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
Before Charlie Sheen went completely off the rails, he played pitcher Ricky Vaughn, also known as “Wild Thing”, who makes the ladies’ hearts sing and is on the brink of his own collapse. Vaughn and company must save a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians, whose new owner wants to move the team and, thus, fields the biggest bunch of misfits she can find in order to sink attendance. When your team needs voodoo in order to “wake up bats”, you know you’re in some trouble, but the squad performs admirably (and hilariously) despite a team plane that nearly falls out of the sky. And, if nothing else, watch the movie to see Chuck Sheen get punched in the face.
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.
While one might expect this Disney production to be over-sentimentalized and overwrought with simplistic tropes, the director John Hancock does an excellent job capturing the nuanced drama between father and son. Derrick Malcolm of The Guardian wrote: “Hancock orchestrates his story with just enough affection to suggest that, even if baseball is no longer America's favourite sport, it still has mythic qualities that nothing else can equal.”
18 D2: The Mighty Ducks
The first Mighty Ducks has its charm and there are certainly some funny moments in D3, but the middle child of the Ducks franchise is the unparalleled classic. The Bash Brothers, Goldberg’s off and on-ice antics and the introduction of the knucklepuck, the film flows seamlessly and the franchise is at its comedic best throughout. Not to mention Gordon Bombay, “the Minnesota Miracle Man”, is in his prime when facing off against his true rival, Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson. After this movie, you’ll never forget the lyrics to “We Are The Champions” again.
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.
With an epic cameo from Ben Stiller, as well as Bob Barker, a mini-golf clown that takes a beating and a totally new method for hitting a drive or putting, Happy Gilmore will not be forgotten easily and is, perhaps, Sandler’s greatest film, with the possible exception of Billy Madison. Now that I’m done, “How about a nice warm glass of shut the hell up?”
16 Friday Night Lights
Based on the book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and a Dream, Director Pete Berg’s film takes us to Odessa and investigates the intertwined relationship between football and high school life in Texas. Billy Bob Thorton pulls off a masterful performance as the omnipotent Coach Gaines, who rules over his players and the town with an (eventually broken) iron fist. Like many great sports films, the director uses sports as a lens to explore more important issues, such as racism and socio-economic disparities. Indeed, while many residents in Odessa despised the author and his book; they came to love its cinematic adaptation.
15 Bull Durham
This is not your typical romantic comedy. Bull Durham takes place in Durham, North Carolina and centers around the town’s minor league baseball club. Based loosely off the real-life exploits of writer/director Rob Shelton, the film is a nuanced take on the relationship between love and sports. One critic wrote that the movie "works equally as a love story, a baseball fable and a comedy, while ignoring the clichés of each genre." Sports Illustrated ranked it as the greatest sports movie of all time in 2003. If that doesn’t sell you, then watch it simply for the breathtaking skill and beauty of actress Susan Sarandon.
Perhaps the greatest hockey film of all time, Miracle chronicles the upset victory of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team over the heavily favoured Soviets. Despite coming from a variety of different backgrounds and places from across the United States, coach Herb Brooks unites the team and completely upends traditional Olympic strategies. Brooks must battle against bitter, old college rivalries that flare up at his very first practice where two of his players try to punch each other out, which both players claimed in interviews wasn’t that far off from the real story. Though the movie sometimes strays into the realm of overused, simplified patriotic clichés, you can’t help but get caught up in the drama and root for the underdog Americans.
Rudy tells the story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his dreams of playing for the University of Notre Dame in spite of his significant lack of talent. This isn’t your typical Hollywood, emotionally manipulative film; it gets to the core of human determination and resolve. At the time of its release, Steven Holden of the New York Times asserted that, "For all its patness, the movie also has a gritty realism that is not found in many higher-priced versions of the same thing, and its happy ending is not the typical Hollywood leap into fantasy."
12 Coach Carter
With another one of Samuel L. Jackson’s epic performances, the film details the true story of the Richmond High School basketball team, which attained national fame after coach Ken Carter benched his undefeated squad for their shoddy academic performance. The film is ostensibly a basketball flick, but it is so much more than that. It is about the powerful impact that a genuine role model can have on impressionable young minds. The film finds its strength from its powerful lead actor and demonstrates the potent effect that sports can have on improving and changing the course of economically disadvantaged youth from the inner city.
11 The Color of Money
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring the legendary Paul Newman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, The Color of Money (the sequel to The Hustler) details the life and times of Edward “Fast Eddie” Felson 20 years after the original. Eddie spends his time as a stakehorse and pool shark and takes on an apprentice Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, trying to teach him that “pool excellence is not about excellent pool.” The movie is worth watching simply for its classic soundtrack, Newman’s acting ability and Cruise’s ridiculous hair.
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.”
The film is aptly titled because much of it is not firmly grounded in reality, per say. However, that doesn’t mean that it cannot make meaningful pronouncements on the nature of life and sports. Suspension of disbelief is critical to a deeper appreciation of this American classic.
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.
“You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn't. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too."
8 Jerry Maguire
Based on the life of Leigh Steinberg, played by Tom Cruise, Jerry Maguire examines an often overlooked part of the sporting world: the role of the sports agent. Because of their non-existent role on the field, many forget that agents comprise a necessary cog in the wheel of sports. With a flawless blend of on-the-field action, off-the-field drama, comedy and romance, the film was nominated for five academy awards with Cuba Gooding Jr. taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Jerry Maguire has left a powerful cultural impact across North America, immortalizing such lines as “Show me the money!” and “You had me at hello.”
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.
The movie is not simply a tale of nerds who win over the world; however the legacy of both of the film and the book may be their impact on the sporting world’s views on advanced statistics. While statistical analysis obviously played an integral role before Moneyball, the film definitely jump-started the growing awareness surrounding the importance of sound statistical study.
The greatest sports comedy of all time features a legendary cast of characters, though Bill Murray’s portrayal of Carl Spackler stands above the rest. If you’ve ever hit the links, then you’ve got to see this film about “some people [that] just don’t belong.” Caddyshack has amassed a loyal cult following and even Tiger Woods called it his favourite film. A review on Rotten Tomatoes says: “Though unabashedly crude and juvenile, Caddyshack nevertheless scores with its classic slapstick, unforgettable characters, and endlessly quotable dialogue.” Now, “how ‘bout a Fresca?”
5 The Rocky Franchise
Though I must admit that I am personally not a fan of this franchise, it cannot be excluded on any list of the greatest sports movie, simply due to its undeniable legacy. With numerous spinoffs, satirical remakes and cultural references, the Rocky franchise is a pop cultural phenomenon, plain and simple. Sylvester Stallone does some of his finest work as lead actor and writer and the movies' popularity speaks for itself, with a stunning five sequels and an Academy Award for Best Picture to its credit. The training montages are genius and, for anyone who has ever visited city of brotherly love, you would be missing out if you never ran the famous steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
4 Raging Bull
Adapted from Jake LaMotta’s memoir and featuring the dream team combination of director Martin Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, Raging Bull is the story of a man who cannot control his most carnal, base human urges. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, with De Niro eventually taking home Best Actor honours, the film was a bomb at the box office, despite now being regarded as one of the greatest films in American cinematographic history. Coincidentally, the film’s creation was set in motion on the set of one the greatest films ever made, The Godfather Part II, when De Niro read the book and became enraptured by LaMotta.
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.”
Indeed, this is no documentary, but there is a beautiful truth about the harmonizing role that sport has played over the course of American history. The film is interlaced with beautiful music and its instrumental score was so uplifting that it has been used at numerous Olympics and following Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech.
Undoubtedly the greatest basketball film of all time, Hoosiers follows a fictional small-town Indiana team’s journey that is somewhat based on the Milan High School’s 1954 championship run. The film is a straightforward narrative about small-town sports and the relationship between the coach and the high-strung parents; but one cannot dismiss this story for its simplicity. It is a tale wrought with emotionally complex characters and the perils of small-town America. Gene Hackman pulls off a masterful performance as head coach Norman Dale and though you may recognize elements of the plot in other movies, you will never forget the multi-dimensional characters.
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.