12. Downhill Racer (1969)
"He's not for the team, and he never will be." If a movie's success at the box office can be viewed as a race, then Downhill Racer came in dead last. Suddenly realizing that it had a film about skiing on its hands, Paramount Pictures removed the movie from screens almost as soon as it was released. The studio wanted an action thriller; its star, Robert Redford, had in mind a more high-toned film about Olympic sport. Both parties lost. Redford got the movie he wanted, but audiences never saw it. Critics did though, and said nice things. And that appraisal more than anything has kept the film alive all these years.
11. Rocky (1976)
"Einstein flunked out of school, twice. Beethoven was deaf. Helen Keller was blind. I think Rocky's got a good chance." Why this boxing movie and not, say, Raging Bull? Because Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky Balboa, is in the Boxing Hall of Fame and Robert De Niro, Raging Bull's Jake La Motta, is not, for one thing. The latter film has a lot of things besides boxing on its mind; Rocky is simple and pure. Unfortunately, its popularity gave rise to five more Rocky flicks, most of which we could've done without.
10. Pumping Iron (1977)
"Your muscles get a really tight feeling, like your skin is going to explode any minute. It feels fantastic." It wouldn't be accurate to call this a documentary, since much of it was staged. Its subject is bodybuilding, after all, which if not a sport is definitely a competition, especially when you see how seriously Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger (this is the film that made him a star) take it. The "pose-down" in which Arnold shakes the confidence of the other two is freakishly hilarious. That's the future governor of California, folks.
9. Slap Shot (1977)
(No dialogue excerpted here because it's all too dirty to be repeated.) In many respects, 2004's Miracle, about the U.S. Olympic hockey team that beat the Russians in 1980, is the quintessential hockey picture, but Slap Shot has endured in a way the former film probably never will. Surprisingly profane and vulgar even by today's standards, the comedy tells the story of a down-and-out minor-league hockey team that resorts to violence to win. Paul Newman, who played the coach, said he rarely had so much fun making a movie. It shows.
8. The Natural (1984)
"Pick me out a winner, Bobby." With so many great baseball movies to choose from for a list like this, it's understandable if The Natural doesn't make the cut for many people. The film, starring Robert Redford as a past-his-prime player, takes itself very seriously, from its golden lighting to the richly sentimental soundtrack by Randy Newman. But the picture's climactic sequence, in which Redford's character hits a home run to win the game, is simply one of the most awe-inspiring moments you'll ever find in a motion picture.
7. Hoosiers (1986)
"You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments." It was hardly the first inspirational basketball flick to come along and there has been no shortage of imitators since. On the surface, there's nothing about Hoosiers that suggests it’s one of the all-time sports classics until you spend more than a few minutes taking in the rock-solid performance of Gene Hackman as the coach of a small-town high school basketball team in Indiana. The movie, loosely based on a true story, is set in the honeyed glow of the early 1950s, but nothing's really changed about the simple, honest world it depicts. At least we'd like to think so.
6. Bull Durham (1988)
"I've tried them all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball." There's a ramshackle quality to this movie that feels surprising today, not to mention an in-your-face sexiness, courtesy of Susan Sarandon, but these qualities work to the advantage of a comedy about a team of minor-league baseball players. Casting was crucial; star Kevin Costner had a natural athleticism about him, and a personal experience with the sport. But more than that, writer/director Ron Shelton delved into his own years in the minors to fashion a film in which the moments ring true.
5. Field of Dreams (1989)
"Daddy, there's a man out there in your lawn." It should never have worked. An Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner, again) builds a baseball field because voices tell him to. Long-dead baseball players then appear to take in a little batting practice. Virtually everyone thinks the farmer is crazy, except for a radical writer from the 1960s played by James Earl Jones. What kind of loopy story is this? One in which the near-mystical lure of baseball serves as a vehicle to bring like-minded people together. Rarely is suspension of disbelief so necessary to enjoy a movie; seldom is a film this rewarding once you have.
4. A League of Their Own (1992)
"Are you crying? There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball!" A League of Their Own would have made this list even if it wasn't the only flick here to be concerned with female athletes. Charged with telling the true story of an all-women's baseball league formed during World War II, when many major leaguers were overseas, the comedic film works better in increments than overall, but there are so many priceless small moments. Starring Tom Hanks (at his best), Geena Davis, and Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell before they got annoying, it's simply a hoot.
3. Rudy (1993)
"Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!" In assembling this list probably the most distressing discovery was how few really good football movies there are out there. Plenty have been entertaining, and Rudy falls into that category, but it's little more. The reason why this true story about a young man driven to play football for the University of Notre Dame elicits such strong emotions, pro and con, has a lot to do with how people feel about Notre Dame football. This doesn't make the film any better, but try finding a sports fan who doesn't have a strong opinion about it.
2. Hoop Dreams (1994)
"People ask me if I will remember them if I make it. I tell them, 'Will you remember me if I don't?'" The documentary, about two inner-city Chicago kids attempting to use basketball to escape a bad environment, opened to some of the most rapturous reviews any film has ever received. The critics weren't wrong. The film is happy to revel in the glories of someone who has made it to the show, and the joy is infectious. But at the same time it isn't afraid to follow in the footsteps of another who doesn't, revealing the cruel, all-or-nothing dichotomy of trying to make a livelihood in this sport.
1. The Wrestler (2008)
"You know what I'm thinkin'? Two words – RE-MATCH." Much was made at the time of the film's release about this being the story of star Mickey Rourke, a talented, acclaimed actor who threw it all away and has struggled ever since to get his career back. The movie clearly is about Rourke as much as it is wrestling, an "entertainment" that can't really stand much scrutiny. But director Darren Aronofsky's decision to take this approach reveals how much the tried-and-true cliches of sports can so easily apply to so many other walks of life.