Three weeks ago I wrote a post titled 100 Greatest Sports Movies?, where I took a look at the top 10 of someone else’s list of sports movies and had some commentary on them. At that time I said I was going to have my own top list of my favorite sports movies because, well, I just felt left out of that other list.
When you put together a list like this, you have to take certain things into concern. First, you have to select movies that you’ll watch more than once; I’ve done that for every movie on this list except one, and I’ll explain that one. Second, it has to have some kind of meaning for you. And third,… well, third is that you just had to enjoy it, whether it was important or not. For instance, I’ll tell you early on that the first 3 Rocky movies are on this list, but you’ll be stunned at the order I put them in and, after putting my list together, I even surprised myself that the first Rocky movie isn’t the highest rated one for me.
Does this movie lean American; oh yes, yes it does. No soccer, no Olympic sports, though there is one movie here that’s not quite a sports movie, yet it portrays something that was supposed to be a sport so I’m including it.
Without further ado, let’s get this debate on!
20. Rollerball – Rollerball isn’t really a sports, but it was supposed to portray a futuristic version of roller derby, which some still don’t think is a sport. I’m talking about the original version here, with James Caan, and this was just great movie making that was compelling for a nonexistent sport. They don’t put this one on all that often, but if I’m ever lucky enough to catch it I watch it every time.
19. Bad News Bears – This was a movie I could identify with because I was young at the time it came out, though older than most of these kids. It was funny as sin, about baseball, and starred Walter Mathieu and Tatum O’Neil.
18. North Dallas Forty – Folks missed the reality of this movie, thinking of it mainly as a comedy. Some thought it was loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys, and that could be somewhat true, but it was really an indictment of what professional football is really about. If any of you read Tim Green’s book The Dark Side of the Game, you’ll realize just how true that movie was to reality.
17. Fear Strikes Out – While most people thought the crowning glory for Anthony Perkins was his performance in Psycho, I went a different direction and thought his portrayal of Jimmy Piersall, a baseball player with immense talent who had a mental breakdown because of the pressure put on him by his father, was some of the best acting I’d ever seen.
16. The Longest Yard – Forget the Adam Sandler version of this movie and look for the Burt Reynolds performance instead. This movie came out of nowhere and instantly became one of my favorite movies. It’s about a former professional football player who was thrown out of the game for accepting gambling money to throw games, ends up in prison for stealing a car, creates a prison football team to play against the guards, then has his integrity tested again for a chance to earn himself some favors. It’s gritty and sexy and way before its time.
15. Ali – Man, who know Will Smith could pull this off? His performance garnered him an Oscar nomination, and many people saw a side of Muhammad Ali that they may never have known existed. But there’s a surprise on this list; wait for it.
14. Space Jam – Okay, it’s Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, but it’s still basketball and, well, it’s Michael Jordan AND Bugs Bunny!
13. Rocky – This movie was great, gritty, realistic, and no one saw it becoming as popular as it did. It was based on a true story that many people didn’t recognize, that being the life of Chuck Wepner, who had a shot at fighting Muhammad Ali for the championship. That a movie this great ended up at #13 on my list, as much as I enjoyed it, means that the movies ahead of it must mean something more to me.
12. The Hustler – This movie starred Paul Newman and a different Jackie Gleason that people didn’t recognize had this kind of talent at the time. It received 9 Oscar nominations, and for a movie about two pool sharks going at each other, that’s just phenomenal. It was also strange that Jackie Gleason’s character was based on and named after the real Minnesota Fats, who used to be on TV all the time back in the day doing all these trick shots.
11. Brian’s Song – This is the movie on the list that I’ve never been able to really watch ever again after the first time, yet it affected me so much that it had to be on my list. This was the first movie that almost made me cry when I was a kid, the true story of both the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, the first time a black and white football player ever shared the same room, and of course Piccolo’s losing battle with cancer. Man, there was a lot of guy crying in that movie; I just won’t go there again, and I almost feel like crying writing about it, which shows how powerful a story it was. Man, was that really more than 30 years ago?
10. The Jackie Robinson Story – This was an important movie and an enjoyable one as well, but no one would ever say it was well acted. That’s because Jackie Robinson played himself, and as the guy who integrated the major leagues, that was a pretty great accomplishment. It was about a real as it could be for its time; if they’d put the language and abuse that he really had to deal with… well, there isn’t a theater in the country that would have shown it back in the day.
9. A League Of Their Own – “There’s no crying in baseball!” Who doesn’t know that line that lives in the United States? After all, it’s “only” the 54th rated line ever in movie history. Women baseball players during World War II, and they were talented as well. This was based on a true story, and I watched this movie over and over. That neither Geena Davis or Lori Petty were nominated for Oscars from this movie was a travesty.
8. Million Dollar Baby – This movie got, and won, lots of Oscars. I wasn’t ever going to watch this movie because, well, I just wasn’t interested. Then one evening I did sit down and watch it, and it’s great. Women boxing was just the subtext to the entire thing, as it’s mainly about an old boxing manager who gets a shot at redemption. I never saw the ending coming, and truthfully, to this date I’ll only watch the movie up until the time she gets injured; those of you who’ve seen it knows what happens, and those of you who don’t… you need to see this movie.
7. Rocky II – Here’s the second Rocky movie, and it was great theater. It wasn’t as gritty as the first one, since this time around he got real money to clean it up some. But it was a very compelling movie, and I like how they highlighted the angst of Apollo Creed trying to deal with the fact that he just couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t beat a club fighter the first time around. That Sly Stallone would share the stage that way with another actor was one of the best things he could have ever done.
6. The Greatest – Here’s the surprise; Ali playing Ali and doing the same things Will Smith did in the second movie first. Both movies were based on Ali’s autobiography called, what else, The Greatest. I will say that this version left out some of the, well, naughty things that Ali did, but otherwise it was a truthful representation of his book. And Ali really wasn’t all that bad, as this clip shows.
5. Pride of the Yankees – You’ve all heard of Lou Gehrig’s disease; this was the movie about Lou Gehrig. Gary Cooper was the perfect every man actor, and I just can’t think of anyone else who could have played this role and made it believable from that era. From what I hear, Lou Gehrig really was as nice as this movie portrayed him to be, and of all things, the movie has Babe Ruth in it as well. Talk about movies that almost made me cry; add this one to the list. But I can watch this one over and over and do okay with it, maybe because it doesn’t linger as much on his illness as Brian’s Song did.
4. The Great White Hope – Did I ever mention that there are a lot of people who think I look like James Earl Jones? I’m missing it, but this movie is one that was so controversial when it came out that it didn’t play in many parts of the country. It started out as a show in NYC, where you can do anything, and it’s the story of Jack Johnson, who just might be the best heavyweight fighter in history, a black man with a white wife who decided to throw things in the face of white America as opposed to trying to be a good example. It got him thrown in jail, probably throwing a fight, and in the end the first millionaire boxer left this earth penniless and ended the opportunity for black fighters to compete for a championship for almost 30 years.
3. Rocky III – Yeah, I know what some of you are thinking; why is this movie rated by me so high. Because it entertained me more than you could imagine. It introduced Mr. T to us, and is had some of the best lines that I still use to this day. No, it wasn’t great theater like the first two, but it was cut well, very entertaining, and introduced a lot of the world to Hulk Hogan. It outgrossed both of the previous Rocky movies at the theaters, was considered one of the best movies of 1982, and taught us all the line “I pity the fool.”
2. Raging Bull – What’s this, 3 boxing movies in a row? Hey, that’s just how it goes. And this one was the king of them all, about Jake LaMotta, a bad guy who, for some reason, was very compelling to the public. He had 5 fights with Sugar Ray Robinson and won one of them to become the middleweight champion of the world. This movie was shot in black and white, and Robert DeNiro, who won the Oscar for his performance, had to gain and lose significant weight for the role during the movie; that just rarely ever happens, even now. It also really introduced Joe Pesci to us; man, I love his movies!
1. The Natural – As I said in the first post, this is my favorite sports movie of all time, and is in my top 5 movies of all time as well. It’s a beautifully shot movie of old baseball. It was nominated for 4 Oscars, including the score by Randy Newman. Robert Redford didn’t get a nomination, which is a travesty if you ask me. At this stage it’s considered one of the most beloved movies of all time, earning a 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yeah, they changed the ending from the book; they better had!