Originally published in StadiumTalk.com
August 29, 2018
Gene Hackman stars in Hoosiers, a film about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship.Hoosiers 1986
Good movies click when the conflict is convincing, and nothing draws out conflict like competitive sports.
There have been hundreds of sports movies made, and picking the best ones was a challenge. The choices here include films that focus on baseball, football, basketball, bicycling, hockey, boxing, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. Yes, a lot of punches are thrown.
Whether the teams or individuals are professionals or amateurs, all these films feature some version of a story that includes an underdog, redemption or reaping the benefits of long hours training, practicing and perfecting a craft. You may have your own picks for sports flicks that deserve top billing, but you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with the movies listed (alphabetically) here.
A scene from “42.”Movieclips Coming Soon/YouTube
The title of the film is the uniform number worn by Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is signed by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and has to deal with racism and degradation from fans as well as his own teammates.
The film authentically depicts Robinson’s daily struggle with keeping his temper in check while he dealt with the small-mindedness of hecklers all over the country. Robinson rose above the situation, of course, and it’s fitting that today his jersey number has been retired by every team in the league.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks and Geena Davis in “A League of Their Own.”Columbia Pictures
A professional baseball league for women? It became a reality in 1943 when World War II threatened to shut down Major League Baseball.
Many thought the idea was a joke, including Tom Hanks’ movie character Jimmy Dugan, a former MLB star who’s convinced to manage the Rockford Peaches. The pitcher-catcher combination for the Peaches are sibling rivals played with palpable angst by Geena Davis and Lori Petty.
Madonna turns in her best-ever screen appearance as outfielder “All the Way” Mae Mordabito, palling around with chum Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell).
Hanks gives us one of sports moviedom’s all-time one-liners as he reprimands his right fielder for making a bad throw while she tears up: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
Robert De Niro in “Bang the Drum Slowly.”YouTube Movies/YouTube
This baseball movie and another 1973 film release, “Mean Streets,” launched the career of Robert De Niro.
He plays dimwitted catcher Bruce Pearson on a (fictional) team with his best friend and batterymate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarity). Henry is a star. Bruce kinda sucks.
But we learn that Bruce is terminally ill with Hodgkin’s disease. Henry makes a deal with team management — he’ll sign a new contract as long as the deal also includes Bruce.
Nobody knows why Henry would make such a deal, but when the truth comes out, it rallies the team, even as Bruce sinks deeper into the clutches of Hodgkin’s.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra in “Bend It Like Beckham.”YouTube Movies/YouTube
The title refers to British soccer (football) superstar David Beckham and his ability to curl the ball into the back of a net.
He makes a cameo at the end of the film, but the story centers on 18-year-old Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) a British-Indian daughter of strict parents who forbid her from playing the sport. She joins a team behind their backs.
Egged on by her teammate (Keira Knightley) and coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) Jess plays well enough to earn a scholarship to an American university. Jess’ conservative parents are faced with dual dilemmas — giving their blessing to letting a female play sports and having her face a racially charged situation that once stymied her cricket-playing father.
Breaking Away (1979)
In “Breaking Away,” Dennis Christopher plays a bicycle racing enthusiast who dreams of racing with the pros.Fox
An Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay, the coming-of-age story of four Indiana 19-year-olds brings bicycle racing into the fold of best sports movies.
Based on a true story, a climactic competition unfolds in the “Little 500” four-man bike relay race as talented underdog Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) takes on all the other teams by himself. Then there’s a crash, and he has to yield to teammates who slowly lose the lead Dave had built.
Injured, Dave decides to get back in the race by taping his feet to the pedals of his bike. “Breaking Away” pits Dave’s working-class Cutters team versus the frat boys of Indiana University. Rent it on Amazon to see who wins.
Brian’s Song (1971)
Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in “Brian’s Song.”Rev Donald Spitz 19/YouTube
There’s so much to unpeel here.
First, the Emmy-winning original first aired as an ABC Movie of the Week, and totally outshines the 2001 big-screen remake.
It’s a story of an unlikely interracial friendship between pro football players Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). After joining the Chicago Bears, Piccolo is stricken with terminal cancer and dies at the young age of 26.
Even if you watch this movie with your hard-as-nails father or the guys from your flag football team, have a box of tissues handy. It’s one of the top all-time “guy-cry” movies ever made.
Bull Durham (1988)
Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham.”Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Kevin Costner has acted in five baseball-themed movies, two of which made this list. “Bull Durham” is the silver screen’s most accurate portrayal of baseball’s minor leagues.
Costner plays “Crash” Davis, a veteran catcher who’s brought in to the Durham Bulls to prepare talented space case “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) for the big leagues. A love triangle develops between Davis, LaLoosh and team groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon, who met her future and now ex-hubby Robbins on the set).
Memorable on-field scenes include: Davis telling a batter what LaLoosh is about to throw to teach the pitcher a lesson in listening to his catcher and an oddball pitcher’s mound meeting where half the team discusses cursed gloves, wedding gifts and a host of non-baseball-related topics.
Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.”methodshop.com/Flickr
Who’d expect a sports movie to star comedians Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Bill Murray? Directed by Harold Ramis, “Caddyshack” is an irreverent look at the world of country club golf.
There’s a young caddie (Michael O’Keefe), who tries to secure a scholarship by sucking up to a judge (Knight), who’s a stuffy regular at Bushwood Country Club.
Meanwhile, an unhinged groundskeeper (Murray) wages a war on a gopher infestation.
The climactic ending features a doubles golf match with big money, reputations and college education on the line. Just when you think the good guys aren’t going to win, fate — and a series of explosions set off by Murray’s character — steps in.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Ray Liotta, as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.”Gordon Company
The year after Kevin Costner made “Bull Durham,” he starred in “Field of Dreams,” an adaption of the W.P. Kinsella book “Shoeless Joe.”
Costner plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who hears a voice that whispers “if you build it, he will come.” That leads him to plow under part of his corn field and build a baseball diamond. His neighbors think he’s crazy. Then his unorthodox field is visited by deceased major league baseball players, beginning with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
It’s a lot of fun to have dead baseball players in your corn field, but meanwhile, the bank is ready to foreclose. Things get heady when Ray’s dead father appears at the field, and the whispering voice turns out to be prophetic — people from all over begin to flock to Ray’s Field of Dreams (which is a real-life tourist attraction in Dyersville, Iowa).
For Love of the Game (1999)
Kevin Costner in “For Love of the Game.”PictureBox/YouTube
A die-hard sports fan might find a little too much soap opera here. But there is genuine insight into pitching a major league baseball game through Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Billy Chapel.
Costner is on the mound for the Detroit Tigers, closing out a losing season but on the brink of hurling a perfect game against the New York Yankees.
The movie flashes back and forth between Costner clearing his mind to get batters out and his love affair with Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston).
The authenticity of the game situation is supported by the play-by-play calling of iconic former Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.
Seann William Scott in “Goon.”Magnolia Pictures
You probably didn’t see this one in a theater, but “Goon” became a cult classic after showing up on Netflix. (Streaming success helped launch a sequel, “Goon: Last of the Enforcers.” Don’t bother.)
The original movie stars Seann William Scott as Doug Glatt, a kindly but dimwitted bar bouncer who goes to a hockey game and winds up beating up one of the players. His fighting skills land him a job on the team as a “goon” — the guy whose primary job is to hurl fisticuffs. Doug “The Thug” is tasked with protecting the team’s leading scorer from veteran enforcer Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber).
There’s real heart in this surprisingly moving story, albeit a lot of blood and broken bones. Yep, in the end, it all comes down to an on-ice, bare-knuckled brawl between The Thug and The Boss.
Gene Hackman and his team in “Hoosiers.”Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Loosely based on the Milan High School basketball team that won the 1954 state championship, “Hoosiers” chronicles the season of a small-town Indiana team.
New coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) is a disciplinarian who comes with a checkered past. The town of Hickory is insane about its hoops squad — which only has seven players. Dale’s rules are too tough for the townspeople, who were used to being given voice in how the team was managed. But Dale asserts command, and the underdog team winds up in the state finals.
Best scene: The team arrives wide-eyed and overwhelmed for its first practice for the final in the huge, big-city gym. Dale directs one of his players to measure the height of the rim. “Ten feet,” the player reports. Replies Dale: “Ten feet … the exact same measurement as our gym back in Hickory.”
I, Tonya (2017)
Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya.”Charlie Mars/YouTube
Life was anything but smooth sailing for Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. Margot Robbie shines playing the hardscrabble athlete. Allison Janney won an Oscar for playing Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden.
The film portrays Harding as misunderstood by the public — in part because she came from the wrong side of the tracks and was more of an athletic skater than an artistic, feminine one.
The real-life Harding was found guilty by association of an attack on her rink rival Nancy Kerrigan.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat that part of the story but does suggest that she wasn’t the mastermind by any means, and certainly suffered from the situation.