I was going to call this the 64 Greatest Sports Movies of all time but it became pretty clear that there are nowhere near 64 great sports films. Maybe 30 or so could be argued as great (at most).
A couple of things before we get started…
(1) There are movies that I have seen on a lot of lists that I cannot count as a sports movie. Gladiator, to me, isn’t a sports movie. Best in Show is not a sports movie. They don’t pass the smell test.
(2) If it was close between two movies, I was going with the one that was more of a sports flick. Sure Million Dollar Baby won Oscars, but is it a better sports movie than Major League? No chance (but it will rank high on my list of the 64 Greatest Euthanasia Films).
Here we go with 64-33 (32-1 next week)…
64. Stealing Home (1988)
Why it made the cut: Well, filling 64 spots ain’t easy. Put it this way: Celtic Pride and Side Out were among those on the bubble.
You’ve got Mark Harmon in his prime (just one year removed from Freddy Shoop). Throw in Jodie Foster (at her peak on the attractive scale), Richard Jenkins and Harold Ramis and at least the cast is solid for this sapfest.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: You mean other than the fact that Jonathan Silverman has a significant supporting role in the film? Look, if Magic 106.7 and the Lifetime Network ever conceived a child together, that child would be Stealing Home.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The beach house scenes were shot at the same place as the famous "shrinkage" episode on Seinfeld.
63. Days of Thunder (1990)
Why it made the cut: Come on, it’s Days of Thunder! Cruise, Duvall (in his first “just for the paycheck” role. Looking at his IMDB page I count no fewer than 12 since), Randy Quaid, Fred Thompson and Cary Elwes. It’s Top Gun on the race track, complete with Michael Rooker in Val Kilmer’s role, daddy issues for Cruise, Duvall as the mentor that has to the tame the wild, chance-taking Cole Trickle (we know Cruise is a bad-boy here for the same reason we know in Top Gun—he drives his motorcycle real fast) and an intelligent female lead character that sleeps with our boy Tommy C. about 10 minutes after meeting him. An absolutely dopey flick—and incredibly watchable. If I were 15 (the age when I saw it in the theatre—Burlington Mall) it would probably rank among my five favorite movies of all time.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: I think we all know that any movie that casts a 22-year-old Nicole Kidman as a brain surgeon isn’t striving to be Citizen Kane.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The scene where Cole and Rowdy race rental cars on the beach shows birds scattering out of the way. The birds were lured onto the beach by birdseed, and in the first take most of them were run over.
62. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Why it made the cut: The first of six Stallone (not Frank, just to clarify) appearances on the list, tops among all actors (just nudging out Kevin Costner and Gavin MacLeod).
Give Sly credit for this one—it’s not great by any stretch (the scene with Rocky and Paulie going down memory lane on Adrian’s birthday is truly awful), but WAY better than it had any right to be. And the fight scene was pretty good, right?
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Listen, we are talking about the sixth installment of a franchise here. Also any movie that features both AJ Benza and Max Kellerman has to be knocked down at least ten spots on the chart.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The computer simulation fight was based on one that took place in 1969 that pitted Muhammad Ali against Rocky Marciano. Every possible scenario was considered and filmed and the computer decided that Marciano would win in the 13th round. When told of the result, Ali retorted, "that computer was made in Alabama".
61. Long Gone (1987)
Why it made the cut: Never heard of it? It was an HBO movie starring William Peterson as a lifetime minor leaguer hoping for a shot at the bigs, Dermot Mulroney as a naive rookie phenom with endless talent and Virginia Madsen (yes!) as a groupie with all the answers. Uh, sound familiar? Remember, Bull Durham came out a year later.
Kind of a shame this is the only sports movie Peterson ever made (not true, I guess—he was in Amazing Grace and Chuck, which I wouldn’t put on a list of the 640 Best Sports Movies of All Time). He was perfect as the seen-it-all player-manager, better than Costner in Bull Durham (no knock on Costner—he was terrific). He deserved a better movie.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Sure, Bull Durham wasn’t first, but it is the better version. Long Gone is OK, but just. It feels like a TV movie (this was before HBO was HBO (pre-Sopranos).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Teller, who famously never speaks in his "Penn and Teller" performances, has a speaking role in this film. He was cast because of his resemblance to Henry Gibson (they play father and son in the film).
60. A League of Their Own (1992)
Why it made the cut: Full disclosure -- I hate this movie. Hated it when I saw it in the theatre and haven’t watched more than a half hour of it since. It smacks of sitcomville (no surprise with Penny Marshall behind the lens). Every character is one-note and you never really believe that you are watching a movie, just a bunch of famous actors pretending to play baseball. Too bad, really, because there is a good movie in that story, but we’ll never see it now.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? I guess the question is: If you hate it so much, why is it on the list?
Fair enough. I gave in, to be honest. Everyone I asked said it had to be on the list. It was a huge hit ($107 million—most ever for a baseball film) and was pretty well received critically. Probably, I’m wrong and it’s a swell movie. Just smells phony to me is all. Oh, and the beginning and end with them as old women is unwatchable and the worst stuff in any movie on this list (no easy feat).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: In the Hall of Fame scene, New York state trooper David Harding was an extra, playing one of Kit's adult sons. Within months of the shooting, he was indicted for falsifying evidence in several cases, including a 1989 murder in Ithaca.
59. The Heart of the Game (2005)
Why it made the cut: Warm-hearted documentary about a high school girls basketball coach and her star player. She gets pregnant and he stands by her as the small town explodes over the controversy. Just a nice, small look at a world you would normally never see.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: The problem I have with The Heart of the Game is the problem I have with 95 percent of docs. The subjects are treated with kid gloves, no flaws at all. Everyone else is the enemy. That’s what makes Hoop Dreams the best sports documentary ever made, hands down. A completely honest look at every character.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: There isn’t any trivia on the page, but Ludacris narrates the movie. Does that qualify?
58. Miracle (2004)
Why it made the cut: Full credit to the filmmakers and cast on this one. Tough story to pull off, of course, everyone knows what happened. Probably the most famous American sporting event of the last 50 years. Plus there have been countless articles, interviews, and documentaries on the subject. Also the game itself has been replayed a million times. We know the little stories--how tough Herb Brooks was, how there was a divide between the Minnesota guys and Boston guys, how dominant the Russian team was, all that stuff. How can a movie about that top the actual events?
It doesn't. But that's OK, because we don't expect it to. It is, however, a perfectly acceptable sports movie with a solid lead performance from Kurt Russell (another guy who was born to act in sports movies. He could've killed as Crash Davis or Tin Cup).
Why isn't it higher?: It's a Disney movie, which is fine I guess, but it feels a little too Disney (contrived, forced) at times. And yes, the ghost of the actual game never leaves as you watch the movie. That’s why it is so hard to make a movie about an Ali (you won’t find the Michael Mann/Will Smith biopic here) or a Jackie Robinson. How can you beat the real stuff?
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: During filming at a residence of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, rowdy residents disturbed filming by hanging USSR flags in the residence windows, reporting the shoot to the fire marshal, yelling distracting taunts at the actors, and even stealing Kurt Russell's car.
57. One on One (1977)
Why it made the cut: A Channel 56 Saturday afternoon staple from 1982 to 1985 or so, this flick stars Robbie Benson (who also co-wrote the script and standing maybe 5-foot-2) as Henry Steele, a small-town high school basketball star moving on to college hoops. G.D. Spradlin (one of the top five “bad guys” in film history—he played Senator Pat Geary in Godfather II, General Corman in Apocalypse Now and B.A. Strothers in North Dallas Forty) is the evil coach, fixed on changing Steele’s showboat style (which only magnifies as Steele becomes hooked to uppers halfway through the movie and basically dribbles as fast as he can with his head down all the way to the hoop. Have to think Tony Allen watched this movie 50,000 times growing up). Annette O’Toole (always a favorite) plays the tutor and love interest.
To be fair, Benson is an OK athlete. He could dribble and shoot pretty well and could almost play a little on a decent high school JV team (no kidding—that is praise for an actual movie actor. They are always brutal at hoops). Sure, Matt Roloff could post him up, but I’ll still give him a solid B-plus for his skills. Spradlin is aces as the coach bent on ruining Steele’s life (not sure why he recruited him exactly). If I watched it today for the first time I’m sure I’d recognize how ridiculous the whole movie is (though the plot is begging for a remake. Throw Shia LaBeouf and Billy Bob Thornton in there and away you go). But I’ll stay loyal to the 500 hours or so I logged on my grandmother’s couch watching the movie in the 1980's.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Well, it’s terrible, for starters. I’m sure Robbie Benson is a nice guy, but he might have been the most limited actor that ever lived (well, him and Marlee Matlin). The movie remains firmly on the “so bad it’s good” chart, however.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: One on One has no trivia on IMDB, so I’ll ask this: Did anyone else think the Hall and Oates diddy “One on One” was the theme song for the movie? I did for years.
56. Seabiscut (2003)
Why it made the cut: Another one I’m supposed to like. I don’t know, I just felt as if I was being preached at for two hours. I mean, we are talking about a horse here. My lifelong theory has always been a simple one: If you can’t solve a crime, you do not deserve to have a movie made about you. Ghandi could solve crimes. I’m sure Schindler could. Fine, you want me to say it, I’ll say it: I feel asleep in the theatre. Passed out for 20 minutes. Only one of three times that has ever happened (the other two? Solaris and Mumford (a real low moment as I was going solo for that one, and a manager woke me up. And kind of yelled at me.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Probably it should. I’m sure that I’m wrong about it. It was nominated for Best Picture, made over 100 mil, has a top-flight cast (Cooper and Bridges are two of the best of the last 25 years) and is based on a beloved bestseller. That’s why it is on this list. I feel confident that it is one of the 64 best. It is simply not one of my 64 favorites. I’d rather watch The Bad News Bears Go To Japan (which, ironically, also features a David McCullogh narration).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: To emotionally prepare himself for Seabiscut’s death scene, Tobey Maguire bathed in a tub of gelatin for 12 hours. (Not true, I made that one up. But there is nothing good on that trivia page. Is Tobey Maguire retired, by the way? How did James Franco get more of a career boost out of Spiderman? You think Tobey is watching Milk at his house thinking he should be the one making out with Sean Penn?)
55. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999)
Why it made the cut: Really good documentary about one of the best players in baseball history (still ranks seventh all time in slugging percentage and 16th in adjusted OPS) playing through brutal anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s. He’s not Jackie Robinson on a historical scale, but he’s in that group right below (with Billie Jean King). I’m a fanatic about baseball history and knew Greenberg was Jewish, but I had no idea the extent of abuse he took and his refusal to turn his back on his roots (until he converted to the Nation Of Islam in 1962. Kidding.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Well, HBO makes about 10 sports docs a year that are nearly as good. And we do get a little close to hero worship at times; you’d like to see some flaws examined.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Another movie with nothing on the trivia page, so let me reinforce how great Greenberg was as a hitter. In baseball history there have been, in total, nine seasons in which a player recorded 170 RBI. Two of those seasons were by Greenberg.
54. The Best of Times (1986)
Why it made the cut: I was shocked that was a PG-13. They were FAR more liberal with that rating in the '80's. This would be a solid R today.
Just the kind of raunchy comedy that never gets made anymore. Good small-town, blue-collar feel (credit Ron Shelton, who wrote the screenplay and would later write and direct Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup), and what I like best is this—it nails the feeling of wanting one more game. Just one more chance to show you can get it done. Perfect Kurt Russell lead performance as a high school legend trying to hang on to the glory days. This would’ve been a home-run Paul Newman performance 15 years earlier. If they made it today? Clooney, I guess (and the clock is ticking for Clooney to be a good sports movie). Maybe Jon (Don Draper) Hamm? No? How about Matt Dillon?
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: A spectacularly miscast Robin Williams. The absolute worst choice for this role. You never get the feeling that Williams and Kurt Russell grew up in the same town (Robin Williams just doesn’t give off a blue-collar vibe). And his character is supposed to be a terrible wide receiver, but Williams is beyond that. Just awful. Why not Bill Murray or Dan Ackroyd?
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards was one of the extras used in the football scenes.
52. (tie) Prefontaine (1997) and Without Limits (1998)
Why they made the cut: Tough to make a good movie about a sort of prickish runner that doesn’t win the big race and then dies in a drunk driving accident at the age of 24, right? You would think. But Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams and Prefontaine) and Robert Towne (director of Without Limits, writer of Chinatown) pull it off. If I had a gun to my head and pick the better movie I guess I’d go with Without Limits, simply because Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland (as Pre and his coach, Bill Bowerman) feel more authentic than Jarod Leto and R. Lee Emery (who seems a little miscast, frankly. You kind of keep waiting for him to go on a killing spree, which doesn’t seem to match every account I’ve read of Bowerman).
Why aren’t they ranked higher?: Just not enough story. Enough for a couple of pretty good sports movies, but not one great one.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Prefontaine: Another no trivia, so I’ll throw this out. What happened to Amy Locane? She was the “girl” in the movie. She was a solid eight on my scale, a scale that took years to build and trust (Sela Ward remains the only woman to achieve a perfect 10, doing so in 1992. I sent her a certificate of notification, never got a response. That dropped her to a seven). Without Limits: Tom Cruise considered playing Prefontaine, but decided against it citing that he was too old for the part.
51. The Terry Fox Story (1983)
Why it made the cut: Sticking with the runners here…do you know this story? Terry Fox lost a leg to cancer at age 18 and decided to run across Canada (he was Canadian) to raise awareness (he had osteosarcoma).He has a skeleton crew with him for most of the trip—his brother and his coach (played by Robert Duvall). He doesn’t finish the race, makes it about halfway. The cancer had returned and eventually killed him 18 months later.
Great story, right? Uplifting and tragic and all that good stuff. And it was all that (the last half-hour of the movie is just gut-wrenching). But here’s what I always liked best about the movie. They made Terry Fox human. He had a temper and was rough on his brother and could just be a flat-out jerk. And you know what? That’s okay, it really is. It doesn’t make him any less heroic (almost makes him more so, I like to see these guys having a bad day). You never see that today, ever. If they made The Terry Fox Story in 2009 you would have, I don’t know, Eric Bana or somebody with a CGI’d-up fake leg (the actor that played Fox, Eric Fryer, is an amputee) running and laughing with some pop song playing in the background. He’d have pain, of course, but he would never mention. We’d know, of course, and his silence would tell us how tough he was (another nice touch by the filmmakers—Fox was pissed that he had to deal with it. He kept running, but it fueled in great measure due to that anger). And they’d throw in Drew Barrymore as a reporter/love interest. God, Hollywood today makes me want to vomit sometimes.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Could easily be. I might’ve missed on this ranking. I hope the fact that absolutely no one has ever heard of this movie didn’t influence my thinking, but I suspect it might’ve. Which is a really stupid reason. Guess that means I have to put The Waterboy in the top five. Which is a lucky break, because The Waterboy happens to be a magnificent piece of art.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: This was the first made-for-cable film.
50. Finding Forrester (2000)
Why it made the cut: Sure, it’s Good Will Hunting lite (same director, even). But it works, if only because of Sean Connery. Bonus points for Anna Paquin playing the first of what turned out to be 500 or so “academic but slightly whorish” characters.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: It is barely a sports movie, just as Good Will Hunting is barely a math movie. And F. Murray Abraham’s character is a little too nuts, isn’t he? Would that guy really have that job?
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Joey Buttafuoco's elusive "Night Man" bit part comprises a few seconds of on-screen time as he offers Jamal a flashlight just before Jamal escorts Forrester onto an empty baseball field (DVD Time 1:21:34)
49. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Why it made the cut: OK, I get that this is not a sports movie. It is, however, one of my 25 favorite movies in any genre and I think I can make a case for it at least belonging here.
The three main characters in TBL (Dude, Walter and Donnie) love bowling more than any other character on this list loves their particular sport. I really believe that. It is all they have in their lives; all they really want to talk about (well, bowling and Vietnam for Walter—“well, there isn’t a literal connection, Dude”) and the schedule governs their days and nights. That alley is their home.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Again, I understand that it isn’t a sports movie. This is as high as I could put it without getting goofy.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: When the Jesus (John Turturro) has to go door to door, sharing that he is a convicted sex offender, he has a large bulge in his tight pants. The bulge was formed by a bag of birdseed.
48. Follow the Sun (1951)
Why it made the cut: There is definitely a paucity of pre-1975 movies on the list, and I’m not sure that is a mistake. Name a famous sports figure from 1900-1950, and it is safe to assume that a vanilla, edgeless biopic was made about him sometime between 1930-1960. Jackie Robinson? Check. Babe Ruth? Yup. Jim Thorpe? You bet. Knute Rockne? Correct.
Follow the Sun pretty much falls in line with those, but I chose it to represent that era for one reason: Glenn Ford does a pretty swell Ben Hogan. Worth watching just for that, it pops up on TCM every three months or so…
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Again, we don’t learn about the real Hogan (no fault of Ford, just the product of the times), a man that “looked at you like a landlord asking for a month’s rent”, according to a fellow pro.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Ben Hogan was married to Valerie Hogan. Follow the Sun was the third choice for the title of the movie, after Valerie and The Hogan Family struck out with test audiences.
47. Rocky II (1979)
Why it made the cut: I give Stallone credit here (I also give him credit for having the guts to cut his pizza with scissors in Cobra, a trend that should’ve taken off but never did). He followed up one of the great crowd-pleasers of all time with a movie that spends the first hour and a half tearing the hero down. Can’t read, loses all his money, goes back and carries spit buckets at Mickey’s gym, Adrian in a coma, Apollo killing him on TV (and I always give Brent Musberger credit for sticking up to Apollo—“You know, Apollo, a lot of journalists, myself included, thought the fight was an even draw”—all guts). This is the last performance Sly gave until Copland (1997) that wasn’t just muscle and tag lines. And this is the best actual fight in the series.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: If the entire movie was as good as the fight it would be, probably somewhere in the top 30 or so. It just takes forever to get going.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Sylvester Stallone himself wrote the paperback novelization for this movie. The novel is mostly in first person, from Rocky's point of view, written in the same choppy English in which Rocky speaks. Scenes in which Rocky is not present (such as Apollo Creed consulting his associates, or Paulie alone with Adrian) are in standard third-person, in proper English.
46. 61* (2001)
Why it made the cut: We are in clear hero-worship territory here (Billy Crystal was a friend of Mickey Mantle and pretty much treats him with kid gloves in this). But what I like best about 61* is this: It is made by a real baseball fan, someone who knows about Elston Howard and Bob Cerv and how tough it was to hit Hoyt Wilhelm on a cold and windy night. High marks go to the casting, not a misfire in there (well, maybe Christopher McDonald as Mel Allen.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: What makes it a good movie gets in the way of potential greatness. Crystal is just too close to the story to really take an honest look at Mantle and Maris (particularly Mantle).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Billy Crystal cast Barry Pepper for the movie after seeing him in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and noting the actor's uncanny resemblance to Roger Maris. (He was right, they look exactly alike. And I’m still stunned that Barry Pepper isn’t a star. Where did it go wrong for him? Great inSaving Private Ryan, the best part of the putrid 25h Hour. I still think he wins an Oscar in the next 10 years.)
45. Jerry Maguire (1996)
44. All the Right Moves (1983)
Why they made the cut: Sometimes I think Cruise made his best movies before he became a huge star. I’d put Risky Business up against any movie he has ever made, and All the Right Moves is somewhere in his top ten. By the time Jerry Maguire rolled in he was already a business, as much a part of Americana as Coke and ESPN. And Cruise gives you the trademark Tommy effort as the title character, full of energy and false earnestness and just prepackaged as the agent that finds a little heart can go a long way, or something like that. The movie isn’t half-bad, but goes downhill in the last hour or so (it’s about two-hour movie, so I guess it actually is half bad).
Watched All the Right Moves again for the first time in years a month or so ago and I was pleased to see how good an actor Cruise was. He had the ability to surprise you, something that is totally gone from his arsenal today. The movie itself is okay enough, but it is Cruise that stands out. You fully believe that Tom Cruise could exist in a small Pennsylvania steel town. Impossible today.
Why aren’t they ranked higher?: What is going on in the last hour of Jerry Maguire? First of all, the movie is built on the premise that we should be rooting for a guy (Rod Tidwell) to make more money. Not exactly My Left Foot on the inspiring scale. And why, exactly, does he go back with Zellweger at the end?
All the Right Moves is a nice movie. Doesn’t really reach for greatness and doesn’t find it. I think 44 is the perfect spot.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Jerry Maguire: Tom Cruise did not remember that Bonnie Hunt was in Rain Man (1988). At first he thought she was joking when she said they had worked together before. All the Right Moves: The director wanted Lea Thompson and Tom Cruise to go undercover to remember what high school was like. They went to separate schools, and while Cruise was spotted after just one day because someone recognized him from Taps (1981), Thompson went four days, was asked out by many guys and got caught smoking.
43. Victory (1981)
Why it made the cut: Seriously? If you have to ask, you haven’t seen it. It’s basically The Great Escape with orange slices served at halftime. Michael Caine captains a team of WWII POWs in a soccer game against the German national squad. You’ve got Pele (lucky break, of all the POW camps…) and Stallone (complete with what appears to be a 500-dollar haircut. Guess there was a Hollywood stylist also kicking around in camp.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Seriously? If you have to ask, you haven’t seen it. Totally ridiculous from soup to nuts. But I dare you not to watch it when it pops up on AMC.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact (and my favorite of all time): Reportedly, Sylvester Stallone insisted that his character score the game-winning goal in the film, as he felt he was the biggest star in the film. The non-American crew was finally able to convince him of the absurdity of the goalkeeper scoring the winning goal, and the penalty shot was specifically written to placate his ego.
42. “Baseball” (1994)
Why it made the cut: Not Ken Burns’ best documentary (more on that later) but his most exhaustive (even more so than his Civil War epic), covering the entire history of the game. Inning Six, which focuses on Jackie Robinson and the history of Ebbets Field is the highlight of the set.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Because for every Buck O’Neil (the “breakout star” of the series) and Hank Aaron we have to listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin and George Will bore us with the beauty and purity of the game. Who wants to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin talk about anything?
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: After watching Doris Kearns Goodwin talk for 45 minutes about watching the sun set in Rockville Center while listening to Russ Hodges on the radio, Ken Burns broke an ankle trying to slide into the historian while wearing Ty Cobb’s famous spikes.
41. The Color of Money (1986)
Hard to believe that this is a Scorsese movie. Harder still to believe that this was Paul Newman’s only Oscar winner (I’m with Bill Simmons on this one—The Verdict is the performance of his career.) A solid sequel driven mostly by star power and charm courtesy of the second greatest American actor of the last fifty years (Gene Hackman occupies the top spot). Newman and Scorsese could make a sports movie about Rod Rust and I’d put it in the top 50 (I guess they can’t now, but you get the point).
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: It is a paint-by-numbers job. Old guy mentors cocky youngster formula to a ‘T'.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Paul Newman said the best advice director Martin Scorsese gave him, especially in humorous scenes, was: "Try NOT to be funny."
40. Rudy (1993)
Why it made the cut: The 1970's had Rocky. The 1980's had Hoosiers. The 1990's had Rudy. It would appear that this decade will not have a great (or quasi-great, in Rudy’s case) underdog sports movie (and no—I will not accept We Are Marshall).
Rudy is another example of a little movie (budget of $12 million, or two million bucks less than J.D. Drew will make this season) that absolutely nails every expectation. You might be a little turned off by the Disney feel, but come on--who isn’t choking back tears at the end?
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Hey, I’m all for a little dramatic license, but Rudy takes it a little far. There has to be some devotion to accuracy. A couple of beefs (with help from www.nitpickers.com)
-- Rudy attends Juliet Catholic Academy early on in the film. The classroom has both male and female students. That school was all boys until 1990, 30 years or so after Rudy attended.
-- Rudy arrives at Notre Dame and walks south at Main Quad, the Golden Dome behind him. He sees the stadium for the first time, directly in front of him. Alas, no stadium exists at the south end of the Main Quad.
-- And Dan Devine, the coach that will not allow Rudy to play until the threat of a player revolt forces him to give in? In reality, it was Devine’s idea to have Rudy suit up vs. Georgia Tech. He was made to be the heavy in the movie simply because a heavy was needed. Stuff like that makes me crazy.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: According to Scott Benjaminson, who played Frank, the real Frank Ruettiger is a loving, caring man who was supportive of Rudy's dream and not the mean spirited, jealous person as portrayed in the film.
39. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Why it made the cut: This is another in the “What did I miss” category? Great reviews (still in the IMDB top 250) big box office, Oscars for Best Picture, Clint for director and acting Oscars to Morgan Freeman and Hilary (Yup, I have two Oscars, but never forget that I was out-acted by Ian Ziering on 90210) Swank. Just one of two sports movies in the last 30 years to win the Best Picture prize (the other is way up on this list, in the top five). And it has endured. People love this movie. So I felt obliged to put it on here (truth be told, it wasn’t on the first draft. But it kind of has to here, right?) And before I get to my problems with the movie, I will say that Hilary Swank was great and deserved the Oscar that year.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: I didn’t hate it, exactly; it just never worked for me. I think there are three things that really linger…
1. I am a BIG Clint fan, and have really enjoyed this late career surge (starting with Unforgiven in 1993, Eastwood has acted and/or directed In The Line of Fire, A Perfect World (hugely underrated), Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, MDB, Letters From Iwo Jima (great), Flags of our Fathers and Gran Torino. Remarkable, given his age and what he had already accomplished. And Gran Torino is his biggest box office hit ever. Clint has been doing this for almost 50 years now, and I think it’s safe to proclaim his career as the greatest in film history. Maybe his peak isn’t at a level of a Brando or Pacino or Cagney, but the sheer volume of good work isn’t matched). When Million Dollar Baby was about to come out, the buzz around it was that it was the best film he had ever made, better even than the movie that I consider among the best ever made (Unforgiven). So I was all kinds of pumped and jacked (copyright Pete Carroll) when I sat down in the fourth row of the Boston Common AMC opening night. And two hours later I felt…meh. If Edward Zwick or someone else not named Clint Eastwood had directed it I probably would have been okay with it. So I may have a bias.
2. Could they have made Hilary a bigger saint in the movie? This is a textbook example of my Terry Fox Theory. I mean, really: if everyone in your life had crapped on you, and you lived off the table scraps of others wouldn’t you be a little pissed sometimes? At least once? She gets paralyzed for God’s sake and she isn’t mad, just keeps smiling and talks about going to paralegal school or something. Come on. You lose me when you go in that direction with a character.
3. The “twist” at the end just comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. Sure, the last scene with Clint and Swank is powerful, but that doesn’t always mean that it is the right choice for the movie.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Sandra Bullock was the first actress attached to play Maggie, and she wanted to pursue Shekhar Kapur as a director. By the time a studio expressed an interest in the project, her commitment to Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005) prevented her from doing the film. (Wow. That is rough right there. But I bet that a Million Dollar Baby with Sandra Bullock in the lead and Shekhar Kapur directing would have tanked both critically and commercially. Also we might not have had Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous, which gave us the opportunity to investigate those important characters for another 90 minutes. Or 270 minutes if you saw it three times.)
38. Vision Quest (1985)
Why it made the cut: Don’t take this ranking too seriously; this is a personal favorite of mine. Let me write one thing in Vision Quest’s defense: it does a pretty nice job of capturing how important high school sports seemed when you were in high school. Nothing else mattered as much. You were in your own little bubble, never realizing that millions of other kids were going through the same thing. It never, for example, occurred to me that some kid in Oregon was playing in a high school basketball game the same night I was playing. The movie gets that right (as did All the Right Moves, for that matter).
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: I watched it about a year ago and, unfortunately, it wins the Kathleen Turner Award for aging badly. It has the '80's all over it. We aren’t talking about The Legend of Billie Jean bad, but bad enough.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Matthew Modine once remarked in a magazine interview that the film's title was more appropriate for a science fiction film. In Australia, this film was titled "Crazy For You".
37. Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Why it made the cut: I have a friend that tried to convince me to put this movie at No. 1 on the list (in fairness, he also once predicted that Gerald Greene would play in 10 All-Star Games). Another friend felt that it should be on the list at all. I decided to come as close to splitting the difference as I could.
Obviously we all know about the speech, and that scene is a winner. I’d guess that if “Today I consider myself the luckiest man in the world” is not the most famous line in a sports movie, it’s gotta be in the top five (the other four? “There’s no crying in baseball”, “Win one for the Gipper”, “It’s in the hole” and “Show me the money”. I feel like I’m forgetting something obvious. Maybe “I don’t want your life” from Varsity Blues? Maybe not.). Gary Cooper threw like Johnny Damon, ran like Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds and hit like Rich Gedman after Walt Hrinaik ruined him. But you know what? He works as Gehrig. Nobody played the shy, reserved hero type like Cooper (I think Matt Damon could do a nice job if a remake was ever considered.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Again, we are chest deep in hero worship (the film was released just 14 months after Gehrig died). I know they aren’t going to get into much dirty laundry in 1942, but I’m sure there was some conflict in his life besides an overbearing mother.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Since star Gary Cooper was right-handed and Lou Gehrig was left-handed, and since Cooper's athletic skills were barely passable right-handed let alone left-handed, the close-up baseball scenes were shot with uniforms in reverse type. Cooper would hit the ball and run to third, and the prints would be reversed.
36. Friday Night Lights (or: Varsity Blues with a brain) (2004)
Why it made the cut: I’ve been plenty critical of the sports movies of the last 15 years or so. I forget, sometimes, that this was even made (the TV show might have something to do with it). But this is that rare accomplishment: a high school movie with intelligent characters, both kids and adults (nice to see that---most teen movies now treat adult characters as either morons or tyrants). Peter Berg directs and gives it an almost documentary look and feel, and the football scenes are really well done, as good as any on screen that I can think of. And the temptation to make the townspeople one-note, football-obsessed idiots is ignored, which is the right choice. Most people aren’t really like that (another knock against Million Dollar Baby. Did Maggie’s family have to be so hayseed and evil?). A high school sports movie for adults. Enjoy it, who knows when it’ll happen again.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: We are starting to get near the part of the list where every movie is pretty damn good, so 36 isn’t a bad spot by any means. Here’s the thing—I remembered liking this movie when I saw it, but it just hasn’t moved into that group of sports flicks that have stayed with me. I admire it more than like it, I think. Didn’t fully resonate with me, and I’m still not sure as to why. Something is missing.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Not much on the trivia page, so allow me to ask this: Is Friday Night Lights the only example of the triple crown of good book, good movie and good TV show? I‘m thinking that it is.
35. When We Were Kings (1996)
Why it made the cut: This movie is pretty much why I couldn’t buy Will Smith as Ali (I will allow this: the first ten minutes of Ali with Ali running with Sam Cooke singing was fan-freaking-tastic). The guy was a force that can never be emulated. Smith did a nice impression of Ali, but did you ever think for a second that you were watching Muhammad Ali? I was half-waiting for Uncle Phil to come in and give Will a lecture (which, actually, was filmed and is on the director’s cut DVD).
But the revelation to me was Foreman. I always knew the guy as basically a cuddly sitcom character, a grill pitchman with 50 kids named George. This guy was cold-blooded and wanted to bury Ali in Zaire.
The documentary basically becomes a good vs. evil story with Ali as the aging underdog that may not last three rounds, and Foreman as the unstoppable force ready to put a legend out. (Ali was pretty rough on George, treated him as a dummy, basciclly, and turned Zaire against him by playing the Uncle Tom card) I’d imagine that if you didn’t know who won the fight it would be a thrilling last 45 minutes of When We Were Kings.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: Is it possible that I’m suffering from Ali Fatigue? I’ve read about 20 books on the guy and there isn’t much left to know. And that isn’t the fault of When We Were Kings, to be fair. But I think that’s why I don’t have it ranked in the top 20, which is where you find it on most lists of best sports movies.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Though almost all of the footage in this documentary was shot by 1974, one reason it took 22 years to complete was because the negative and rights to the film were entangled in civil suits involving the Liberians who financed the movie's making.
34. Rocky IV (1985)
Why it made the cut: Look, we all know why Rocky IV is both glorious and ludicrous. A few things that I’m still trying to solve after about 500 viewings…
-- I wonder what the judges’ cards looked like after 14 rounds. There had to have been at least eight 10-8 rounds for Drago, right? He knocked Rocky down about 30 times in the fight, including the rare back-to-back knockdowns (bad job the ref, who didn’t even step in to make a count after the first one).
-- If they ever have a Rocky IV simulator ride there are two things I want on it—Drago’s punching power machine (I still maintain that Clubber Lang would have bested Drago’s 2,150. I’d like to think I could get to 300.) and a chance to try on one of those sweet Boss sweatshirts Rocky, Duke and Paulie wore during the Creed-Drago fight (which, according to Barry Tompkins, was nicknamed “Death from Above”. And how did USA Network land the rights to that fight? No pay-per view? No network? That would have been the most anticipated fight in history, so I guess they would have bumped “Up All Night” for that.)
-- Why no murder charges against Drago? He pushed the ref (who was trying to stop the fight) before finishing off Apollo. Isn’t that at least close to murder? To me, once the referee tries to stop the fight, it is no longer an official fight and just two guys punching each other.
-- And why did Paulie think he was going to miss the Rose Bowl? The game was a week after the fight. I understand that they would stick around for a day or two for medical reasons, but they’d be back in Philly by no later than December 29th.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: What can I say? This is a film that has Brigitte Nielsen in a major supporting role (“like your Popeye, he eats his spinach every day”).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Numerous fans have stated that they find this film to be confusing in terms of the title belt, and what exactly happens to it when Rocky is in Russia. This is most likely because the scene explaining what would happen to the belt was cut from the film, and replaced with a newspaper montage. Initially, between Apollo's funeral and the Rocky/Drago press conference, there was to be a scene in which Rocky visits the U.S. boxing board. Whilst there, he is told that they will not sanction the fight, and if he goes ahead with it, he will not be allowed to carry the title. This scene was cut prior to release as it was felt to slow up the film too much, and it was replaced with the much briefer newspaper montage. (I’d like to see that scene. Throw that in with the rumored 22-minute sex scene between Paulie and his robot girlfriend and you’ve got a hell of a director’s cut.)
33. He Got Game (1998)
Why it made the cut: The lone Denzel appearance on the list, same goes for Ray-Ray.
Probably more of a father-son movie (and tale of greed) than a sports movie, but there is some good stuff in here. You can tell Spike Lee knows the game and is also well versed about the corruption in college basketball (I still think of his speech in Hoop Dreams at the Nike camp that William Gates attended, imploring those kids not to become victims, to know that they are just viewed as meat).
Also I’m pretty sure this is the only Boston Celtic to ever appear in a threesome on screen. Though I would have to watch Space Jam again to confirm this.
Why isn’t it ranked higher?: He’s had a nice season and really could’ve been the Finals MVP last year, but Ray Allen isn’t going to be confused with Sean Penn anytime soon. And, as is the case with most Spike Lee “joints”, you don’t really get a story as much as a bunch of interesting scenes thrown together with a loud, jazzy score in the background. Spike’s no dummy, though, he knows he can get away with that when he has a great actor in the lead role.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: For the scene where Jesus and Jake play for the letter of intent, the original script called for Jesus to win 15-0. However, Spike Lee encouraged the actors to play for real. The scene in the film reflects the actual game between Ray Allen and Denzel Washington.