The Top Ten Sports Movies

Boxing movies almost all suck.

Boxing movies almost all suck.

Revisiting a tired question.

Welcome to SportsNation! On Friday, we’re chatting sports movies with Ray Didinger, co-author of the new book “The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies.”

Didinger, along with Glen Macnow, tried to answer the question of which movie is better, “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham,” “Hoosiers,” “Raging Bull” or “Rocky”? Those last three were their top three, in alphabetical order (they reveal their ranking in their book). The duo watched over 300 movies, grading them and coming up with a top 100

Actually, none of these is in my Top Ten. Didinger/MacNow believe somehow that Rocky is the best sports movie ever made. Total bullcrap. It’s not even close to being the best boxing movie ever made. (In fact, it may be the worst of the genre.) There’s nothing realistic about the ring scenes at all. Both fighters would have been dead by the end of the fifth round.

Field of Dreams and Bull Durham also don’t belong on any list of good movies, let alone great sports movies. Costner’s overwritten, artificially inserted soliloquy citing the crack of the bat and the smell of pussy kills Bull Durham dead the moment it occurs. And Field of Dreams in its static nostalgia is more a cremation than a celebration of baseball.

Truth is, there aren’t a hundred great sports movies. There are just a few. Here are ten:

10. The Replacements. Almost all football movies are sentimental, inaccurate garbage pretending to be truth. This one is just fun. I’d probably have put Major League in this spot, but there’s no other football movie worth mentioning.

9. Stroke of Genius. The story of Bobby Jones, played by Jim Caviezel. A man pitted against himself. Insight into genius and its penalties.

8. Mystery, Alaska. Yeah, I know. Everybody loves Slap Shot as best hockey movie. Sorry. This one is less slap stick and more hockey.

7. Sea Biscuit. Great history, great performances by everyone involved. Only a couple of inaccuracies. (War Admiral wasn’t huge, and Sea Biscuit had a fine thoroughbred pedigree.) Still, a stirring movie you can watch more than once.

6. Coach Carter. Not about winning the championship. About winning in life. No other movie about basketball compares.

5. Pastime. It’s about baseball and baseball players. The best ever. Proof? The real-life major leaguers who played cameo roles. Nothing splashy. Just true.

4. The Greatest Game Ever Played. Yeah, golf is a sport. And one American finally put our country on a map that used to be limited to the British Isles. Excellent movie.

3. Senna. Formula 1 car racing. A documentary. Riveting as any fictional drama you’ve ever seen.

2. Secretariat. More history, well told. One of the greatest sporting achievements ever.

1. Ali. Boxing should be easier to get right than baseball, football, hockey, or basketball. Turns out it isn’t. The only movie ever that got it right. The Liston, Terrell, and Foreman fights are not only accurate historically, they’re viscerally, violently compelling. The rest of the movie is absorbing too, as befits its landmark subject.

I’d do Honorable Mentions, but I think I’ll leave that to you all. Have fun with your sharpshooting.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, an excerpt from a text message I sent to my good friend Josh today:

All I have to do is battle through the fatigue… Saw the movie Ali today. Like a time machine for me and the sensual realization of the only Mailer book I ever liked. He was ringside at Ali-Foreman in Zaire (which I watched live on HBO in B school after an exam and have written about). Mailer said the sheer sound of Foreman’s body punches in the first round was terrifying. He didn’t believe Ali could survive the round or if he did survive the round he might not survive the fight with his life. The movie captured that terror perfectly. It was torture watching round after round of rope a dope: body blow, body blow, body blow, body blow… with everyone in Ali’s corner screaming, “Get off the ropes!” Because nobody can take that prolonged a beating from such a punching machine. And then, suddenly, the lights that had seemed doused in Ali’s eyes flashed back on and here he came, off the ropes, resurrected, dancing (dancing!) and slugging like a predator who’s finally seen the opening he was waiting for. It took only a few moments and the best punch was the one not thrown, which Ali pulled back as Foreman was hitting the canvas. I will never forget it. Me and my B-school buddies practically cheered the roof off the apartment we were in. But the neighbors didn’t complain. They were cheering too.

Time machine.

All I have to do is battle through the fatigue. What Michael Mann was saying in his movie. For years, Ali had to stand against the ropes and just take it from the U.S. government AND the Nation of Islam. No wonder he won the Rumble in the Jungle. He’d had all the training anyone could ever expect to get.

Me too.

P.P.S. The missus watched the Ali-Foreman fight in the movie before the On-Demand timing expired. What did she say? “Good God. I get it.” Meaning everything I’ve said about Ali over the years. Just as she’s gradually gotten my love of the Stones. Slowly but surely, she begins to understand that I’m not arbitrary (or wrong) in my admirations.

6 thoughts on “The Top Ten Sports Movies

  1. My wife is exceptionally fond of Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” Perhaps needless to say, this the sharpest point of disagreement between us in our ten years together. Words are insufficient to convey my contempt for that movie, but that’s just as well, right?

  2. I hope you consider me as a guy in your corner, or at least one of the kids that Ali inspired for decades to come!

    I never watched Ali, afraid that it would come off as just another Will Smith movie, but on your say-so, I’ll see it right away.

    I remember seeing Cinderella Man and enjoying it far more than I expected; was that one of your suggestions a while back?

    Every year, the hockey kids at my school (we’ve been known as a ‘hockey school’, though we’ve fallen on harder times) watch Miracle, about the 1980 young American Olympic team beating the Russians, and I have enjoyed multiple screenings.

    I’m proud to think that I recommended Senna to you a while back. I never knew much about F1 racing, and that film just opened my eyes, wide.

    As for football movies, the others that come to mind are Remember the Titans (high school), the Blind Side (mainly Sandra Bullock, ugh, and also high school), and We Are Marshall, not bad but not great. So really no good football movies, why is that?

    And Screamin’ Willie Beamin + Al Pacino? Sorry, Mrs. RL, I’m not going to watch it again to find out who’s right!

    I absolutely loved Mystery, Alaska as well — is Russell Crowe my sports movie connection? I hope not.

  3. Two more that came to mind:

    I have a soft spot for The Natural, but I realize that it’s kind of hokey — a magical bat? Really? But that final scene gets me every time, just as they planned, I know I know.

    I recently heard a radio show talking about sports movies and a caller brought up Moneyball. The host made the great point that in any other movie about the situation, the two leads would be the *bad guys*, firing people to fit their database and trading all the magic in the game for mathematical formulas. Brad Pitt’s character doesn’t even watch the games! I actually enjoyed the movie, but it is NOT a good sports movie.

    One more: what about A League of Their Own?

  4. “A League of Your Own” is not a sports movie because women can’t play baseball. But I’d never stop anyone from liking it for their own reasons.

    Also: “Miracle” is a good add. Should have been on the list. Guess I was trying too hard to avoid the famous ones. Same goes for “The Natural.” I get the same feeling you describe in the final scene, magic bat or no. I had The Natural where Pastime now is but replaced it due to magic bat, etc.

    Mrs. Deerhound also loves Hoosiers. I won’t criticize other than to say some movies –Titans, Rudy, and Hoosiers, for example — fell off my list because they’re just not true, meaning they’re not what really happened. Blindside may also be more true than most. But there’s hardly any football in it. Left tackles do not a sports movie make.

    Do you still want to talk about “League of Your Own”? Okay with me. Just make sure you use sevent times more words than you usually would, and make sure to give up as soon as you get behind. That would perfectly reflect the experience of MLB when they tried to add a Class D minor league women’s team a few years back. They wound up losing every game they played to college alumni teams, including their bald old goats in the outfield. Women can’t play baseball. A far more important point than “There’s no crying in baseball.” Sorry if that busts any bubbles.

  5. I’m not saying there couldn’t be a great women’s softball movie. There could be. Just hasn’t happened yet.

    I also loved “Soul Surfer.” But God’s honest truth: so far, I’ve been totally unable to convince my wife to see it. Not a good sign for a sports movie, eh?

  6. I certainly don’t want to be put in the position of defending A League of Their Own! Just kindling for the conversation. What women’s sport could make a good sports movie? World Cup Soccer, maybe, except soccer is just the dullest sport. I’d say beach volleyball, but the line would be too fine for Hollywood to walk, I think.

    I came to remember Chariots of Fire, a bonding movie between me and my grandfather and one of the first grown up movies I watched as a boy. Liddell’s story as a missionary after the Olympic glory was inspirational to me as well.

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