John Royal’s Top Ten All-Time Greatest Sports Movies

With this week’s release of George Clooney’s football movie Leatherheads, and the February release of Will Ferrell’s ABA homage Semi-Pro, I thought I’d put together a list of what I consider to be the Top Ten All-Time Greatest Sports Movies.

So, here we go, in descending order.

10. Rocky: It’s easy to forget – thanks to the countless sequels – that this is actually a fantastic movie. It’s the story of the underdog stumble bum picked for an easy New Year’s Eve boxing match with the heavyweight champion of the world. Sylvester Stallone’s actually likeable, and his Rocky Balboa, at least in film one, is an actual person who just wants to go the distance. Unfortunately, he went the distance, then couldn’t stop. But all of the other movies can’t keep this from being a good movie.

9. Miracle: Do you believe in miracles? Yes. One of the biggest upsets in sporting history was the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team upsetting the behemoth known as the Soviet Union hockey team. There’s all the geopolitical aspects at play: the Cold War; the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics; the Iranian hostages; the Russians in Afghanistan; gasoline shortages. Kurt Russell nails the late coach, Herb Brooks, and the hockey sequences are invigorating. Then there’s the whole it’s a true story thing.

8. LeMans. This is about the famous 24-hour road race in France. Steve McQueen’s the enigmatic driver with memories of a brutal wreck the year before. And there are some guys racing against him. The dialogue is nearly non-existent. The plot’s not really there either. But it puts you inside a race car better than any other movie ever has. It’s a sensory-enhancing experience.

7. Caddyshack. I don’t think golf is much of a sport. But I don’t know a guy my age who can’t quote line after line from this movie. Bill Murray steals the show as Carl. “It’s in the hole.”

6. Major League. Willie Mays Hayes. Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Jobu. Harry Doyle. I own this movie on DVD and watch it often, yet whenever I stumble across it on cable, I stop what I’m doing and watch. Whether it’s just starting, or whether the Indians and the Yankees are playing for the Division title. Maybe Drayton ought to hit up the California Penal League for a little pitching talent.

5. Raging Bull. The story of Jake LaMotta. The boxing movie for those who don’t watch boxing. As is usual with Scorsese, it’s a brutal film. Robert DeNiro goes to method acting extremes. Even Joe Pesci doesn’t grate.

4. The Natural. Robert Redford as the phenom who could’ve been the greatest baseball player ever. With tight-fisted owners. Players on the take. Gamblers traveling with the team. The sportswriter as the prick. And the purity of hitting and fielding and throwing the baseball. Sure it takes some liberty with the book, like the happy ending. But it captures the essence and the beauty of the game like no other baseball movie.

3. Bull Durham. Writer-director Ron Shelton played minor league baseball, so he gives this movie some of the authenticity missing from other sports movies. He captures the ups-and-downs of the minor leagues. He hits on the groupies. Kevin Costner is actually good in a movie. And now we know what really happens in those meetings on the mound, and we all know what to get as wedding gifts.

2. The Longest Yard. No, not that god-awful thing of Adam Sandler’s several years ago. I’m talking about the real thing. With former real life college football running back Burt Reynolds playing the pro gone bad and ending up in prison. This is football stripped of all of the humanity. It’s a raw game of tackling and maiming. And hitting the guards.

And finally, the best sports movie ever…

1. Slap Shot. Minor league hockey at its best, or worst, depending on how you look at it. There are the long bus rides. The crappy arenas. The players hanging on way past when they should have retired. The actors playing the Hanson Brothers were actual pro hockey players. Michael Ontkean played college hockey. The screenwriter’s brother played on the team that inspired the Charlestown Chiefs and even plays Ogie Ogilthorpe. And there’s Paul Newman scheming to keep the team alive while trying to relive old time hockey.

-- John Royal