacing, this is as well done a movie as you are ever going to find. To this day I start running in slow motion, pretending I am on a beach, every time I hear the theme, don’t you? Do you know what my favorite little scene was? Watch the clip below from about the 4 min mark on. Ian Holm plays Ben Cross’ coach, who is not permitted in the olympic stadium. So, when the big race comes he has to sit at the window of his hotel room (which is close enough to the stadium that he can here) and wait and wait until finally he here “God Save The Queen” and he knows they won. His reaction in that moment is perfect. Great scene and magnificent acting by Sir Ian Holm.
12. Rocky III (Level VIII) – Are there things that are wrong with Rocky III? Sure, Talia Shire went from being “slow” in the first Rocky to being the smartest most eloquent person in the Rocky universe by #3 most glaringly. For fight fans, the idea of Rocky being a cross between Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano in the first two movies to suddenly fighting like Muhammad Ali was laughable. And no one has ever explained how Clubber Lane never got another title shot. But who are we kidding? Rocky III is all kinds of awesome. Clubber Lane has some of the greatest lines in sports movie history:
Interviewer: Do you hate Rocky?
Clubber: No, I don’t hate Balboa. I pity the fool, and I will destroy any man who tries to take what I got!
Interviewer: What’s your prediction for the fight?
Clubber: My prediction?
Interviewer: Yes, your prediction.
Clubber: I’m gonna torture him. I’m gonna crucify him. Real bad.
No athlete has talked trash in the last 30+ years without trying to imitate Clubber Lane in some small way.
11. When We Were Kings (Level IX) – The greatest of all of the Ali documentaries (and an oscar winner), this is about “The Rumble in the Jungle”, Ali’s second to last truly great fight, against George Forman in Zaire (pop quiz, can you name his last great fight?). This movie let’s you really see the genius of Muhammed Ali. He knows he can’t win but he still figures out a way to win. It shows how Don King became Don King. It shows you how african-americans at the time were relating to africans. It even has a little James Brown and B.B. King (the fight was scheduled in conjunction with a music festival). Just a great documentary.
Answer: The Thrilla in Manilla
10. Catching Hell (Level IX) – This was initially meant to be part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 (see #25 on the list) but the director, Alex Gibney, felt like there was something special happening and asked for more time with the project — and man was he right. This is a documentary about scapegoats and particularly Steve Bartman. For those who don’t know Steve Bartman was a Cubs fan who, near the end of a playoff game that might have sent the Cubs onto the World Series, reached out to catch a foul ball and inadvertently broke up a potential catch by the Cubs left fielder. The Cubs lost that game and then lost the next one too, killing their World Series dreams and the city of Chicago turned on Steve Bartman. The stadium turned on him the night of the incident and the filmmakers found cell phone footage and other home videos from inside the Wrigley Field that night that present a picture of something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Catching Hell makes you embarrassed to be a sports fan, while making you realize the truest sports fan and Cubs fan in the world is probably Steve Bartman. Honestly one of the most riveting things I have watched in years.
9. Brian’s Song (Level VIII) – Another movie that an objective person might be able to pick apart, and if this list were something other than a sports movie list I might pick it apart too. But what are sports about? The fabric of sports is woven with our youth, our childhood, what we remember feeling as much or more than what actually ever was. From the time I was 16 until I was 30 the only movie that made me cry was Brain’s Song, and it made me cry every time I watched it. It is a movie about sports and effort and healthy competition and above everything else it is a movie about friendship. People always say that sports is passed down from father to son, but my father didn’t like sports. Sports was always about friends. So Brian’s Song typifies sports, at least for me.
8. Rocky (VIII) – In almost every way Rocky is everything Rocky III is (and I love them both). Rocky is a story of working class low life who gets a shot at being something more than he ever imagined for himself. Rocky is about a boxer who is a classic bruiser with a rock for a chin and a great left hook. Rocky is about a palooka who has always been viewed with fear and unease falling for the simple girl, who may be a bit slow but has a gentle heart. And the climactic fight in Rocky is the only fight in the Rocky series which seems even remotely real. Maybe it is easy to forget in the wake of Rocky IV, Rocky V and Balboa, but this all started with a really good movie that never feels like it was made with intent of launching a franchise.
7. Caddyshack (Level VIII) – Caddyshack has to be on the short list of funniest movies of all time. I’m not talking about greatest comedies (although it is way up on that list too), I’m talking about movies that make you laugh (sometimes in spite of themselves). I mean if you could some how measure the percentage of the movie that made you laugh AND factor in how hard you were laughing at different moments I can’t think of three movies that could beat Caddyshack. Airplane would be right up there, same with Animal House, The Hangover feels like it belongs, but that’s about it and I don’t know any of those even beat Caddyshack for just laughs.
6. The Natural (Level IX) – Berry Levinson did not make Bernard Malamud’s novel. Sure, it follows the same basic plot, but Levinson took all the dark out of it and decided to make something that mirrors america’s love of baseball and the mythology of the sport. Generally I don’t like taking the dark out of a thing, and someday I kind of hope someone will make Malamud’s novel into a movie, but if you take the book out of it there is no denying that this movie works from beginning to end. Redford is perfect (how many actors can play youthful and worn down by time simultaneously with no melancholy?). All three women (Glen Close, Kim Bassinger and Barbra Hershey) are great. Even Joe Don Baker does a pitch perfect Babe Ruth at the beginning. Just a great movie movie, even if it is optimistic.
5. Bull Durham (Level VIII) – There have been a few sports romantic comedies on here. We had Jerry Maguire, Tin Cup, Heaven Can Wait, even White Men Can’t Jump, Major League and Mystery, Alaska have more than their fare share of rom-com elements. It makes sense that people would try to make these kinds of movies, get the guy in for a sports movie and his date enticed by a love story (sexist, I know, but it is still undeniably the theory). Even though Heaven Can Wait pre-dates Bull Durham, Bull Durham is the father of these films and the best of them. Also, Bull Durham has the best scene in any sports movie that shows an actor really acting like an athlete (Costner and Sarandon in the batting cage, next time you watch it notice how relaxed Costner is when hitting, its perfect). Now, Tim Robins may not be entirely convincing as a pitcher, but he is funny as Nuke and that makes up for a lot.
Also, the guy who hit the home run in that clip was on my high school football team.
4. The Hustler (Level IX) – Forget Color of Money, this is the Paul Newman as Eddie Felson movie you need to see. The four lead actors are so good, particularly George C. Scott, and add so much nuance to every scene that you can watch this movie over and over and pick up new things every time. Each of the final four films are spectacular movies, not just sports movies, and this is a prime example of that.
3. Hoosiers (Level IX) – Originally Shooter, Denis Hopper’s drunk dad character, was suppose to be on the bench for the final game. Dennis Hopper read that in his script and told the director “I can’t do that.” When the director asked why, Hopper explained that if Shooter leaves the hospital then you are saying he will never get better (and if anyone would know what an addict needed to do to get better it was Dennis Hopper). The director agreed and now Shooter listens to the game in his hospital room with joy and elation laced with heartbreak and regret. That turns out to be one of the strongest little parts of the movie. Regret is the chief emotion for Hackman’s Coach Norman Dale at first as well. He tries to hide it, but it is always there. But sports provides opportunity, and the real opportunities weren’t there for the boys playing basketball. Sure, they won the state championship and will always cherish the memory. But the opportunity for redemption lies with the adults, who are the heart and soul of the movie.
One last note about Hoosiers. I love that in the end of the game, after preaching team, team, team, all the players have to remind the coach that sometimes basketball is about one guy, with the ball and time running out, being able to make one shot. That is a truth every basketball fan knows.
2. Raging Bull (Level IX) – The other side of the coin from Hoosiers. Where in Hoosiers sport is a vehicle for redemption, in Raging Bull boxing is as much his curse as it is his salvation. Or, maybe the boxing is inconsequential, maybe Jake LaMotta was damned with or without the ring. Either way, Raging Bull is a tour de force and you feel a little bit like you have lived through a few rounds at the end of it.
I’ll bet you thought Raging Bull would be number 1, didn’t you? After all AFI ranks it as the #4 movie of all time. So, what could beat that?
1. Hoop Dreams (Level X) – Every great documentary got lucky. Catching Hell, for instance, was able to find footage that no one had every seen from inside Comisky field that fateful night, heck, no one had any idea any of it even existed. One of the 30 for 30 episodes about Marques Dupree, found some random guy who happened to have all of the high school game footage from when Dupree was in school (a friend of a friend had given it to him or something like that and it had just been sitting in his closet for 25 years collecting dust). Where would Michael Moore and Roger and Me be without some of the unbelievable “foot in their mouth” quotes by GM’s PR guy. It is the nature of a documentary. You can pick a good story and tell it well, but to be great you almost have to get lucky. No documentary has ever been luckier than Hoop Dreams. It was supposed to have been a 30 min short, filmed over three weeks, to be aired on PBS as a piece about playground basketball in the inner-city. It became a five year project, following two kids from inner-city Chicago as they get recruited to play for a wealthy private school in the suburbs. They both go for the first year. One of the boys gets on the team and stays, the other goes home and in the end we get to see the most improbable state championship tournament run you can imagine. Just a transcendently great movie that can be both uplifting and disturbing and easily the best sports movie of all time.
Many of you no doubt disagree here or there. You disagree with the order. You disagree with some of those that are in and no doubt wonder why some were left out. But my guess is you aren’t really mad, unless you love Notre Dame football. If you love Notre Dame football you are probably incensed. “HOW COULD HE LEAVE OFF RUDY!” You may well be screaming at the computer screen. My response to you is that I left of Rudy without even a thought. Rudy is hokey. Rudy purports to be a true story, but all the guys on that Notre Dame team say they barely remembered the guy and certainly don’t recall anyone doing the refusing to play by handing the coach your jersey’s bit. More than anything Rudy has done a huge disservice to the young men and women that watch it and get roped in. Hard work, in sports, does NOT make up for not having talent. Hard work in sports is necessary because if you don’t maximize your talents your natural gifts won’t be enough no matter how vast they might be, but you still have to be born with the talent, period. Michael Jordan may be the hardest working athlete of all time, he also may be the most naturally gifted. The first one without the last doesn’t get him to the NBA (or college for that matter) let alone to six world championships. Sorry Rudy fans, your movie does not deserve to be here.
In fairness, I should point out that I hate Notre Dame football. I believe that, by definition, a good Saturday is any Saturday when Notre Dame looses. I’m not saying that has impacted my feeling about Rudy but … well, it felt like maybe I needed to admit to it.
But hey, what do I know, I’m fat.
Check Out Previous Top 50 Lists: