Today’s always a red-letter day on the American cultural calendar. It’s when the nominees are announced for the annual “Oscars.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ selections kick off the lobbying efforts and arguments that proceed from those flawed but always spat-worthy choices.
But this being a sports column, the Oscar race turns onto a different track … so to speak. Which are the five greatest sports movies? And which are almost good enough to deserve honorable mentions?
Here’s our list. Let the arguing begin.
- “A League of Their Own.” This baseball movie, starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis and directed by Penny Marshall, is a home run. It combines many elements, including women’s rights, racial issues, history, likable heroes, a truly unexpected ending – very rare in sports films – and the greatest speech in such movies: “There’s no crying in baseball.” 1992.
- “Seabiscuit.” Horses can be heroes at a time when we needed one. This Gary Ross film based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand wins high honors for an all-star cast –Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper and Jeff Bridges – working from an intelligent script with the message of the power of the underdog … or underhorse … defying the odds in the very depressing Great Depression. Set in the context of America’s great crisis, this is a feel-good film without a bucket of sugar. 2003.
“Pride of the Yankees.” Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth in the same film? Wow. This is the story of the glory and tragic ending of Lou Gehrig, the great New York Yankee outfielder who lit up stadiums and made us weep when struck down by what’s now called “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Believable schmaltz. Try not to tear up when Cooper/Gehrig makes his farewell address. And don’t forget Teresa Wright, the girl all the boys want to marry. 1942.
- “Bull Durham.” Yeah, yeah, another baseball movie. But the long history of this sport, along with the many mini-dramas of the long spring-to-fall season suit the game well to the medium. This is minor league baseball in the South with the career of one player (Kevin Costner) fading out and another (Tim Robbins) on the rise. Their paths cross, Susan Sarandon tries to seduce them both with innuendo and baseball advice, and the journey has lessons about time, love and the healing properties of the sport. 1988.
- “Hoosiers.” A former Marine, Gene Hackman can really sell the role of a grumpy, washed-up college basketball coach given one last chance with a high school team. It’s about redemption, the bond between a community and its schoolboy athletes. The unlikely romance between Hackman and Barbara Hersey detracts, but is more than compensated by Dennis Hopper’s performance as an alcoholic who happens to know a lot about hoops. 1986.
And here are the others. Remember: it’s an honor just to be nominated.
- “Remember the Titans.” Based on a true story about the racial integration of two Virginia high schools and their football teams, it’s a sentimental and predictable tale about racial harmony and heroic comebacks. But Denzel Washington and Will Patton elevate a good script into a very good movie.
“Air Bud.” (2000). Yes, it’s a kids movie, but it has lessons for adults, too. It’s about an adorable Golden Retriever and the kid who bonds with him. It just so happens that Bud is one hellacious basketball shooter (he uses his snout). “Air Bud” is more unrealistic than all the “Rocky” films together, but it is imbedded with the principle that the true athlete plays because of the joy of the sport, not just the status or money or accolades. 1997.
- “Miracle.” It’s tough for Hollywood to make a decent movie about things that really happened, but this film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s defeat of the Soviet juggernaut on the way to a gold medal is the exception that proves the rule. Kurt Russell inhabits the role of coach Herb Brooks, the man behind sportscaster Al Michael’s iconic call, “Do you believe in miracles?” 2004.
- “Horse Feathers.” Not what you’d call a classic sports tale, this Marx Brothers comedy is a send-up – amplified today by big college coaches making millions of dollars – of the slippery side of collegiate sports. “I’m Against It” should be the anthem for certain contemporary politicians. 1932.
- “Field of Dreams.” Kevin Costner is a fairly average actor, except when you put a bat or a baseball in his hands. “Field” takes us deep into the national mythology of how sports can connect the generations, offer second chances and show us James Earl Jones doing The Wave. It also gave us the immortal phrase “If you build it, they will come.” 1989.
“Sports Monday” is written by Pete Zarustica and is posted on Mondays. As you probably guessed.