Kevin Costner stars in the classic baseball flick Bull Durham.
Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon heat up the screen in 1988’s Bull Durham, which we anoint the greatest sports film of all time.
Robert De Niro stars as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Clint Eastwood (left) and Hilary Swank star in 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, which won multiple Oscars.
Mickey Rourke is mesmerizing in The Wrestler.
Madonna is part of a strong ensemble cast in A League Of Their Own.
Sean Astin (centre) stars in 1993’s heart-warming underdog football flick Rudy.
A scene from Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, Gaby Hoffmann and Burt Lancaster, based on the book by Canadian author W.P. Kinsella.
Bill Murray stares down his furry adversary in the comedy classic Caddyshack.
Keira Knightley (left) and Parminder Nagra are the star players in Bend It Like Beckham.
Tom Berenger (left) and Charlie Sheen play members of the underdog Cleveland Indians in 1989’s Major League.
Kurt Russell is coach Herb Brooks in Miracle, the thrilling dramatization of the Miracle On Ice.
Margot Robbie plays controversial figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.
Paul Newman (left) stars as Fast Eddie Felson, who takes a young Tom Cruise under his wing in The COlor of Money, the sequel to The Huster.
The recent release of Ben Affleck’s new basketball movie, The Way Back , has come critics hailing it as a sports classic already.
And it got me thinking: What are the classic sports movies? I mean, what are the best sports movies ever made?
This is, in a way, like ranking players or songs or bands you’ve seen live — no two people see things the same way. Consensus doesn’t exist. But as someone who devours lists — top 50 this, top 50 that, good ones, bad ones — I started playing around on paper on Wednesday afternoon, jotting one down movie, then another, before I had a scribbled list of more than 60 of them. Then I started arranging them in some kind of order.
Just to get a difference of opinion, I emailed friends and colleagues and asked them to list their top three sports movies of all time. It was rather remarkable how many of the same titles appeared on their lists. I used them as a point of reference so I didn’t forget anything obvious.
So here goes. Before I see The Way Back , here’s my list — purely personal — of the top 32 sports movies I’ve ever seen.
- Bull Durham, 1988
I have seen Bull Durham so many times I almost know the script by heart. I quote it regularly. “Candlesticks are a nice gift.” I can watch it from the middle, from the beginning, part-way through, and enjoy the wonderful script by Ron Shelton and the characters played by Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. And you can relate so much of the story to today’s sporting world. “Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well.”
- Raging Bull, 1980
Boxing is forever in trouble. Boxing movies, not so much. Martin Scorsese’s black-and-white classic, the sad and poignant story of Jake LaMotta, is raw and violent and captivating. Robert De Niro, as LaMotta, and then-17-year-old Cathy Moriarty as Vicki LaMotta, were nominated for best actor and best supporting actress Oscars that year.
- Slap Shot, 1977
It is part of growing up in Canada. You know all the lines in Slap Shot . You repeat them to your friends. It may be an American film, but it should be part of the citizen application process in this country. The movie made more than 40 years ago still feels like it was released yesterday, and the fictional Hanson Bros. still are paid to make appearances. The movie may have been a cartoon on violence in minor-league hockey, but it was our cartoon.
- Million Dollar Baby, 2004
I’m a Clint Eastwood fan going back to his days as Dirty Harry. And I’m a Clint Eastwood fan of movies he directs like this one, Gran Torino and others. Eastwood plays the part of a grizzled boxing trainer, wanting little do with the female fighter played by Hilary Swank until their lives become intertwined. Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for best picture in 2005: Swank won best actress, Morgan Freeman won best supporting actor, Eastwood won best director.
- The Wrestler, 2008
Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of a struggling professional wrestler may be the greatest single performance of any actor in any sporting movie of any kind. Now understand this: I’m not a film critic, I’m just a huge movie fan. But it isn’t often you see a film and you are so captivated by one actor that you can’t stop staring at him.
- Rocky, 1976
Sylvester Stallone began the Rocky franchise by writing and starring in the first film, which created unforgettable characters and stories that live today. Stallone brought Rocky to life and was surrounded by a cast that included Burgess Meredith, Burt Young and Talia Shire, all of whom became identified with their roles. The first film, made for just over $1 million, earned $225 million in theatre receipts.
- Hoosiers, 1986
The power of a great movie is it never leaves you. The power of a great acting performance is the same. And when I started hearing about Affleck’s new movie and his comeback as a basketball coach, I immediately thought of Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers and wondered: How can it be better than that?
- A League Of Their Own, 1992
“There’s no crying in baseball!” Can’t you hear Tom Hanks saying that? Will that clip ever stop being replayed? There was crying in A League of Their Own . There was crying and laughing and terrific performances by Hanks and Geena Davis and a memorable small performance by comedian Jon Lovitz. This is like a lot of the movies on this list: You can watch them over and over again, know the story, and still keep on watching.
- Eight Men Out, 1988
At a time when baseball is trying to figure out how exactly to treat the Houston Astros, this is a movie worth watching again. It’s the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919 and the apparent fixed World Series. The movie is a period piece and worth seeing for anyone who didn’t know sports before players had any power.
- Rudy, 1993
A kid who wasn’t big enough, strong enough, fast enough, athletic enough, had one goal in life: He wanted to play football at Notre Dame. No one thought it was possible, except Rudy. The story is kind of true, but the Hollywood version with twisted facts works. If your eyes didn’t get moist watching this one, check your pulse.
- Hoop Dreams, 1994
Originally, I decided to not include documentaries on this top-30 list. But how can you put together a list like this and not have Hoop Dreams or When We Were Kings on it? I like what film critic Roger Ebert wrote about it at the time: “It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”
- Field of Dreams, 1989
Canadian W.P. Kinsella wrote the best-seller, Shoeless Joe , which was later turned into this film starring Costner and James Earl Jones. You have to suspend your own view of reality to completely enjoy this film, in which a baseball lover builds a stadium in the corn fields of Iowa. “If you build it, he will come.”
- Caddyshack, 1980
OK, so I’m not sure this would qualify as a sports movie, but I didn’t want to leave if off. It’s too good to leave behind. It’s a comedy, an all-time great comedy, with the background being golf and a country club. If you haven’t seen it, find it. It’s Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield. And it hasn’t aged badly at all.
- Bend It Like Beckham, 2003
I had almost no expectations when I went to see this movie. I wasn’t really familiar with the actors. I don’t particularly care for soccer. And then the movie grabbed me and pulled me in. The story of female athletes, misunderstood by families and parents and occasionally coaches, is more than memorable.
- Jerry Maguire, 1996
“Show me the money.” Another one of those lines that has lived longer than the film itself. The movie was part-romantic comedy, part-drama, part-suspense and fully entertaining in what some have called Tom Cruise’s greatest role, playing an agent that was roughly based on the career of Leigh Steinberg.
- Bang The Drum Slowly, 1973
This is a bit off the board for most. But I’ve been somewhat consumed by this film from the time I first saw it on television years ago. It’s one of those hidden gems that seems somewhat lost in time. It’s the story of a big-league catcher who is dying, playing his final season, and his relationship with his best friend. Another Robert De Niro movie you can’t miss.
- Friday Night Lights, 2004
This was a fine movie that became an even better television show. It’s about small-town high-school football in America, and not just what it means to a community, but how everything seemed to circulate around the football team.
- Major League, 1989
More than anything, Major League is fun. It’s silly. It’s playful. It makes you laugh and it makes you smile. And, oddly, over time, it gets better with age. It’s like The Producers , only it’s about baseball and a Cleveland Indians team that was set up to lose. Charlie Sheen as wild-thing reliever Rick Vaughn is among the memorable characters of this deep cast.
- The Hurricane, 1999
“Here comes the story of the Hurricane/The man the authorities came to blame/For something that he never done.” Those are the words from Bob Dylan’s powerful song about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. The film about Carter being railroaded for murder, starring Denzel Washington, was directed by Canadian Norman Jewison.
- When We Were Kings, 1996
The Rumble in the Jungle has fascinated me from the day Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire, now known as the Republic of Congo, in 1974. This is a documentary made about that event and everything that went on around it. The result of the fight, an Ali knockout, was shocking then. This film is of similar quality.
- Miracle, 2004
Twenty-four years after the Miracle on Ice changed hockey forever in the United States, this movie was made with Kurt Russell playing the complicated role of head coach Herb Brooks. Knowing the way it ended, the movie couldn’t match the original drama: But the detail of the story was sharp. Unfortunately, Brooks died in a car accident just months before the film was released.
- Brian’s Song, 1971
This wasn’t a motion picture. It probably should have been. Instead, it was a made-for-television movie that kept being shown again and again. It was that emotional and heart-tugging, this true story of the Chicago Bears backfield and friendship of the dying Brian Piccolo and the all-time great, Gale Sayers. Strong showings here for James Caan and Billy Dee Williams.
- Cool Runnings, 1993
John Candy loved sports and he loved comedy. And he combined the two so well in this film about the Jamaican bobsled team and its unlikely pursuit of a place in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
- I, Tonya, 2019
This was another true story with some of the facts neatly manipulated for purposes of filmmaking. Tonya Harding was the greatest Olympic villain in history, having been part or party to the clubbing of teammate Nancy Kerrigan. Allison Janney, playing Harding’s mom, accentuated her career with her performance here.
- Chariots of Fire, 1981
This is another of the “I’m not sure it’s a sports movie” additions. It is a fabulous movie, though, good enough to win best picture and best original screenplay, which is an unusual place to find any sports movie. It’s a film as much about the politics of the day, post-World War 1, and the relationship of runners of different cultural backgrounds.
- 61, 2001
Like the original Brian’s Song , this was a movie made for HBO and not theatre distribution. It was Netflix-quality before there was Netflix. The story is about the Yankees’ 1961 season, with Mickey Mantle being the hero and Roger Maris the anti-hero, heading for Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Lifelong Yankees fan Billy Crystal directed it.
- Rocky 3, 1982
Picking one Rocky from another is like trying to say who your favourite child is. But from this movie came Thunderlips, soon to be more famous as Hulk Hogan, and Clubber Lang, soon to be more famous as Mr. T.
- The Longest Yard, 1974
Here is my own personal Longest Yard trivia. I took a date in high school to this movie. Years later, her daughter married Zach Hyman. And unrelated to any of that, I loved the movie the first time I saw it. This is the original film with Burt Reynolds, not the rather lame remake of a few years back.
- The Hustler, 1961
The cast is what first attracted me to this movie about a pool player: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott. How can that fail? Gleason played Minnesota Fats. Newman played Fast Eddie Felson, and their lives and their games were connected in so many ways.
- The Color of Money, 1986
Twenty-five years after The Hustler , Newman revisited the role of Fast Eddie in Scorsese’s film — and for that he was given the Academy Award for best actor. In the movie, it was Newman’s responsibility to bring along the young pool hustler played by Cruise.
- Pride of the Yankees, 1942
If you listen close enough, you can still hear the echoes at old Yankee Stadium. “Today (today, today), I consider myself (self, self) to be the luckiest man (man, man) on the face of the Earth.” That was the actor (Gary Cooper) who played Lou Gehrig speaking on a microphone, and the film is the story of a life lived and the disease that killed him, now named for him.
- The Bad News Bears, 1976
Rolling Stone called The Bad News Bears the greatest baseball movie ever made. We don’t agree, but on this list, it’s a top-five diamond flick. It’s a baseball movie but more than that, if possible, it’s a feel-good yet crushing commentary on kids sports and so much of what troubles it.
Honourable mentions: Ford v Ferrari, 2019; Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1962; The Fighter, 2010; The Blind Side, 2009; Remember The Titans, 2000; He Got Game, 1998; Moneyball, 2011; The Sandlot, 1993; Happy Gilmore 1996; Ali, 2001; Invictus, 2009; Cinderella Man, 2005; Heaven Can Wait, 1978; Seabiscuit, 2003; Creed, 2015; Face-Off, 1971; Paper Lion, 1968; Tin Cup, 1996; Rush, 2013; The Natural, 1984.
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