By John H. Foote
From the beginning of film movies have explored sports in their narratives, and various forms of sport have provided some the most remarkable stories in film history. Be it biographical accounts or fictional works, audiences and critics have long thrilled to the stories set on the playing field, boxing ring, ice rink or golf green, as well as those exciting behind the scenes glimpses into how sports work.
Three sports dominated my list – baseball, boxing, and ice hockey, with one film about figure skating cracking the top 10. It hurt me to leave off the list films such as Draft Day (2012), North Dallas Forty (1979), Secretariat (2010), and several others up to and including Ali (2001).
The first time I remember an audience reacting to the screen as though they were at a sporting event was Rocky (1976) when the ham and egged was going toe to toe with the heavyweight champion of the world. It was exciting to be caught up in that film, one with crowd, as though we were right there.
I grew up playing sports – baseball, hockey, soccer and tennis among them, but hockey was by far my favourite. As a goalie I loved the excitement of a shooter winding up on me, because it was just them and I. Timing and talent make up an athlete with one other key ingredient, heart. The best films about sports capture, best of all, heart.
The greatest films about sport can do that and more, placing us inside the minds of those exceptional athletes, allowing us to feel what they feel, hear as they do and see what they see. A great sports film can be transformative in every conceivable way, as these 10 are.
10. MONEYBALL (2011)
Less about the playing of baseball than the playing of the game of building a winning team. With the lowest payroll in the league, manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) loses his best players to other teams who offer them fat contracts. Connecting with a numbers whiz who pays attention to accomplishments that matter, Bean pulls off a trade to bring the young man, portrayed by Jonah Hill, to Oakland to help him build a team. And against the grain in every way, ignoring their scouts, even the coach, Bean deals for other players, creating a unique team of no stars, a lunch box brigade. Laughed at, ridiculed, no one laughs when Oakland wins 20 consecutive games, stunning the baseball world with all eyes focused on Bean and his team. Using mathematical statistics, they build a winning team that makes Bean the most sought-after General Manager in pro ball. Though they did not win the World Series, they proved fat contracts and superstars are not the only ingredients in building a winner. Believing in yourself, having others believe in you, and heart, are what it takes. A fascinating look at the pros as we have never seen them.
9. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)
Based on the poetic Kinsella novel “Shoeless Joe”, this beautifully realized film is both ghost story and a picture about a deep, unending love for baseball, a love that carries into the afterlife. Kevin Costner is Ray, a farmer in Iowa who hears mysterious voices telling him that if he builds it, he will come. Turns out that it is a baseball diamond complete with lights in the middle of his corn field. He, we think, turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) followed eventually by many greats of the pre-twenties era. Only Ray and his family can see the players, leaving everyone else to think they are bonkers. A road trip brings a young hotshot who gives up the game to be a doctor, but here he is again young, on the field with his heroes. Is he the famous, reclusive writer portrayed by James Earl Jones? No, he is Ray’s long dead father, who Ray longs to see again, apologize and play catch, and here under the Iowa stars, surrounded by ghosts, he does just that. Grown men wept at the film, and no film has ever spoke to the American myth that became baseball. The men talk about the smell of a leather glove, the fresh cut grass, the whack of the bat, and the absolute devotion to a game they all so love.
8. SLAP SHOT (1977)
Minor league hockey is a hard life, for while it is considered professional and the players are paid, it is not where they want to be. Their goal is the National Hockey League (NHL), the pros. Most of the minor league teams are affiliated with NHL teams and are like a training ground for the players. But some players spend their entire career in the minors, never to make the big leagues, forever to ride the bus from city to city, playing in run down often shabby rinks in front of loyal fans who love them. Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is such a player, knows it, loves it and loves the game. As player coach of the fictional Charlestown Chiefs, Newman gives one of his finest, most often seen performances. In this profane, often downright vulgar comedy, the Chiefs are a losing team who bring in muscle to transform them into a brawling team of tough guys who drop the gloves to fight faster than you can say “he shoots, he scores”! The three Hanson brothers, who bring their toy race cars with their fists and fury, are hysterical on the ice as they destroy anyone in their path. The film, written by Nancy Dowd and directed by George Roy Hill, is a bawdy, rollicking comedy that speaks to violence in the game, but more to a deep love of the game. Newman did all his own skating often surrounded by real minor leaguers. A terrific film.
7. THE HUSTLER (1961)
A dark and savage film about the intertwining lives of pool players, pool sharks, their reptilian managers and their women. In smoke filled back rooms, men gather to play pool, others to place bets on the best players, still others try to gauge the greatness and worth of players. Paul Newman is electrifying as Eddie Felson, a hotshot player managed by the demonic Bert (George C. Scott), a horrific human being who worships the dollar, nothing else. Felson wants to be the best, and trusts Bert to get him there, never counting on the man’s low regard for humanity. Though a cocky, often arrogant drunk, Felson allows his weaknesses to ruin him, and bring about the tragic death of the broken woman who loves him. Recovered, Felson is intensely focused, coldly professional in taking down Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and staking his claim to finally being the best. Bert, ever the Anti-Christ, is left screaming for money he is owed. Directed with stunning realism by Robert Rossen, one can almost smell the back rooms awash in cigarette smoke, booze and sweat. Newman is brilliant, as are Scott, Gleason and Piper Laurie as the doomed girl in love with Eddie.
6. ROCKY (1976)
Written in three days by Sylvester Stallone, this little low budget film became a sensation, making a superstar of the actor-writer and near instant classic of the film. Rocky (Stallone) is a ham and egg boxer, a club fighter, talented but not pro material. Selected by the world heavyweight champion to fight an exhibition bout on New Year’s Eve, Rocky knows he has no chance. What he wants his self esteem, to prove to himself he is not just another bum from the neighbourhood. He and Adrian (Talia Shire) fall in love, tough old Mickey (Burgess Meredith) trains Rocky, and while Rocky takes the fight very seriously, his opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) does not. Buoyed by the love of Adrian, believing in himself as his crusty manager does, Rocky stuns Apollo with his hitting power and ability to take a punch. On the night of the fight the champ reigns blows on Rocky who comes back with bone breaking punches that shake the champ to his core. Going the distance, the full 15 rounds, is what Rocky wants, something no one has ever done with Creed, but Rocky, battered, bloodied, does just that. Apollo retains his title, but Rocky gets the girl, and his self respect. This little a Cinderella film made millions and to everyone’s shock won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
5. BULL DURHAM (1988)
Minor league baseball is riding from town to town, waiting for the call to “the show”, the majors. There you fly from city to city; you do not carry your gear, nor your luggage and the hotels are first class. Brilliantly directed and written by Ron Shelton, himself a former minor league player, the film explores the relationship between a hotshot pitcher warming up for the show and the career minor league catcher brought in to teach the kid about ball. Kevin Costner gives one of his best performances as a Crash Davis, an outstanding player who has been to the show but did not have the talent to stay. He sees it in LaRoosh (Tim Robbins) but also sees how easily distracted the younger man is. Between them is a Susan Sarandon, who makes a different player her lover – and project – each season. What she never expects is to fall in love with Crash. Costner is superb, surrounded by great performances from Robbins and Sarandon, and a superb director at home with his material. A brilliant exploration of the minor leagues and the profound love of this game. Gritty and authentic, very funny, very real.
4. I, TONYA (2017)
The world of figure skating, with its corrupt judges and shameful favouritism, was forever turned upside down in the late eighties and early nineties by Tonya Harding. A gifted skater from the wrong side of the tracks, Harding became the number one female skater in America, anxious to compete in the Olympics. When her chief competitor Nancy Kerrigan is clubbed on the knee with an iron bar, all eyes turn to Harding. Thought of as a hillbilly redneck, who else was to blame? Turned out Harding could not be tied to the assault, but her husband could. Nonetheless the damage was done and after failing miserably at the Olympics, she was banned from competitive skating for life. Margot Robbie is absolutely brilliant as the wildly ambitious Harding, who overcame great obstacles to make it, only to become the most hated woman in America. Ironically, as Harding collapsed at the Olympics, Kerrigan skated to a silver medal. Robbie’s performance is less a piece of acting than a complete inhabitation of her soul, utterly magnificent.
3. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)
Penny Marshall beautifully directed this loving tribute to women’s baseball during the forties when the men were off fighting and attendance in pro ball declined. Women from across the continent were recruited to play in a professional women’s league that eventually found great success and entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Geena Davis is the star player, her younger sister entrenched firmly in her shadow and not liking it one bit. In one of his finest and funniest performances Tom Hanks is former pro Jimmy Dugan, now a drunk, reduced (in his mind) to coaching women. But along the way, something happens to them all, and they become a team, and friends which a team forges together for life. Hanks has one of cinema’s most iconic moments when he screams at one of the women who has started to cry, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Marshall gives the film a lovely nostalgic feel, almost an inner glow about a more innocent time, a time long gone. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell do solid supporting work, but this film belongs to Davis, Petty and the great Hanks. A wonderful film.
2. MIRACLE (2004)
“Do you believe in miracles?” roared the TV announcer calling the play by play as the upstart young American ice hockey team defeated the awesome, powerful Russian at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. The world watched, stunned, as the Americans played their game, managing to outskate, out play, out hit, and out score the awe-inspiring Russians to eliminate them from medal contention. When the Americans won Gold a couple of nights later it was anti-climactic, as the game with the Soviets had been THE game. Tracing the evolution of the team from training camp under the coaching of whip smart disciplinarian Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), the boys are whipped into both physical and mental condition – Brooks very aware of what it will take to beat the Soviets. Russell is a real force on the ice and off, forever studying films of the Russians, looking for a weakness to exploit finally discovering one … wear them down with skating. It helped that goaltender Jim Craig chose that game to have the greatest of his life, making save after save to keep the Russians from scoring. The film really is about the building of a team, and that all important aspect of self belief. Brooks believed in these boys and taught them to believe in each other and themselves.
1. RAGING BULL (1980)
Jake LaMotta was a brutal man who fought violently in the ring, living his life with the same ferocity and violence. As portrayed by Robert De Niro in a performance for the ages, Jake was unable to control his rage, it was always there, dominating his existence. In the ring he often beat opponents to a bloody pulp, which carried over into his life. Both his wives were subject to beatings and his brother Joey, his manager, was attacked in his own home by Jake, driving them apart for the rest of their lives. Martin Scorsese directed the film, shooting in black and white, plunging audiences into the ring with Jake so that we hear what he hears, see what he sees and feel every blow to his pounded body. The violence in the ring is unrelenting but always realistic, shockingly so. De Niro whipped himself into fighting condition, trained by La Motta himself who said the actor could have gone professional. Filming ceased for five months while the actor gained 80 pounds to portray the older, retired LaMotta, one of the most extraordinary transformations in screen history. Deservedly he won a richly earned Academy Award for Best Actor. Surrounded by equally great work from Pesci and newcomer Cathy Moriarty, De Niro was elevated by their genius and they by his. Scorsese brilliantly directed the film, giving it a startling authenticity, and searing realism in exploring the troubled life of a man who seemed to need violence in his life, never realizing he was forever at war with himself. A dark, troubling work of art.
Runners up: NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979), BREAKING AWAY (1979), THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017), CINDERELLA MAN (2005), ALI (2001), SECRETARIAT (2007), and SEABISCUIT (2003).
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.