Ten Favourite Sports Movies

This sporting life

So here we go with our personal favourites in the field of sports movies (see what I did there?) It’s not an ordered ‘top ten’, nor is it a definitive list of the best ten ever made, before we get the now-customary emails and comments saying ‘you suck’. You’re still welcome to tell us we suck, it’s a free country. Hell, you could even tell us you like what we do, tweet this page and plaster it across social networks everywhere – but don’t let us tell you what to do. Feel free to chime in with your favourites. We’ll start with James‘s picks this time, as he has graciously ceded the honours to me in the past. He’ll probably post a lot of worthy stuff, so I’ll be on hand to lighten the mood once he’s (doubtless) banged on about Rocky (1976). Over to you, James.

James’s Choices

Rocky III (1982)

Well, in fact, I am not going to ‘bang on about Rocky (1976)’ by John G. Alvidsen, even though, along with Rocky Balboa (2006), it’s undoubtedly the best of the series, winning the Best Film Oscar way back in the day. But it simply wasn’t as much fun as this, the third installment, which was directed by its perrenial star Sylvester Stallone, and which I first saw, also way back in the day, on a double bill (remember those?) with Airplane! (1980). Ah, of such are memories (and future careers) made. With hindsight, it’s not actually very good, is part the third, but it does have a cracking, brutal performance from Mr. T as Clubber Lang, a brutal boxer who is working his way through fighter after fighter to get to Rocky, and a swang-song performance from Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s long-time trainer, Mickey, who really doesn’t want to see his boy in the ring with Lang. ‘He’ll knock you into tomorrow, Rock.’ But, of course, Rocky is having none of it, and it turns out to be Mickey’s last fight. And will it be Rocky’s? What do you think?

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961)

Please don’t start whining on about how pool (either 8-ball, 9-ball or straight) is not actually a sport, because you would be wrong. Glad we got that cleared up. Simply the best film of its star Paul Newman’s career, bar none, and a remarkably intelligent, gripping and tragic examination of what it means to be a winner and a loser. George C. Scott is also exemplary as the evil gambler Bert Gordon, who will let nothing, least of all ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson (Newman) or his troubled love Sarah (Piper Laurie) stand in his way. And, of course, there are the two pool showdowns with the man Eddie came to town to beat – Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They really do not make ’em like this any more.

Raging Bull (1980)

Probably Martin Scorsese’s finest film ever, for which he (to the Academy’s shame) did not pick up Best Film. Robert de Niro, in one of the finest performances of his career, for which he  did win the gong, plays real-life boxer Jake La Motta, a fighter whose violence and temper takes him temporarily to the top in the ring, but destroys all that he holds dear in the ‘real world’. With fights that are nothing short of breathtaking, characterizations that  could only have come from the mind and pen of Paul Schrader and one of the most moving, tragic denouments in all cinema, this simply soars, and is a film for the ages.

The Damned United (2009)

For my money, this may not be the best film ever made about football, but it’s certainly in the top one. It’s an absolutely kicking adaptation of the, apparently, somewhat fictionalized account of Ol’ Big Head Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), and his turbulent (and very brief) spell in charge of Leeds United, after he had already beaten Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) to the then First Division prize with Derby County. Sheen, as modern cinemagoers have come to expect following his performances in The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), is excellent as Clough, and Timothy Spall provides admirable support as Clough’s long-suffering friend and assistant Peter Taylor, and the film as a whole emerges as a riveting account of the football battles of yesteryear.

Looking for Eric (2009)

Ken Loach rarely makes a film with characters that are difficult to warm to, and this is no exception – while the basic premise is obviously rooted in fantasy, straightforward, gutsy performances keep it grounded in working-class, football-loving realities, while the story’s darker side ( a gun-wielding local ‘psycho’ businessman, and the danger this poses to all concerned) is treated with respect and unflinching realism. A fairy story this ‘aint, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for magic. And Eric Cantona himself? A marvel, as you might expect – he’s already won his spurs as an actor, and he’s clearly having a great deal of fun playing himself here: ‘I am not a man. I am Cantona.’

Colin’s choices

Lucas (1986)

Starring a diminuitive Corey Haim, a pre-meltdown Charlie Sheen, and providing the big-screen debut for Winona Ryder, Lucas is really about love, feelings and other gushy stuff like that. It does have a very strong American football theme going through it, which proves pivotal to events, so I’m going with it. A note to our US chums – just remove the word ‘American’ when you read this. For my money, this is a prime example of a seriously under-rated feel-good film. It could easily have fallen into a formulaic boy meets girl, girl loves someone else, boy joins football team to impress girl, girl… well, you get the drift, I’m sure. A good script and some solid performances brought together under the watchful eye of David Seltzer (yes, that one) elevate this to a better product than the sum of its parts. Just don’t worry too much about the actual rules of football, or you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s a story, K?

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

In my humble and modest opinion, if you’re tired of Dodgeball, you’re tired of life. This film hit our screens when Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn were pretty much at the top of their game, and when Rip Torn – who played the wonderful Patches O’Houlihan – had been at the top of his for years. The young Patches was played by Hank Azaria, and if you’ve got the voice of Homer Simpson playing a character, you’re doing something right. Out-of-context cameos by Lance Armstrong, William Shatner, The Hoff and Chuck Norris add to the fun. Just one watch of this film and the tired platitude ‘it’s probably the way he wanted to go” takes on new meaning. You’ll see. Dodgeball is a tremendous amount of fun and at no time takes itself seriously. Watch out for the deus ex machina and remember the fundamental five Ds of Dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and…dodge.

Cool Runnings (1993)

Imagine a sport populated almost entirely by Caucasian peoples, well versed in the harsh winters of the northern hemisphere and inventors of countless sports that exploit the fact that their countryside is covered in snow for 5 months every year. Then throw in a few happy-go-lucky and upbeat Jamaican guys. Under-equipped and poorly trained, they decide to race in one of the most dangerous events in the winter games – the bobsleigh. Featuring Leon, who seems to have been in everything for around 20 years, Malik Yoba (ditto), Doug E Doug and Rawle E Lewis as the team and the late, great John Candy as their trainer, Cool Runnings is just plain fun. It’s also based on a true story (one that I was lucky enough to see unfold live at the Winter Olympics of 1988). Luckily, in real life, the teams were not at all hostile (as in the movie) and welcomed the Jamaican team with open arms. Still a great story, even if the facts don’t get in the way.

The Blind Side (2009)

I was determined not to watch this. Then I was going to watch it but I was determined not to enjoy it. Then I watched it and fell in love with Sandra Bullock all over again. For a guy who doesn’t really like to watch film representations of real-life tales (it’s a long story, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you) I was truly taken by this. Bullock deserved all the praise she got for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, and Quinton Aaron likewise for his portrayal of football star-in-the-making Michael Oher. A truly uplifting movie about how one person’s kindness and disregard for colour of skin or the disdain of her peers can bring out the true character of an abandoned, homeless teenager and literally change his life.  The juxtaposition of Bullock’s sassy Southern lady and Aaron’s shy and self-effacing kid from the projects works all the better because much of it really happened. A true fairy tale for the modern age.

Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau ) (2001)

Having seen Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and loved it, I was keen to see what madness lay in the previous outing involving Stephen Chow, Hong Kong-based director, actor and martial arts nut.  While not of the same calibre of KFH, it has a real charm about it, and it flies the flag of uncompromizing and generally mental Hong Kong cinema. If you need a heads-up, read our review of Gong Tau (2007) for a taster of the insanity. Written so much larger than life, Chow’s efforts engage on such a real schoolboy gung-ho level, it’s practically impossible to not like them. Similar, in a way, to the films of Bollywood, there’s romance, intrigue, drama and an almost impossible amount of butt kicking. Mix in some magic, some bad guys and replace the dancing with football and you have Shaolin Soccer. It’s like anything brilliant – it’s simple, effective and it delivers the goods. See it.

by Colin Moors

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Colin Moors

Colin reviews films. It's what he does.

10 thoughts on “Ten Favourite Sports Movies”

  1. What about Rocky IV (1985), the US versus the USSR? We had Rocky, training in the wild with logs and stuff versus a hi-tech trained Russian opponent (who looks more like your archetypal Nazi). Given the state of the Soviet Union at the time, the training methods would be much more plausible the other way round. I recommend watching this film in Dungannon, where the (possibly drunken) audience decided to very vocally back the Russian (even though we suspected his chances were slim). 😉

  2. Hello, Miss C, and a very warm welcome to Picturenose! 🙂 Yes, I agree, Rocky IV was a lot of fun – and it’s funny you should mention a cinema audience giving its vocal backing to one of the pugilists, because exactly the same thing happened in the cinema I saw it in, York, but our lot was far less rebellious and gave their backing to the Rock, hope you don’t mind. Hope to hear from you again soon! 🙂

  3. It was like all Rocky films – mawkish caca made for audiences that don’t want to engage with a character in any depth. Not everything needs to be the cinematic equivalent of A la recherche du temps perdu but the pugilist fallen on hard times making a comeback was hackneyed even when the first Rocky was made. I dislike them all for the same reason – because they’re all the same film. I accidentally caught five minutes of one once and I had to watch my entire Cohen Brothers box-set to recover a shred of humanity.

    Oh, and welcome to Picturenose, TDC 🙂

  4. It does go to show that being in a cinema with an opinionated audience can make a very poor film quite entertaining. Maybe, there’s a ten favourite post possibility in that category? 😉

    OK, more seriously, what about the sports film that shares part of its name with Blade Runner (1982), namely Blades of Glory (2007), which is a moving struggle by two leading skaters to regain glory.

    ‘If you build it, he will come’

    Lots of my favourite sports films concern baseball, a sport I neither watch nor fully understand. Field of Dreams (1989) is at the top of my list – it is also the only film with Kevin Costner that I like. Essentially, a mid-western farmer is entreated to build a baseball ground in one of his fields – I can’t remember much more – other than it was very moving. It involved lots of former players coming to play on the ground and some sort of redemptive ending.

  5. ‘Some sort of redemptive ending’?

    Ah yes, C, that would be the bit where the young father of Costner’s character (whom he never knew) turns up and starts playing ball on the baseball park that Costner has built? An ending that had me weeping buckets? Yes, I guess you *might* describe that as ‘some sort of redemptive’. 😉 Seriously, thanks so much again for your comment – great to have you on board. 🙂

  6. Rollerball (1975), mostly for its dystopian vision of a future stuck firmly in 1970s fashion.

    Death Race 2000 (1975), mostly for its dystopian vision of a future stuck firmly in 1970s fashion. Oh, and the scene where they run down the wheelchairs. 😀

    Breaking Away (1979), American Flyers (1985) and White Men Can’t Jump (1992) were also memorable. 🙂

  7. C: I think baseball works because the basic rules are fairly simple – it’s a game we all identify with, i.e. you hit the ball, you run. Great cinema tension, zero knowledge of rules required. Field of Dreams works for many because it is quasi-religious, with its motifs of faith and miracle. Some just like it for what it is and no bad thing.

    Chris: I believe some people did get together in real life to play Rollerball, although I think the killing was frowned upon. It takes all sorts. Dystopian visions aside, I was intrigued as a youth by spikes, bikes and roller skates. I fear you’re right about the fashions, though. I can’t claim to have seen Breaking Away or American Flyers, but White Men Can’t Jump was very enjoyable, even if Harrelson’s character was an idiot!

  8. Hi Colin,

    I will concede that baseball, as played out in films, is usually simple, but the game itself is not simple. To underline this point, may I bring to your attention Exhibit B, Moneyball (2011). Like The Blind Side, this film is based on a book by Micheal Lewis, about the coach of Oakland, Billy Beane (real name!). Oakland (I think that is their name), was the West Ham of baseball – struggling somewhat. The coach wants to buy in new players but, of course, there’s no money.

    Enter sports geek stage left to save the day, using his in-depth knowledge from watching the game – they select players and, well, they do very well. What is poignant about the book is how the main character, an extremely gifted athlete, chooses money over an education at the beginning of his career, loses all that money and then manages a team that he brings to the top (or near to the top) despite the fact that they can’t pay the league’s top salaries. By not making more of the background, you lose the importance of the end. It’s like taking the Pottersville part out of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

    A small after-thought. In Premier League football, Martin O’Neill would be Billy Beane.

  9. Hi C,

    I was very careful not to say that baseball was simple 🙂 I said that “the basic rules are fairly simple” – otherwise we get into the “football being 22 men kicking a ball made by Thai children around” argument, which would be pointless at best. I think we are fundamentally in agreement, in that the game is the canvas upon which the story is painted. It doesn’t really matter which sport is chosen, although I feel that the easier a game is to understand on a fundamental level, the less it clutters the picture.

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