In a League of Their Own - the best sports movies ever
The release this month of controversial documentary Tyson and Michael Sheen football drama The Damned Utd reminded us just how unreliable the sports movie can be. So here, in no particular order, are some gold medal contenders and some first round exits
1. Raging Bull (1980) Arguably the greatest of all sporting movies is Martin Scorsese’s rise and fall biopic of the Bronx Bull; the white Italian boxer Jake La Motta, who lost all but one of his legendary fights (between 1942 and 1951) to Sugar Ray Robinson. Raging Bull is a film about boxing made by someone who knows or cares nothing about the sport. Scorsese immerses the viewer in La Motta’s neighbourhood gang life. La Motta is a brute both in and out of the ring – his shaky marriages and trigger violent outbursts are testimony to that – but to the men of Scorsese’s generation he was an icon, and a homoerotic one at that. The film is the perfect fusion of blood and grace and its centre is the barbaric saint himself played by Robert De Niro – an Italian American degenerate bound for Oscar glory long before the Academy were willing to open their arms to Scorsese.
2. The Hustler (1961) Small time pool shark ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson (Paul Newman) sets out to beat Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleeson), no matter how high the personal price. The real American pastimes of greed and venality go centre stage in this seminal adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1959 novel by recently McCarthy blacklisted and disillusioned filmmaker Robert Rossen.
3. Big Wednesday (1978) Surfing and draft dodging are the order of any day in Malibu in John Milius’ exceptionally fine 1978 coming of age epic. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey star. The best film about surfing ever made.
4. This Sporting Life (1963) It’s grim up north, especially if you play rugby league. Richard Harris is tremendous as coal miner turned aggressive loose/lock forward in Free Cinema acolyte Lindsay Anderson’s sensational 1963 feature debut. Anderson spent most of the production trying to have sex with Harris and it shows – the man looks every inch the ingénue film star.
5. The Wrestler (2008) Mickey Rourke’s turn as lonely, has been wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in this touching Darren Aronofsky drama won him an Oscar nomination. Neon lycra and 80s rock add a scuzzy charm to the violent world of no-holds-barred fighting.
6. The Miracle of Bern (2003) Kes meets Life is Beautiful in the commentary box in post-war Germany for a poignant tale of triumph over adversity as minor league minnows race for the championship title.
7. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) Like a grimy episode of the OC directed by Larry Clark. There have been cooler, more action packed films made about skateboarding, but none bring the stories of the sport’s genesis together in one hyperbolic, hugely enjoyable stramash like this.
8. Hoop Dreams (1994) Proof that the path of a documentary never runs predictably, we follow the (mis)fortunes of two high school kids from Detroit for five years on their path to the big leagues with skill, subtlety and gravity.
9. Rocky III (1982) The original may be the people’s choice but this captures all the spectacle, drama and overblown glory of the Italian Stallion’s journey through the six films to boxing superstardom and back down to the ghettos of Philly and beyond. Mr T’s supremely terrifying Clubber Lang is the best movie bad guy since Jason.
10. Million Dollar Baby (2004) Further proof, if it was ever needed, that boxing remains the best sport for celluloid indulgence. Clint Eastwood took that most unconventional of pugilists, Hillary Swank, and made her a wholly believable hero of the ring.
11. Kingpin (1996) The Farrelly brothers turned their comedy focus to tenpin bowling in this goofball flick starring Woody Harrelson as a washed-up, ex-pro bowler hustling his way back to the top.
12. Gregory’s Girl (1981) There was romance between the goalposts when the clumsy beanpole Gregory fell for his school’s star footballer Dorothy, in this low-budget Scottish comedy, featuring horizontal dancing and a young Clare Grogan. Irresistible, and very quotable.
13. Caddyshack (1980) Animal House on a golf course as Bill Murray livens up the stuffy world of moneyed golfers at a country club overrun by gophers. Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield join him in the low-brow classic.
14. Fat City (1972) John Huston put his own twist on the washed up boxer’s story in his fantastic 1972 realisation of Leonard Gardner’s book adapted by the writer himself. Possibly the most honest and depressing film ever made about the boxer’s life.
15. The Set-Up (1949) Sixteen years before he activated his pension plan with The Sound of Music, director Robert Wise delivered this remarkable B movie about a fading boxer’s attempts to make a comeback based on a narrative poem by New Yorker editor Joseph Moncure March. Vicious, vital and unforgettable.
16. Redbelt (2009) David Mamet’s hugely underrated modern western set in the world of mixed martial arts instruction and competition. Redbelt is a typically ruthless and witty portrait of the media hijack of once great sports. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic as the lone gunman intent on fighting outside the ring.
17. The Goalkeeper’s Fear of Penalty (1972) Wim Wenders’ second feature from 1972 is an adaptation of a novel by existential Austria writer Peter Handke. It follows a suspended football player (Arthur Brauss) on his journey from team spirit to homicidal intent.
18. Slap Shot (1977) The mother of all ensemble sports movies. Paul Newman leads a brilliant cast in this serio-comic drama about a bankrupt ice hockey team, whose only talents are an ability to start rinkside brawls.
19. Personal Best (1982) Lesbians and track and field. What more do you want? Actually 1982’s Personal Best isn’t a great sports film but it is an interesting one because it is one of the few to recognise women’s Olympic sporting achievements, albeit in a homoerotic context.
20. The Great White Hope (1970) This 1970 film adaptation of Howard Sackler’s popular play is an idealised biopic of black boxer Jack Johnson played with incredible presence by James Earl Jones who also performed the role on stage.
21. Cool Runnings (1993) Loosely based on real events, this hugely entertaining feelgood flick follows the adventures of Jamaica’s first bobsleigh team in a classic fish-out-of-water tale.
22. The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner (1962) Classic British cinema from director Tony Richardson, as a young Tom Courtenay, sentenced to time in borstal, loses himself in his solitary running while kicking against the system.
23. Ali (2001) Will Smith puts in the performance of his career in this atmospheric biopic of the great boxer. Social commentary as much as boxing movie, it’s beautifully shot, and Smith brilliantly captures his idol.
24. Rollerball (1975) Stylised socio-political 70s dystopian sci-fi in which a totalitarian regime subdue the masses through an ultra-violent roller derby game. James Caan bristles as the champ taking on the system.
25. The Cannonball Run (1981) Essentially Wacky Races based on a real outlawed race, this high-octane romp featured Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin and Farrah Fawcett. Utterly ludicrous but loads of fun.
26. Dodgeball (2004) Fantastically ridiculous comedy in which the hapless dodgeball team from Average Joe’s gym defeat the evil Purple Cobras. Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller are perfect foils.
27. Kickboxer (1989) Once upon a time Jean Claude Van Damme wasn’t just the king of straight to video, he kicked serious ass, as this no nonsense brawler proved. An absolute classic of its genre.
28. When We Were Kings (1996) As Mobutu exterminates the population of Zaire, a moustached James Brown sweats out a definitive ‘Doin’ it to Death’; Ali and Foreman pound every ounce of pain and redemption from the pugilist art.
29. On the Waterfront (1954) Brando rides his one-way ticket to Palookaville as a Hoboken longshoreman tormented by the night he took a dive in the ring; all the way to his first Oscar.
30. Bull Durham (1988) The first (and best) of baseball films Kevin Costner would star in, and one which, under sport flick specialist Ron Shelton’s direction, presented sport as metaphor for life to deserved success.
31. Touching the Void (2003) Kevin MacDonald’s seamless docudrama uses interviews and restaged footage to replay Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ return from a seemingly inescapable mountain climbing hell in Peru.
32. Field of Dreams (1989) Costner returns to baseball. Audiences knocked back the tears for an unlikely but satisfying tale of recaptured dreams and family reunion. Gave the world ‘if you build it, he will come’.
33. The Hurricane (1999) Criticised for inaccuracies, removing the film from the context of boxer and convicted murderer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s life still leaves plenty of story and a standout Denzel Washington.