The concise critics

Anthony Sherratt takes a look at some of the best sporting flicks of all time and shares his top 20. We actually think he was just looking for an excuse to re-watch a bunch of movies.

Sporting movies: the films that make us cheer, mentally relive our youths and go outside for a throw/hit of the ball. They’re usually about aspirations and overcoming obstacles to win the championships and are mightily popular with the masses. But in a genre all about competition, which are the best of the best?

As both a sports fan and movie enthusiast I thought compiling a list would be relatively easy but it turned out to be anything but. Even compiling a short-list became a nightmare as friends and colleagues happily chimed in with suggestions. The ‘short’ list of 20 suddenly became 50 and arguments broke out about what even constitutes a sports movie let alone which were subjectively better.

Even now we’re still split on whether BMX Bandits should have been considered.

Life imitated art as passions grew and people argued, everyone determined that their choice triumph in the inevitable climax. In the end I was forced to take my bat and ball (in this case the list and my iPad) and go home. Away from the roaring crowds, lest their frothing mouths leave me thinking zombies rather than mexican waves.

After an intense montage of angst, DVD lifting and Tim Tams I finally called correct weight and declared the winners.


20. Rollerball (1975)
A dystopian film set in the near future, Rollerball turned out to be quite prescient with its themes of corporations running sport and manipulating the masses for profit. It questioned what part of sport passes for entertainment and passed some not-so-subtle judgement on the bloodthirsty nature of supporters.

James Caan played the superstar of an incredibly violent sport in which outcomes and results were being decided by a corporation. It’s Gladiator meets Big Brother with a sport with brutal rules.

Even the ending is bittersweet and confronting with the crowd chanting for a modern Spartacus as he skates around a track strewn with bodies, blood and gore. The impact of the many layers means this 1975 movie (not the recent remake) still has a lot to say many years later.

My most memorable moment: When one of the stars becomes a potato. Intense.


19. Major League
In contrast, Major League is a celebration of sport, determination and cliché. Throw in some likeable rogues and this almost by-the-numbers piece could have tanked but somehow it spoke to us. We loved the underdogs, booed the bad girl – as two-dimensional as she was – and basked in the climactic ending.

Tell me you didn’t feel your heart lift when Wild Thing started blaring out. If you’re a sports fan you’ll always remember that scene when the bespectacled Charlie Sheen strode forward with youthful energy (rather than tiger blood).

At its heart it’s a light-weight comedy but it combined well with the tribal emotion of sport to deliver a piece that resonates with athletes and sports fan everywhere.

My most memorable moment: When Taylor calls the shot! No one’s done that since Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series…


18. The Club
Not widely known outside of Australia, The Club is a wonderful sporting story with very little actual sport in it. It follows the fortunes of a high-profile Australian Rules club who recruit a star player at a time when the game was only just starting to deal with paying players.

It focuses on the interactions between the coach, star player and chairman and the differing perceptions and expectations. Featuring cheeky Australian humour and an amazing cast you’d be forgiven for not knowing the movie was based on a David Williamson play.

With both passion and good characterisation, The Club is must-see for all sporting enthusiasts.

My most memorable moment: The song. Quite simply if you were bought up in the 70s or 80s in Australia you knew Up There Cazaly. Even if you didn’t support Australian Rules (or the VFL as it was back then) your heart soared with that tune.


17. Big Wednesday
Telling a story over 15 years is always difficult but tying a coming-of-age movie to surfing when the chosen time period contains things such as the Vietnam War makes it even more challenging.

But the background material truly allows some wonderful characterisation as we follow three close friends and their changing lives in troubling times. The film is told in five acts, each of which coincides with the ‘big surf’ surfers dream of (the South Swell 1962, the West Swell ’65, the North Swell ’68, the Great Swell ’74 and of course Big Wednesday in 1977).

With some awesome surfing scenes and realistic characters that display both the good and dark side of humanity, it’s a film about obsession and ideals that transcend the daily routines of life. The quality of the cast only adds to a surfing bible.

My most memorable moment: The very poignant scene where one of the characters has a final surf before being shipped off to the war. The emotional mix is simultaneously subtle and intense.


16. The Bad News Bears (1976)
A movies that encompasses multiple genres – it’s a sporting, kids comedy – The Bad New Years Bears was an unflinching look at the ugly side of both children’s sport and America’s addiction to win-at-all-costs competition.

Walter Matthau played a foul-mouthed smoking, drinking former ballplayer who is recruited to coach a team of… well, let’s say they’re not the very best players and they too may have some bad habits that mirror their new coach.

Cue the obligatory laughs at kids using adult language and losing very badly. But of course our ‘hero’ turns it around and the underdogs work their way to the championship game.

It’s a movie that probably defined a genre (you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d just described The Mighty Ducks or a dozen other movies) but it was both endearing and confronting in the 70s.

My most memorably moment: I simply cannot hear the classical piece ‘The Toreador Song’ (Votre Toast from Carmen) without thinking of these ragtag kids and baseball.


15. The Hustler (1961)
A sometimes bleak story about a very talented pool player whose desire to be seen as the best over-rides anything else, often to his detriment. He doesn’t play smart, he doesn’t even play to win: he plays to force the other player to concede. Essentially it was really about Fast Eddie playing not pool opponents but himself and his ego.

Eddie spends the whole movie searching for ‘character’ and his journey amongst a motley crew exposes the varied and often conflicting definitions of the sought-after commodity.

An amazing examination of the internal struggle of an elite athlete, The Hustler, looks at motivation, reaction and the affect the ‘real world’ can have on your game.

My favourite thing: The bit of trivia that although a talented pool player named Minnesota Fats actually existed, he adopted his name from the character rather than the character being based on him.


14. Slap Shot (1977)
An extremely cynical look at professional sport, Slapshot looks to strip away the sentiment and romanticism that we so love to embrace, especially in movies. It’s down and dirty and takes us back to a time before sports administrators felt the need to maintain the image and integrity of sport because it was a commercial product itself.

Forget CEOs and commissioners speaking out against acts that will turn families and kids away from the game: at one point in this film the coach (Paul Newman again) actually publicly declares a “bounty” of $100 for the first of his players to nail an opposing player. And the quote: “Broome County [the opposing fans] is just visibly upset by this disgusting display … so come on down and get your seats for the next home game! Bring the kids! We got entertainment for the whole family!”

It almost demonstrates that sport is just a bunch of guys running around hitting each other for no other reason than a bit of entertainment.

My favourite thing: Despite the excessive profanity, nudity and violence (for the time) it was actually written by a woman. The cheerfully violent Hanson brothers rate a mention here too.


13. Tin Cup
It’s hard to say what draws us to Tin Cup. In fact a lot of people either hated it or were ambiguous about it on first viewing. After all the main character isn’t fully likeable, some of the narrative is disjointed, the love component is odd at best and even the ending is anything but heartwarming.

And yet somehow it works.

And perhaps it’s because of those things: it’s actually all quite human. Despite the lead character’s philosophies not sitting well with most of us, his conviction probably did.

My most memorable moment: A toss-up between the imploding ending and the quote: “Sex and golf are the two things you can enjoy even if you’re not good at them”.


12. Escape To Victory
Combining The Great Escape with soccer (football) seems risky enough but throwing Sylvester Stallone into the mix truly threatens to stretch credibility beyond breaking. And yet this cheesy 1981 flick actually manages to work. A team of POWs are assembled to play a Nazi XI for propaganda purposes but of course the prisoners have their own agenda and are planning to use the spectacle as an opportunity to escape.

It’s a light film but Michael Caine combines well with real-life soccer superstars Pele, Bobby Moore and Osie Ardiles and provide football fans with the first quality movie offering of their sport. Though some of the goofs will grate a little on diehard fans, there’s enough emotional manipulation to keep you watching till the end.

My most memorable moment: Pele’s overhead kick (apparently filmed in one take). While ‘bicycle kicks’ are common nowadays, back then only the truly talented and audacious would even attempt them so, at the time, it was stunning.


11. Raging Bull
Based on a real-life story, Raging Bull is almost the Anti-Rocky. Following the life of stubborn and unlovable boxer Jake La Motta, the film follows his disintegration from the heights rather than the usual cinderella story. Essentially it’s the decline of a champion although the film subtly questions exactly what that word actually means. In fact it’s less about boxing and more about what the sport can do to some people.

A Scorsese triumph, it of course comes complete with truly vicious violence and a darker psychological edge. But whereas most of Scorsese’s characters are a product and victim of their environment La Motta is multi-dimensional in his simplistic machismo and brute force that masks inadequacies and insecurity.

Intense and not for the squeamish, Raging Bull is a no-holds barred piece that qualifies as great despite the fact you may not want to watch it ever again.

My most memorable moment: We all think of The Elephant Man with the quote “I am not an animal” but whereas John Merrick’s line was a plea for acceptance, La Motta’s use of the same words is actually a horrific realisation of what he is and captures the desperation of a man unsure of what to do next.


Are you happy with the movies so far?  Seen any of these and hated them? Which movies do you expect to see in the Top Ten? Let us know below and then join us next week when Anthony gives us his Top Ten thereby inciting a football-derby-level riot.

Categories: feature, list

10 Responses so far.

  1. Warren Michael says:

    Raging Bull didn’t make your top 10? What?! You better have some amazing movies in that list or youre going to look very stupid.

  2. Gregster says:

    As long as In A League Of Their Own is in your top ten

  3. Sasha says:

    Tin Cup! Forgot about that movie. KC is still under-rated I reckon. Good to see The Club up there. Cheers

  4. Matt says:

    Dystopian? Prescient? Did you think you were writing an academic piece Anthony? 😉

  5. Apart from The Club (a favourite from long ago) I don’t watch sporting movies, so this opened my eyes. There’s a couple here I’m going to catch. Be interested to see the top 10.

  6. Wade Slater says:

    Not too bad but where’s The Natural and Invincible? But really Wild thing number 19, that doesn’t make my heart sing!

  7. Billy Beane says:

    Where am I? Oh that’s right I will be number one! You don’t need an algorithm for that awesomeness.

  8. Jan Brier says:

    Interesting list. I would have had Raging Bull in my top ten. I’m hoping to see Any Given Sunday, Field Of Dreams, The Rookie and Warrior in your final list.

  9. Ashley Barnsley says:

    Yeah, huge call not having Raging Bull in the top 10. Still a pretty good list though.

  10. Nina Williams says:

    In A League Of Their Own?

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