In America, football season is well underway, baseball is in the playoffs, hockey just started and basketball is just around the corner. If you love sports this is the best time of the year. What better time to go all-sports nerd and look for some great sports films? There are so many to choose from: do we go serious, do we go funny (Will Ferrell lives for this genre), what about uplifting? A great sports film does a little bit of everything. Since they can be so cliche they need to work harder to be great. We would love to hear from you on your favorites, but here are ours.
I honestly rarely enjoy a funny sports film, outside of maybe Slapshot, The Longest Yard, and Rocky IV. I want my sports films to be uplifting and dramatic. I wish there were more good football films like there are baseball. Baseball and boxing seem to lead the way. I have always loved sports movies. When I was a kid I remember The Bad News Bears franchise, which didn’t age well at all, or Brian’s Song. Brian’s Song, about the friendship of Chicago Bear’s players Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, will make any grown man cry. I thought about documentaries and there are some good ones out there such as Murderball or When We Were Kings, but I decided to stick to pure film. Ken Burn’s baseball is also an amazing documentary that I had to leave off. Also, I decided not to entertain the sports of tennis, auto-racing, karate, cycling, golf, running, or dodgeball for my 3 choices.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
As a long standing Red Sox fan it pains me to love a movie about a New York Yankee. The Yankee’s are the premier baseball franchise and have many more movies to choose from. The Red Sox have the 1957 decent biopic Fear Strikes Out about Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) a ball player battling mental illness and the dreadful Fever Pitch with Jimmy Fallon. The Pride of the Yankees is a classic relatively by the numbers biopic of Yankee legend Lou Gehrig. It shows his rise to greatness, his consecutive games streak (only matched by Cal Ripken) and then his fall into illness. He was nicknamed the “Iron Horse” and Gary Cooper plays him with integrity and courage. I don’t know if the real Lou Gehrig was this cool, but he is played as a great guy. The film has great locations as we see many scenes from the stadiums of the 40’s most gone today. the film received many Oscar nominations and won one. Cooper would get his for Sgt York. Outside of baseball we all know the name Lou Gehrig for the disease that he acquired now known as ALS. The end tugs at the heart strings kind of like Brian’s Song. His real life Yankee Stadium speech is played with a bit for dramatic effect but the words are some of the most well-known to old time baseball fans, “People all say that I’ve had a bad break. But today … today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Cooper’s delivery always gives me chills.
Bonus: An aging Babe Ruth plays himself and shows the dynamic between an established player and one rising to become on the same level.
MG: I can’t say that I ever saw this film, but I’ve heard of its greatness. I am shocked that you could like a film about the Yankees considering your die-hard, life-long Red Sox fandom. Perhaps someday a quality Red Sox film will be made – “Fever Pitch” certainly does not qualify. Maybe there’s a good drama to be made about the life of Bill Buckner?
Rocky III (1982)
Boxing is such a fun sport on the big screen. Going back to 1942 and Errol Flynn’s Gentleman Jim up to last year’s Creed II boxing is always interesting. Up and coming fighters, aging fighters, biopics, and even documentaries, but when you think of fictional boxers, only Rocky Balboa should come to mind. I love the Rocky series, number 5 was not good, but the rest all have something. The original is probably the best overall, and 4 is just off the wall nuts, but my favorite always goes back to 3. It’s got a great story: young champ gets cocky, manager gives him “Glass Joes” to fight, he gets a good opponent, loses, then has to smarten up. Starting out his acting career, Mr T. is awesome and fierce as Clubber Lang, Rocky’s opponent. The fight scenes are done well and exciting. The Bill Conti music score is fantastic. Survivor’s “Hall of Fame” song “Eye of the Tiger” debuts and becomes the go-to song in stadiums across America when you need to get pumped up. Burgess Meredith gets a great turn again as his trainer Mickey. Even Carl Weathers gets in on the action. Despite the unreal fighting scenes the story of Rocky becoming rich and bloated and losing himself is a great story. He has something to come back from and has to work his way there, again with great training montages.
Bonus: In a great scene Hulk Hogan as wrestler “Thunder Lips” fights Rocky for charity but no one told him it was just for fun.
MG: Rocky III was my first Rocky (and boxing) film and I loved it. As a kid I loved Rocky IV, but I watched it recently and it was a bit rough. Rocky III still holds up though. I’m sure many see this installment as the start of the end of the quality of the series, but you can’t beat if for pure entertainment. Mr. T was a genuine badass and for me was the most believably fearsome opponent in the franchise.
Here is a movie I never wanted to see. I was a kid when the “Miracle on Ice” happened so I remember how it went and how important a semi-final hockey game against the U.S.S.R. was. I just couldn’t imagine Disney would do a good job with it, since they made The Mighty Ducks and this was mostly a no-name cast. Hockey players can be a rough group and Disney was just going to sugar it all up. For the most part they do, there is no swearing or any real bad behavior in the film. There is no way this team was that clean. So I wasn’t going to see it because I want to believe it. But believe it or not a work event made me watch it and I was surprised at how much I liked it. A good film is a good film. It’s inspiring to see a group of people working towards something that nobody expects them to achieve and getting the job done. The performances were decent by the young cast. Kurt Russell as Team USA coach Herb Brooks is strong as he always is. Russell could very well be America’s greatest under-rated actor, maybe too many crappy Goldie Hawn comedies in the 80’s. His speech before the game in-line with the original is great. The line “Great moments are born from great opportunity” is delivered with just the right amount of inspiration. I often use lines from this film when coaching in big games. Patricia Clarkson, the only other actor I knew, plays Brook’s wife and she as solid as she always is.
Bonus: Unfortunately Herb Brooks dies before the film was done, and never saw it, it’s dedicated to him.
MG: Ah, I was hoping to write about this one, but there are plenty to choose from. I was also surprised how much I liked this film and thought for sure Disney would ruin this. I loved the winter Olympics as a kid – it was a true TV event – and I remember watching this game and being so proud of the USA team (even in 1980 and at 9 years old, I was fully aware of the Russians-as-evil-world-dominators mantra). I agree Russell has never really got his due as a legitimately talented actor. I wish he would have done some more meaty parts in recent years as I think he could have found his way to at least a nomination for something. Maybe he still has time to do so.
It is astounding how many sports-themed films have been made over the years. The inherent drama of the main protagonist going up against overwhelming odds and finding a way to win is just too hard for writers/directors to resist. Hollywood still churns out at least one boxing movie a year, even though the sport is now virtually only watched on pay-per-view and has been supplanted by MMA and other sports. Yet, even though I’ve never watched boxing I find myself enjoying recent films like The Fighter and the two Creed films. I agree with DJ that I wish there were more good football movies, as pro-football is my favorite sport to watch. If you look at Oscar nominations, boxing has to lead the pack, with baseball and probably golf next. My three selections are somewhat deeper cuts from the genre and ones that left a lasting impression with me.
Someone I worked with highly recommended this movie, and I quickly dismissed it when I heard it involved mixed martial arts fighting (just not a fan – too much visceral violence). But this person persisted and dared me not to cry at the end, so late one night I saw it was available on HBO or Amazon gave it a shot. I was hooked right away, and despite it being a worknight, stayed up late to see the end – which, sure enough, provoked full-on tears. The story centers on two estranged brothers: one a family man struggling to make ends meet on a teachers’ salary in a down economy, the other a wayward soul struggling to find his place in the world and escape his past. Both enter a massive open MMA tournament with a huge cash prize, each seeking their own dream of a “way out”. Underrated actor Joel Edgerton plays the teacher and he’s surprisingly believable as a veteran MMA fighter in the ring. You might expect Tom Hardy (pre-Bane, Mad Max, Venom) to pull off the physical demands of the role, which he does exceptionally well, but he brings a mostly cliché-free cauldron of angst, pain and regret to his character. The fight scenes are definitely thrilling, and director Gavin O’Connor, who co-wrote the screenplay, deserves praise for getting us equally invested in both the drama inside and outside the ring (or cage). Had this film come out after Hardy broke big, I’m certain it would have received the larger audience it deserved.
Bonus: The film also features a small but powerful turn by Nick Nolte as the alcoholic father of the two brothers, which earned him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
DJ: I have never seen it and really for no good reason. But your description of it sounds like a movie I would enjoy so I will have to search it out. I am always looking for a good Tom Hardy performance.
Eight Men Out (1988)
I’m a bit surprised I’ve gone this far in our blog journey without mentioning director John Sayles or one of his films. He doesn’t have a huge catalog of commercially successful films, and also hasn’t done much in the past 10-15 years, but he had a stretch of important and critically acclaimed films over the span of a decade, starting in the late 80’s. Sayles is a staunchly independent filmmaker, but Eight Men Out was the closest he came to a straight-up Hollywood production. It tells the story of the real-life scandal called “The Black Sox” when eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox team conspired with the gambling circuit to throw the World Series. Like in his prior film Matewan, Sayles emphasizes the labor dispute angle, depicting how the players’ poor compensation at the hands of greedy owner Charles Comiskey pushed them to get in bed with a mobster. I’m not a baseball historian, but the pre-union players were considered underpaid – a far cry from the multi-hundred million dollar player contracts of today. Sports films tend to play it dramatic and inspirational, or silly and slapstick, so this film stands out as it shows the darker side of professional sports – with players being taken advantage of by owners and also the inherent problems when massive amounts of gambling money are involved. You sometimes see gambling touched upon with boxing movies, about throwing fights and mob influence, but rarely with the four major pro sports. Sayles definitely tells a tale about a loss of innocence, both with the athletes involved and the fans relationship to a beloved sport known as “America’s Game”.
Bonus: Sayles originally wanted to cast himself as one of the eight, but after fighting for ten years to get the film into production, he considered himself too old at that point.
DJ: Straight up I am not a John Sayles fan. My memory of seeing Passion Fish at the theaters and hating it scarred me for life. But I will say this is a really good film and I could have easily picked it myself. It’s a great story and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson gets a very short straw in baseball history, he should be in the Hall and exonerated. Good to see Charlie Sheen back in the days where he worked on good films. Also great to pair this film with Field of Dreams another great baseball film with “Shoeless” Joe.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Bend It Like Beckham is the rare sports film for several reasons. It’s remarkable how few sports films have females in the lead, I have trouble thinking of any others at the moment, and it is also directed by a woman, Gurinder Chadha, which I didn’t even know until a minute ago. Beyond that, though, this film is unusual in that it’s a light-hearted sports comedy that isn’t slapstick humor (Dodgeball, Happy Gilmore, etc.). To be honest, I was originally skeptical that I would like this, despite the largely positive reviews when it came out, but gave it a chance at some point and really enjoyed it. The lead character, Jesmider or “Jess” (played by Parminder Nagra) is a teenager and huge soccer (yes non-USA readers: football!) fan, whose idol is David Beckham. Her parents want her to follow a traditional Sikh upbringing, which does not support women playing organized sports. She befriends a fellow soccer fanatic named Jules, played by Keira Knightly, who is also being dissuaded from playing so much soccer for different reasons. Keeping it secret from her parents, Jess joins a West London soccer team that Jules plays on and their friendship is the heart of the story. It was nice to see Knightly take on a role where she wasn’t playing a dour, intense character, and she appears to enjoy her role and not having to have the burden of the lead. There is a good dose of family drama, but overall it is kept light and features a climactic “big game” with the score on the line towards the end of it. This film captures the essence of what the joy of sports should be, particularly for the younger crowd: building self-esteem, working with others to overcome adversity, challenging oneself physically & mentally, and helping to find your place in the world.
Bonus: The film came out 5 years before David Beckham would come to America to play for the LA Galaxy, so producers originally suggested changing the US title to “Move It like Mia”, referring to Mia Hamm. The director, fortunately, did not give in to this.
DJ: I think there is a volleyball movie and maybe a surfing movie where a girl loses her arm to a shark, but you are right not a ton of sports films with women. We have talked about A League of Their Own before so we won’t rehash that here but a great film. I liked this film a lot, I thought Parminder Nagra would become a larger star, I know she did ER for years but not much outside of that. It’s a feel good film, and a type not done well very often. It’s also kind of slid into history and not as well known. You would think with the U.S. women’s soccer team success soccer would be bigger in America.