Ever since part-time boxer Elmo Lincoln became the screen's first
Tarzan, in 1918, the movies have been linked with sports,
reaching the heights of Olympia and the depths of Space Jam. But
which are the best? Our process was democratic and unscientific.
We solicited nominations from our staff, then lateraled them back
and forth in meetings, in e-mails and around the Goobers
dispenser until reaching consensus--which, naturally, provoked
more debate. Before you scold us for excluding your favorite,
consider this: There's no accounting for taste. One man's Rudy is
KEVIN COSTNER, SUSAN SARANDON (1988)
The Baseball Hall of Fame might not want Tim Robbins and Sarandon
(or their liberal politics) on display at Cooperstown, but as
wild-armed pitcher Nuke LaLoosh and a philosophizing Baseball
Annie named Annie, they are assured of celluloid immortality.
Some of the best-remembered scenes (particularly the
candlesticks-make-a-nice-gift mound conference) strain credulity,
but writer-director (and former minor leaguer) Ron Shelton has
superb storytelling chops. Best of all, Costner, as crafty
catcher Crash Davis, is a team player, having not yet maxed out
on the self-importance scale.
SYLVESTER STALLONE, CARL WEATHERS (1976)
August 3, 2003
In America's bicentennial year Rocky Balboa became the first of
the post-Vietnam War heroes, a frenzied expression of
old-fashioned individualism. A slow-on-the-uptake palooka who
gets a chance to survive a fight with the heavyweight champ
(Apollo Creed, played with panache by Weathers), Balboa has a
Philadelphia story with heart and purity and just enough cruelty
for resonance. Stallone informed his loser with a colossal
goofiness that was impossible not to watch. He was so
convincingly sincere that audiences actually jumped up and
screamed for him to win.
ROBERT DE NIRO, CATHY MORIARTY (1980)
A fight film like no other, it charges at you headfirst, the way
its savage protagonist did in the ring. Adapted from Jake La
Motta's candid confessions and filmed in garish black-and-white,
Raging Bull is a sort of anti-Rocky. Director Martin Scorsese
presents La Motta's bouts as masterly edited one-act miniatures
and goes toe-to-toe with fight-film cliches: He neither
romanticizes La Motta nor "explains" the anger that drives the
champ inside and outside the ring. De Niro's unsparing portrait
of this opaque, repellent villain is poignant in its
precision--even his silences are smoldering.
It's almost three hours long but director Steve James's saga of
Chicago basketball stars William Gates and Arthur Agee is worth
every minute. An air of dread hangs over this cautionary tale, as
its protagonists confront the inevitable disappointments of hoops
after high school.
PAUL NEWMAN, MICHAEL ONTKEAN (1977)
Newman's hockey coach, Reggie Dunlop, revives a deadbeat minor
league team by recruiting the hard-checking, high-sticking Hanson
brothers. Eyes obscured by taped-up glasses, fists swathed in
tinfoil, these geeky goons revel in dirty play. So does the
GENE HACKMAN, DENNIS HOPPER (1986)
Jack Nicholson was first choice to play coach Norman Dale, but he
declined. Just as well: It's hard to imagine anyone other than
Hackman goading his eight-man Hickory High team. So what if
Indiana hoops history was slightly rewritten for this uplifting
Intended as Nazi propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl's film is also a
lyrical account of the Berlin Olympics. Critic Pauline Kael
called it an elegy on youth, "dedicated to the highest ideals of
sportsmanship--these young men who were so soon to kill each
DENNIS CHRISTOPHER, PAUL DOOLEY (1979)
This boy-meets-bike classic kickstands the test of time. Dooley
is hilarious as a refundphobic used-car salesman, but this is
above all a career movie for Christopher, who croons arias and
pedals to an exciting finish against snooty college boys in the
Chariots of Fire
BEN CROSS, IAN CHARLESON (1981)
It's amazing that a movie about Caucasian sprinters, some of whom
look slow even for the 1924 Olympics, won the Academy Award for
best picture in the go-go '80s. But there's so much heart at the
finish line that we accept the lack of soul on the blocks.
When We Were Kings
This long-delayed account of the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle
between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman is nearly as enthralling
as the bout. The footage is a heartbreaking record of Ali as a
cultural force. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton provide sharp
Bang the Drum Slowly
MICHAEL MORIARTY, ROBERT DE NIRO (1973)
Nobody looks much like a ballplayer, least of all pitcher
Moriarty and doomed, tobacco-chewing catcher De Niro. But Drum
movingly hugs the foul line between myth and reality. And there's
not a dry eye in the stadium as De Niro stumbles around under
that final pop foul.
Dogtown and Z-Boys
A hard-core look at how surfing values and style morphed into
extreme skateboarding for a ragtag gang of Southern California
beach kids, this movie is also a wonderful evocation of time (the
'70s) and place (Dogtown, a shoddy area of Santa Monica). Groove
on the old school rock.
A League of Their Own
TOM HANKS, GEENA DAVIS (1992)
There may be no crying in baseball--but the game once had
females, as recounted in this lightly fictionalized and
spiritedly feminist account of the World War II-era women's pro
league. Hanks as a fall-down-drunk skipper and Davis as a
loose-limbed catcher provide the pathos.
HAROLD LLOYD, JOBYNA RALSTON (1925)
The most plundered sports film ever made, this sidesplitting
silent stars Lloyd as a callow youth who becomes the
laughingstock of his college. He tries out for the football team,
fails and serves as water boy until the final crazed seconds of
the Big Game.
The Endless Summer
Writer-director-narrator Bruce Brown followed surfers Mike Hynson
and Robert August around the world in search of the perfect wave.
The story line is small, but sweet. In this classic you can see
the DNA of every surf movie that came after.
North Dallas Forty
NICK NOLTE, MAC DAVIS (1979)
With somewhat less splash NDF demystifies the Dallas Cowboys the
way Ball Four did the New York Yankees. The action is vivid and
violent, the dialogue remains fresh, and pot-smoking,
pill-popping, glue-fingered wide receiver Nolte is an All-Pro
JAMES CAAN, BILLY DEE WILLIAMS (1971)
A grown-men-do-cry classic. Caan and Williams are a dream
backfield as Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, of course, but the TV
movie gets two extra points for casting Jack Warden (as crusty
George Halas) and Shelley Fabares (as Piccolo's plucky wife,
RODNEY DANGERFIELD, BILL MURRAY (1980)
As long as men gather to drink beer and break wind, director
Harold Ramis's masterwork will be deconstructed frame by frame,
including the memorable bit in which Murray provides his own
play-by-play as he uses a hoe to make a shot out of a flower bed.
ROBERT REDFORD, GENE HACKMAN (1969)
The then cutting-edge, skier's-eye camera work gave a visual rush
to this tale of a U.S. Olympic ski coach (Hackman) who tries to
tame a talented but wayward medal hopeful (Redford). What ever
happened to Redford's dynamic love interest, Camilla Sparv?
Requiem for a Heavyweight
ANTHONY QUINN, JACKIE GLEASON (1962)
This melancholy mood piece features Quinn as a tender, mumbling
giant who plods down lonely streets as if the ground were
tapioca. Highlights include Mickey Rooney's wary, sympathetic
cutman and the shadowy, darkly glamorous cinematography.
Adulatory, voyeuristic and engaging, this irony-pumped work
dissects the grotesque subculture of men's bodybuilding. The film
focuses on Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose main rival, Lou Ferrigno,
is incredibly bulky but not yet Incredibly Hulky.
ROBERT RYAN, GEORGE TOBIAS (1949)
In the most brutal indictment of boxing ever filmed, Ryan is
unforgettable as the shabby, shambling tomato can who still
believes he can be a contender. Based on a prose poem and shot in
real time, it still packs the power of a Joe Louis uppercut.
PAUL NEWMAN, JACKIE GLEASON (1961)
This Hemingwayesque tale of circling pool sharks is crammed with
atmosphere and incisive acting. As the disenchanted drifter who
tests what's inside himself, Newman is upstaged by George C.
Scott as the wicked manager who rejects him as a born loser.
Searching for Bobby Fischer
MAX POMERANC, BEN KINGSLEY (1993)
A budding grandmaster learns that the force is with him in a
chessboard version of Star Wars. Battling for his mind and game
are a street hustler (Laurence Fishburne) preaching tactics and
attitude, and a somber scholar (Kingsley) demanding discipline.
THE MARX BROTHERS (1932)
This college-football caper has Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo,
passwords, stolen playbooks and madcap dialogue that generations
have heard once and recalled forever: "Baravelli, you've got the
brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of
The Bad News Bears
WALTER MATTHAU, TATUM O'NEAL (1976)
Bibulous manager Matthau bitches, precocious O'Neal pitches, and
a hilariously foulmouthed gang of Little Leaguers scores big
laughs. Having seen the two sequels and the formula copied by the
Mighty Ducks movies, dare we label Bears seminal?
ELIZABETH TAYLOR, MICKEY ROONEY (1944)
This lively and immensely likable film involves an English
butcher's daughter (rapturously played by 12-year-old Taylor) who
practically wills her sorrel gelding to win the Grand National.
The climactic race was filmed on a Pasadena golf course.
Eight Men Out
JOHN CUSACK, DAVID STRATHAIRN (1988)
Auteur John Sayles tackles the 1919 Black Sox scandal, telling
the complex story completely. He gets brilliant, understated
performances out of Strathairn (as game-fixing pitcher Eddie
Cicotte) and Cusack (as apparently innocent third baseman Buck
JAMES CAAN, JOHN HOUSEMAN (1975)
In 2018 a corporate world-state channels the bloodlust of society
through a sport that weds hockey, football and Roller Derby.
Ruling execs try to off the champ (Caan) by making the game a
fight to the death. A defiant Caan keeps the allegory from
seeming too high-handed.
DENNIS QUAID, RACHEL GRIFFITHS (2002)
An earnest quaid has the right stuff in this true story about Jim
Morris, a failed minor league pitcher turned high school
teacher-coach who gets another shot at the Show. Quaid's mound
scenes pop the glove, and Griffiths supplies a mood changeup as
his encouraging wife.
Baseball--A Film by Ken Burns
Vividly employing his patented and burnished technique (archival
film, still photos and talking heads), Burns furnishes, in 18 1/2
enthralling hours, an unparalleled history of our national
pastime. Baseball's MVP? The ageless, twinkling former Negro
leaguer Buck O'Neil.
MATTHEW MODINE, LINDA FIORENTINO (1985)
We can believe that A high school wrestler, even one as lanky as
Modine, could cut enough weight to take on a foe two classes
lower. But having an older woman who looks like Fiorentino move
in with you because her car broke down? Well, movies are all
about dreams coming true.
STACY KEACH, JEFF BRIDGES (1972)
Gritty doesn't begin TO describe this absorbing but overlooked
tale, directed by John Huston, of two boxers, one (Bridges) on
the way up, the other (Keach) on the way down. Look for Cheers's
beloved Coach, Nicholas Colasanto, as trainer Ruben. He's gritty
DENNIS QUAID, JESSICA LANGE (1988)
Quaid and Lange display great legs as a Big Couple on Campus in
the evocative cinematic version of Frank Deford's novel about a
Southern gridiron hero. John Goodman, as Quaid's boisterous
buddy, and Carl Lumbly, as foil Narvel Blue, add heft and heart.
Million Dollar Legs
W.C. FIELDS, JACK OAKIE (1932)
This screwiest of screwball comedies has Fields as president of
Klopstokia, where every woman is named Angela, every man is named
George and every citizen is an Olympic-caliber athlete. They all
come to Los Angeles for the '32 Games. Mayhem ensues.
TOM CRUISE, CUBA GOODING JR. (1996)
In making the emotional leap from stonyhearted to softhearted, a
sensitive Cruise almost gives sports agents a good name. Renee
Zellweger, as his love interest, is winning, and Gooding's "Show
me the money" rap never stops being funny.
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
ARTHUR BRAUSS, ERIKA PLUHAR (1971)
A German goalkeeper, sent to the bench after surrendering a goal,
wanders through Vienna and commits a random murder. Directed by
Wim Wenders, this stark, beautiful, morally ambivalent film uses
soccer as a metaphor for existential dread.
Field of Dreams
KEVIN COSTNER, JAMES EARL JONES (1989)
Cornball, yes, but also a cornfield classic that touches the
bases of nostalgia, baseball history and the bond between fathers
and sons. Costner excels as ball field builder Ray Kinsella. And
Burt Lancaster is unforgettable as old-timer Moonlight Graham.
The Harder They Fall
HUMPHREY BOGART, ROD STEIGER (1956)
In his final film Bogart plays a down-and-out sports columnist
who teams with a sleazy boxing promoter (Steiger) to
hype--through a series of fixed fights--a clumsy giant with a
glass jaw. The verbal sparring between heavyweights Bogart and
Steiger goes 12 riveting rounds.
The Longest Yard
BURT REYNOLDS, EDDIE ALBERT (1974)
Reynolds is a forceful presence playing a convict and
ex-quarterback now calling signals for his prison squad. Former
Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke is among Reynolds's formidable
foes, as is Albert, the sinister warden. (Is there ever any other
kind in the movies?)
Remember the Titans
DENZEL WASHINGTON, WILL PATTON (2000)
No cliche is overlooked in this fact-based Disney movie detailing
the integration of a Virginia high school and its football team
in 1971. But Washington (as the black coach put in charge) and
Patton (as the white coach who has to swallow his pride) are
The Pride of the Yankees
GARY COOPER, TERESA WRIGHT (1942)
Cooper achieves a quiet nobility and grace in this sentimental
biography of Lou Gehrig. To mimic the lefthanded Iron Horse,
Cooper--a righthander--wore a uniform with the number reversed
and ran to third base instead of first. When processed, the film
Fists of Fury
BRUCE LEE, MARIA YI (1971)
Typecast on American TV, San Francisco-born Lee returned to Hong
Kong, where he had been a child star. The best of the "chop
sockies," in which the small, corkscrewy martial arts master
takes on all comers, Fists sparked a worldwide craze for kung fu
The Deadliest Season
MICHAEL MORIARTY, KEVIN CONWAY (1977)
This made-for-TV hockey movie details the fate of a defenseman
(Moriarty) who becomes goonish in an attempt to extend his
career. He kills a foe on the ice and is tried for manslaughter,
turning Season into a gripping courtroom drama. Conway is
compelling as the defense lawyer.
JAMES GARNER, EVA MARIE SAINT (1966)
This pioneering Formula One movie uses split screens and
70-millimeter cameras strapped to vehicles (which were jacked up
on the other side for balance) to convey the sensations of a
race. The driven characters take a backseat to the high-octane
Any Given Sunday
AL PACINO, CAMERON DIAZ (1999)
Director Oliver Stone created the first football film for the
music-video age, a movie full of quick, jarring cuts and
slam-bang action. Pacino is credibly harried as a dictatorial pro
coach clashing with his controlling owner (Diaz) and his
rebellious young quarterback (Jamie Foxx).
It Happens Every Spring
RAY MILLAND, JEAN PETERS (1949)
A lighthearted romp about a chemistry professor (Milland) who
accidentally invents a compound that repels wood. To test it from
the mound, he tries out for the big leagues, makes a team and
proves unhittable. This gem anticipates steroids and corked bats.
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings
BILLY DEE WILLIAMS, RICHARD PRYOR (1976)
It's 1939, eight years before Jackie Robinson will cross major
league baseball's color line, and a rowdy African-American team
is barnstorming the country. The script is sneakily subversive:
For a black man to succeed in a white world, he must clown and
TOM BURLINSON, RON LIEBMAN (1983)
This beautifully filmed Australian period piece is a loving
biography of the thoroughbred that captivated the land Down Under
in the 1920s and '30s. The movie touchingly depicts the
relationship between Phar Lap and the groom (Burlinson) who cares
Best in Show
CHRISTOPHER GUEST, EUGENE LEVY (2000)
Guest's wildly hilarious "mockumentary" revolves around show dog
owners--a fly-fisherman and his mopey bloodhound; neurotic
yuppies with their depressed weimaraner. Fred Willard steals the
final dog show as a Joe Garagiola-like commentator.
"Be the ball, Danny."--Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), Caddyshack
"I believe that God made me for a purpose, but he also made me
fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."--Eric Liddell (Ian
Charleson), Chariots of Fire (1981)....
"You know, I got a hunch, fat man, I got a hunch it's me from
here on in."--Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), The Hustler
"Show me the money!"--Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Jerry
"There's no crying in baseball!"--Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), A
League of Their Own (1992)....
"Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. Every
time I call it a business, you call it a game."--O.W. Shaddock
(John Matuszak)), North Dallas Forty (1979)....
"You're gonna eat lightning, and you're gonna crap
thunder!"--Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky (1976)....
"Golf and sex are the only two things you don't have to be good
at to enjoy."--Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner), Tin Cup (1996)
Here are our 10 favorite scenes from films that (ostensibly)
aren't about sports
The baseball game in The Naked Gun (1988)
The denouement of this Citizen Kane of slapstick takes place at a
baseball game and makes a delightful mockery of everything from
umpires' elaborately choreographed strike calls (the moonwalking
punch-out of Leslie Nielsen, right) to scoreboard blooper reels
(a sliding base runner is mauled by a tiger).
The football game in M*A*S*H (1970)
The showdown between the 4077th and the 325th evac hospital has
everything a big game should--ringers, a trick play and a
strategically employed hypodermic needle--plus some deathless
Major Houlihan: "My God, they've shot him!"
Lieutenant Colonel Blake: "Hot Lips, you incredible nincompoop.
That's the end of the quarter."
The tryout scenes in Grease (1978)
Guys play sports for one reason: to impress girls. Hence John
Travolta's futile attempts, in a series of scenes, to make the
Rydell High basketball, wrestling, baseball and track teams (he
trips over a hurdle), all to win the heart of Olivia Newton-John.
The Super Bowl scene in Black Sunday (1977)
Before he gave us Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris wrote a novel
about a disgruntled Vietnam vet, played on screen by Bruce Dern,
who plans to blow up a blimp filled with steel darts at the Super
Bowl. The suspenseful climax included footage filmed at Super
Bowl X in Miami.
The Giants game in When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Billy Crystal shows just how programmed to cheer we can become by
mindlessly taking part in a wave at a football game as he
recounts to Bruno Kirby the dissolution of his marriage.
The basketball dream scene in Fletch (1985)
Chevy Chase imagines himself as a Lakers star--receiving a pass
from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scoring on a reverse layup--all to
the play-by-play of Chick Hearn. ("Fletch: He truly defines grace
The golf scene in Swingers (1996)
In one of the best male-bonding scenes in a movie full of them,
Jon Favreau and Ron Livingston commiserate about Favreau's love
life and Livingston's stalled acting career while counting up
strokes at a par-3 hole (Favreau takes an eight...or a nine). A
close second from the same film: Vince Vaughn makes the Wayne
Gretzky figure's head bleed on a video game, sparking a wrestling
match with Patrick Van Horn.
The tennis match in Strangers on a Train (1951)
This thriller about a tennis player (Farley Granger) lured into a
murderous scheme by the deranged Robert Walker features one of
director Alfred Hitchcock's eeriest scenes: As Granger sits
courtside watching a practice match, every head in the crowd
swivels to follow the action--except Walker's, which stays
focused on Granger.
The surfing scene in Apocalypse Now (1979)
Considering the milieu--beach combat in Vietnam--Robert Duvall's
Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore is arguably the most dedicated
sportsman ever to grace the silver screen. Charlie might not
surf, but Kilgore's men do, enemy fire be damned. ("If I say it's
safe to surf this beach, Captain, it's safe to surf this beach.")
The Baltimore Colts quiz in Diner (1982)
How important are sports to guys? Ask the never-seen Elyse, whose
fiance, Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), won't marry her unless she
passes a quiz on his favorite football team. Elyse fails--but the
nuptials are on when Eddie allows that she probably would have
correctly answered the "Alan Ameche question," had not pal
Shrevie (Daniel Stern) blurted out the answer first.
RON SHELTON'S ALL-STARS
The creator of Bull Durham and many other sports movies is
bullish on these actors as athletes
"Almost every actor thinks he's an athlete," says Ron Shelton,
"and almost none of them are." Shelton should know, being a
creative force (director or writer or sometimes both) on such
films as Bull Durham, Tin Cup, White Men Can't Jump, Blue Chips,
Cobb, Play It to the Bone, The Best of Times and The Great White
Hype. When an actor comes to his office to audition for a sports
movie, Shelton, who played second base for five years in the
Baltimore Orioles' organization, immediately tosses him the
baseball that always sits on his desk. "You see right away how he
handles it, catches it, how he feels with it," says Shelton, "and
usually you're disappointed." Here are the actors who, in
Shelton's opinion, have the physical ability to consistently and
convincingly combine athletic and artistic prowess.
1 Kevin Costner (Bull Durham [below], Tin Cup, For Love of the
Game, American Flyers): "It's remarkable how good Kevin is.
Smooth and fluid, utterly believable in whatever he does."
2 Kurt Russell (The Best of Times): "He was a minor league
ballplayer, and it shows. He could pull off any athletic role."
3 Robert Redford (Downhill Racer, The Natural): "Obviously, he's
getting older, but he was a high school ballplayer, and he's
looked good in the athletic parts he's had."
4 Wesley Snipes (White Men Can't Jump, Major League, Undisputed)
and Woody Harrelson (White Men Can't Jump, Wildcats): "Wes isn't
much of a basketball player, but he's great at everything you
can't teach--jumping, running, quickness. Woody is basically a
slow white guy, but he really knows how to play."
5 Nick Nolte (North Dallas Forty): "He played high school football,
and that showed in North Dallas. He really captured the feel of
that kind of player."
SWEAT FLOPS: THE 10 WORST
You know how some movies are so bad they're good? These just
1 Space Jam (1996) Lazy and spiritless, this cynical
merchandising exercise strips Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck of their
anarchic energy and peddles Michael Jordan (right) for
2 The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) Insufferably fulsome,
true-life tale of Olympic skiing hopeful Jill Kinmont, who is
paralyzed by a fall and tortured by Olivia Newton-John's cloying
3 Rocky IV (1985) In a performance unmarred by subtlety of any
kind Sylvester Stallone's aggressive bodybuilder is so
self-inflated he could be a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day
4 The Program (1993) Long bomb of a film about a college football
team in which a moronic quarterback lies faceup on a highway like
a human speed bump. Moronic moviegoers aped him.
5 Days of Thunder (1990) NASCAR blockbuster that's all Formula One
cliche. Deafening soundtrack obscures lack of plot, suspense or
chemistry between hotshot Tom Cruise and brain surgeon (Nicole
Kidman), who massages his ego.
6 The Replacements (2000) Antiunion greed-and-gridiron screed
about mewling NFL players and their sad-sack fill-ins that's
about as watchable as replacement-player football.
7 Players (1979) Pulpy, soapy, helplessly camp romance between
Wimbledon finalist Dean Paul Martin and rich bitch Ali MacGraw,
who expresses emotion by contorting her nostrils.
8 Caddyshack II (1988) Even fans of the original's dumb
monkey-house humor will find this punishingly unfunny. The
embarrassing Dan Aykroyd signals to the audience that he's
smarter than the movie. But he's in it; he's not.
9 The Kid from Left Field (1979) The set-up to the one-joke plot:
rosin-bag-sized Gary Coleman manages the San Diego Padres. We're
still waiting for the punch line.
10 The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) Awesomely unsuccessful
parable about selfhood (or something) in which a shuffling black
golf whisperer (Will Smith) rejuvenates the game of a white
hacker (Matt Damon) at a racially tolerant (huh?) Savannah
country club circa 1931.