Monday, September 24, 2007

All-Time Greatest Sports Movies

At soccer yesterday, several dads were standing around comparing notes on what we considered "the greatest sports movies of all time." This exercise had been sparked by the fact that one dad in our group simply hadn't seen what most of us considered the "canon" of sports-related movies. Indeed, his exposure to this genre had primarily been dictated by his young sons, who favored baseball movies targeted at kids: Sandlot, Sandlot 2, Sandlot 3, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield (the Disney-fied version), and the basketball-themed Like Mike. These candy-coated choices are all fun movies for the under 12 set - and count as favorites for my sons - but as classic sports movies they just don't make the cut.

So we started naming off favorites, compiling a list of must-sees for our clueless friend. From that conversation I started thinking about which films would make up my own list of "greatest sports movies." Here goes my dozen, in no particular order after 1 and 2:

1. The Natural

2. Hoosiers

3. Miracle

4. Field of Dreams

5. Breaking Away

6. Chariots of Fire

7. Bend It Like Beckham

8. Slap Shot

9. The Rookie

10. Bad News Bears

11. Bull Durham

12. Requiem for a Heavyweight

If you're a fan of sports movies I've no doubt left out some of your favorites. First, these are all movies I've seen. It wouldn't be fair to judge films I hadn't viewed. Although one might be tempted to drop in the first installment in the Rocky series, I so dislike Sylvester Stallone as an actor, I've never been able to watch more than about five minutes of any of his films. Go ahead and say it: "My loss." You'll notice that five of the twelve are about baseball. This is no surprise, given my love for the game. Also, realize that more movies have been made about baseball than other sport. The only close contender is boxing, about which there are numerous films. (Having been forced to take boxing class as a freshmen in college - a military school requirement - I've come to loathe the sport . . . although I'm willing to acknowledge the brilliance of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight.)

Something should be said about my picks for the top two slots. The Natural and Hoosiers are routinely considered among the top sports movies of all time, and in the 20+ years since they were released they've held up well. Hoosiers has even made it to the Library of Congress's list of culturally significiant films worthy of preservation. (They're still among my personal favorites of ANY genre.) Both, I think, have broad appeal because they portray the mythic qualities of their respective sports. The Natural is set in the 1920s or 30s, often considered a "golden age" for baseball - the era of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and their larger-than-life contemporaries. The film also tells a classic underdog story, with hero Roy Hobbs battling the forces of age and corruption to triumph in the end with a game-winning homerun. Toss in a nice little love story with Glenn Close, some intrigue with Barbara Hershey, an Oscar-nominated Randy Newman score, and one has the makings of a great film. On a deeper level, The Natural also touches on that significant inter-generational aspect of the sport, through which the skills of baseball and a passion for the game are passed from father to son in a process repeated over successive generations. It's a process with which I immediately identify, because my boys and I play and watch baseball constantly.

Although focusing on basketball, Hoosiers mines some of the same psychological ground to achieve its greatness. There's the obvious element of the underdog, embodied in the Hickory High School team itself, Gene Hackman's character as the embattled head coach, and Dennis Hopper's basketball-obsessed alcoholic father. (And hey, there's another Barbara Hershey siting as well! Hmmmm, could she be the glue that holds these films together?) Like The Natural, Hoosiers is set in a romanticized landscape - small-town Indiana of the 1950s. But here, unlike the solitary heroics of Roy Hobbs in The Natural, the hero is "teamwork" and the ability of five players to work together with their coach to overcome adversity and the pressure of "the big game." I still think that scene in the Bradley University gym when Gene Hackman pulls out the tape measure to reassure a team suddenly overwhelmed by a giant arena is brilliant. The movie also benefits from a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score that propels the action to the final shot at the buzzer. If you love basketball in its purest form, without the glitz of slam dunks and egos on display, Hoosiers is a winner.

Finally, I have to give special mention to the more recent Kurt Russell vehicle, Miracle, which chronicles the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team and its "miracle" victory over the Soviets at Lake Placid. Having watched that game as an excited sixteen year old, I think the movie does a nice job of capturing the moment. Moreover, Russell delivers a great performance as head coach Herb Brooks, eclipsing some of the more notable roles in his long career, including his turn in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a Disney classic from 1969.

Thankfully, all three of these films have become favorites of my boys, which suits me just fine after watching Air Bud for the fiftieth time. Each one says a lot about patience as a player and the value of good sportsmanship, lessons they need to learn in an age punctuated by bad behavior among so many professional athletes on and off the playing field. These films also say a lot about the theme of redemption. The lead characters in each movie carry some personal tragedy or mistake for which they're trying to redeem themselves. Their success in this endeavor is indeed a valuable lesson. My kids may not understand that aspect of these stories right now. But eventually they'll get it after they've suffered their own setbacks in life. Then these films will take on an even deeper poignancy.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

When did you sneak this post in and how did I miss it?
Sorry, not a big sports fan or fan of movies about sports. I've only seen 4 1/2 of these movies and don't remember them well. I did however see Hurricane and Raging Bull. I detest boxing. I wonder why I watched either of these? And Million Dollar Baby too. Hmm. I liked Hurricane.
I've watched tons of martial arts movies and liked a lot of them. You considering that a sport?
And Endless Summer... surf movie :-) In search of the perfect wave...
Another good "sports" movie, your boys would like, "Cool Runnings." Seriously, check it out.