Here we are again for the top five of my favorite sports movies and – almost like a blast from Roy Hobbs’ ‘Wonderboy’ – I feel slightly out of it, believing that I should maybe have created a top 20 instead of top 10. Too late now, unfortunately.
But that does mean Paul Newman hockey comedy Slap Shot from 1977 is not going to make the cut. The same goes for Touching The Void, although maybe I should have pointed out earlier than documentaries were never going to make the list anyway. Still, Touching The Void is an incredible 2003 movie that tells the story of two foolhardy climbers that come very close to death on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes back in 1985. Watch this movie and be equally flabbergasted by their idiocy and astounded by their bravery.
Many of you will have watched and loved, for some reason, Escape To Victory – a truly awful soccer movie from 1981 that stars Sylvester Stallone being out acted by a crossbar. Soccer might be the biggest sport on the planet – and my favorite sport – but there seems to be a problem creating believable action scenes. Sly does not make the top 100!
Bend It Like Beckham is a fun soccer movie released in 2002, but that, too – even with Keira Knightley running about in shorts – doesn’t get beyond the first round, while the urge to include John Candy movie Cool Runnings was almost overwhelming. This 1993 Disney (not them again!) comedy about the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s attempts to make the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary is just so entertaining. Hmmm…it’s No.11, though.
Football comedy-drama Jerry Maguire, from 1996, doesn’t get in because of two words: Tom Cruise. Need I say more? For some of you, that’s probably a yes. Along with Canoe Reeves (he is that wooden), Nic Cage and Ronald Reagan, Cruise just winds me up. I see a film with him in it and I want to slap the casting director with a hockey stick so hard they’ll surely never give employment to that annoying so and so ever again. Oh, and Renee Zellweger’s in it, as well – making this a double whammy of annoyance. Show me the money? Show me the exit, please! Incidentally, director Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous would make my top five music-based non-doc movies.
OK, enough with movies that failed to break the top 10. I’ll return to that come full-time, when some of you will be left fuming by my exclusion of one particular iconic movie from the mid-1970s.
So, what’s No.5 on my list? You know what, I’m going to tell you. It’s my duty. It’s Caddyshack. Chevy Chase might be listed as the leading actor – and he is good – in this 1980 comedy about the crazy world of an exclusive golf club, but the stars of the show are undoubtedly Bill Murray, as Carl Spackler, and a gopher hand puppet. I can’t help but smile as I recall that cute little rodent somehow evading greenkeeper Murray’s attempts to kill it by wiring the majority of a golf course with plastic explosives.
The other storylines within this movie only serve to allow Murray this final, furious attempt to wipe out the beast. But, even though Spackler destroys the course – which I’m all for, by the way, as golf has to be hated – the gopher emerges unharmed to boogie on down to Kenny Loggins’ song I’m Alright as the credits roll.
I hear cries of: ‘How can this fool place Caddyshack above The Hustler or to the exclusion of Slap Shot?’ It’s easy, really. No other sports movie makes me smile so readily. That is enough for me, if not the movie’s naysayers.
At No.4 is Any Given Sunday. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino has to be mentioned immediately for his stunning success in filming the football action in this 1999 Oliver Stone movie. The movie’s tagline was: Life is a contact sport. If, after viewing Totino’s work, anyone is still not convinced that football is an incredibly dangerous and at times thrilling sport (in small doses), then they haven’t been watching the same film as me.
I should once again call attention to the fact that I’m no lover of football. Soccer is my game. But you won’t see any soccer movies on this list as they are pretty well all trash. Only footage captured during real soccer matches can provide the excitement of that sport, in my experience – and the storylines within soccer movies for some reason just don’t seem to work. The Damned United is the exception, but that film really concerns one personality, that of the legendary Brian Clough, and does not supply enough sporting action to make my top 10. Sadly.
Also, for all you soccer fans out there who don’t support a massively successful club, check out last year’s Blue Moon Rising to experience the highs and, mostly, lows of following Manchester City. Actually, I suspect all sports fans can relate to this, even if you don’t enjoy soccer.
Back to Any Given Sunday, then, and the story of a struggling fictional side, the Miami Sharks, and its aging coach, Tony D’Amato – played by Al Pacino – which receives what appears a fatal blow to its hopes when the superstar quarterback, portrayed by Dennis Quaid, is injured. Up steps third-choice QB William Beamen, however, with Jamie Foxx’s character gratefully grasping hold of what is surely his last chance at making the big time.
D’Amato is forced to reassess his views on the game, while Cameron Diaz’s character, new president/co-owner Christina Pagniacci, applies additional pressure on the coach to bring success to the franchise.
As stated earlier, the on-field action – notably featuring genuine pros again, including then San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens – is so well shot that you can almost smell the players’ sweat. But the off-field action is compelling, too, showing the game’s development into little more than a means to market products. Big business rules and players and coaches are just tools to sell goods. Very few films even pay fleeting attention to such practices, but this confronts it head-on and is the better for doing so.
Incidentally, it has been rumored that the NFL was so concerned about the game’s image being tainted with this film that it attempted to ban players from appearing on screen. Thankfully, Terrell and a few others defied the league to provide the football scenes with an added depth and realism. Spectacular.
That takes us to the top three. ‘Finally,’ I hear some of you murmur. Prepare for a few surprises. Lest you forget, I’m Scottish so there WILL be a shock or maybe even three.
Seabiscuit is my choice to fill the No.3 spot. It is probable that the majority of people won’t have seen this movie. It is, after all, about horse racing. However, as with the bulk of sports movies, there is an almost universal theme of the underdog succeeding. But, unlike many, this is a true story. That just makes it even more enjoyable, of course.
The 2003 release – directed by Gary Ross – can be seen as a movie about redemption. However, it’s not just the titular character seeking salvation as irascible jockey Red Pollard (Toby Maguire), aging trainer Tom Smith (Paul Vincent O’Connor) and failed businessman Charles Howard – played by the fabulous Jeff Bridges – team up to give the racing game one last shot.
Set during The Depression in 1930s United States, this movie is fascinating. Some critics referred to it as ‘Rocky-with-hooves’, but this is so much more than that overblown piece of nonsense. Sorry, all you Rocky fans. I find that movie schmaltzy, gimmicky and, most importantly, tedious. Two hours of my life I can never get back.
Anyway, before I digress once too often, Seabiscuit – having been ill treated for so long – appears to thrive under Pollard and begins winning race after race. But many within the business believe the quartet to be nothing more than a novelty that will soon fade. Among those critics is Samuel Riddle, who owns War Admiral – the 1937 Triple Crown winner.
However, Riddle agrees to a race, ‘The Match of the Century’, on November 1, 1938. There might never have been a more apparent David versus Goliath event in sport. But I won’t reveal the outcome. Rent this movie.
The racing scenes are phenomenal – shot by John Schwartzman – and the action engrossing. Unfortunately, although nominated for seven Oscars, Seabiscuit garnered none – mainly because of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
Still no sign of your favorite? Never mind. For my runner-up, it has to be Chariots of Fire, from 1981. Almost a true story, there is – as is expected with any movie – a certain amount of creative license. Can you hear Vangelis’ theme tune yet? See the athletes running along a St Andrews beach? They must have been freezing. I’ve played field hockey close by to that beach. That’s the North Sea out there, guys and gals. Brrrrrrrrrrrr…
Succinctly, this British movie tells the tale of two athletes aiming to compete at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. English Jew Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) feels compelled to run to fight against prejudice, while Scottish Christian Eric Liddell – played by Ian Charleson – places his need for speed squarely at the feet of God.
These contrasts in inspiration make for a gripping movie, while the many other side plots – such as Liddell’s refusal to run on the Sabbath and Abrahams’ defeat by American athletes before his eventual triumph – add many layers and textures to this marvelous movie.
Cinematographer David Watkin – under Hugh Hudson’s direction – again brings to life the excitement of competition, and also provides countless beautifully filmed scenes within a fully realized and breathtaking rendering of 1920s Britain. A masterpiece.
Uh oh, it’s time to reveal my No.1 sports movie. No, it’s not Raging Bull. Don’t like boxing, don’t enjoy boxing movies. So there. Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp!
The likelihood is you have never seen the movie I am proposing as THE GREATEST SPORTS FILM OF ALL TIME. If you have, you are almost certainly British and of, shall we say, a certain age. Ahem. Before I do name this classic, please, please, please watch this film at the earliest possible date. You won’t regret it.
Right, let the trumpets sound and bring on the drum roll. Straight in at No.1 is This Sporting Life. Be honest – how many of you have even heard of this 1963 movie, let alone seen it? Believe me when I saw it is brilliant. This is no ordinary sports movie; it’s about rugby league. For the uninitiated, rugby league is similar to football…but without the helmets.
Like its North American counterpart, raw aggression is paramount, as is skill, of course. The naturalism of the sporting action seeps into the off-field scenes of the movie, too, infusing the film with a gritty realism rarely seen in a sports movie. I’ve included comedies and dramas in the previous nine movies, but there is nothing amusing or overly dramatic about Lindsay Anderson’s direction here. Shot in black and white, that only seems to add to the drama of a movie based on the award-winning David Storey novel.
Richard Harris is astounding as Frank Machin, a ferociously angry young man who plays rugby league in a northern English town, Wakefield. He takes lodgings with Mrs. Hammond (Rachel Roberts) and, although somewhat fond of the widow, does not make a move for the rather staid and cold woman.
It’s not an easy watch, however, draining the viewer. But the ultimate enjoyment here is found when being immersed in character development, and the passions, sporting and sexual, which seem to simmer along just under the surface – to explode on screen when Harris takes to the field.
Denys Coop’s cinematography is, as it must be, brilliant. The rugby scenes are marvelously shot, with the use of slow motion adding a new level of magnificence to Harris’ agile athleticism.
Both leads were nominated for Oscars, but lost out to Sidney Poitier – in Lilies of the Field – and Patricia Neal for Hud. Of course, I disagree with those decisions, but, no matter, This Sporting Life is still the best sports film I have ever seen.
By the way, ‘Wonderboy’ is the bat Robert Redford – as Hobbs – uses in baseball classic The Natural, which pained me to leave off this list.
Let the criticism begin…