I guess I mostly agree with a lot of the standard lists you’ll find looking around the net, but I also have major issues with some of the usual suspects. They’re generally too silly, too implausible, too worshipful, too something. But usually, it’s because the on-field stuff doesn’t cut it. Pride of the Yankees is in this category, as is A League of Their Own (I know, sorry). Also Bad News Bears, which, weirdly, makes many lists you’ll find out there.
To me a great a sports movie has to meet three criteria:
First and foremost, it must be a very good movie, irrespective of the subject matter. In other words, it has to be something that will draw in someone who thinks they hate sports or at least the particular sport the movie in question is about, and it has to keep them engaged throughout.
Second, at least one but preferably both of these things must be true: 1) the on-field stuff has to be completely authentic and believable to someone who is intimately familiar with the game and perhaps has played it at a high level, and 2) the off-field stuff has to be very accurate and make sense.
Third, the movie should be about something more than the sport itself, and being a good love story doesn’t count. It should leave you thinking about it the next day and for a long time after, and it won’t matter if the good guys don’t win the big game. Better if they come up short, actually.
There are very few movies that meet all three of these criteria, so if a flick gets two of the three, it makes my Top Ten, and if it gets one of the three, it gets an Honorable Mention.
So let me start with some Honorable Mentions, in no particular order.
1) Every single “30 for 30” ever made. I’ve seen them all and really like just about every one. Many of them could be in the all-time Top Ten, but I can’t put them there because they’re all documentaries so they really don’t have anything at risk for my Criteria #2. Also, it could be argued that they’re not really “movies” as they were made to be shown on TV, not in the theater, though this distinction is becoming more irrelevant every day.
Here’s a ranking done in 2013 that gives you a flavor, and here’s a more recent Top Ten. But you could pick any one randomly and not be disappointed. I just finished watching the 3-part four-hour long “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies” and wasn’t bored for a second. Of course, that one was about something I did care about, so YMMV.
2) The Hammer. Little seen Adam Carolla project (his politics apparently exclude him from Hollywood promotion), that is very funny, has a heart, and will teach you something about boxing. See if you can find it somewhere – you’ll thank me.
3) North Dallas Forty. Nick Nolte is pretty convincing as a pro wide-out, and Mac Davis is good, too. The locker room and off-field stuff seems about right. Bo Svenson has the best line in the movie: when asking for a raise, “When I call it a business, you call it a game, and when I call it a game, you call it a business.” Tru dat.
4) Eight Men Out. The on-field stuff is not great, but it’s a decent movie about an interesting subject, and they get the gambling culture of the time right. Irritating “dixieland” sound track diminishes it, but worth a watch over all.
5) Mr. Baseball. Tom Selleck, who went to U.S.C. on a basketball scholarship, is clearly a good athlete who looks good swinging the bat, though he did strike out in his one at-bat in a Spring Training game for the Tigers. The subject of ex-Big Leaguers trying to hang on in Japan is a good one, and the movie is as much about Japanese culture as Baseball. Haven’t seen it in a while, but I remember it as meeting at least one and maybe two of my criteria for inclusion, so it’s here. Watch it and then remind me if I’m a moron with a poor memory.
6) The Natural. I’m usually not a big fan of magical interventions in sport, but this is very watchable and Redford looks right.
7) The Longest Yard. Burt Reynolds played college football at Florida State and looks very good here, which qualifies this flick for an Honorable Mention.
8) Field of Dreams. Hmm, maybe I like magical intervention in sports more than I thought, as that’s exactly what this is about. The baseball stuff is OK. James Earl Jones is not my favorite, but Kevin Costner always looks good tossing a ball around. Mainly, it’s a very well-made movie that draws you in. Oh, and good, realistic scenes in Fenway.
9) Major League. Charlie Sheen was a star pitcher and shortstop in high school, and is completely believable in this flick as a big-league pitcher (also as an outfielder in Eight Men Out). Tom Berenger and Corbin Bernsen also look right. This one is a bit formulaic, but scores well on Rotten Tomatoes, so worth a look I think.
10) Fever Pitch. Fantastic aerial pictures of Fenway Park and Boston. Gets the crazy Red Sox fan mentality right. Shot during the 2004 run that broke the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, with ending re-shot after it was already in the can, because there were actual miracles and a story-book ending better than the original screenplay. At bottom, kind of a silly movie, but I like it anyway.
OK, those were the Honorable Mentions . Now here are Stewie’s Top Ten sports movies – again, NOT in order of rank. Just random.
1) Breaking away. I don’t know enough about bike racing to tell you if they have it right here, but I think they do. A very good movie about more than just the sport, in this case town/gown conflicts and family expectations. Lots of good supporting performances.
2) Raging Bull. Many people put this on their all time Best-Movie-Ever-Made list, some even putting it first all time, so it obviously must be included on any Best Sports Movie List. DeNiro-Pesci interactions are brilliant, and Scorsese’s direction of the boxing scenes is extraordinary.
3) The Hustler and The Color of Money. Both well worth the watch. Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman both shot a mean stick in real life, so no coaching or stunt doubles needed in The Hustler. George C. Scott adds a lot, but The Great One steals the flick. In the Color of Money, Tom Cruise does a nice job, and the photography is awesome. Seems to me some real pool hustlers also appear in this one, adding back in any authenticity that Cruise subtracts.
4) White Men Can’t Jump. Wesley Snipes is not really believable as a playground B-ball player, though he does get the trash-talk right. Come to think of it, he wasn’t that believable as a baseball player in Major League, either. Woody Harrelson, strangely, is far more believable and sympathetic, too. A couple of NBA stars, notably Marques Johnson, bring the playground culture to life. Good story, good performances, good movie
5) Bull Durham. Again, Kevin Costner looks good on a baseball field, The flick evokes life in the minors pretty well, I think.
6) Moneyball. Brad Pitt does a great job as a failed major league prospect and front office success. The subject is interesting, and the real-life clips are well-integrated in the story and add authenticity.
7) Bang the Drum Slowly. Robert DeNiro probably isn’t much of an athlete, but then neither was Bruce Pearson, the back-up catcher he plays here. Michael Moriarty is excellent, evoking Tom Seaver to me for some reason, and the off-field stuff is well done. Good story, good movie.
8) Hoosiers. I like Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, so I was probably going to like this movie no matter what. Somewhat predictable story, though based on real events, so I shouldn’t complain about that. Nice portrayal of small-town basketball culture.
9) Chariots of Fire. Won “Best Picture” and is about sports, so, uh, yeah.
10) The Fighter. Christian Bale is brilliant as is Melissa Leo. Her litter of daughters is perfection. Evokes down-in-the-mouth Lowell, Mass. just right. Mark Wahlberg is excellent and more than believable as Micky Ward. And, for a change, good Boston accents all around (easy for Wahlberg, a tour-de-force for Bale).
OK sports fans, where did I screw up and what did I leave out?