My favorite sports movies are about people rather than games. The films that center on competition too often fall into the Hollywood cliche of a last minute victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Nearly every ‘Rocky’ sequel that followed the wonderful 1976 original (see below) falls into the trap of an underdog finally winning against the odds.Sports in America are business enterprises as well as athletic contests so you could set a good film in the franchise and network boardrooms where the future of a troublesome player like Colin Kaepernick is really determined. (See “Moneyball” below). The women who face the challenges of being involved with a pro athlete—the short careers, the life-changing injuries, the easy availability of other women on the road—aren’t often major characters in sports films.
The ten sports films I’ve listed here are presented in no particular order and no doubt reflect the fact that I grew up watching movies rather than playing games.
The Sylvester Stallone crowd pleaser was much derided in 1977 when it won the best picture Oscar in a field that included “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men” and “Network.” The film has held up well, though, with real 1970s Philadelphia grit taking the edge off the film’s sentimental excesses. People tend to forget that Rocky loses the fight at the end of the movie, but wins Adrian (Talia Shire) and revels in his ability to go the distance. The message of persistence against great odds never goes out of style. The PG rating makes it suitable for all ages.
A wonderful romantic comedy set in the world of minor league baseball with Kevin Costner as a player almost over the hill and Susan Sarandon as a baseball fan/groupie. The 1988 hit is a souvenir from an era when Costner was—briefly—one of the biggest stars in movies. It’s fun to see a callow young player learn the ropes from a veteran. The film is rated R for some flashes of locker room nudity and some salty language. It’s doubtful that the film would shock a 2020 teen.
Just as a great “war movie” could be set entirely inside the Pentagon, this 2011 Brad Pitt drama takes place mostly in the offices of a Major League Baseball franchise. The result is more about modern sports management theories than what happens on the field which makes it unique in the genre. The film shows how off-the-field strategizing can be crucial in any sport.Rated PG-13 for mild profanity.
The 1977 documentary captures body building culture at the moment when it was about to go mainstream in America. The movie also showcases young Arnold Schwarzenegger several years before he became a Hollywood star and governor of California. The Austrian champion would become one of the most guarded celebrities, but here he is shown without those filters, which might shock fans of “Twins” and “Kindergarden Cop.” The determination and physical effort needed to be a bodybuilder has never been depicted with such detail and humor.We do see some pot smoking, but the picture is otherwise a clean PG.
“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”
A raucous and slightly profane Will Ferrell comedy that also happens to be one of the most full-bodied portraits of NASCAR culture. The 2006 movie is nervy enough to send up Southern habits and Evangelical Christianity. The dinner table discussion of “baby Jesus” is perhaps Ferrell’s funniest movie scene to date. This mostly escapist comedy does satirize the gender and sexual orientation bias still at play in some sports. Light raunch earned a PG-13 rating.
“Heart Like a Wheel”
Hollywood hasn’t given us many films about female sports stars which is why this 1983 drama about Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney stands out. Bonnie Bedelia is so good as the professional drag racer that you might assume she received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Shockingly, she didn’t; this was one of the Motion Picture Academy’s strangest omissions of the 1980s. The ability of women in sports to equal and surpass men is the core message of this wonderful, squeaky clean – PG.
Paul Newman was never better than he is in this raunchy 1977 hockey comedy-drama set in a dying small city in Pennsylvania. Director George Roy Hill supplies lots of late 1970s funk as he digs into the off-rink antics of the players. Some of the movie is shockingly misogynistic and homophobic, but it feels true to the time and the characters. The way professional sports can bring hope to the people in distressed U.S. cities is one of the important themes here. No sex scenes, but the profanity still deserves the R rating.
“The Longest Yard”
If you wonder how Burt Reynolds became one of the top Hollywood stars of the 1970s check out this bruising football comedy from 1974 that captures the actor in his peak career moment. Reynolds drew on his own college football background to play a wisecracking convict who leads a prison team. The film is not to be confused with the dismal Adam Sandler remake. The team-building power of sports even works with the otherwise hopeless prisoners in this comedy-drama. The playing field violence and profanity earned an R in 1974, but it might get a PG-13 today.
The true story of a rich wrestling fan who went crazy after he set up a deluxe training facility is the darkest film on this list but it deserves a look for its unsparing view of sports fandom run amuck. 2014 Oscar nominee Steve Carell drops all traces of his comedic persona to play the host/groupie who wound up killing his favorite wrestler for reasons that were never made clear. The dangers of sports obsession is at the heart of this disturbing movie – rated R for brief violence.
Hollywood history is cluttered with half-baked movies about car racing—“Grand Prix” and “Winning” foremost among the duds—but this 2013 Ron Howard picture manages to perfectly balance the on and off-track lives of two drivers played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. There is a great inspiration in the story of the terribly injured German driver played by Bruno who works his way back to the sport he loves. The R rating is for some brief nudity and race-track violence.
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