You would be hard pressed to find someone who universally despises sports films. Even people that don’t like sports enjoy a good sports film. That is perhaps due to the nature of applying a human narrative to an activity that typically resists one. This was kind of a tough list to make because there are so many deserving sports movies out there, not to mention the important task of actually defining what a sports movie is. To many, a sports movie has to directly involve the sport in the narrative, using it as frame to support the overall conflict of the story. Personally, I think it qualifies if it involves a sport on any level beyond the surface. So, without further ado, here is my list of the top 5 sports films.
The Big Lebowski
Many wouldn’t think this film is a sports film. And those that do might not think that it involves the sport of bowling enough to make a list of the top 5 sports films. But, that’s like your opinion, man. In addition to being a fine film featuring the epic mustache of Sam Elliott, it also prominently features bowling. Similar to Toni Morrison’s Jazz, the Coen brothers even went so far as to develop the story in a similar fashion to playing a game of bowling. A short burst of action followed by a contemplative period while others do their thing. I know people will protest this making the list, but if you are really being honest with yourself, I think you will conclude that it deserves at least some recognition.
Not only is Caddyshack a stellar sports film, it is one of the funniest films ever. The idea that this supremely re-watchable film with its endless litany of quotable moments isn’t the greatest golf film of all time is a joke worthy of being in Caddyshack. Between the all-star cast, classic one-liners, and rather humorous plot, there is something for everyone. Golf movies in general are difficult films to appreciate. If you don’t enjoy golf, the stakes that playing a sport on screen imply don’t seem present. That is why the best golf films are the ones that offer a more universal appeal. And while films like Happy Gilmore do a great job, no one does a better job than Caddyshack.
I’ll be upfront here. This is my personal favorite sports film. Not being a sport enthusiast myself, this film starts off in an easily accessible place for me. The main character, Bliss, is a beauty pageant contestant. By a stroke of luck, she is introduced to, and falls in love with, Roller Derby. The progression from outsider to participant gives me, the uninformed viewer, an entry point into the world of sports appreciation that most sports films simply don’t offer. Couple that with the addition of a female perspective in the athletic world and you have yourself a top-notch film. And that doesn’t even begin to mention the amazing soundtrack, perfect performances, and the subversion of several tropes found in the sports film arena. If you haven’t seen Whip It, do it now.
I know everyone expected me to put Rocky on this list, and it was a wrench not doing so, but when I sit down and objectively think about it, Raging Bull has so much more to offer than Rocky. Rocky is a tale about a boxer trying to find his place in the world, whereas Raging Bull is as much a psychological think piece as it is a sports film. Scorsese readily admits that he knew nothing about boxing when he made the film, and I think that shows. Rather than being shackled by the sport in question, Raging Bull transcends the genre to create a unique viewing experience. It certainly doesn’t leave you with the warm fuzzies that Rocky does, but rather a cold, honest, and dispassionate introspective on the nature of masculinity and its place in the modern world. Rocky Balboa is a down on his luck pugilist. Jake LaMotta is a Roman Gladiator born in the 20th century.
Mickey Rourke’s triumphant comeback is the pinnacle of what sports films should be. The Wrestler is a sober examination of the lifestyle of an athlete, contrasting his flamboyant in-ring persona with the bleak and depressing outlook of his real life. I’m honestly not the biggest Aronofsky fan, but he nailed it with this one. My favorite aspect of this film is the ending. I remember coming out of the film late one night with my friends and spending hours at a Waffle House debating what really happens to Randy “The Ram” Robinson. I think that is one way to measure a film’s success. Does it stick with you? In my mind, The Wrestler certainly does.