Here’s the thing. I don’t care about your sports team. It’s nothing personal, but I just don’t care about sports teams or sports in general. That lack of interest on my part extends far too frequently to sports movies as well though, and while I’ve found myself unexpectedly captivated on more than one occasion the ones that truly stick with me over time are the ones that actually aren’t about sports at all.
Of course that assessment could be applied to just about every sports movie to some degree. Hoosiers for example is about underdogs, teamwork and faith in yourself and others, but basketball still courses through its veins. Rudy is another underdog story, something I’m a sucker for in general (as you’ll see below), but while it contains commentary on honor and racism it’s unavoidably a college football film through and through. It’s the seriousness and reverential attitude towards the institutions that put me off I think, and while I enjoy the human stories in films like these I feel they’re too often overshadowed by the iconic worlds of baseball, basketball, football, etc. and the blind devotion that follows.
Or maybe I’m just bitter because while I do love watching and playing tennis the only movie I get is the Paul Bettany/Kirsten Dunst rom-com Wimbledon.
Anyway, here are the ten best sports movies that choose people over the sport. The ones that entertain and emotionally affect without needing to honor the institution. The ones that those of us who don’t care about sports can still follow, love, and care about. And yes, you’re damn right this list starts with Kevin Costner’s Tin Cup.
#10 - Tin Cup (1996)
“Here I am ready to charge forth in pursuit of my mythic destiny, and I can’t even get time off work to do it.”
What makes it great despite the sport? In a word, Costner. This is the first of three appearances he makes on this list (For the Love of the Game is below), but I don’t think that will surprise anyone. Baseball films are what he’s best known for, but his portrayal of a washed up golf pro as an immensely likable mix of cocky, dumb and sincere is near perfection, and his character’s inability to stray from who he really is leads to an ending that circumvents the typical underdog tale in brilliant fashion. It’s a comfort film to be sure, but it’s also funny, wise, and even on a tenth viewing, nerve-wracking during that final U.S. Open scene.
20th Century Fox
#9 - The Sandlot (1993)
“You’re killing me Smalls!”
What makes it great despite the sport? Nostalgia seems like the obvious answer, but as someone who didn’t play much baseball as a kid it’s a yearning for the time more than the specific activity. A group of kids welcome a newcomer into the fold, and while baseball is at the heart of their time together the film is a reminder of a time when friendship, imagination and the great outdoors were daily staples. It’s like a softer, lighter Stand By Me, but the core strengths remain the same leading to a film where the specifics can be swapped out while the feelings and effect remains.
#8 - Bull Durham (1988)
“I’m the player to be named later.”
What makes it great despite the sport? Costner! Again! But more than that the film does a great job of immersing viewers in the world of professional baseball while keeping the focus on adult relationships and the humor that pervades it all. This is Costner’s first pairing with writer/director Ron Shelton (Tin Cup being the other), and their track record shows that a reunion is long overdue. Crash Davis’ speech about what he believes in is legendary in part because while it includes baseball it’s actually an encapsulation of the whole man. He’s more than a baseball catcher, and this is far more than a baseball movie.
#7 - A League of Their Own (1992)
“Hey cowgirls. See the grass? Don’t eat it.”
What makes it great despite the sport? As is the case with others on this list the film is about relationships forged through trying times and the challenges that bring people together. It looks at a time in American history when all eyes were focused on the men overseas and looks inward instead at the women left behind who refused to sit idly by. The film manages to educate while being incredibly entertaining, but its true magic act is preventing “actors” like Madonna and Rodie O’Donnell from sinking the experience. And has Jon Lovitz ever been this funny in any other movie?
#6 - Slap Shot (1977)
“Look at that. You can’t see that, I’m on radio.”
What makes it great despite the sport? Real talk… I only watched this film for the first time this year. And it was after I watched Goon. But my delay didn’t affect the experience of what has become a favorite go-to of mine for crass comic relief. Paul Newman is in his 1970s sweet spot, and the film embraces a rough and tumble attitude in its tale of unchecked aggression, rude behavior and a “fuck it all” attitude towards the system. Rules of the sport, common decency, economic downturn, relationships troubles… sometimes you have to give it all the finger and do it your way.
20th Century Fox
#5 - Lucas (1986)
“If you’re so depressed, how come you’re eating pizza?”
What makes it great despite the sport? This is one of the best underdog films of the ’80s, if not the best, and the main reason why is in the film’s brave and atypical ending (slow clap included). It’s like a geeky redo of Rocky in that it sets up everything as we expect — our hero finally gets a chance on the field, it’s the winning play, everything is riding on it — and then allows him to drop the ball. Literally. It’s incredibly honest and that carries into the film’s love story too, again a rarity for the genre, and it’s filled with such heart, warmth and humor throughout to boot. Corey Haim’s innocence would disappear a few years later (damn you Nicole Eggert), but for a brief moment his enthusiasm, energy and refusal to give up created a rare, believable hero.
#4 - Miracle (2004)
“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
What makes it great despite the sport? Of all the movies on this list, this one comes closest to hitting the point where I check out. It’s a true sports story with a high reverence for hockey, but it’s also a true American story about the characteristics that make (made?) our country great. It was a specific time, yes before professionals invaded the Olympics under the guise of the Dream Team, but more than that it was a time that allowed and encouraged the country to band together behind a common experience. The preponderance of “entertainment” options these days means we’ll never again have a positive bonding experience like this, something we can all root for. But if sincere, agenda-free patriotism isn’t enough for you, it also stars Kurt Russell.
#3 - Rocky (1976)
“You stop this fight, I’ll kill ya!”
What makes it great despite the sport? Boxing doesn’t interest me in the slightest because if I’m going to watch two people pummel each other I’d prefer it to involve Keanu Reeves saying “You owe me a life.” Or at least some martial arts. But like Lucas above, Sylvester Stallone’s film (directed by John G. Avildsen) offers up an underdog tale that ultimately isn’t about a literal victory. Rocky tries and fails to win the big third-act fight, but it was never about a check in the Victory column. He wins despite losing, and the reasons go beyond sport to encompass all that makes humanity capable of such greatness.
#2 - Field of Dreams (1989)
“You wanna have a catch?”
What makes it great despite the sport? I am a sucker for father/son issue movies, but while movies like Big Fish inexplicably leave me cold I get teary-eyed just thinking about the moment where Costner (again!) asks his dead dad for a catch. Seriously, I’m watering up right now as I type this! The film’s embrace of family and faith in each other is corny and sincere in the best possible way, and you believe in the film’s happenings and message because Ray Kinsella, his family and new friends do too. Costner sells the emotion of it all, and while baseball is the catalyst it serves as a stand-in for any shared experience that brought people together and holds the power to do so again.
20th Century Fox
#1 - Breaking Away (1979)
“Oh Dave, try not to become Catholic on us.”
What makes it great despite the sport? If I was making a list of the best films of the ’70s there’s no doubt this incredible and underseen gem would hold a top spot (and probably battle The Long Goodbye for #1). The film is filled with familiar faces (including a young and constantly grinning Dennis Quaid) and is as unassuming a “sports” comedy as you could get. Steve Tesich’s script delivers a steady stream of funny lines and situations, but they’re bonus atop a story about growing up and staying true to yourself even when reality threatens to derail you and your dreams.
Runners up: Bad News Bears, The Best of Times, Moneyball, Victory, Warrior