So here is Part II. Following last week's entry on the bottom half of the list of the Top 64 Sports Movies, I was surprised at some of the email reaction. The movie I was most asked about? Teen Wolf. For some reason people wanted to know if the tale of one Scott Howard would make the final 32. Will it? Or will I give Teen Wolf Too (featuring the same Chubbs but a different Stiles) a spot?
To the list…
32. The Karate Kid (1984)
Why it made the cut: There have been a million Rocky knockoffs (lonely aging mentor helps massive underdog) but I could argue this might be the best one. Helps that John Avildsen directed both films. Pat Morita (Oscar nominated) really brings a ton of humanity to a role that must’ve looked awfully weak on paper. I know Mr. Miyagi is sort of a punchline all these years later, but I’ll stand by his performance as a terrific one.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Still confused as to why the Cobra Kai were so obsessed with bringing Daniel down. Was he that large a threat? Did they pick a guy each year and simply destroy his life? And John Kreese was, by any measure, totally and completely insane. He’s one of those movie characters that you could never imagine outside his scenes. (Picture him at a Pizza Hut, for example, or his nephew’s birthday party. Doesn’t work.) And while The Karate Kid follows the Rocky formula as well as any, it is still, by its nature, not exactly an original piece of work.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: According to Joe Esposito, "You're the Best" was originally written for Rocky III (1982), which explains the lyric "History repeats itself." The song had been rejected in favor of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger".
(Wow, what a Sophie’s Choice for Stallone. No shock that he made the right move, though. He was in the zone during the 1980s. He would have drafted Jordan over Bowie and kicked the crap out of any executive that suggested New Coke.)
31. American Flyers (1985)
Why it made the cut: Funny how some guys just work in a sports movie. We’ll see Costner three more times before this list is done. This is really the only performance in the five movies with which he charted that didn’t feature the usual laid-back style that Costner is best known for (also his first mustachioed effort, for those who care).
Some good drama in this one, as Costner and David Marshall Grant are brothers who compete in a Tour de France-type race—“The Hell of the West” in America. (The racing scenes hold up pretty well, actually. Again, score one for pre-CGI.) Classic big-brother little-brother story, with Costner playing the ball-breaking elder who never lets up on the kid. As the movie progresses we learn why (Costner is dying) and it all builds up to the big finish, with the kid brother getting it done in a huge upset. (For those who have never seen this movie, I’m trying to think if there is any other way that I can spoil American Flyers for you. Uh, Alexandra Paul shows her tush (and I’d give it an eight).)
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Two knocks: The women (Paul and Rae Dawn Chong (and where did SHE go?) are just window dressing, simply there to show up and provide a little conflict for the fellas. And the “bad guys” (other racers) lean toward cartoonsville. You know, you’ve got the rival of Costner (complete with a love history with Dawn Chong’s character), a sort of grown-up Zabka that does all the sleazy things the heavy is supposed to do in a sports movie. Toss in the silent, stoic Russian (pre-Drago) and you’ve got all the basics covered.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Not much there, so may I present Mr. Glenn Shorrock and the theme to American Flyers!
30. The Jericho Mile (1979)
29. Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 (2000)
Why they made the cut: Two terrific running stories, one (The Jericho Mile) the debut effort of Michael Mann (later the director of Heat and The Insider) the other a documentary from the director of the original (or, the good) Willy Wonka.
The Jericho Mile holds up pretty nicely after 30 years, especially for a TV movie. Peter Strauss is solid as convict ‘Rain’ Murphy, in the clink for killing his father (nice choice by the filmmakers to let us know that he’s guilty, no mystery). Gotta love the drama as he chases the four-minute mile. The loner character, which became a Mann staple as his career progressed, is examined as Murphy becomes obsessed with running. It is all he is.
To me, finishing the Badwater is the single most impressive athletic feat one can achieve. A 135-mile race in Death Valley—in July (temps can get up to 150 degrees). Oh, and the race starts at about 900 feet and ends at an elevation of about 8,500 feet. The documentary gives a look at the maniacs who actually run this baby (some train by running in a sauna for five, six hours at a time). And it is not for the weak—a lot of rough stuff exiting the body from all over (think Uta Pippig times about fifty) but also some triumph mixed in. A good look at how far the human body can be pushed.
Why aren’t they ranked higher? We’ve reached the stage where I think a movie needs to have a lasting impact to finish really high on the list. And both of these works just haven’t managed to resonate. That might be the only thing that separates a Jericho Mile from a Hoosiers or Fever Pitch. (Kidding, of course. Fever Pitch just might be the worst sports movie ever made. Best of the Best 14 was a better take.)
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Facts: The Jericho Mile: During the shoot in Folsom, there were 13 stabbings and one murder among the inmates, but not a single crewmember was injured or threatened over the course of the production, and no one ever witnessed any violence. Badwater: No trivia on the page, but here’s a report (a little longish) from a 2007 Badwater participant.
28. Happy Gilmore (1996)
Why it made the cut: I know I’m going to take some hits on this one.
Happy Gilmore, to me, absolutely nails what it intends to do. Never for a single second are you emotionally invested in a single character in the movie. You are there to watch a dopey lowbrow sports comedy, plain and simple. And there should be a place on this list for movies like that. This is sports, not the 64 most important films in history. I’m sure Cinderella Man is a better film than Happy Gilmore (actually, I’m not really sure that it is—Cinderella Man is preachy, historically inaccurate and actually really, really boring) but it is not in this world.
I’m fully on the “Shooter McGavin is one of the top five villains in sports movie history” bandwagon. Fantastic performance by Chris McDonald. In a perfect world he would have been nominated for an Academy Award (come on, which do you remember more from the Class of 1996—Shooter or James Cromwell in Babe?). “Don’t you people work?”
And, yes, that is Ben Stiller (in one of his last funny roles) as the crazed nursing home attendant.
(Stiller’s career has mirrored almost every major comedy star of the last 30 years or so. Gets his start on a skit-heavy TV show, moves into supporting roles and leads in smaller movies, has the big breakout hit and then goes on cruise control (sequels and kids’ movies) for the rest of his career. Happening right now with Seth Rogen. We all like him still, right? Still laughing, sure. Wait three years or so. He’ll either be acting with a kangaroo or starring in a remake of Uncle Buck. It just happens. Look at Stiller. Taking no chances. I mean, how dreadful will Little Fockers (due out in 2011) be? And Sandler is no different. He took a peek outside a couple of times and tried acting in actual films. Didn’t seem to take.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Well, the ceiling for any movie that includes a brawl involving Bob Barker is probably 28. Maybe it should be closer to 64, but I want this movie to carry the flag for all sports movies that have only one aspiration—to make you laugh 20-30 times in 90 or minutes. Got some emails last week asking about Kingpin, which could have been a contender for this spot. The problem with Kingpin isn’t that it’s not a sports movie—it is, as much so as many on this list. The problem is that it isn’t a funny sports movie. All the Bill Murray stuff is great. Everything else (or 90 percent of the movie) falls flat.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Bob Barker wasn't sure if he wanted to be in the movie. When he learned that he was going to win the fight with Adam Sandler, he accepted the role.
27. The Longest Yard (1974)
Why it made the cut: We all know the plot, sadly because most have seen the awful remake and not the far superior original. (Terrible. Is there an example of even a good remake of a sports movie? I'm trying to think of one...nope. Are we counting the Friday Night Lights TV show? I'll give you that one, I guess. No more remakes of good sports movies. If you want to take a shot at a bad one that had an interesting premise (how about Blue Chips, or maybe even Talent for the Game--I still think there is a good movie waiting to be made about a baseball scout), I'm all for it.)
But the original is still a blast to watch. Burt Reynolds (could have been his generation's Costner, minus Dances with Wolves; Burt could've made five or six good sports movies if he had actually cared about making good movies after 1974 or so) was perfect as Crewe, and Eddie Albert was an inspired bit of casting as Warden Hazen. The football scenes are effectively over-the-top, and the film has a nice, loose 1970s feel to it that is gonzo in sports movies today. And Rob Bradford wanted to add that this film also served as Bernadette Peters’ peak (which was about as long as Scott Cooper’s peak, maybe two years). He also informed me that Richard Gere’s peak was An Officer and a Gentleman, though that may have been off the record.
Why isn't it ranked higher? It is ranked higher than it was when I made my first list (I had it 43rd). This is moronic, I know, but that hideous sequel almost hurts the legacy of the original.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: According to Albert S. Ruddy and Burt Reynolds on the DVD Commentary, for reasons unknown, Robert Aldrich didn't like actor Michael Conrad (Nate Scarborough) and would always insult him by calling him the "Polish Princess." Finally, when they were filming the scene between Paul Crewe (Reynolds) and Scarborough (Conrad) where Nate says, "There's only two things you've got left: Your pride and your balls . . . " Aldrich liked the scene so much that he rewarded Conrad with a candy bar, which was the daily award Aldrich would give out to whomever did the best work that day. Conrad, who had endured Aldrich's insults throughout filming, was actually moved to tears. Aldrich stopped referring to Conrad as the "Polish Princess" for the rest of the shoot.
26. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Why it made the cut: There just aren’t a lot of good basketball movies. And the ones that are great are either based on a true story or are documentaries. Not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because basketball doesn’t have the history of baseball, or even boxing?
White Men Can’t Jump is a buddy picture that happens to be about basketball. It’s The Sting (though not as good, of course) on the playground. Both leads are fine and Rosie Perez was a nice change of pace in the supporting role. (Think if they made that movie today—no way someone that looks and talks like Rosie Perez is getting that role. You are looking at Paul Walker, Lil’ Romeo and Hayden Panettiere.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Watched about an hour or so of it the other night and it is not exactly graying with dignity. Maybe it really does happen, but the whole idea of this world where people are constantly scamming each other on a basketball court seems a little contrived. And while Woody and Wesley are okay for actors, let’s be honest here—these guys wouldn’t start on, what, three quarters of the varsity high school teams in America? I’d rank them above Michael J. Fox but below Robbie Benson.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: In the film Woody Harrelson's character makes a reference to suspected JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. In real life Harrelson's own father had also been targeted as a possible accomplice in the killing.
25. Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993)
Why it made the cut: Two things stand out in this forgotten gem…
(1) Maybe the best cast on this list. Ben Kingsley, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne and Laura Linney? All tremendous, but the film’s best work belongs to Max Pomeranc as the child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (right up there with Henry Thomas in E.T. and anything by Little Hercules as all-time great child performances).
(2) The ending is a big chess match between Josh and his “rival” (Jonathan Poe). I don’t much like chess. I’ve played it a couple of times and it just hasn’t clicked. I wouldn’t watch chess on TV if Sela Ward circa 1994 were playing Kate Beckinsale in a “loser must be chained to Kirk Minihane” match. But I’ll tell you this: I was into the ending of Bobby Fischer. Cheering, even. Great ending, one of the ten best on this list. Full credit to Steve Zaillian (writer and director, also adapted Schindler’s List) for pulling it off.
Why isn't it ranked higher? I was hesitant to put this movie on the list at all. I’m still not sure it’s a sports film. If it were just a good flick it wouldn’t be on at all. When this list is finished and you rank the movies in order of actual quality, I’d guess Searching For Bobby Fischer would finish in the top five or six. But, again, is the story of an eight-year-old chess player a sports movie? Still not sure…
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The character of Jonathan Poe (Josh's young rival) was based on real life young chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer. In the National Primary Championship, which the climax of the film is based on, Josh and Jeff actually tied for first place, after which Josh won on tie-breaks. While Sarwer would go on to win the World Championship Under 10, he soon disappeared with his sister and father; the family was known for living a traveling lifestyle (no permanent address, etc.)
24. Beyond the Mat (1999)
23. The Wrestler (2008)
Why they made the cut: Hand in hand.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson is really a hybrid of the two main characters in Beyond the Mat, a documentary that takes a look at pro wrestling from the top (the then-WWF) all the way down to the lowest of the independent scene.
The two men that stand out in Beyond the Mat are Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley. I have to think that Darren Aronofsky had these guys in mind when he went to work on The Wrestler. Roberts is “an old broken down piece of meat,” living off of his 80s glory and headlining shows in beat-up old barns in North Platte, Nebraska, and Breezewood, Pennsylvania. He, like the Rourke character, believes he might have enough to make good on that one last shot (if he ever gets it). Of course Roberts, like “The Ram,” is also an absentee father and an enormous health risk. (In a documentary loaded with blood the film’s most brutal scene involves Roberts and his daughter meeting at a Ramada Inn in Nebraska. They have nothing to say to each other, and Roberts leaves after just a few minutes and ends up doing crack in his hotel room. That scene, by the way, may or may not have been the inspiration for the movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) So I’d say “The Snake” is the dark side of “The Ram”.
Foley is the other half. You know the scene in The Wrestler where The Ram starts that job in the deli? You kind of expect him to be miserable but he’s enjoying himself, having fun with the customers and the other workers? That’s Foley. The Ram and Foley also can’t shake the business. (Foley is a best-selling author and probably a millionaire a few times over, at least. No reason why he should still be out there. But flip on Spike TV and he’s still getting blasted with chairs for a company called TNA.)
The script and supporting actors are fine in The Wrestler. But there is NO WAY this movie works if Mickey Rourke isn’t in it. He is The Ram. Sure, Rourke’ll probably slide back into the crappy roles he’s been doing for the last 15 years (he’s almost impossible to cast now—he doesn’t look human, which always hurts when reading for the role of a lawyer or something) but he delivered the goods here. He was flat-out robbed of an Oscar. (That was it for Rourke—he will never be nominated again. Penn’ll have a half dozen more shots at least.)
Why aren’t they ranked higher? Beyond the Mat is well made, but the director takes sides. Morally he’s correct (Roberts is a jerk and Foley appears to have his head on straight enough) but you wish he’d let us figure it out.
The Wrestler is pretty thin story-wise, but has such a seminal lead performance that you can almost forgive its flaws. That happens every couple of years or so. There Will Be Blood, for example, is almost a parody in the last 20-25 minutes, but Day-Lewis is so great that it nearly blinds you to the weakness of the scenes. Also happened with Dustin Diamond in Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style (which, ironically, is Daniel Day-Lewis’ favorite film).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Beyond the Mat: Since the initial release of the film, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) were closed down and purchased by World Wrestling Entertainment. (Lots of access to the WWF in this documentary. NO WAY that happens today. (That is especially true given the former and current WWE guys dropping dead every other week. How’s that Wellness Policy going, Vince? Would it kill 60 Minutes to do a hard-hitting piece on all these guys dying? Too busy with LeBron James butt-kissing?) The WWF was still locked in a pretty good fight with WCW in 1999 and McMahon must have thought this movie would help.)
The Wrestler: At one point Nicolas Cage was set to star in the movie. He was seen at a Ring of Honor wrestling event in NYC doing research for the part.
22. Rocky III (1982)
Why it made the cut: There was only a brief period on this planet when you could actually make a movie filled with both massive homoerotic overtones and 20 minutes of training montages and pass it off as a sports movie. And that period was 1982-1986.
I won’t even pretend to be objective here. From the first time I saw Rocky III in the theatre (June 16, 1982 at the Billerica Mall) until about 1996 it was my favorite movie (since passed by The Godfather and a host of others). Yes, I understand that it is not a great film. It is totally, completely and absolutely formulaic. But the formula works.
Here’s the test: If you are flipping through the channels on a Saturday afternoon and Rocky and Adrian are fighting on the beach is there any chance in the world you aren’t in for the next 40 minutes?
Why isn’t it ranked higher? We can nitpick all day. Two of my favorites…
It would seem, at the statue presentation, that Rocky had no clue as to who Clubber Lang was. Gotta love that Mickey was covering the Rock so much that he couldn’t even recognize the No. 1 contender. Did Mickey have all TV and newspapers banned from the house? (And how quickly did Adrian get rid of that pet store-owner friend of hers once she got some money? I was always a fan of that lady, not easy to own your own business as a woman in the 1970s. Trust me.)
And why was Paulie the number two in Rocky’s corner for the first Clubber fight? There was no one more qualified? Clubber pushes Mickey into a wall and the next thing you know Paulie is the lead corner man in a heavyweight title fight. How did that happen? (Paulie is tremendous in Rocky III. From the “friends owe” speech to trying to fight Hulk Hogan AND Apollo Creed to getting tossed in the pool, this movie is all about Mr. Burt Young. And give Apollo credit, he made the right move sliding Paulie to the number three spot (behind Duke) in the second Clubber fight. Keeps Paulie happy and also keeps him out of the real mix.)
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: According to an interview given by Mr. T., he attended the movie's premier with his mother. During the scene where he yells lurid remarks at Adrian, his mother turned to him and said, "I did not raise you to talk to a lady like that." She then got up and stormed out of the theatre.
21. Love and Basketball (2000)
Why it made the cut: Because I’m half a man, okay? Is that what you need to hear?
I would submit that Love and Basketball is the best “sports chick flick” ever made. Anytime this baby pops up on Lifetime I’m watching. Sure, it’s kind of a soapy, glossed-over look at basketball, but it actually has a little heart and the two leads are just fine. (What happened to Sanaa Lathan? Please don’t tell me she’s doing Tyler Perry movies…looking her up on IMDB…Wow.) It knows and respects the game enough to get away with most of the Magic 106.7 stuff.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Tyra Banks is so awful in a small supporting role as a flight attendant (I’m not kidding) that she actually cost this movie two spots on the list. Probably tied with Janet Jones Gretzky in American Anthem for worst supporting actress in a sports movie.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: No trivia on the page, which is quasi-surprising to me. I guess this is as good a place as any on this list to point out how great it is to hear Andy Jick’s voice on the PA again (and on CBS—all we need is Dick Stockton, Pat O’Brien and “The Case of the Missing Case”). Would have made no sense, but it sure would have been nice to hear “Roberrrrrt Paaaarish from Larry Bird” or “THREE Points for Danny Ainge….TIME Out Lakers…”
20. Brian’s Song (1971)
19. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Why they made the cut: One fast and true rule of ranking sports movies: Put the dying guys together.
Brian’s Song, of course, wouldn’t be near the top 64 without this…
I'd like to tell you about a guy I know, a friend of mine. His name is Brian Piccolo. And he has the heart of a giant, and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent, cancer. He has a mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the world 'courage,' 24 hours a day, every day of his life. Now you honor me by giving me this award. But I say to you here now Brian Piccolo is the man who deserves the George S. Halas award. It is mine tonight... and Brian Piccolo's tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo. And I'd like all of you to love him too. And so tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.
Really, watch the movie again. Just another TV weepie until the last 20 minutes or so. But Billy Dee Williams (one of the few actors that can act with or without a cape on) is throwing about 98 MPH fastballs during the whole speech. Still gets it done 38 years later.
And Bang The Drum Slowly? A largely forgotten film starred two of Hollywood’s greatest mumblers: Michael Moriarity (you know who he is - one of the interchangeable parts of that diesel engine known as “Law and Order”) and a little known New York actor named Robert DeNiro. Moriarity plays a star pitcher who befriends Bobby D’s hayseed catcher, who is suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease. Sort of a middle-class “Brian’s Song.”
Why aren’t they ranked higher? Brian’s Song should be ranked closer to 64, I’m just a huge fan of the ending. Really does save it. Bang the Drum Slowly is sort of held down, ironically, by a miscast DeNiro. He was praised at the time for his muted performance, far removed from the volcanic temperament of Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets” (released the same year), but in hindsight it’s one of his weaker roles. He’s definitely no ball player, and he sports a distracting, Georgia hillbilly accent that seems like a rough draft for Max Cady. Seriously - it’s a bad accent. At times it seems like he wandered in from the set of “Deliverance” - I kept waiting for a shivering Ned Beatty to appear during a locker room scene. Fear not for Bobby D, however, we’ll see him later in one of the great performances in motion picture history.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Facts: Brian’s Song: Gale Sayers wanted to play himself in the movie, but Bears training camp conflicted with the shooting. (Lucky break—that never works.) Bang the Drum Slowly: Though the uniforms appear to be New York Yankee uniforms, the team name is actually the New York Mammoths. Mammoths? Could that be the worst cinematic sports team name ever?
18. Downhill Racer (1969)
Why it made the cut: Tough to miss with Hackman and Redford. Plus Michael Ritchie (the best director you’ve never heard of — he also helmed The Bad News Bears, The Candidate (as good a movie about politics as any ever made) and Fletch (“I own them; I have a lease with an option to buy”). I’m no Phil Mahre (I am more of a Steve), but the skiing scenes still hold up as pretty solid some 40 years after the film’s release. But the star power of the two leads really make the movie go. A forgotten little flick that is worthy of a viewing.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? I’m sure I have it too high, truth be told. It’s a small movie that, if it had starred George Hamilton and George Kennedy, might not even rank ahead of Hot Dog…The Movie on the all-time list of ski movies (not true but you get the point—I may be a little blinded by the star power of two of my favorites).
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: This was going to be Roman Polanski's first American film. Robert Evans of Paramount needed someone to direct Rosemary's Baby (1968) so Polanski was given that project due to the nature of some of his recent films. Robert Redford was also considered for the male lead in that film.
17. Tin Cup (1996)
Why it made the cut: Ahhh, Costner. When this slipped into theaters in the summer of 1996 I truly felt he had finally come to terms with his place in the cinematic pantheon. There would be no more Waterworlds, no more Wyatt Earps, no more overblown, nine-hour, deadly dull, insanely pompous epics of self-indulgence. He was back to doing what he does best: playing All-American jocks with something to prove.
His next film? The Postman. It’s called learning from your mistakes, Kev. Look into it.
But that aside, Tin Cup is a sweet and sexy romantic comedy that before you know it, rears back and knocks you out with a rousingly original finale. And it’s got Cheech Marin and Don Johnson in supporting roles, just a few years before their beautiful child known as “Nash Bridges” entered our world. (Now that I think about it - is it too late to remove this film from the list?)
Why isn’t it ranked higher? At times, this laid back tale of a laid back golf pro and his laid back buddies...well, it’s a little too laid back. And the transformation of Rene Russo’s character from prudish taskmaster to full blown Roy McAvoy groupie is a bit forced.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Many of the golf shots by Kevin Costner’s character were actual shots made by Costner himself.
16. The Great White Hope (1970)
15. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)
Why they made the cut: I went backward on this one. I had heard of Johnson but knew of him just as the first black heavyweight champion. I had never seen The Great White Hope, a thinly disguised biopic with James Earl Jones earning his only Oscar nom as “Jack Jefferson,” when I sat down and watched Ken Burns’ two-part documentary.
You know the famous Branch Rickey-Jackie Robinson story, right? When the two first met to discuss the possibility of breaking the color barrier in baseball something close to the following was exchanged…
RICKEY: Suppose I'm a player ... in the heat of an important game. Suppose I collide with you at second base. When I get up I say, "You dirty, black so-and-so." What'd you do?
JACKIE: (stops and thinks for a moment, then) Mr. Rickey, do you want a ball player who is afraid to fight back?
RICKEY: I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.
Put it this way, Jack Johnson would not have passed the Rickey Test. He enjoyed flaunting his fame, loved how it drew rage from the whites (and a lot of middle-class blacks, who were trying to carve out a life at the turn of the 20th century, were angered by Johnson’s actions as well). Burns does a superb job detailing Johnson’s long road to the title (took forever -- no one wanted to fight him, every white fighter worth a nickel was scared to lose to the “inferior” black man) and the inevitable downfall of a man that simply would not play the Uncle Tom role. He drove the best cars, wore the most expensive clothes and dated plenty of white women (he was married several times, once to a former prostitute). Part I (the Rise) is a lot more enjoyable than Part II (the fall, Johnson fleeing the country before eventually returning to serve a year in prison for violation of the Mann Act (bogus charge)). For me, Burns’ best work. Unlike Baseball or The Civil War there is no fat on this documentary (granted, the subject matter is not as voluminous, but Burns could’ve stayed on the black vs. white train for 20 hours, but he wisely decided to let the subject be the star).
The Great White Hope is based on a play, and it does have a stagey feel to it at times. Not an easy subject matter for 1970, though, and they pull it off about as well as can be reasonably expected. (Remember, at that time we were still in an era where a piece of fluff like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was considered risky. Sure, The Great White Hope doesn’t seem particularly gutsy with 2009 glasses on, but 40 years ago it must have seemed a great risk.) Both Earl Jones and Jane Alexander (also nominated) are outstanding.
Why aren’t they ranked higher? The Great White Hope can’t shake the stage; it does feel like a filmed play for a great majority of the time.
The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson could’ve finished in the top 10, easily. I just felt that one documentary in the final ten was probably enough (and no, it’s not Still We Believe). And as I called out earlier, we are getting to the point where resonance is a factor. For some reason, this doc (unlike Baseball) just didn’t make an impact.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Really not much for either one (nothing for the documentary at all), so here is an interview with Geoffrey Ward, who wrote the book that served as the basis for the documentary.
14. Caddyshack (1980)
Why it made the cut: Well, why do you think? Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Rodney and Ted Knight. That messy improv feel that usually leads to disaster is perhaps the great strength of this movie. (I mean, does anyone think that any of these guys paid attention to the script? Rodney uses lines from his old stand-up act the whole time. “This steak still has the mark of the jockey's whip on it.”)
Not sure if Caddyshack is the most quotable comedy of all-time, but I’d put it in the top three (Airplane! and Fletch). My personal favorite will always be, “You’ll get nothing and like it,” followed by, “Oh, this is your wife, huh? A lovely lady. Hey baby, you must've been something before electricity.”
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Not exactly a slave to plot. And the Danny/Maggie romance is a momentum killer.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Bill Murray improvised the "Cinderella story" sequence from two lines of stage direction. Director Harold Ramis simply asked Murray to emulate a kid announcing his own fantasy sports moment. Murray simply asked for four rows of 'mums and did the scene in one take.
13. Major League (1989)
12. The Bad News Bears (1976)
Why they made the cut: Last pairing of movies, I promise.
I think Major League is a little overlooked in the pantheon of sports films. Has there been a baseball (or any sport) flick as enjoyable as this one in the last 20 years? Can’t think of one. It’s not Raging Bull, but that’s okay. It never really takes itself seriously, which is exactly what you want from a movie like this one. Just a blast for an hour and a half, with a perfect ending (a rarity for sports movies).
You will never see a movie like The Bad News Bears again. You could argue that there isn’t a single likeable character in the movie (out of the leads, anyway). Buttermaker starts out as an alcoholic, selfish jerk that coaches this Little League team because he needs the money. In 2009 Movie World Buttermaker would learn a bunch of life lessons from these kids, face his drinking demons and lead the team to the championship. After the final game he’d take his girlfriend (probably the divorced mom of a kid on the team) and the three of them would go off to live a life full of puppy dogs and ice cream.
The beauty of The Bad News Bears is that none of that happens. It ignores every sports movie rule. The scrappy team that we root for the whole movie? They lose at the end. The bad guy as a buffoon that simply gets rolled over by the good guys? How about Vic Morrow as the coach that slaps his own kid around ON THE MOUND in the final game. Well, Buttermaker must learn something, right? Nope. He ends the movie as he starts it, alone, drunk and cleaning pools. If he were offered the job the next year I suspect he’d turn it down.
But it works. It is one of the great comedies of all time, it really is. Totally fearless. Can you imagine if Tanner Boyle made that speech about the guys on his team in a movie today? Assuming it would get released, there would be three weeks worth of fodder for O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh. Great casting and direction by Michael Ritchie, captures the insanity of small town Little League perfectly.
Why aren’t they ranked higher? I never understood how Rene Russo had her career. Was she ever anything more than window dressing? Think about it—give me the movie where she did more than just provide conflict or a little roll in the hay for our guy? Anyway, this was her first big role and I always felt the romance angle with her and Berenger (pretty good low-level Costner) was jammed into the movie.
I’m reaching with this one, but I think maybe a couple of the kids on the team in The Bad News Bears get lost in the shuffle as the movie progresses. As Kelly Leak and Amanda move in you sort of lose touch with the fringe guys.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Major League: A scene featuring the wedding of Jake Taylor and Lynn Wells was shot and to occur after the Indians victory over the Yankees in the end but it was deleted because the producers felt that the wedding scene would put the focus of the movie on Jake and Lynn and not the team. (Smart move. No one cared about that. If that scene were in the movie I’m not sure Major League would be on this list.)
The Bad News Bears: Bill Lancaster's screenplay was based on his experiences with his father, Burt Lancaster. Buttermaker was based on Burt, who was known for his grumpiness, and the character of Amanda was based on himself. Burt Lancaster would later be cast as an aged version of an early 20th Century ballplayer, Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in Field of Dreams (1989).
11. The Hustler (1961)
Why it made the cut: Was there ever any doubt? Robert Rossen’s engrossing character study has aged particularly well, and Newman’s indelible performance as “Fast Eddie” Felson still ranks as one of the great screw-ups of modern American cinema - he’s brash, petulant, and lovable all at once. Bolstered by a phenomenal supporting cast (Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie), the film is a potent reminder that within every sport lies the allure of corruption and greed. “Teen Wolf” grappled with similar themes, albeit less successfully.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Watching this film again recently, I was surprised at how dark it is. Remember, this was made when production codes were still in effect - yet the implications of rape, suicide, and drug abuse are pretty damn obvious. Even the triumphant ending rings empty and hollow; Fast Eddie finally does beat Minnesota Fats, but at what price? This is more of a tale about a man consumed by his own talent than a great sports movie. I guess that’s not really a knock, but I’m getting picky as we get close to the top 10.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Boxer Jake LaMotta appears as one of the many bartenders in the film. His one line is “Check,” and he says it three times. Knowing Jake’s consummate perfectionism (as evident from the Brando monologue at the end of “Raging Bull”), something tells me he was itchin’ for just one more take so he could get it right.
10. Field of Dreams (1989)
Why it made the cut: Two words: Tim Busfield. Just kidding. Because it’s Field of Friggin’ Dreams! Let me put it this way. Every time it turned up on cable in the mid-90s, I would purposely get into a fight with my father just so we could watch this together, bawl like pansies, and bury the hatchet in ultra macho fashion (I would go through the same circus with my mother just to watch Mannequin).
Why isn’t it ranked higher? I’ll be honest. I always had a problem with James Earl Jones’ “people will come” speech at the end. Yeah, I know the farm is in trouble and the family is in desperate financial straights, but did it have to be so blatantly capitalist? I still cringe when fast Jimmy dreamily intones, “People will hand you twenty dollars without even thinking about it.” Way to take advantage of nostalgic fans reduced to a zombie-like state after being confronted with something mind-numbingly illogical.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Burt Lancaster was unaware that Timothy Busfield was part of the cast, and had him fetching water and chairs before realizing Busfield was going to be in the scene with him. (Am I being too rough on Burt with these? I think I’ll leave out how he wiped out the Gates family with a detailed Ponzi scheme when I get to the trivia for Hoop Dreams.)
9. Breaking Away (1979)
Why it made the cut: Such a simple premise, really. Four townie kids (known as “cutters”, because their folks work at the limestone quarries) in Bloomington, Indiana, take on the college kids at the annual “Little 500” bicycle race at the University. Sounds like an old CBS afterschool special, right?
But this is a movie that knows the strange time between high school and the rest of your life. The longing to go back (or just to get away from what is coming) is almost painful when the four cutters hang around the swimming hole during that last summer. The only one with any focus at all is Dave (Dennis Christopher), so obsessed with an Italian cycling team that he speaks with an exaggerated accent and sings opera while pedaling around town. He rallies the other three (Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earl Haley and Daniel Stern) to join him in the film’s climatic race. And I know it is 500 laps around a track and it looks like 1979, but trust me: there is no scene in any sports movie that matches the end of that race. I just watched it again a few weeks ago and it still gives me the chills (and chills was a word I was trying to avoid for the entire list of 64, but I couldn’t think of a better word for it).
Why isn’t it higher? The relationship between the father (Paul Dooley) and Dave is the only weakness for me. Each scene with the two just seems like a repeat of the first 90 percent of the movie. And then it wraps up a little too nicely at the end.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The "Cutters" team won the race in 2004, the 25th anniversary of the film, in a similar fashion to the ending of the original film by beating out the "ATO" team (but the team was made up of non-Greek students, two of whom were Bloomington locals who were attending Indiana University).
8. Eight Men Out (1988)
Why it made the cut: An analogy, if you will: Eight Men Out is the cinematic equivalent of Tim Wakefield in 2004. Nothing flashy (he had the same exact ERA as the American League that season—4.87), but eats a lot of innings and gets a majority of outs on ground balls (I suck at analogies, by the way). Independent film maverick John Sayles directed this straightforward, well-crafted examination of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal and its repercussions with a historian’s eye for period detail. Great performances across the board and a stunningly moving final scene make this one of the best sports films of the 80s.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? The tragic tone and measured pacing, hallmarks of good drama, are what ironically keeps it from the Top Five; it’s simply too subdued to be a Top Five Sports Movie. Another issue I have is that the characters lose a bit of their identity during the court proceedings, where they become cogs within the machinations of the plot rather than multi-dimensional human beings.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Studs Terkel was 75 years old when he played the part of famed Chicago sports writer Hal Fullerton. Fullerton was only 46 years old at the time of the 1919 World Series, making Turkel 29 years too old for part. (Incidentally, Turkel was so inspired by his success as a thespian that he took a small role on the Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries; those are his hands massaging David Duchovny’s shoulders at the start of each episode.)
7. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Why it made the cut: Roger Ebert ranked Hoop Dreams as his No. 1 movie of the 1990s, and I don’t think he’s off by much.
Just incredibly powerful stuff. A three-hour documentary that would have been no less engrossing if it ran ten times as long. A staggering look at high school basketball as a business through the eyes of William Gates and Arthur Agee.
When I wrote in the first half of this list that no one on the list of 64 loved their sport as much as the Lebowski guys loved bowling I was dead wrong, of course. Arthur Agee tops that list. What’s funny is that you never get the sense that William Gates loves basketball. He just happens to be remarkably gifted at it. And if there was even a little love going on there it was vanquished by Coach Pingatore and St. Joseph’s.
All these years later and I’m still stunned at how lucky (and good, I guess) Steve James was to stumble on these subjects. How did that happen? He could’ve picked any two kids in the city of Chicago.
(How great was Agee’s mom? Her husband was a crack addict, she had three kids, no money (and I mean none, they lived on $268 a month) and still she never let Arthur give up the dream. She was positive the whole time. I’m always amazed that people can be like that. If my internet connection at my house cuts off for 15 minutes I’m breaking things.)
Why isn’t it ranked higher? After William loses in the state tournament his senior season he and Arthur (now playing for city school Marshall) share a long and emotional hug in the hallway outside the locker room. Gates is crying. Agee tells him, “I’m playing for both of us now” (Marshall is still alive in the tourney). Nice scene. But there is a problem. We, the viewer, have never seen the two interact until that point (and we are about two hours and 20 minutes in). Clearly it was a choice by James to keep the subjects apart, but that scene has to be explained.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Many of the locations used in the movie are now either gone or substantially different. The neighborhood of the Cabrini Green housing project, where one of the players lived, underwent a "gentrification" shortly after the film wrapped. The baseball field shown, for example, now has been replaced by luxury condos and a shopping complex.
6. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Why it made the cut: I wonder how Chariots of Fire holds up some 28 years later. Would an 18-year-old in 2009 care about the story of two sprinters and the obstacles they face in getting to the 1924 Olympics (and by the way they aren’t American)? Lots of talk about God and honor and the British class system and Gilbert and Sullivan…I’m thinking it wouldn’t play.
But it did in 1981. (Won Best Picture. Deserved it, not a great year otherwise.) A couple of scenes are still winners…
I love the Liddell/Abrahams showdown. Liddell, the Scottish missionary, and Abrahams, the wealthy Cambridge student (though Jewish, which makes him instantly hated by about 75 percent of the school) are the two finest runners in all of the United Kingdom. They finally meet about halfway through the movie and Liddell buries Abraham. The scene after the race with Abraham in the stands, in his suit, still angry (he knows he can work and work but he’ll never be the runner Liddell is) is fantastic. And the music there is great (as it is the whole movie, can’t imagine it with another score).
Gotta love the race where Liddell falls down at the beginning but still manages to come back and win. He’s on his back, totally out of it at the finish line, completely spent. Sam Mussabini (a professional track coach, played by Ian Holm) helps Liddell to his feet. He then turns to Liddell’s coach and says, “Take good care of this one. You’ll never see the likes of him again.” I thought of that exact quote when Tiger was standing over his putt on the 18th on Sunday.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? They take some liberties with the truth to make the story swim a little smoother. But I think the biggest problem I have with this movie is the one I’ve had since I first saw it in 1983: if they had allowed black guys to run in the 1924 Olympics this might have been a tale of two men trying to be the 58th best runner in the world. Not quite the same impact.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Scenes of Eric Liddell courting a Canadian woman in Paris were cut out of the film. She can be seen in the church audience when Liddell is preaching and sitting next to Sandy McGrath during the final race. She is presumably a surrogate for Eric Liddell's real-life wife Florence Mackenzie, who was from Canada. She and Liddell actually met years after the 1924 Olympics.
5. Bull Durham (1988)
Why it made the cut: Maybe I’m a chauvinist, but for years I’ve always thought of Bull Durham as a movie about Crash Davis. Only recently did I figure out that it is a movie about Annie Savoy. There’s a reason she narrates the movie, dummy. The Crash Davis we meet at the beginning is pretty much the one we see at the end. Annie changes. She allows herself to fall in love with this guy. Probably in years past she would’ve stuck with Nuke and just moved on to next year. I guess Bull Durham is a “chick flick.” That sort of upsets me. Join me next week as I manage to turn The Great Escape into Brokeback Mountain with James Garner weeping into Donald Pleasence’s old shirt.
But we all know why Bull Durham is great. Costner, Sarandon and Robbins are all swell in their roles. Ron Shelton knows the world of minor league baseball, and he found a perfect town to tell his story. Sure, it seems a little hokey at times (does everyone in Durham care that much?) but it works. I think of it as the best Dan Jenkins book never written.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? I think the movie loses a little bit of the big Mo when Robbins exits. It is almost as if Shelton didn’t know what to do with just two in the mix.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The "rainout" scene was based on actual event. In the late 1960s, Ron Shelton played minor-league ball in the Texas League. Shelton's team was in Amarillo, Texas for a season-ending series. The night before the final game, Shelton, some teammates and some Amarillo players were out partying and decided to go to the stadium and turn on the sprinkler system, thereby flooding the field and ensuring a "rainout." However, the Amarillo team owner rented a helicopter, dried the field, and the game was played.
4. Hoosiers (1986)
Why it made the cut: I think Hoosiers is the It’s a Wonderful Life of sports movies. Should be watched once a year simply to be enjoyed. Ignore the warts and believe in the underdog for a few hours. Of course, I also think the kid on The Amazing Race is not actually deaf and is playing the pity card to win a million bucks, so maybe it’s just best to ignore me (would have been nice to know that 15,000 or so words ago).
Again, casting goes a long way. Does this movie work if Redford or Duvall plays Norman Dale? Hackman gives you Dale as only Hackman can — tough but with a ton of vulnerability underneath it all. You know, maybe Duvall could have pulled it off. Not Redford, though. He was already in that “I’m squinting instead of acting” stage by 1986.
But we all know the stuff that makes Hoosiers a classic. Coach Dale taking over for George (hard to believe the kids would think Norm was tough after George’s “20 on, 10 off, 20 on” practice schedule). “My team’s on the floor.” Jimmy saving Dale’s job. Shooter. “Kick me out of the game.” The Picket Fence. Strap. Ollie at the foul line. “I’ll make it.”
Just a perfect throwback movie.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? The kids on the team aren’t really fleshed out as well as they could be. When Coach Dale gives the “I love you guys” speech at the end it sort of rings hollow. He loves Ollie? He’s said maybe five words to him the whole movie. I’m sure he loves Jimmy (they’d be about 3-18 without him, plus he was a nice conversation piece to get Barbara Hershey going) but the rest of the team I’m not so sure about.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: The actor who played Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis) was the only player on the Hickory team not to play high school basketball. He did play college golf at Purdue his freshman year.
3. Raging Bull (1980)
Why it made the cut: Sure it was made in 1980, but this is a movie of the 1970s, a period of filmmaking that may never be matched in American history.
The anti-hero as hero was already explored by Scorsese and De Niro in Taxi Driver, but they go a step further in Raging Bull. We know from the first second we lay eyes on Travis Bickle that he is insane. It takes a while to figure that out about Jake LaMotta. The same rage that cannot allow him to believe that his wife isn’t sleeping with his brother fuels him to the middleweight title.
As a sports movie? Well, the boxing is second to the story of the man. I mean, it’s good that Patrick Bateman worked on Wall Street in American Psycho but the guy would’ve been just as loony if he worked at Applebee’s. Same with Raging Bull. Scorsese (not a sports fan) was far more interested in the story of two Italian brothers that reach the peak before they take a massive fall. I guess it’s the only opera on this list. But the boxing stuff looks tremendous, shot (as is the film) in black and white.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? I think if you asked Scorsese, De Niro or Paul Schrader (the screenwriter) if Raging Bull was a sports movie they would each say no.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: In 1978, when Martin Scorsese was at an all-time low due to a near overdose resulting from an addiction to cocaine, Robert De Niro visited him at the hospital and told him that he had to clean himself up and make this movie about a boxer. At first, Scorsese refused (he didn't like sports movies anyway), but due to De Niro's persistence, he eventually gave in. Many claim (including Scorsese) that De Niro saved Scorsese's life by getting him back into work.
2. Rocky (1976)
Why it made the cut: If this were the only film of Stallone’s that you had ever seen, you’d think this guy was heading off to a career like Brando’s or De Niro’s. He really was that good (I know it’s hard to get past Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and all the other crapola but it’s true).
Has any movie inspired more attempts to remake a formula? I know there were a million or so Pulp Fiction knockoffs for a while, but it’s 33 years later and it seems that every other weekend we get a movie that owes something to Rocky. Even a film like Slumdog Millionaire has traces of that story kicking around.
As the series got more puffed up and slick it became easy to forget what a simple little movie Rocky is. It could be a play, even. It is a character study far before it is a sports movie.
For me, Rocky moves into Great Movie Status when Balboa climbs into bed with Adrian and tells her he knows he can’t win, he just wants to go the distance. Such a smart move by Stallone the writer. And my favorite part of the movie is the quick look Apollo gives Rocky toward the end of the 14th round. Creed had just knocked Rocky down. Mickey is begging Rocky to stay down. Adrian comes out of the locker room for the first time. The fight is finally over….except Rocky somehow drags himself up. He motions for Apollo to come after him again. Apollo just looks at him for a second, a little bit of shock, respect, anger and pity all on his face. Best part of any Rocky fight.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? Why isn’t it number one? I’m not sure, I mean it obviously could be. But I still maintain that Rocky isn’t a true “sports movie,” meaning that you could make a non-sports movie with the same characters. I think you could do that with Rocky.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Although Sylvester Stallone famously wrote the first draft of the script in 3 days, it went through nine sizable rewrites before it was purchased by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Originally, Stallone's much darker script depicted Mickey (Burgess Meredith) as a bitter old racist, and the film ended with Rocky throwing the fight after realizing he did not want to be part of the professional boxing world.
1. Slap Shot (1977)
Why it made the cut: I know nothing about low-level minor league hockey and even less about life in a dying mill town, but Slap Shot lets me think, for an hour and a half or so, that I am right in the middle of both. George Roy Hill (director), Nancy Dowd (writer, and it still amazes me that a woman wrote this script) and Paul Newman all deserve the highest of marks for this one.
Now this is a sports movie. Women, vulgarity (I can’t even quote a single great line from this movie here for obvious reasons... technically not true, I guess: “Dave’s A Killer”), violence, revenge, hate, lying and cheating. Just a blast. Seriously, the fashion show scene alone puts this movie in the top 10.
You’ll get no crying in Slap Shot. No morality. No one leaves any smarter. No heroes are developed. All you’ll get is a hockey comedy that is every bit as witty as it is profane.
Thank God for Newman here. I don’t know if it is the leather coat or not, but the guy is Reg Dunlop from second one. He must’ve had a lot of confidence in Roy Hill (his director in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) because there is nothing redeeming about Dunlop. But Newman embraces that. There is a scene early in the movie where he is talking to Lily Braden and a drunk Chiefs fan comes over and tells him to get the power play fixed. Newman just gives the guy a gun salute and wink, as if he has heard that stuff at that bar for 20 years. Perfect reaction.
Favorite IMDB.com Trivia Fact: Al Pacino showed interest in the lead role but fell out with director George Roy Hill after he was asked if he could ice skate (Pacino considered the question "facetious"). Pacino later expressed regret that he had missed out on the film.