The Sports 25: The Best Thrill-of-Victory, Agony-of-Defeat Films Since 1983

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The Sports 25: The Best Thrill-of-Victory, Agony-of-Defeat Films Since 1983

As the XXIX Olympiad comes to a close, we count down the champs of the genre from the past 25 years, including ''Cars,'' ''Rudy,'' and ''Million Dollar Baby''

(EW.com)



25. TIN CUP
Directed by Ron Shelton (1996)

Don't understand why your buddy is always going on about his handicap or his swing or his new clubs, or why your dad sits in front of the Golf Channel all weekend refusing to answer the phone while Tiger's putting? Tin Cup is here to help. The first of two Ron Shelton-Kevin Costner collaborations on our list (see No. 5), this story of a washed-up West Texas golf pro's improbable journey to the final round of the U.S. Open reveals the driving philosophy at the heart of golf: Humans are fallible, perfection is unattainable... but there is immortality to be found in a single sweetly hit ball. Sterling supporting turns from Rene Russo and Cheech Marin help Costner nail his portrayal of another flawed but dreamy athlete.



24. BETTER OFF DEAD
Directed by Savage Steve Holland (1985)

Not a sports movie, you say? Well, name one other film that features a Japanese drag-racing Howard Cosell impersonator, a big wet smooch at Dodger Stadium's home plate, and a climactic ski race in which a lovable loser (John Cusack) goes up against both the local legend and a psychotic bike-riding paperboy on the formidable K12 — on one ski! And of course, this underrated teen gem also shares the most basic of sports film themes — it's all about the underdog. And what best-of list can't use a good underdog?



23. THE KARATE KID
Directed by John G. Avildsen (1984)

We practiced ''the crane'' and wasted money on a Bonsai tree. But the real reason this movie makes the cut: Rocky director John G. Avildsen understood that Mr. Miyagi (late Oscar nominee Pat Morita) had a lot to say — about finding balance, about choosing mentors wisely, about disguising defensive martial-arts techniques in home improvement (and yourself in a shower curtain, if it meant you could attend your high school Halloween dance undetected by Cobra Kai bullies). Perhaps that explains why only one of Daniel-san's training sessions is set to music: When Miyagi talked, we, like outsider Ralph Macchio, listened.



22. HE GOT GAME
Directed by Spike Lee (1998)
While serving time for the accidental killing of his wife, Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) is given a furlough by the governor of New York. The catch? Jake must persuade his talented high school basketball-player son (Ray Allen) to play for the governor's alma mater. Washington plays the part of the conflicted father with a brooding intensity that gives substance to Spike Lee's dark and complex film.



21. WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP
Directed by Ron Shelton (1992)

Director Ron Shelton's biggest box office hit plainly articulates the irony that lurks in his other sweaty works: ''Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win.'' Woody Harrelson's bumpkin with a jumper needs cash, and his one-on-one with Wesley Snipes' hoop hustler has all the makings of a great Sting. The time-tested fun is the on-court trash talk (''See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya''), since hijacked by hip ESPN announcers.
 

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20. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE
Directed by Sylvain Chomet (2003)
From its bravura opening (featuring the zippy Oscar-nominated song ''Belleville Rendez-vous'') to its sweet finale, Sylvain Chomet's beguiling labor of love The Triplets of Belleville is magnifique. The French director supervised armies of animators in Paris, Brussels, and Montreal over five years to create the most impressive and inventive hand-drawn movie in recent memory. Belleville tells the tale of an implacable cyclist (a tour de force Tour de France sequence is a high point), his devoted grandma, and their devoted dog. And then there's the swingin' trio of sassy old crones who make jazz using household appliances and feast on frogs.



19. LOVE & BASKETBALL
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2000)
While there have been more successful girl-powered sports films, this Spike Lee-produced pic succeeds in part because it's about basketball players — who just happen to be female. They sweat, they lift weights, they talk trash. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) is a headstrong tomboy who intends to be the first girl in the NBA. Neighbor Quincy (Omar Epps) is the son of a pro player with the skills to go all the way. While racing to the top, their relationship grows over time from awkward smooches to a sensual game of one-on-one.



18. BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
Directed by Gurinder Chadha (2002)

In Gurinder Chadha's cross-cultural comedy, the heroine is a London-bred Punjabi teen (Parminder Nagra) with a passion for ''football'' and a bedroom shrine to U.K. superstar midfielder David Beckham. Even if your soccer knowledge is confined to a sports-bra-clad Brandi Chastain, it's tough not to get caught up in the fancy footwork — or in the kickin' soundtrack, featuring ''Hot Hot Hot'' in Hindi and songs by Posh Spice (a.k.a. Mrs. Beckham).



17. KINGPIN
Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly (1996)
An Amish kid, a guy with one hand, and Bill Murray walk into a bowling alley. If this sounds like the setup for a bawdy joke, that's because it is. But beneath its lewd surface, the Farrelly brothers' farce about an unworldly lad (Randy Quaid) who teams up with a down-on-his-luck con man (Woody Harrelson) to beat Murray for a million-dollar prize is also the best homage to bowling ever. It's your typical sports story of redemption, punctuated by riffs on bestiality, bad toupees, and making a 7-10 split.



16. WITHOUT LIMITS
Directed by Robert Towne (1998)

Without Limits, true to its title, gives us bullheadedness to spare. Robert Towne conceives the tragically brief life of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) as a battle of wills between the idealistic athlete and his pragmatic coach, Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland, superlative in a rare turn as a mensch). Pre is a gifted runner, but Bowerman is convinced that the middle-distance man's compulsion to run at full speed wears him out before the crucial final lap. ''Running any other way is just plain chickens---,'' Pre insists. ''What else do you call layin' back for two and a half miles and then stealin' a race in the last 200 yards?'' ''Winning!'' explodes an incredulous Bowerman.
 

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15. MIRACLE
Directed by Gavin O'Connor (2004)
''The Miracle on Ice,'' the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the stalwart Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics, has been called the greatest upset in sports history. The Russians had won five of the last six Olympic gold medals, while the U.S., then represented by a roster with an average age of 22, hadn't been to the top of the podium since 1960. Enter Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). As EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote of Miracle, the movie's ''most concrete achievement is in showing how, step by demanding step, Brooks was able to transform 20 young men used to playing as stellar individuals — the American way — into an unintimidate-able, egoless team, i.e., the Soviet way. 'Who do you play for?' Brooks says, challenging athlete after athlete until it dawns on one of them, during a marathon training session, that their various school teams are not the unifying answer he's after.''



14. THE ROOKIE
Directed by John Lee Hancock (2002)
When Dennis Quaid is bad, he's god-awful. But when he's good, there's no one who can pilot a three-hankie male weepie with the same grizzled assurance. Exhibit A is this apple-in-the-throat yarn about Jim Morris, a real-life high school baseball coach and ex-pitcher whose arm gave out just as he was about to turn pro. Encouraged by his young players to give the majors another shot, Morris makes it to the Show and resolves his daddy issues with coldhearted pop Brian Cox. We defy you to find a dry eye in the house as the credits roll.



13. SEABISCUIT
Directed by Gary Ross (2003)

Seabiscuit tells the true story of how a puny, ungainly horse became a racing champ and an American obsession of the 1930s. Writer-director Gary Ross stuck closely to the narrative of Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller, and aided by an exquisitely bred cast — Tobey Maguire as half-blind jockey Red Pollard and Chris Cooper as taciturn trainer Tom Smith are neck-and-neck with great performances — he delivered a crowd-pleasing drama that is in every way what the legendary steed was not: big, beautiful, and molasses-paced.



12. JERRY MAGUIRE
Directed by Cameron Crowe (1996)

Tom Cruise's richest go-for-broke performance. Cameron Crowe's most quotable script. And as much about sports (and sports agents) as it is about someone completing someone else. Unbeatable support from Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger (in her breakout film), and — remember this little guy? — Jonathan Lipnicki. Jerry Maguire is what every big-studio, star-vehicle blockbuster should aspire to be.



11. HOOP DREAMS
Directed by Steve James (1994)

A group of young documentary filmmakers spent five years capturing the day-to-day struggles of pair of teenage phenoms who leave their inner-city Chicago homes to play for a suburban (and predominately white) high school basketball powerhouse. Pulsing beneath the many important issues — race, class, and the commodification of sports — raised in this bracingly powerful film is the story of two young men dealing with life in all its heartbreakingly human dimensions
 

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10. CARS
Directed by John Lasseter and Joe Ranft (2006)
Trailers for Cars suggested that, in making motor vehicles emotive vehicles, Pixar, known for unlikely anthropomorphizations in A Bug's Life and Finding Nemo, might have met its match. But the studio's flair for talking barracudas stretched to include Plymouth Barracudas. Director John Lasseter insisted this $244 million grosser — about a hot-shot race car (voiced by Owen Wilson) who learns about life in the slower lane during an unexpected detour through a small town — is ''personal'' filmmaking, and you buy that. While the realistic racetrack scenes are targeted at the huge cult of NASCAR disciples, the midsection is pitched at a relatively minuscule religious order: the mere tens of thousands of us who make pilgrimages to Route 66 each year, remembering a time when Americans drove ''to have a great time,'' not ''make great time,'' as the script's cornball Zen has it.



9. THE HURRICANE
Directed by Norman Jewison (1999)

Denzel Washington does his most wounding slow burn as Rubin Carter, the middleweight boxer who served half of his adult life in prison after being railroaded for murder. Norman Jewison's old-fashioned liberal rabble-rouser doesn't give you the full story, but Washington's stirring performance leads the film into far more unruly terrain.



8. RUDY
Directed by David Anspaugh (1993)

It's not surprising that menfolk have made this movie some kind of guidepost in their emotional development — you must be dead if you're not unmoved by this based-on-real-life story of a pint-size scrapper who dreams of taking the field as one of Notre Dame's fabled Fighting Irish. No, what I find strange is that after waiting almost the entire film for Rudy to finally suit up in blue and gold, guys are reduced to scary man-blubbering for two lousy plays and an unspectacular backfield tackle.



7. EIGHT MEN OUT
Directed by John Sayles (1988)
Before they came in from the cornfield, ''Shoeless'' Joe Jackson and seven Chicago White Sox teammates gained infamy for conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. John Sayles assembled a stellar, eclectic cast (Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, David Strathairn, and Sayles himself as sportswriter Ring Lardner) for this account of how Chicago's unbeatables ran afoul of the law. In the mostly sympathetic telling, D.B. Sweeney's stark portrayal of illiterate, left-handed (ahem, Field of Dreams!) ''Shoeless'' Joe emphasizes the players' suffering under miserly owner Charlie Comiskey.



6. CINDERELLA MAN
Directed by Ron Howard (2005)
A recurring theme in sports films is chance — second chances, best chances, last chances. Ron Howard's stirring recounting of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock's shot at the heavyweight brass ring manages to encompass all three. Russell Crowe employs his by-now-standard gravitas to play a champion who fought against a world that tried to break him and found his feet again in the square circle. And the fights themselves are more vividly captured than in any film since Raging Bull.
 

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5. BULL DURHAM
Directed by Ron Shelton (1988)
It took an ex-ballplayer to craft the ultimate ode to America's pastime. For his rookie outing behind the camera, Ron Shelton set the story in his old stomping grounds: the minor leagues, where the beer is cheap and the game is at its stripped-down best. The standard-issue plot — brash fireballer ''Nuke'' LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) locks horns with veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and both strike sparks with sexy groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) — goes way inside baseball, exposing locker-room trysts, Bible-beating teammates, claustrophobic bus trips, and fungus-coated shower shoes. And now we know what they talk about on the pitcher's mound: candlesticks.



4. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Directed by Peter Berg and Josh Pate (2004)

Friday Night Lights, based on H.G. Bissinger's critically-acclaimed non-fiction book, captures the immense pressures placed on the real-life athletes of Odessa, Texas, where ''Mojo'' football is a way of life. Billy Bob Thornton fully inhabits the role of the conflicted coach, but his players provide the real heroics. ''It was like watching soldiers going off to an early death,'' says Bissinger in the DVD commentary. Like wounded superstar ''Boobie'' Miles (played by Derek Luke), players are discarded when they're no longer useful, but this band of brothers fights for one another in their quest to ''be perfect.''



3. MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Directed by Clint Eastwood (2004)
''You're not gonna cry now, are ya?'' Clint Eastwood's cranky trainer growls. Actually, boss, we're all gonna cry at the heart-wrenching ending, after we've cheered the hard-knuckled determination of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), left-hooking her way to self-respect as she climbs the ranks of women's boxing. A story that could have wallowed in sentimentality, Baby instead pays homage to the redemption of a poor, uneducated waitress through starkly staged fight scenes and gutsy performances in and out of the ring.



2. FIELD OF DREAMS
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson (1989)

Much more than just bringing ''If you build it, he will come'' into the lexicon, this nostalgic love letter to our national pastime captures perfectly the game's intangibles — the thwack of a fist to the glove, the shock of a fastball high and tight. Everybody knows Kevin Costner plows down his cornfield to set up a baseball diamond...but then there's that line: ''Hey, Dad? Wanna have a catch?'' Sigh. Talk about your fantasy baseball.



1. HOOSIERS
Directed by David Anspaugh (1986)

Because this is the greatest basketball movie ever made, and if you haven't seen it for some petty I-don't-like-sports reason, you're just afraid to let yourself be happy. Based on the true story of a tiny Indiana high school team that won the state championship, Hoosiers is supremely acted — thanks to the cool-as-ice Gene Hackman and the Oscar-nominated Dennis Hopper — and beautifully shot, and features a Jerry Goldsmith score that should be listed in the dictionary under triumphant.
 

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