Ah, the sports-themed film. Whether it be based on a true story like Rudy, a film loosely based on a true story like Goon, a “finding something you love and are good at – like roller derby” film like Whip It, or just plain ol’ silly fun like the ping-pong themed Balls of Fury, nearly everyone has at least one sports-themed film they point to as something they enjoyed or changed their lives.
When asked what my fave sports films are, I can name twenty films without hesitation; luckily for you, I’m only gonna do ten.
10. BASEketball (1998)
Who hasn’t dreamed of making up a new sport on the fly to beat stupid rich douchebags, turning it into a professional sport, and making yourself a professional athlete? “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone hit the nail on the head for every slacker-dreamer out there with this basketball-baseball hybrid, where the field actually has a garage door facade complete with basketball hoop on home plate. Best of all, we get to hear the late great actor/”Unsolved Mysteries” host Robert Stack drop some profanity in an UM spoof! (NSFW, obviously.)
9. Nacho Libre (2006)
I know you’re thinking “what the hell?” but hear me out. This is just one of two wrestling comedies that I adore because although they ARE comedies, the genuine love and appreciation for the sport comes through. (The other is Ready To Rumble.) The Jack Black-led Nacho Libre actually has a bit of a historical background as it’s loosely based on the life of Rev. Sergio Guiterrez Benitez, a Mexican Catholic priest who wrestled for twenty three years under the name Fray Tormenta (“Friar Storm”) in order to support the orphanage he was in charge of.
(Fun fact: One of the tag team wrestlers in this clip is Filiberto Estrella, a famous “Little League” Luchadore who once wrestled against Andre The Giant and was a FIFTY-year-old when they shot this scene.)
8. Magic & Bird: A Courtship Of Rivals (2010)
If you’ve seen the old “Nothin’ but net” commercials McDonald’s aired back in the day but were too young to understand why those ads were so epic, this HBO documentary will explain why. It covers the rivalry between two basketball players – Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird – that began at the 1979 NCAA Championships and spanned their legendary careers in the NBA. The film also shows how said rivalry turned into a lifelong friendship, and proposes that the media’s role in making the rivalry front and center back in the ’80s may very well have saved the NBA itself, which wasn’t the obsession many people know and love now. That’s right – at one point, NO ONE cared about basketball. A sad and stunning fact, I know.
7. The Pride Of The Yankees (1942)
One of THE most decorated baseball players of all time and famed member of the New York Yankees’ “Murderer’s Row,” Lou ” The Iron Horse” Gehrig amassed MANY records, including being named All-Star seven times, six World Series wins, the AL’s MVP twice, and the FIRST baseball player to have his number retired and elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939. Sadly, Gehrig’s career was cut at age 36 when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) forced him to say goodbye to the game he loved and took his life at age 38.
In one of the most iconic moments in baseball movie history, Gehrig (played by Gary Cooper) says goodbye to his team and fans with his “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech.
6. Victory (1981)
Directed by John Huston and based on a true story, Victory (or as it’s known overseas, Escape To Victory) is set against the backdrop of the Nazi-occupation during WWII and centered around a group of Allied POWs (most of whom were pro-soccer players before the war) in a German prison camp who concoct an escape plan to occur while playing an exhibition match against the German National Team (where the fix was in before it even started) in Nazi-occupied Paris. Comprised of actors and professional soccer players that include the iconic Pele, Victory was and is an amazing mix of history, drama and sport that, in my mind, few directors have been able to replicate successfully.
Fun fact: Stallone actually broke a finger trying to block a kick from the mighty Pele!
5. Caddyshack (1980)
This film marked Howard Ramis’ directorial debut and made a bonafide film star out of Mr. “I don’t get no respect” himself, Rodney Dangerfield. It also sparked a whole new generation of Kenny Loggins fans, has TONS of quotable lines (most coming from stars Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray), and actually encouraged you to root for the bad guy – which in this case, is a golf course’s worst nightmare: a gopher.
Here is one of the most quoted scenes and of course, it comes from Bill Murray.
4. Brian’s Song (1971)
If you ask old school athletes and fans of the male variety what film makes them cry (other than Old Yeller and Rudy), most of them will probably say Brian’s Song. It’s based on the life of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died at the staggeringly young age of 26 from embryonal cell carcinoma (a really aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer that sadly wasn’t diagnosed until it had spread to his chest). The film, based on teammate Gale Sayers’ book “I Am Third,” also focuses on the rivalry turned friendship between Piccolo (James Caan) and Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), who is by his side throughout his illness.
In the scene that makes most men weep, Sayers dedicates his “George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award” to Piccolo.
3. The Bad News Bears (1976)
Now, I’m a bit more…uh, “aged,” so I remember seeing this in theaters. It’s a fun story about a little league team so bad they can’t even keep a coach until former minor-leaguer Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is duped into coaching a team of kids who barely know the fundamentals of baseball (and in one case, doesn’t even speak English) after one of the kids’ dads (a lawyer) threatens to sue unless they allow the team his kid plays on to join the league.
The reason why this film is still amazing is that it included a couple things: a foulmouthed child who I’m pretty sure was one of the inspirations behind Cartman from “South Park,” the inclusion of a girl (Tatum O’Neal) on the team, and of course, the team’s own bad boy (Watchmen‘s Jackie Earle Haley). This film actually got me into playing baseball as a kid!
Even the trailer is NSFW (language)!
2. The Sandlot (1993)
Another film FILLED with quotable lines, The Sandlot is another sports film that makes any adult think back to their own greatest summers as kids – filled with getting into hijinks with friends and playing the sport of their choosing. In this case, it’s baseball. What’s nice about this film is not only are the kids hilarious but it’s also told from one of their points of view (like in Stand By Me) so the adults are rarely seen in the film – which is how it should be. But James Earl Jones’ cameo is, as Bertram Grover Weeks would say, “THE BEST!”
It’s hard to nail down just ONE scene to show but I’ll go with the showdown between Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and “The Beast” (who we later learn is named Hercules).
1. Slap Shot (1977)
If you grew up in Alaska, Canada, or any place with snow, odds are you either played hockey (like I did) or enjoyed it (like I still do)…so when asked what my favorite sports movie of all-time would be, it’s this one.
Directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), Slap Shot is a humorous look at OLD school hockey – when helmets weren’t a requirement, leaving a good deal of players missing teeth. The film centers on the fictional minor league team, the Charlestown Chiefs, and tells the story of player/coach Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman), who figures out that fans would rather see an all-out goon squad on the ice instead of the game itself. In an effort to save the team from being sold, he gets his players to play rough in order to boost the popularity of the team.
What makes this film number one in my book – OTHER than the fact that it’s totally hilarious – is it’s partly based on Ned Dowd’s experiences playing farm league hockey in the ’70s and was written by his sister, Nancy.
That’s right, kids. Your favorite hockey film was written by a WOMAN.
After agonizing over what clip to show (because there is no “bad part” in this film) I decided to go with the catalyst for Dunlop’s idea to turn the Chiefs into goons in order to boost attendance: the first time The Hanson Brothers take the ice.
And there you have it, my list of sports films you must see before you die.
I know, I know – there are TONS of films left off the list, but that’s why I have you here to list the ones you think should have been here in the comments below!
(Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out the most recent episode of The 5Cast, in which Ben and Tyler rank their Top 5 sports films from the 1990s.)
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