The real drama of sports is hard to capture through the one-dimensional lens of a television camera filming players throwing, catching or shooting a ball. There are so many dynamics that comprise the simple mechanics of sports. Love, friendship, race, humour, and class… the list is seemingly endless. That is why sports films, whether completely fictional or accurate (or lingering somewhere in between), are crucial to and can be so influential in our understanding of sports and athletes. Watching someone catch a ball is simple enough. Comprehending the depth of effort that led that person to be able to catch that ball in triple coverage is a whole different story. Films help us achieve this nuanced understanding.
There are so many classic sports films that it would be a disservice to cinematography to claim that this list is all-encompassing. This is simply my own personal list of the films that I both enjoyed and strongly believe possess artistic merit. The list spans the realm of athletics, from hockey to pool to horseracing, and while I attempted to include a wide variety of sports, I am a firm believer that baseball and football movies tend to be the greatest.
Sports films possess the power to inspire with some of the most motivational quotes in the annals of cinematography. “Ducks fly together.” “I don’t want them to gain another yard.” “Legends never die.” “If you do that, you’ll be perfect.” Haunting lines that are forever immortalized in the hearts and minds of sports fans and non-fans alike. And that is the true beauty of sports films; that they can unite the most die-hard sports fan with a person who has never seen a Super Bowl.
Spoiler Alert: While I have tried to avoid any major spoilers throughout the article, I would suggest skipping over any films you haven’t seen.
20 Major League
19 The Rookie
The Rookie is based on a true story and follows the brief, but memorable career of Jim Morris, who, in 1999, became the oldest MLB rookie to pitch a game in over 40 years. Morris actually makes a cameo as an umpire in the film, which is based off the book The Oldest Rookie.
18 D2: The Mighty Ducks
17 Happy Gilmore
Adam Sandler plays a wanna-be hockey player turned golf pro who has to take on Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald) for the club championship in order to rescue his financially strapped grandmother. With the help of his one-handed tutor, Chubbs (Carl Weathers), a “450-yard drive” and his beautiful girlfriend Virginia (Julie Bowen), Happy takes on the malevolent McGavin.
16 Friday Night Lights
15 Bull Durham
12 Coach Carter
11 The Color of Money
10 Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams encapsulates the real-life struggles and triumphs of rural America and how and why baseball has captured the hearts and minds of so many Americans. As Roger Ebert writes, “It’s a religious picture, all right, but the religion is baseball… There is a speech in this movie about baseball that is so simple and true that it is heartbreaking.”
Based loosely off the book by the same name, the film explores the life and times of Seabiscuit, the incredible racing horse whose unparalleled exploits during the Great Depression lifted the spirits of many across the demoralized nation. It is the story about how sometimes humans believe we are the only ones in control, and yet we forget how beholden we are to the forces of nature.
8 Jerry Maguire
Based on the book by the same name, Moneyball fields a true all-star cast of actors, but its impact off the screen and on the field may be what it is most remembered for. The story tracks the true story of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane in 2002 as he endeavors to put together a winning baseball team on a shoestring budget.
5 The Rocky Franchise
4 Raging Bull
3 Remember the Titans
Remember the Titans comes in at number three for telling one of many stories that demonstrate the integral role that sports (especially football) played in the Civil Rights Movement. Based on a true story, the film follows the story of Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington) in his attempts to integrate the racially divided football team at T.C. Williams High School in the North Virginia City of Alexandria.
At the time of the film’s release, Roger Ebert wrote that, "Victories over racism and victories over opposing teams alternate so quickly that sometimes we're not sure if we're cheering for tolerance or touchdowns. Real life is never this simple, but then that's what the movies are for.”
1 Any Given Sunday
Featuring an epic ensemble cast and a few great cameos, this film proves that anything can happen in football on “… any given Sunday.” Directed by Oliver Stone, the film’s blend of on and off-the-field action is pulled off seamlessly, which is a rarity amongst sports movies.
Critic Andrew Johnston (no relation) wrote, "It's often been said of films about sports that smaller balls equal better movies. Any Given Sunday explodes that theory, and not just because of the incredible intensity of its gridiron action. [The film] looks at the world of professional football from almost every conceivable angle, but it never tries to be the definitive statement on the subject.” If you’re going to watch one football movie in order to try to better understand the sport, you can’t go wrong with Any Given Sunday. If nothing else, for Al Pacino's epic locker room speech.
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