It’s a bummer that Michigan was cured of its March Madness. To top it off, that hockey game on Saturday blew, and let’s not forget that crazy Rich Rod. Blue athletics can be distressing these days, but I have a working form of athletic alleviation.
I cherish sports movies — when you watch them, not only can you can pick your plays, but you can watch true drama. Sports movies are real, brutal, insightful, poetic and awe-inspiring. Sports are dramatic; plain and simple.
That’s why I’m here to present to you the finest sports films of all time. Who am I to make such bold claims? First, being a former athlete — pre-paunch, I participated in varsity swimming and water polo — I can say I know how sports films connect. I’ve screened loads of these flicks. And like any sport, I have rules.
Rule one: No Kevin Costner films. Rule two: No boxing films. Rule three: “Hoosiers” is disqualified, because it had the same director as “Rudy.” And rule 4: A sport can only present itself once, meaning no two baseball or basketball films. Don’t like the rules? Tough. I don’t have to justify them. So without further adieu, let’s get it on.
“The Hustler” was unglamorous, yet ultra hip. Paul Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, the most bodacious billiards man you’ll ever see. “Hustler” gets the nod because of Newman’s iconic portrayal of a man trapped by his talents.
Speaking of talent, “This Sporting Life” is the most emotional piece on this list. If you haven’t seen Richard Harris (“Camelot”) give a total performance in this kitchen-sink drama about the trials of gifted rugby player Frank Machin, then you must see this movie.
But even without revealing harsh realities, sports can be beautiful. Yes, there’s a tainted quality to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” films about the 1936 Berlin Olympics — juxtaposing Jesse Owens with Adolph Hitler is too awkward to ignore. But Leni was the first and best filmmaker to understand the beauty of the physical form and she showed it with slow motion, low-angle athletes in fluid form.
The filthiest, funniest and most furious film here, “Slap Shot” is raw athletics. Look up the fashion show scene online. But as a sports story, it is a great dramedy, capturing the unexpected in the best way possible. Oh, and the Hanson brothers are the funniest perpetrators of sports violence you’ll ever see.
Then there’s the original “Bad News Bears,” the most accurate depiction of youth sports. Argue hard about “Sandlot” capturing your youth, but “Bears” is way more honest. Who didn’t razz on other teams? Just look up “Bad News Bears Tanner” on YouTube for proof. Kids are cruel, but funny too. I certainly earned my water polo black eyes and stitches at 16.
That’s not to say sports can’t imbue hope. Sports will always inspire. Granted, the Disney sports movie formula has been packaged and resold just like the worst junk food. But “Remember the Titans” was the first in Disney’s recent string of athletic dramas, and it’s still the greatest. You really do want Denzel Washington to be your coach. And for once it’s OK to win a game.
So what are arguably the two best sports film ever made? The first is Roger Ebert’s pick for best film of the 1990s. As the most comprehensive movie on sports, “Hoop Dreams” is incendiary. It’s a three-hour documentary on two teenage Chicago basketball players, and it never lets up. Witness the heart-breaking, spirit-lifting experience of their quest to someday play in the NBA. It’s a landmark.
However, without apology, I believe “Breaking Away” is the perfect sports movie. Funny, fast, pretty and completely involving, it’s exactly right. Four townies at the University of Indiana compete against locals, and that’s it. But there’s much beneath the surface. “Breaking Away” is about finding and challenging yourself, and about uncorrupted competition. We learn from, enjoy and take part in this experience as it connects with us all. This is all that is good in sport and film.
These are the sports movies that get it. And I hate “Field of Dreams.”