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Best Sports Movies of All Time

From drama to comedy, the best sports movies know how to hit all the marks.

By Fred Eugene ParkPublished 6 years ago 8 min read

Most of the greatest sports films of all time were made between 1970 and present day. Throughout the rise of modern America, sports have been an important pastime and source of excitement for people of all ages. Though early professional sports went largely unrecorded in video form, the invention and evolution of cinema and television finally offered such an outlet to visually broadcast sports. As television and film evolved, it was only natural that a film culture would grow around sports as well. By the 1970s the sports film genre began to come into its own, shaping and inspiring our modern conception of the sports film. From dramatic tales of an unlikely triumph to a comedic escape, the best sports movies of all time cover many genres and speak to people in many different ways. They truly showcase the power and the emotion of sports.

Set in the 1930s in New York and Chicago, this 1984 classic baseball film stars Robert Redford as ageless wonder Roy Hobbs. As the story goes, Hobbs grew up a talented strikeout pitcher who would barnstorm across the country to showcase his talent. After a brutal gunshot wound from a disturbed lover, Hobbs was unable to play baseball for years. When he finally returned as a much older man, he became an offensive hit for the fictional New York Knights (who may give the current state of New York sports a run for their money), facing trials and tribulations along the way. Co-starring Glenn Close and Robert Duvall, and featuring Kim Basinger and Wilford Brimley, it is considered one of the great baseball films, despite many valid criticisms. The main problem many have with the film is Robert Redford's batting stance, which is admittedly not very accurate. The majority of the film was shot in Buffalo, NY at two different stadiums: All High Stadium, which was used to portray Wrigley Field and the War Memorial Stadium, which represented the fictional "Knights Stadium." While All High Stadium remains standing today, War Memorial Stadium was demolished four years after the film, except for two of the entrance gates that now adorn a local sports complex.

No list of great sports films would be complete without the legendary Field of Dreams. There is perhaps no film more associated with baseball culture than this Kevin Costner classic. Taking place on a corn farm in the middle of rural Iowa, it tells the story of Ray Kinsella, a man who is struggling to connect with his estranged father. Kinsella hears the film's most famous quote, "If you build it he will come," when he begins to be visited by the ghosts of baseball greats from the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who play on his newly minted baseball field. Though Ray is the only person who can see these figures, he is compelled to watch them play baseball and refuses to replant the corn that once occupied the field—despite the financial ruin that such a large loss of crops has caused him. A strong emotional journey, Field of Dreams is widely considered to be one of the greatest baseball movies ever produced.

One of the great projects starring Burt Reynolds, The Longest Yard tells a different kind of underdog sports story. With the original released in 1974, the film follows Reynolds as Paul "Wrecking" Crewe, who lands in prison after he leads the police on a wild chase in his girlfriend's Citroen. In the prison, the inmates are not fond of Crewe, who was banned from the NFL for shaving points (playing badly on purpose to manipulate the betting results). Approached to coach a team of inmates to face the guards in an exhibition game, Crewe eventually agrees and puts together the "Mean Machine" with a bunch of criminals and the help of another former player, Nate Scarborough. Excellent in its own right for many reasons, this film is truly great for its ability to rally around characters who are not overtly sympathetic and have committed crimes of varying severity—which is a hallmark of great modern dramatic films and shows such as Breaking Bad and Ozark, among others.

While Kevin Costner tugged heartstrings and made baseball cinema history with his role in Field of Dreams, it was not his first role in a baseball film. In fact, there is perhaps no actor who is better known for starring in baseball films. Though two of his notable films, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game, were widely acclaimed dramatic roles, 1988's Bull Durham went in a somewhat different direction. The film is a comedy based on the writings of Ron Shelton about the minor league Durham Bulls, an actual minor league franchise in North Carolina. Costner portrays "Crash" Davis, a seasoned pitcher coming to Durham to help guide a wayward rookie pitcher (played by Tim Robbins). For hardcore fans, it should be noted that Durham Athletic Park—the ballpark where most of the movie was filmed and the former home of the Bulls—is still intact today, appearing much like it did in the film, and it even screened the film earlier this year to commemorate its 30th anniversary.

There are few sports film franchises that have had the soaring success of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films. Though some fans may differ in opinion, the best of the series is the first film, in which Rocky Balboa faces Apollo Creed, the Heavyweight Champion of the World. In addition to being one of the first films to use steady-cam technology, the film is most famous for its training scene where Rocky (Stallone), runs through Philadelphia to the main movie theme (using said steady-cam tech). While most sports films usually end in some sort of triumphant victory, often against great odds, Rocky was a bit more innovative. Instead of beating Apollo Creed after rising from obscurity, Rocky goes all the way with Creed, losing by decision, but putting on a real show. Though this left the door open for a slew of sequels (some better than others), it was relatively unexpected at the time.

What film comes to mind as the consummate football film of the new millennium? With some of the greatest inspirational sports films like Rudy, The Longest Yard, and others coming in the decades before it, it is hard to fathom that such a recent film indeed occupies such a lofty place in the often tradition-bound culture of sports. Remember the Titans made a mark on the genre, taking its place among the greatest football films of all time. In one of his most iconic roles, Denzel Washington stars as Herman Boone, a high school football coach in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Based on the real life story of Herman Boone, it follows his efforts to racially integrate the school's football team. Speaking to the messages of the Civil Rights Movement, this film sheds a light on the realities of race relations in football and, more specifically, southern society during that time period.

When it comes to comedic sports films, most people will first think of the same film before any other: The Bad News Bears, a classic comedy about the struggles of reluctant and struggling young athletes who were left off of every other team. Starring Walter Matthau as coach Morris Buttermaker and Tatum O'Neal as a young female pitching phenom employed to save the team, the film is a great time capsule in many ways. While the film was remade in the 2000s, the original 1976 release remains far greater. With the team consisting of white, Jewish, black, and Hispanic kids, we see a more honest depiction of race relations among young people at the time. Though there is still a great deal of passive racism within the film, it is—for the most part—satirical, not to be very pointed or vicious. In today's culture, this film is a cinematic passage into the culture of the 1970s and the humor of the time.

A classic sports film to this day, the 1977 hockey comedy Slap Shot was one of the lighter movies that the late great Paul Newman was remembered for. The film centers around a minor league hockey team called the Charlestown Chiefs who are playing their final season as their industrial town is shutting down around them. The film depicts something that is largely being questioned today: Old school rough hockey where fights are the norm and are a part of the excitement of the atmosphere. With its strong language and violence, the film faced great ridicule upon its release to theaters. Consequently, it was only a minor success at first, doing much worse at the box office than any of Newman's hits of the time. Despite its initial setback, however, the film grew to be a cult-classic, considered one of the great sports comedies.

Though most of the greatest sports films in the public consciousness were created within the last 40 to 50 years, there are some notable exceptions that stand out. While Babe Ruth is the most famous Yankee, an incredible one at that, many people all too often forget the importance of one of his contemporaries: The great Lou Gehrig. Playing from 1923 to 1939, it was a different time for the Yankees, before Mickey Mantle, before Derek Jeter, and before Aaron Judge, a new star in the making. Gehrig was one of the linchpins of the Ruth era Yankees offense dubbed "Murderer's Row." Though well-known as the informal namesake of ALS, the disease that killed him, Gehrig was a star in his time. After his illness took over, Hollywood set out to chronicle his life in film. Pride of the Yankees was released in 1942, only one year after Gehrig's untimely death. Gary Cooper portrayed Gehrig for the film, a tribute/biopic that chronicles and celebrates the career and rise of the Hall of Famer. With appearances from Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel, Bill Dickey, and Mark Koenig, the film is not only only one of the best sports films of all time, but it is also a crucial piece of American history.

As beloved and ubiquitous of a movie as Rocky is, there is perhaps no more iconic boxing film than Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull. Starring Robert DeNiro as the great middleweight champion boxer Jake Lamotta, the film follows the life of the boxing great as his carousing lifestyle drives all the people in his life away. One of the films that helped put Scorsese on the map, it also featured Joe Pesci, a regular feature in most of the great Scorsese projects. Though Scorsese is has sometimes been accused of using a similar story arc in a lot of his films (Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, and this film), Raging Bull was essentially the first of these rise-and-fall narrative films that are his bread and butter. The film was an enormous career success for DeNiro and it is not only one of a number of great films Scorcese would make with DeNiro, but Raging Bull also cannot be forgotten as one of the best sports movies of all time.

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About the Creator

Fred Eugene Park

Fred Park is a writer, singer and guitarist with a deep passion for music, sports and history. Fred graduated from Purchase College in 2016 with a BA in history.

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