It's Oscars Week, which means it's time for some self-congratulatory Hollywood backslapping for movies about Hollywood. Sports movies made a rare appearance at last year's show with Creed scoring a nomination for Sylvester Stallone. This time, as usual, nary a sports film are among the 48 full-length features nominated in categories that were decided weeks ago by a cabal of entertainment writers, thus leading to a result as predictable as the next Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl. (No, Ryan Gosling jerking around arrhythmically in La La Land is not sports and neither is the O.J. doc).
To celebrate Hollywood's celebration of itself, FOX Sports lists the 25 best sports movies in history.
Mean Streets. Taxi Driver. The King of Comedy. Goodfellas. Cape Fear. Casino. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. The Wolf of Wall Street. Silence. What do these all have in common? They're Martin Scorsese movies that are far better than the massively overrated Raging Bull. While I'm sure plenty of people like it, I'd wager that far more just say they do to give themselves film cred. (This doesn't mean it's a bad movie, however.)
The Karate Kid
Let's cut the bull: Daniel sort of had it coming. I don't subscribe to the contrarian "Johnny was the real karate kid" theory hilariously posited on How I Met Your Mother (with the help of the man himself, Billy Zabka), but Daniel had it all coming. He stuck his nose in somebody else's business, aided and abetted the destruction of a boom box by crashing a beach party, was a sucker-punching punk, played a bathroom buzzkill by soaking Johnny on Halloween when dude was just trying to catch a little buzz, whined like a child upon much-deserved retaliation, hid behind Mr. Miyagi at Cobra Kai and then used an illegal crane kick in the final against a guy who was unfairly besmirched all because of his blond hair, former degenerate ways, good looks and desire to be the real karate kid.
The cycling movie you never knew you wanted.
Because the first Rocky movie kind of ridiculously won Best Picture and was followed by a succession of increasingly inane sequels, the inaugural film has almost become underrated after being so overrated at first. If it's been a while, give it another watch. The humble beginnings of Rocky Balboa, chasing that chicken and dancing in meat lockers, will make you forget that a robot has lines in Rocky IV. (Also, how many movie characters get statues in the city in which their film is based? Though I guess that says more about Philadelphia than the power of the film. You know who they build statues to in other cities? Real athletes.)
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Chariots of Fire
Another sports Best Picture winner, this one is best remembered for the Vangelis synth score that played over the British runners training on the beach (and has been spoofed in countless movies and television shows). While always an odd part of a British movie that takes place after World War I, the score is still pretty great and shouldn't obscure from the beautifully told story of two university runners with different backgrounds pursuing the same goal.
If we're talking strictly in terms of craft and storytelling, Hoop Dreams moves closer to the top of the list. But a good movie - or at least a good movie in the terms we're talking about here - should make you want to watch it again and I can't imagine ever wanting to sit through the at once hopeful and despairing doc about two Chicago basketball players trying to make it.
Why is this movie not on TBS a few times a month? It's far from a throwaway sports movie (it stars Paul Newman and was directed by Oscar winner George Roy Hill) but it's still the perfect kind of escapism we look for in these kinds of films. The Hanson brothers are on the short list of best sports movie characters and would make a surprise comeback 20 years with the late-90s hit MMMBop.
Any Given Sunday
Oliver Stone's football epic is famous for Al Pacino's pregame speech - "life is just a game of inches" - and deservedly so. The surprise ending, Willie Beamen video and against-type Cameron Diaz role are always pleasures too.
Scores of books have been written trying to pinpoint the exact moment that led to the end of Eastern Bloc communism but there are dozens of interconnected reasons the regimes fell. Aside from the obvious schism between the leftists and anti-totalitarian crowd, there were economic factors, both domestically and internationally; failing economies; greed; various Gorbachev policies such as perestroika, glastnost and the Brezhnev Doctorine; Poland's underground Solidarity union, an economic collapse in East Germany and literally hundreds of other factors that all combined into one massive upheaval that changed the world. But if you want to boil it down to a single thing: Balboa d. Drago.
Shaq? Penny Hardaway? Nick Nolte. Somehow, director William Friedkin (of Exorcist and French Connection fame) makes it all work in telling the eternal tale of overzealous boosters and corrupted college athletes.
You'll notice Ali isn't on this list because movies are never as good as the books or real life. Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, breaks that mold and maybe it's because it's about a single event rather than one of the most famous lives ever lived. Kurt Russell gets Herb Brooks right, the hockey scenes are lifted straight from the actual games and all the rah-rah stuff that's stretched from the actual truth does its job of raising the goosebumps. It's too bad the movie is rated PG because we don't get to hear the actual message Brooks delivered to his team before (or after - memories are hazy) its gold-medal game against Finland. After the upset of the Soviets, Team USA still needed one more win to get the gold. "If you lose this game, you'll take it to your graves," Brooks said before walking out. He paused at the door and looked back. "Your [expletive] graves."
Though Newman would up the ante with The Sting a few years later, his first con-job hustle film - a billiards movie with Jackie Gleason - is great enough to stand on its own.
He Got Game
An underrated inclusion in the sports film canon,Spike Lee's He Got Game features Denzel at his peak, Ray Allen in a surprisingly credible top-line role and a prescient look at the straight-to-the-pros era that had only just begun. But about that last scene. As the soaring Aaron Copland score crescendos, Jake throws the ball over the prison wall in an act of defiance. The tracking shot shows the ball going over the wall and then flying into the Big State arena where Jesus is practicing by himself. Jesus picks it up, looks skyward, smiles and the film ends. I'm all down with metaphors and symbolism and all that but I draw the line at the defiance of physics. And I'm lying, I'm not down with these particularly metaphors and symbolism. The ending stinks. (And watch the flight of the ball next time you catch the movie on TV. It defies physics.)
Cameron Crowe's love story with a sports tilt benefits aesthetically from its rare NFL license. It's fiction so it shouldn't matter if Rod Tidwell was trying to sign with the made-up Orlando Thunder or the real life Arizona Cardinals, but it does. It matters a whole lot. Obviously no league would have given their blessing to the aforementioned Any Given Sunday but think of how appropriate it would have been if the Shark had been cutting a car in half with a chain saw while wearing a Bengals tank top. Still, despite all that, Jerry Maguire is docked one spot for reality: The Cardinals never would have been on Monday Night Football. (From 1989 to 2005, the team played on MNF twice and one of those was a pity Week 17 game against the then-division rival Cowboys.)
The Pride of the Yankees
People see the 1942 release date and think the flattering, heroic portrayal of Lou Gehrig isn't worth their time. Nonsense. The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939 and you've seen that. The film is syrupy as you'd expect from a production that includes Gehrig's real-life friend Babe Ruth and other Major Leaguers but if syrupy was a disqualifying factor for sports movies we'd only have, like, 10 to rank.
This shouldn't have worked. But after The Blind Side turned Sandra Bullock back into a star, Brad Pitt was somehow able to convince a studio to adapt another Michael Lewis book, except that instead of a feel-good tale that had a linear narrative of inequality, race, football and awkward Nick Saban cameos, Moneyball taught people that adding on-base and slugging percentage got you a better number than dividing hits by at-bats.
Fourteen-and-a-half minutes. That's the length of time Bill Murray is on screen in Caddyshack. That might be enough time to win a Super Bowl or erase conversations from Watergate tapes but for this beloved golf film, it leaves one hour, 23 minutes of non-Murray time. Those minutes are often great - Chevy Chase playing a golfing Chevy Chase is smug, but still enjoyable and Rodney Dangerfield's introduction is classic. But there are too many lulls, not to mention the most unnecessary (though not unwelcome) nudity in sports movie history. Overall, Dangerfield refined his old, irreverent rich guy character to much better use in Back to School. And the great Ted Knight is wasted chewing scenery as one needs to do in a film that features both Chase and Dangerfield. Add in that Maggie couldn't act (and never did again, at least on TV or in film) and the fact Caddyshack has aged about as poorly as Peyton Manning's throwing arm, you get the reasons why it's not a top-five sports film. While overrated though, Caddyshack still gets top 10 status. You have to give it a little something, you know, for the effort.
The book was better, but isn't it always? There, the story of Roy Hobbs ends in tears. In the film, Hobbs turns hero, slowly and triumphantly trotting the bases after hitting a game-winning, scoreboard-exploding home run. "It's a good thing for him that the game and the season are over; the first pitch of the next at-bat would have been in his ear," Roger Angell wrote years later in The New Yorker. But in perhaps the greatest movie magic of all, Robert Redford, who was 48 when he filmed the movie, plays Roy Hobbs at both 19 and 35 years old.
You've seen the movie 20 times. You know he's going to hit 3-wood. You know it's going to check up next to the cup before rolling back into the drink. You know it'll happen again. And again. And again. Still, as Roy McAvoy stands over his second shot on the par-5 18th hole of the U.S. Open you hope, if only for an instant, that it might turn out different this time. (I remain worried that Marty McFly won't make it back to 1985 every time I see Back to the Future so maybe it's just me.) It's fascinating seeing golf in its last pre-Tiger season (Billy Mayfair earns a wow at the range from McAvoy) and the sport could take a bit of advice from the film: a reachable par-5 on the 18th hole of an Open would be a great quirk, at least once.
Mark Wahlberg and a skinny Christian Bale - who plays Wahlberg's crack-addicted brother that doesn't let anyone forget he went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard - shine in David O. Russell's biographic tale of Lowell fighter Micky Ward. Nominated for Best Picture, the film won both Best Supporting Actor (Bale) and Actress (Melissa Leo).
The sports movie that gets the most beats right, from the bus-trip conversation to the battery dynamic to the brash young star and the seasoned vet who's been to "the show." The movie's writer, Ron Shelton, played minor-league ball and it shows throughout (the sprinkler-caused rain out was taken from real life, as was the Crash/Nuke relationship). Every scene is a powerhouse and though it's not on TV nearly enough, it's one of those "can't turn it off" films that keeps you on the couch on a lazy Sunday. A startling fact: Tim Robbins, who was great as LaLoosh but not so great at throwing like a professional pitching prospect (my three-year-old uses the same technique), won the part of Nuke LaLoosh after he showed Shelton he could throw, which is a little like Jack Nicholson clinching his role in The Departed by doing his Boston accent for Martin Scorsese.
"Timeless" probably wasn't a word anyone expected would be attached to Major League when it was released in 1988, but 29 years later it maintains its hilarity and quotability. Another thing that endures: the Indians' World Series drought.
When We Were Kings
The Oscar-winning documentary on Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's Rumble in the Jungle is arresting from the opening shot and doesn't let up until Ali hoists his belt 90 minutes later. Equal part history lesson, artifact, sports film, boxing lesson and biopic, When We Were Kings starts with the little-remembered build-up to the fight (both fighters set up camp in Zaire and stayed weeks after a Foreman injury delayed the title bout, allowing Ali to build even more on his godlike status in the African country). It then shows every interesting part of the fight itself, obviously highlighted by Ali's rope-a-dope and his equally bizarre tactic of throwing right-hand leads, a rarely thrown punch that opens a fighter up to counterpunch, on an unsuspecting Foreman. Director Leon Gast could have used the Ezra Edelman O.J. treatment and had a runtime of seven hours and this film would still be amazing.
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Field of Dreams
If you hate it, you have no soul.
Earnest to no fault, Hoosiers tells the tale of tiny Milan high school's unlikely run to the Indiana state championship (back before the tournament was ruined by division classification). Cheesy? Schmaltzy? Designed to tug at the heartstrings? Yes, yes and yes. So what? Every scene, from Hackman talking to Jimmy Chitwood as he shoots on an outdoor basket to the movie's final feint (the last shot isn't going to Jimmy, or is it?) is just about perfect. You may quibble with these rankings, but if Hoosiers isn't near the top of yours, you're doing it wrong.