From two categories of film that are difficult to define, particularly independently of one another, we move to a genre that could not be more recognizable: the sports movie. Ostensibly, the only requirement here is that the film in some way deals with sports. Assuming that needs no further explanation, we press on with the top ten must see sports films:
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Hinging on the performance of the great Walter Matthau, Bad News Bears is a sports movie about people who have no business playing sports. It is billed as a family film, but I would not risk watching it with too many mothers in the room. The line between disquietingly vulgar and disarmingly sweet is a thin one, but the vulgarity is what keeps this movie grounded in reality. And, the reality is that these are a bunch of normal kids, not sweet, not sentimental, just neighborhood kids, who only want to play the game.
Certainly the best sports comedy of all time, if not one of the best comedies ever made, Caddyshack features Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Rodney Dangerfield, all in top form. The plot about Danny Noonan having to decide whether to sell out to the judge for the college scholarship is fine. But, really, the movie is about watching a series of gags headlined by Murray and Chase, all leading up to their one and only meeting: a marijuana fueled spectacle of improvisation and hilarity.
The Cannonball Run
For the pure damn fun of it all, The Cannonball Run is really the only car race movie that ever needs to be seen. It has everything that all the other movies have, but it has the self-awareness to play it up for the camp value that it intrinsically has. So, if you like Burt Reynolds, cars, or just want to watch one hell of a goofy sports movie, this is probably the film to watch.
A documentary, but no less a sports film for it, Hoop Dreams is a testament to dedication and perseverance, not just of the subjects, but of the filmmakers as well. Roger Ebert called it the best movie of ‘90s. This is a hard statement to argue with considering that this odyssey of a film was shot over a period of six years, during which the filmmakers inserted themselves fully into the lives of the two players they document. The film is about basketball, but it is also about race and class and about the only way out of the ghetto for two young boys.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Kind of like The 400 Blows for track runners, Tony Richardson’s film is a revelatory experience about life and regret as told through the eyes of a boy on the verge of manhood. The success of this film is in the way Richardson shows the intangible contemplations of his lead character, whose life has certainly not gone the way he had hoped. Tom Courtenay, in only his second film, is brilliant as the physical epitome of his own inner conflict.
Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël)
Tragic and beautiful, this heartbreaking film tells the story of a Christmas Eve truce called between the French and German soldiers during the First World War. With the bloodiest war in human history behind and in front of them, they all cease to be soldiers and become simply human, and for one fleeting moment, there is hope. That is the tragedy of the film: that no matter how equal they are on the playing field and in their hearts, tomorrow, they will attempt to kill one another, for no reason except that they are told to.
A towering epic of cinematic achievement, Martin Scorsese uses the boxing in this film as a metaphor for the life of Jake La Motta, portrayed irreplaceably by Robert Deniro. La Motta’s life was one of constant pain and turmoil, which only made sense when it came in the quantifiable blows of his opponents. Scorsese’s film is about a man-child who is so ill-equipped for life that he must exorcise his demons the only way he knows how: with his fists.
Endlessly sentimental, this film is the definition of an underdog story. Sean Astin stars as the eponymous wannabe football player, and he has never been better (all apologies to fans of the Lord of the Rings franchise). Astin perfectly embodies the scrappy steel mill worker who is barely fit for that particular profession, let alone playing college football with one of the best teams in the nation. The film is strung together by a seemingly never-ending series of triumphs and tragedies, but the build up to the final triumph is well worth wading through the sentiment.
A Paul Newman hockey comedy, Slap Shot is the kind of movie that defies description, which is part of what makes it a must see. The other part is the fact that the movie truly is hilarious, if only for the utter absurdity of the violence and brutality. If the film were not so invested in its revelry for the sport, it could almost be considered a commentary on the reality of the violence in hockey. As it is though, it is an enjoyable, if dark, farcical film about some guys who can not really play hockey but can fight pretty damn well.
This Sporting Life
Employing the naturalistic feel of the British New Wave, Lindsay Anderson pulls no punches (quite literally) in showing the hardscrabble world of British rugby. Featuring an Oscar- nominated performance by Richard Harris, This Sporting Life is, like Raging Bull and so many other sports films, about a man whose real life seems incomprehensible but who is in complete control of himself when he is on the field.
Because I tried as much as possible to vary the sports in the above films, I was obliged to leave out some wonderful films. Here are five other sports films worth viewing:
Eight Men Out; Hoosiers; The Longest Yard; The Pride of the Yankees; Rocky