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We attend sporting events and movies for similar reasons. We hope to be entertained by riveting, suspenseful stories. We hope to witness virtuoso performances, whether they are delivered by Peyton Manning on the football field or Meryl Streep on the big screen. We go knowing full well the narrative’s ending might not be to our liking. Our hero may die, our team may lose, and when we walk out of the stadium or the theater, we feel compelled to critique what we just saw. Why did the coach call that play? Why did the screenwriter choose that plot? Two thumbs up. Two thumbs down. Then, on to the next drama, the next game.
In recognition of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, I’m switching hats this week and playing movie critic instead of sportswriter. But I’m sticking to a genre I’m familiar with and offering my 20 favorite sports movies of all time. This was a much more difficult task than I anticipated, because the crop of candidates was bountiful. Let the debating begin.
20. “Chariots of Fire” (1981). This historical drama chronicles the experiences of two runners—an English Jew and a Scottish Christian—at the 1924 Olympics. One runs to overcome prejudice, the other as a testament to his faith. The musical score is magnificent.
19. “Rudy” (1993). Though lacking in size, football skills and good grades, Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin) overcomes daunting odds and fulfills his lifelong dream to play football at Notre Dame.
18. “A League of Their Own” (1992). Thanks to director Penny Marshall, a forgotten slice of history is brought to life in this fictional account of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, whose heyday was during World War II. Geena Davis stars as the long-limbed catcher, and Tom Hanks is memorable as the drunken manager.
17. “42” (2013). The hatred and violence Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) endured while integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 is movingly captured in this biopic about the former Brooklyn Dodgers star. Boseman is quite convincing, as is Harrison Ford as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
16. “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992). Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes play an odd-couple hoops duo hustling opponents on the asphalt basketball courts of New York City to pay off gambling debts.
15. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). Clint Eastwood plays a gruff boxing trainer who helps Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) become a skilled pugilist and earn a title match. But Fitzgerald’s dream becomes a nightmare when she suffers a broken neck in the ring and becomes a quadriplegic.
14. “Pride of the Yankees” (1942). Gary Cooper stars as the legendary Lou Gehrig, the Yankees slugger dying of a disease that will later bear his name. The most poignant scene, of course, is Gehrig’s “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech, regarded by many as baseball’s Gettysburg Address.
13. “Major League” (1989). A fictional, ragtag Cleveland Indians team rallies in an effort to spite an owner who wants the club to tank so she can move it to another city. Charlie Sheen is marvelous as the Wild Thing relief pitcher with the Coke-bottle-thick glasses, and real-life major league broadcaster Bob Uecker delivers numerous memorable lines as the Indians’ always-sloshed play-by-play man.
12. “The Hustler” (1961). In a riveting tale, small-time pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) tries to make a name for himself against the world-renowned Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). George C. Scott is outstanding as Fast Eddie’s unscrupulous manager.
11. “Eight Men Out” (1988). John Cusack and David Strathairn give brilliantly understated performances as two of the eight underpaid Chicago White Sox players who take bribes to throw the 1919 World Series.
10. “Seabiscuit” (2003). In another outstanding underdog and forgotten-history story, the undersized and knobby-kneed Seabiscuit upsets mighty Man o’ War in one of the most famous horse races of all time.
9. “Caddyshack” (1980). Director Harold Ramis’ masterpiece has become a cult film among golf fans. Bill Murray’s memorable lines continue to be repeated in bars and on greens and fairways.
8. “Brian’s Song” (1971). While portraying Chicago Bears running backs Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, James Caan and Billy Dee Williams convey the deep bond that developed between a white man and a black man at a time when racial tensions ran high in America. The banquet speech by Williams, urging people to pray for his dying friend, will send you scrambling for the Kleenex.
7. “Rocky” (1976). Boxing’s ultimate David vs. Goliath tale pits working-class hero Rocky Balboa against the seemingly invincible Apollo Creed. It’s all quite hokey, but Sylvester “Yo, Adrian” Stallone manages to pull it off.
6. “Slap Shot” (1977). Paul Newman is excellent as the hockey coach who revives a ragtag minor-league team. Several scenes were shot in Central New York. The brawling, bespectacled Hanson Brothers became hockey folk heroes as a result of this film.
5. “The Natural” (1984). Baseball has inspired more movies than any other sport, and Robert Redford is excellent as “the best there ever was,” slugger Roy Hobbs. Interestingly, Redford played on the same California high school team as legendary pitcher Don Drysdale.
4. “Bull Durham” (1988). This romantic comedy, starring Kevin Costner as baseball journeyman Crash Davis and Susan Sarandon as baseball-worshipping Annie Savoy, was written by former Rochester Red Wings utility infielder Ron Shelton. Shelton told me Davis is based loosely on former Red Wings player and manager Joe Altobelli.
3. “Raging Bull” (1980). Robert DeNiro delivers a knockout performance in this portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta, superbly capturing the champ’s violent outbursts in and out of the ring. Director Martin Scorsese’s decision to shoot the film in bleak black-and-white adds to its gritty feel.
2. “Hoosiers” (1986). Gene Hackman’s portrayal of the curmudgeonly coach who goads his small-school team to the Indiana high school basketball championship was Oscar-worthy. Jack Nicholson turned down the role, and thank goodness he did, because Hackman was perfect.
1. “Field of Dreams” (1989). Yes, the plot may be corny and improbable, but the baseball nostalgia and the bond between fathers and sons resonate with me. The ending scene of the Costner character playing catch with the ghost of his father still brings tears to my eyes 25 years later.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was an extra in the 1999 movie “For Love of the Game,” starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston.
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