The No. 1 rule of a good sports movie is that it’s not really about the sports. The game is both the setting and the MacGuffin, the device that propels the action and the characters toward some looming physical goal or inner transformation (or both).
That’s not to say that "Rocky" would be as satisfying if Sylvester Stallone were, say, a hardscrabble badminton player, or if the Lou Gehrig story were rewritten as a movie about backgammon. Hopes, dreams, strength of character: That’s where the meat is; the uniforms are mostly interchangeable.
Were we baiting you with our headline about this being the definitive list? Maybe a little. We know you’ve got your own favorites — so let’s go to the mat! Tell us what we got right, what we missed, what’s dead wrong and why they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune
Genre: Racing, romancing
Formula One. Panavision 70mm. The racing scenes are a kaleidoscopic mashup of duplicating split-screens, trick-mounted camera angles and real-life footage.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Cast: Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin
Genre: Cycling, pantomime
A Tour-du-France cyclist is kidnapped mid-race and shipped to America to serve as a sort of hamster-wheeling power generator for American gangsters. Following? His indefatigable grandmother, club-footed and all of 3 feet tall, sets off across the high seas to the titular Belleville to rescue him. A near-silent movie with gorgeously witty animation, inventive sound and romping musical numbers.
Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley
Genre: Baseball, haunted pastimes
Nostalgic? Yes. Schmaltzy? Yes. Archetypal characters? All of them. But viewed from the wide eyes of our inner Bobby Savoy, it’s still a natural classic.
Director: Michael Ritchie
Cast: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Dabney Coleman
Genre: Skiing, blond ambition
Innovative first-person camera techniques capture the adrenaline and vertiginous speed of a sport largely neglected in cinema (sorry, Hot Dog). Redford plays a cocky, self-determined newcomer barreling his way up the ranks of the U.S. ski team — and into a bumpy love affair. The on-location shooting in the Alps is magnificent, as are the sweaters.
Director: John G. Avildsen
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
Genre: Boxing, dating
Written by Stallone, and winner of the 1976 Best Picture award, the original “Rocky” is lighter on the face-pounding gore of the many sequels and more about getting into the heads of the richly drawn, off-center characters.
Director: Robert D. Siegel
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rapaport
Genre: Football, fanaticism
Hipster-y comedian Patton Oswalt stars in the first feature film directed by “Saturday Night Live” animator and voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Robert Smeigel. Oswalt’s character is an obsessive New York Giants call-in show wonk who gets a violent wake-up call when he meets one his favorite players in the flesh.
Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins
Genre: Baseball, sex
So good that the makers of Major League ripped it off.
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturo, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston
Genre: Bowling, abiding
“Calmer than you are.”
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray, Michael O’Keefe
Genre: Golf, total consciousness
The only thing revered by more people is oxygen.
Director: Hugh Hudson
Cast: Nicholas Farrell, Nigel Havers, Ian Charleson, Ben Cross, Iam Holm, John Gielgud
Genre: Track, tracts
A Christian minister and a persecuted Jew race for God and country at the 1920 Olympics. Somehow this required an electronic score.
Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
Genre: Basketball, anger management
Not just a great choker-upper of a movie; it’s also the official state seal of Indiana.
Director: John Milius
Cast: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey
Genre: Surfing, homecoming
Brooding surfer pic from hell-raising John Milius, writer of “Apocalypse Now,” that looks down the barrel of the Vietnam draft and the homeside after-effects of war.
Director: Monte Hellman
Cast: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird
Genre: Street racing, existentializing
James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor) and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are a pair of gear-head drifters, picking up late-night underground races in their souped-up stock Chevy, along with the occasional Flower Girl. The men, referred to only as The Driver and The Mechanic, respectively, barely utter a word to each other, as if communicating in some road-wise meditative trance. Enter Warren Oats as “GTO,” a hilariously babbling fabulist going through a mid-life crisis who challenges them to a cross-country run in his fresh-off-the-showroom-floor Pontiac. Fast and furious this isn’t. This is ’70s slow-burn cinema at its finest.
Director: John Sayles
Cast: John Cusack, Clifton James, Michael Lerner
Genre: Baseball, fixing
Character-driven masterpiece from indie auteur John Sayles about the legendary World Series-throwing Chicago Black Sox of 1919 and the trial that followed the scandal. “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”
Director: Carroll Ballard
Cast: Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr
Genre: Horse racing, coming of age
If you missed this one in your youth, the setup is pretty much the same as “Cast Away,” but change Tom Hanks into a freckled young boy and his pet volleyball into a mysterious, unbroken stallion. The stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschenel has been the model for every horseracing sequence since.
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Michael Ontkean
Genre: Hockey, glove games
Brawlingly, bruisingly, blisteringly funny hockey romp with Paul Newman leading a minor league squad of major league goons. People still dress up as the Hanson brothers for Halloween, and it’s still a good idea to cross the street if you encounter them.
Director: Bruce Brown
Cast: Michael Hynson, Robert August, Lord 'Tally Ho' Blears
Genre: Surfing, soul searching
“Packing for the journey was important. Six pairs of trunks, two boxes of wax, some modern sounds and in case of injury, one Band-Aid.” This is surfing before there was shredding: a soulful, hypnotic adventure that spans continents and cultures. The droll humor and boyish, sunbathed innocence give it a timeless charm that radiates from the screen. Good vibrations had by all.
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley
Genre: Cycling, serenading
Four teenage sons-of-quarrymen, set adrift after high school, clash with rich college boys over territory and dating rights. The story hinges on Dave (Dennis Christopher), a small-town Walter Mitty who dreams of being an Italian cycling champ, going so far as to pass himself off as a suave, heavily accented exchange student. The annual Little 500 bicycle race gives him and his fellow “cutters” a chance to go toe-to-toe against their frat foes for pride and glory. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 10 most inspiring movies of all time. We rank it higher.
Director: Robert Rossen
Cast: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie
Genre: Pool, hustling
A dark, neo-realistic classic that launched a massive pool craze and a national reassessment of what it means to be a “born loser,” or a winner. Movie star Newman is rumored to have never played pool before being cast in the lead, whereas Gleason, famous for TV’s “The Honeymooners” but yet to find a breakout dramatic roll, was an avid pool player and did all his own on-camera stick work. Director Robert Rossen had once been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee but later confirmed his party association and named names of fellow communist sympathizers, a Faustian act echoed by Fast Eddie’s but-at-what-price arc of the movie.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Genre: Boxing, method acting
De Niro IS Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsece’s gritty masterpiece that swings from the knockout highs on the canvass to the lower depths of the standup circuit.
Director: John Huston
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pelé, Max von Sydow
Genre: Soccer, great-escaping
Victory is sweet. How about an allied soccer team beating the Nazis in occupied Paris with a perfectly executed bicycle kick? That’s VICTORY with a capital P.O.W.
Director: Michael Ritchie
Cast: Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow, Jackie Earle Haley
Genre: Little League, sh*t talking
The mothercrudding Citizen Kane of underdog movies. Take some singularly foul-mouthed juvenile delinquents and give them their rightful champion: the drunken, luggage-eyed washout Morris Buttermaker. Yes, there’s smoking, underage drinking and unfiltered political incorrectness toward every race, creed and color. But what these Bears are really about is the empowering bonds of friendship, the values of sticking it out till the end and the ultimate in-your-face satisfaction of beating the odds.