The Way Back is the latest of many excellent films that use sports as a way to explore personal struggles. Athletics are full of drama in their own right, and when a skilled writer matches a sport with a compelling character arc, the result can be incredibly powerful. Sports have also proven to be ripe with documentary potential. Entire seasons and careers have been captured in some truly stunning docs.
I personally enjoy watching sports movies a lot more than actual sporting events. I am a Packers fan, mainly because I married one, and I very casually follow basketball and some motor sports. That said, I would much rather spend a couple hours watching The Way Back or having a mini marathon of Friday Night Lights instead of watching March Madness.
Here, un-ranked, are my 10 favorite sports movies, followed by some honorable mentions and a few that just don’t work for me. As with most of my lists, I am excluding movies from the past year, because not enough time has passed to know if I’ll still feel strongly about those titles for a long time. Also, be prepared for some unconventional picks.
My favorite Ron Howard film features some of the best racing sequences ever put to film, great performances from Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, an epic Hans Zimmer score and a fascinating true story about two drivers determined to make each others lives difficult. This is one of many true life racing rivalries that probably inspired Days of Thunder (which I’ll have some things to say about later), which failed in every aspect that Rush succeeds.
Math? Baseball? A nearly two and a half hour runtime? That combination didn’t appeal to me initially when Moneyball hit theaters nine years ago. I was in a media writing class at the time though, and every week my instructor would ask the students if they saw a movie over the weekend. Every Monday, several of my classmates would say they saw Moneyball and talk about how much they enjoyed it. When I finally checked it out for myself, I understood why. A sharp script from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian is perfectly matched to a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Pitt finally won an Oscar a few weeks ago for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, but deserved to win for Moneyball. I’m serious, when was the last time you even thought about Jean Dujardin’s performance in The Artist?
I could put any of the good entries in the Rocky franchise here (there are three or four of them in total), but Creed stands out as probably the freshest the franchise ever was. The original Rocky is iconic and for good reason, but I enjoyed the performances in Creed more. Stallone was able to deliver a career best and make us forget about some of his biggest offenses, before making Rambo: Last Blood and shoving them in our face again. The real standout in Creed though is Michael B. Jordan, in top form in a continuation of the winning streak that began with Fruitvale Station and is ongoing, thanks to his work in films like Just Mercy. I wish the script had carved out a place for Tessa Thompson in the film’s final act. That’s my only complaint.
I don’t know if I’ll ever watch this one again. The first viewing was so anxiety inducing that my blood pressure goes up just remembering certain scenes. Still, this is a stunning achievement.
A League of Their Own
Having grown up about 30 minutes away from Rockford, Illinois, this is a film I was exposed to frequently during my youth. I have been to the Illinois Railway Museum, where several scenes were shot, and attended various Rockford Peaches related events at Midway Village Museum. Of course, none of these connections would make a bad movie good. A League of Their Own, is, however, hilarious and endlessly quotable.
My critical views of this film have trended less positive since it came out, but it will always be a sentimental favorite. When it became clear to everyone in my family that I had settled on film/media as what I would eventually major in, my grandmother expressed her support by giving me the deluxe edition DVD of Seabiscuit as a present for my middle school graduation/ 8th grade promotion (whatever schools are calling it these days). I had only seen the film once at that point, but it was one I frequently returned to, particularly after my grandmother died a year later. What I like most about it, aside from the supporting performances by Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks, is not the horse racing so much as the script’s focus on the Great Depression and mankind’s love/hate relationship with technology and progress. Parts of it are hokey and it’s a bit too optimistic for its own good. It’s also hard to deny the film’s emotional power and technical achievements.
Silver Linings Playbook
Here is where I’m cheating a bit. This is primarily a romance and a story about mental illness. In regard to the latter, the film isn’t a very accurate representation. The script also suffers from too many characters. Still, I adore Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s work, and it’s hard not to think of this as a sports film when so much of it revolves around the Philadelphia Eagles, betting and dance competitions. I’ve been called out on many occasions over my fondness for this one. I don’t care. I love it.
O.J.: Made in America
While technically a nine hour miniseries, it was deemed eligible for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which it eventually won. It’s a thoughtful and engrossing examination of Simpson’s life and career, as well as the social forces that affected both his time as an athlete and his legal troubles.
Technically a heist film, but one so married to NASCAR and the fandom surrounding it that I have to include it on this list. I watch this one frequently, and it may top my personal list of underrated movies from the past 10 years. Now it plays like Daniel Craig’s audition to play Benoit Blanc.
Dunkirk and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri were easily the two films I recommended to people the most often late in 2017, but as time as passed, I’ve found myself re-watching I, Tonya the most. Tonya Harding’s story is one of media sensationalism, intrigue and potential lost/wasted, depending on who you ask. Margot Robbie’s performance as Harding is incredible. The film doesn’t set out to make viewers agree with all of her choices or fall in love with every side of her personality. Instead, it asks you to acknowledge her humanity, flaws and all, and see her as more than a punchline. It’s an absorbing dramedy with nearly flawless editing and an unforgettable Allison Janney performance as LaVona Golden, Harding’s mother.
The Pride of the Yankees, Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, Rocky, The Fighter, On The Waterfront, Minding the Gap.
THESE DID NOT WORK FOR ME:
Friday Night Lights
I love the TV series and I love the book. In graduate school, I wrote an analysis of how each iteration of this story examined issues of racism and sexism. In those regards, the movie is the weakest adaption of H.G. Bissinger’s book. While it provides the illusion of being close to the truth, thanks to retaining characters names and the setting of Odessa, Texas, the movie mostly ignores the book’s depiction of racism. The script even alters actual events to make the team appear more united and make the white players more supportive of injured running back James “Boobie” Miles. It’s a hollow, scattershot and inferior experience compared to the TV series that resulted from the film’s success.
The Blind Side
Speaking of taking some questionable liberties, we have this film, which somehow won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. I’ve only seen this movie once but my shoulders still occasionally hurt a decade later from all the cringing.
Chariots of Fire
I love the music. It’s impossible for me to hate this film’s moving theme song despite its use in countless lame parodies. The film itself is far less memorable.
Days of Thunder
NASCAR is an organization that does itself no favors in many regards, from failing to call out the often racist behavior of its fans to accepting sponsorship from groups like the NRA, but this film might have done every stock car driver a disservice. The reckless behavior exhibited by the two cavemen the story focuses on makes early 2010s era Kyle Busch look like a saint. That said, I’d rather watch this (or a sequel to it) again than Top Gun, which also starred Tom Cruise and was directed by Tony Scott. If you are looking for a good stock car movie, check out the documentary The Last Race instead.
Yep, I’m going there. Time to piss on a supposed classic. There’s some great comedic talent in this film, but they are all wasted on a plotless, pointless and mostly unfunny series of escapades at a local country club. As time has passed, many seem to forget how mixed critics were on this one when it came out. Roger Ebert once described Caddyshack as “a movie that was written rather loosely, so that when shooting began there was freedom, too much freedom, for it to wander off in all directions in search of comic inspiration.” I agree, and very little comes of that wandering.