I was going to pick 10, then I had almost 20, and since I was getting closer to 30, that’s the number. Some of these are classics, others good films and a few unusual films that are on because of their subject matter or they are just entertaining. It’s my list. Still, I can think of other films I might have selected and I’m sure they will be on other people’s lists.
Film is a very personal experience, even though you may be watching it with an audience. Even then, you are sitting in the dark, facing forward, alone with the images and sound circulating through your sensory system.
I recall when I first saw Field of Dreams in a theater, it felt like I’d witnessed a religious experience, it took a few minutes for my heart to dislodge from my throat. The same with We Are Marshall, I sat watching the credits as the actors and real-life characters flashed on the screen like old 8mm family films. After The Longest Yard and Bull Durham, funny scenes played in my head, smiles all around. With Seabiscuit and Rudy, I was felt uplifted after watching such tremendous victory and accomplishment. Sports films in particular, are a way for us to vicariously experience something quite moving, almost a triumph of the spirit. I think you can enjoy a sports film without being a sports fan. A good story and memorable characters transcend film genre.
There is no particular order, just enjoy.
Based on a true story, as most films tend to be. This story resonates on several levels. The underdog race horse eventually beats the much larger favorite. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and William H. Macy turns in a superb performances.
I’m not a big horse racing fan but this was an excellent story with a great cast. Although it was not as well received as Seabiscuit or Secretariat, other horse racing films, this film has a charm, in large part to Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning. A young girl’s belief in an injured horse to heal and win the Breeder’s Cup race.
The Best of Times (1986)
Robin Williams and Kurt Russell try to resolve a past high school football defeat by replaying the game. The town’s honor is at stake as well as both of their marriages. Written by Ron Shelton who would write/direct some really good sports films later.
Major League (1989)
“Just, a bit outside.” This film is full of great quotes and oddball characters who turn the sad-sack Cleveland Indians into contenders. Has-beens, rejects and never-will-be players combine to pull of the near impossible, and gain some self-respect in the process. The new show-girl team owner wants to assemble a losing team so she can get out of her stadium lease and move to Florida.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Nick Nolte and Mac Davis play teammates on the North Dallas Bulls. Based on the book by Peter Gent, it is a thinly veiled fictionalized look at the Dallas Cowboys, who Gent played for. Sex, drugs and football. It is a great film showing the underside of football and what really matters. Maybe Nolte’s greatest film, fine performances by Davis, G.D. Spradlin, Dabney Coleman and Steve Forrest.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
Walter Matthau plays a lovable rascal, a failed baseball player who coaches a kids team to supplement his pool cleaner income. He is really in it for the money, then winning, and finally he realizes how he lost sight of the kids, who he began to care about. Fine performances by Matthau, Tatum O’Neal and Vic Morrow. The 2005 remake is almost as good but it lacks the originality.
Bull Durham (1988)
Shelton and Kevin Costner make a classic. Is it about baseball or life? Both as it would appear. Costner was entering a red-hot period in his career. He proved he could play the romantic lead and light comedy.
Tin Cup (1996)
Shelton teams with Costner again in a light-hearted look at competitive golf, as opposed to driving range golf. Fine performances by Costner, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson and Rene Russo. A very good film but not the classic that Bull Durham was.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Costner again, in a baseball fable. The film resonates about coming to grips with missed opportunities and setting things right. There are mysteries that severely test your faith against all odds.
Slap Shot (1977)
The Charleston Chiefs, a bad team in the Federal Hockey League is about to fold. Player-coach Paul Newman decides to generate enough interest so someone will buy the team. His crazy plan involves turning the team into a bunch of animals on the ice, which works until he is reminded of what hockey sportsmanship is really about. It’s a story about not realizing time has past by and you can’t turn back the clock. A very funny and profane film, one of Newman’s best. Directed by George Roy Hill who directed The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
This film had a lot going for it and a lot to overcome. A film about 1924 Olympic sprinters is not the stuff of big films. Well-produced and directed, the film won several major awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture. Fine performances and a wonderful score by Vangelis.
League of Their Own (1992)
A fictionalized account of women’s baseball during the World War II years. The story focuses on two sisters and their teammates during one season, and the impact of the war on the lives of several teammates including one of the sisters. A well-made and popular film, full of great performances.
The science and mathematics of baseball, how thrilling. Actually, it turned out to be a very interesting story of how a small market baseball team can field a competitive film against the rich teams. Fine performances by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I, Tonya (2017)
Everyone knows the story, so what could the film possibly provide us? Well, a lot. Based on fact and the stories as told by the participants, the film intentionally goes off the rails, letting us see the sad, oddball characters at the center of tale. Great performances by Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and the other cast, this is a train-wreck you can’t avoid.
The Sandlot (1993)
The story of a group of neighborhood boys in 1962 who embrace a new kid and have a series of adventures while playing baseball on their sandlot. The balls get into a pickle when they unknowingly use a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth in their game and it goes across the fence in a yard guarded by a ferocious dog. The rest of the film is their attempt to get it back. One of several sports films co-starring James Earl Jones.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Ex-pro football player Paul Crew gets himself sent to prison. Not wanting to help the warden with his football team, Crew is assigned to swamp duty, the dirtiest work in the prison. Later, he changes his mind and is tasked with forming a team of inmates to play the guards. On the day of the game, Crew is threatened with a murder charge if he doesn’t throw the game. He begins to sabotage the game to allow the guards to build a lead, then had a change of heart and begins to lead the prisoners back to take the lead and eventually win the game. This is one of the films that made Burt Reynolds a superstar.
Brian’s Song (1971)
The friendship of running backs Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, rivals, then friends on the Chicago Bears. A made-for-television film that has the impact of a theatrical release. Fine performances by James Caan, Billy Dee Williams and Jack Warden. Forget the remake, stick with the original.
Billy Crystal takes his love of Yankees baseball and creates a moving story about the pressure of chasing an impossible record, and the friendship between two rival baseball players. Part history, part character study. Crystal’s best turn in the director’s chair.
Paper Lion (1968)
George Plimpton dabbled in several different sports in his job as a sports writer. In one of those roles, he attempted to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions. He leaves his cushy New York lifestyle for training camp. Many members of the Lions, including Alex Karras play themselves. At the time, before ESPN, this was a close-up view of pro football, even though it was a movie. The film is loosely based on Plimpton’s 1966 book, which takes place in the 1963 but the 1967 season in the film.
We Are Marshall (2006)
A 1970 plane crash killed 37 members of the football team, coaches, trainers, the athletic director and others on the flight. The film depicts the rebuild the football program and the major obstacles that stand in the way, including a rule that did not allow freshmen to play varsity football. I found the football sequences to be fascinating and the film, while it had some factual problems (as most films of this kind have), it was quite moving.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976)
A barnstorming group of players kicked out of the Negro Leagues in the 1930’s. They cross the country playing local teams and battling racism. They are very successful and are challenged to a game against Negro star players. If they win, they can join the Negro League as a team. A very funny film starring James Early Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
Glory Road (2006)
Texas Western College in 1966 was the first major college team to have an all-black starting lineup. The team battled racism on their way to the NCAA basketball championship against an all-white Kentucky, who they beat.
In the future, society is controlled by huge corporations. Rollerball is a popular sport owned by the corporations. James Caan plays one of the stars, who is forced to retire, but he rebels and is set up to die during one of the upcoming games. He attempts to find out who he is being forced to retire and comes to realize how the corporations control knowledge and in essence, reality. Caan’s character almost single-handedly defeats the other team in the championship against the will of the corporation leader.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)
Hard to think of a fly fishing film being as entertaining as this one. Fishing is the backdrop for deeper issues but it carries the day. Fine performances by Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Bite the Bullet (1975)
Early 1900’s cross-country horse race, inspired by real life events. Fine performances by Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Ben Johnson and Candice Bergen. Riders who start out as rivals become teammates over the rugged course of the 700 mile race.
The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)
The story of New Zealander Burt Munro, who races his Indian motorcycle to become a local legend. His dream is to take his motorcycle to the Bonneville salt flats, the ultimate testing ground for speed. Eventually, he makes it there but is not allowed to race. Through the help of various people he does get to run his motorcycle. The real Munro set various speed records for motorcycles in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Anthony Hopkins plays Munro as an eccentric but naive character ignorant of the wake he causes by his actions.
Downhill Racer (1969)
Robert Redford is a selfish bastard of a skier. Redford plays a loner, a competitor who uses people and has no interest in being a team player. It is an effective study of an athlete who has no feeling for other people, the world exists for his benefit.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, the 1973 tennis match heard round the world, and truly a battle of the sexes. The story of King, who with eight other women tennis players start their own tennis tour when the tennis organization won’t equalize prize money. In the meantime Bobby Riggs challenges Margaret Court, the number one ranked women’s player, to a tennis match, proclaiming that men are superior tennis players. He beats Court and this sets up a match with King. The match is hyped and played as the battle of the sexes, which King wins. It is not only a victory for women’s tennis but for King who it is revealed is gay.
The Natural (1984)
Roy Hobbs and his Wonderboy bat are poised to become Major League stars until he is shot by a crazed fan. The film jumps ahead 16 years to Hobbs making a comeback. When he finally gets his chance to live his derailed dream, he becomes a sensation. However, he is pressured to accept a bribe to lose the pennant. His celebrity begins to wane as he falls into a slump, but comes out of it in time for the big game. During an at-bat, his Wonderboy bat is broken. The bat has been with him since he was a boy. With a new bat he hits a homerun helping his team to the pennant.
Rudy Ruettiger is a hardcore Notre Dame fan and dreams of not only attending college there, but being a football walking on. His grades aren’t good enough to enroll so he spends two years an junior college to get his grades up so he can transfer. He works on the grounds crew so he can watch the football team practice. He makes the practice squad and as an undersized player is really a tackling dummy for the first team offense. He wins the support of his teammates and they convince the coach to let Rudy dress for one game, the last of his career. Through a turn of events, he is able to take the field on the game’s last play, and make a quarterback sack. He is carried off the field.
The Love Bug (1968)
I cheated, this is number 31. Disney made several really good comedies about sports. Blackbeard’s Ghost and The Absent-Minded Professor are two other Disney films that use tricks for teams to win in track & field, basketball and football. The Love Bug was a fun racing film.