Top 20 most underrated sports films ever

CSN Chicago

This story was originally published on CSNChicago.com.

The daily grind of life we all experience can be filled with a multitude of emotions. These emotions can range from the highs of sheer exuberance to the lows of gut-wrenching sorrow. We try our best to embrace, reflect, and evolve with each day we’re given. However, there are moments in those days we just need to get away from all of it. We need to breathe every now and then and just take in the experience and journey of someone else’s life. That is where escapism comes into play.

Escapism, in one form or another, is one of those necessary evils in life that needs to be fulfilled any chance we get. If nothing more, it helps us keep our sanity in check.

Now, there are a number of ways to achieve escapism, but there are only a small handful that take us to another place and time…leading us right in to the mind and soul of another individual’s moment of reality.

Since the dawn of modern-day entertainment, nothing has come close to providing us with our much-needed life diversion than the wonderful world of cinema.

The impact of films in our society, not to mention its impact on business, is profound to say the least. People still go to the movies, they always will. Just check out the box office totals after this month’s opening weekend of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for that proof.

So far this year, according to Box Office Mojo, the top 25 films alone have already earned a worldwide box office total of over $14 BILLION. Keep in mind, this is before the big holiday films and Oscar hopefuls hit the theaters and the accompanying massive cash flow from post-box office On Demand rentals, iTunes downloads, DVD/Blu-ray sales, etc.

Among the many reasons we watch and love movies so much (not to mention pay our hard-earned money for that entertainment option) is that we are able to experience and, hopefully, appreciate and immerse ourselves into the long-form art of storytelling. There is a certain, undeniable pleasure to be able to lose yourself in the moment just by simply watching the story of other people’s lives, be it in a fictional or non-fictional form, unfold right before your very eyes. You get to feel their emotions at every turn, which can be a truly gratifying and mind-expanding experience.

There has been one particular genre of film over the years that has done an exceptional job – when executed well, naturally – at showcasing these emotions, not to mention demonstrating engrossing moments of triumph, failure, fear, determination, and just about everything in between. Of course, we’re talking about sports movies.

You don’t have to necessarily be a sports fan to love sports movies, that’s understood. Hey, not every fan of Shaquille O’Neal loves Shaq’s music (he put out four studio albums…not kidding), but there is a certain element when it comes to the storytelling aspect of sports films that resonates with the masses.

Richard Roeper, nationally-renowned film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, explains:

“Audiences appreciate sports films because they’re almost always about the underdog who overcomes adversity and triumphs, or at least finds redemption.

“Consider ‘Rocky,’ one of the best if not THE best sports movie ever. What happens at the end of the film? Rocky LOSES. Apollo says, ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch,’ and Rocky says, ‘Don’t want one’ (unless the box office is huge LOL), and as Rocky is hugging Adrian and the music is swelling, the promoter is telling us Apollo has won the fight…but Rocky has won the war, and he’s won our hearts by that point.”

As to what is necessary in making a “great” sports film, Roeper provides his expert viewpoint:

“A great sports film is like a championship team: you need more than individual talent and occasional moments of brilliance. It takes sustained, consistent collaboration, from the screenplay to the direction to the acting to the all-important authenticity of the games sequences.

“The best sports movies transcend the hardcore fan base — just as the most memorable championship teams have a unique back story. The Royals winning the World Series this year or even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 make for a nice narrative — but it’s the 2004 Red Sox, the 1969 Mets, the 1980 Olympic hockey team, the story of ‘Rudy’ or ‘Hoosiers’ or ‘The Rookie’ (exaggerated as those stories might be) that make for great movie material.”

Keep in mind, sports movies are not just about the games that are played. It’s much more than that adds Roeper.

“The best sports movies spend about 80 percent of the time on the characters and plot, and 20 percent of the time on game sequences. We get invested in the heroes, whether they’re boxers or high school basketball players or Olympic hockey players. Smart directors and screenwriters lay out the key scenes in a way that anyone can understand what’s happening. In a baseball movie, it’s easy to show a home run, and everyone understands that’s a great moment for the good guys. In a film such as ‘Pawn Sacrifice,’ which is about chess, or even the “The Karate Kid,’ you have sideline characters commenting on the action so you understand what’s going on.”

Throughout the years, there have been numerous lists touting the “BEST SPORTS MOVIES EVER!” There is no question that “Rocky”…“Hoosiers”…“Raging Bull”…“Field of Dreams”…”Rudy”…”Caddyshack”…”Slapshot”.…etc., etc. are indeed some of the “BEST EVER” because they deserve to be recognized as such. Each one of them is unique in their own wonderful weird way and there is no arguing their place on a “best ever” list when it comes to this genre of film.

The main issue is that the aforementioned sample list of films are the same ones that come up every single time someone is asked, “What are your favorite sports movies?” We can already guess which ones are likely to be named.

This is NOT that list.

This list focuses on the key word, albeit subjective of course, “underrated.”

Underrated, as defined for the purpose of this list of sports films, refers to films that are NOT the immediate top of mind choices in the public eye. In fact, in several cases here, such films have even been outright ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when Oscar season rolled around.

However, each one of these Top 20 films deserves to be recognized for what they have delivered to the world of sports movies and, more importantly, for the role they have played in the escapism moments of our lives.

 

1)  Hoop Dreams (1994)

One of the finest documentaries of any kind in film history, “Hoop Dreams” lays out the unforgettable story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two teenagers from Chicago’s inner city who have athletic aspirations of one day playing in the NBA, only to see the harsh realities of their personal lives ultimately change the course of their once hopeful future.

Shot over the course of five years, “Hoops Dreams” director Steve James, along with co-producers Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, take us to the playgrounds of some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, where a young Gates and Agee are first discovered and recruited to play high school basketball in the predominantly white Chicago western suburb of Westchester, IL (St. Joseph H.S.). Gates, who was raised in the projects of Cabrini-Green, and Agee, from the West Garfield Park neighborhood, would travel 90+ minutes a day via public transportation just to get to St. Joseph H.S., where these two freshmen quickly learned more about race relations and socio-economic differences than about motion offenses or zone defenses.

What truly makes “Hoop Dreams” exceptional is that it’s more about life, love, relationships, and family, than about basketball. We’re taken on a journey where the talents of Gates and Agee are a part of a much broader canvas than just a playground or court.

“Hoop Dreams” is a three-hour film, but it easily could have been as equally engaging if another three hours were added on to it. It’s a fascinating look at how the burden of growing up in poverty, along with having natural athletic talent, can affect the lives of not only two young men, but also the lives of those who love them.

This unpredictable, shocking, joyous, gut-wrenching, and inspirational film was and still remains a favorite of many critics, but it did not receive any love from the Oscars voting committee when it came out in 1994, as it didn’t even get nominated in the “Best Documentary” category. Quite a shame. If you haven’t seen “Hoop Dreams” yet, you should make it a priority. It’s a real-life, eye-opening sports film experience that has no rival.

 

2)  A League of Their Own (1992)

Now…how in the world can the highest-grossing baseball-themed film in domestic box office history even be on an underrated sports film list?…let alone be at #2?? Very simple: 99% of sports movies focus on the male athlete, leaving this one out of the discussion every time. A League of Their Own features a brilliant cast, script, along with location shots and costumes that truly capture the nostalgia of the 1940’s. Plus, the on-field action sequences featuring these girls are as good as anything ever put on film. Bottom line, this picture should be considered among the all-time great sports film experiences.

Director Penny Marshall, coming off two huge hits as the director of Big (1988) and Awakenings (1990), provided audiences with an absolutely wonderful homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was founded in 1943 during World War II by Philip K. Wrigley of Chicago. Wrigley, along with a number of Major League Baseball team owners, started up the AAGPBL to keep the sport publicly visible as the majority of qualified men were away fighting for our freedom.

In this film, we meet two extremely competitive sisters from rural Oregon: the superstar catcher/natural beauty Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and the younger, rough-around-the-edges pitcher, Kit Keller (Lori Petty). Both were recruited among numerous other women from around the U.S. and Canada to come to Chicago and try out for the AAGPBL. The tryouts scene was actually filmed at Wrigley Field by the way.

Dottie and Kit wind up making the league as members of the Rockford Peaches, which includes a hilarious cast of teammates that includes “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell). However, no one stands out more in this film than the Peaches’ manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a former big league superstar who is down on his luck and given a chance to somehow redeem his name. To say he hates being the manager of this team is an understatement: “Ballplayers?! I don’t have ballplayers! I’ve got girls!!” And, of course, he later utters one of most famous lines in movie history: “Are you crying?…THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!!” But Dugan eventually grows to learn how special these women are both on and off the field. Many of these women are living in daily fear, as many have husbands fighting in the war overseas. There is a particular locker room scene that showcases that unbearable fear when a postal worker delivers a telegram from the government’s War Department. A truly heartbreaking moment.

The Peaches go through their ups and downs on both a personal and professional level, but these women were aware, especially when we witness them in their older years, that what they were doing was pretty special. Plus, at the end of this film, there’s a wonderful life message that most definitely transcends the sport of baseball.

 

3)  Prefontaine (1997)

It takes a special kind of athlete to become a long-distance runner. From both a mental and physical standpoint, one of the all-time greats was a young man from Oregon named Steve Prefontaine.

The outstanding docudrama Prefontaine (directed by Steve James, the director of Hoops Dreams) expertly captures the life of a man who wasn’t quite cut out to play football or other team sports due to his stature. He experiences the harsh negativity of others who question his athletic abilities to his advantage, which drives him to set records in a sport that has been around for ages. This film is generally overlooked by audiences; maybe because track & field isn’t as glamourous as other sports, however, it provides an outstanding look at character growth, along with a unique time travel moment to the early 1970’s.

Best Supporting Actor winner for his astonishing work in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto (soon to be seen as “The Joker” in next year’s guaranteed supervillain smash hit Suicide Squad) plays the ego-driven Steve Prefontaine in a non-sympathetic fashion throughout the film, but we quickly sympathize with and root for him because of his determination. It was evidently clear in this 1997 performance that Leto had the ability to captivate an audience be it on the running track or in the midst of character conversation.

Featuring solid supporting performances from R. Lee Ermey as Oregon track & field coach Bill Bowerman and Ed O’Neill as Oregon’s assistant coach Bill Dellinger, Prefontaine takes audiences on Steve Prefontaine’s roller coaster journey from college, to the terrifying situation at the Munich Olympics in 1972, to a tragic ending that cut short the life of a standout, yet still mainly unheralded figure in U.S. sports history.

 

4)  Breaking Away (1979)

One film that received critical accolades at the time of its release, along with significant Oscar recognition, has somehow lost its footing when it comes to top-of-mind great sports films today. Near the top of that list certainly deserves to be 1979’s heartfelt comedy/drama Breaking Away.

Starring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, and a standout performance from Dennis Christopher, Breaking Away is a sweet, coming-of-age story about four high school graduates from Bloomington, Indiana who just don’t want to grow up. The movie centers around Christopher’s character Dave Stoller, a bright-eyed, energetic 19-year-old who is obsessed with bicycle racing and the Italian culture. Stoller’s father (portrayed by the always-funny Paul Dooley) fumes at his son’s nonchalant lifestyle: “He’s never tired…he’s never miserable! When I was young, I was tired and miserable!”

Stoller and his buddies skip college to blaze their own trails and it’s a fun ride to be on as we watch them attempt to discover the next steps in their lives. The bicycle racing sequences in Breaking Away are as equally engaging as those moments when falling in love come into play. The dialogue between Stoller and his friends, along with his parents, and is both hilarious and poignant throughout the film. Director Peters Yates does an excellent job of capturing every ounce of small town life in Middle America and Steve Tesich’s intelligent script deservedly earned the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s just a wonderful movie on so many levels.

 

5)  The Great Santini (1979)

Spanning an illustrious film career of over 50 years, the legendary Robert Duvall has taken on multitude of challenging roles in his lifetime, but his Oscar-nominated performance in 1979’s The Great Santini as Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, a decorated Marine pilot who tries to establish his militant, disciplinarian tactics within his own family, is certainly one of his best.

Meechum’s son Ben (Michael O’Keefe, who also received an Oscar nomination and, by the way, one year later portrayed Danny Noonan in Caddyshack) is a basketball star on his high school team in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, yet another new residence in the young lives of Ben and his fellow military family siblings. Although not necessarily considered a sports film, The Great Santini’s most incredible and gut-wrenching moments are those when “Bull” and Ben go to toe-to-toe on the basketball court in their driveway and when “Bull” is present at his son’s games…even at one point, literally ordering him to take out another player, or else.

The intentions of “Bull” to bring out the best in his son and his entire family are definitely present, and there are indeed a number of scenes in this film that showcase those intended “good dad” moments, but “Bull” simply cannot accept losing, and that’s when things within his own home begin to fall apart.

 

6)  Tin Cup (1996)

Director Ron Shelton is best known for helming the box office smash hit Bull Durham, which is widely considered among the best sports movies ever made, but he also delivered a terrific film about the world of golf and even brought back his prized star for this 1996 gem.

Tin Cup stars Kevin Costner as Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a natural at the sport who has a big drive on the golf course, but very little drive in his life. Essentially accepting what his life has become, McAvoy runs a ramshackled golf range in Texas who one day meets an inspiring beauty named Dr. Molly Griswold (smoothly played by Rene Russo). Molly is a clinical psychologist who wants a golf lesson from McAvoy, who is immediately smitten with her intelligence and good looks. The problem here is that Molly is the girlfriend of McAvoy’s longtime nemesis, who currently happens to be one of the top players on the PGA Tour: David Simms (played with all the snark, charm, and bravado you’d expect from Don Johnson).

Simms eventually visits McAvoy and has the guts to ask McAvoy to not play in a benefit tournament he’s hosting, but to be his caddy instead. Not cool, man. After a series of head-butting moments with Simms, and thanks to some successful therapy sessions with Molly, McAvoy decides he is indeed still a great golfer and winds up participating in the U.S. Open.

The most memorable scene that stands out in Tin Cup, which should also go down as one of the greatest golf scenes in movie history, is when McAvoy, tied for the tourney lead, is determined to not lay up on the water surrounded 18th hole, but rather to “go for it,” as Molly encourages him to do in her growing mutual affection for him. McAvoy hits multiple shots that land on the green, but slowly spin back and wind up falling into the pond. But that doesn’t matter; he knew what he had to do, even though it would cost him winning the U.S. Open. He eventually sinks it in on the 18th…in his 12th shot. He absolutely hates himself for blowing it, but Molly, once again, puts it all in perspective: “It was the greatest 12 of all time! No one’s going to remember the Open ten years from now…but they’ll remember your 12!”

 

7)  Seabiscuit (2003)

In the depression-era year of 1938, an amazing occurrence took place that brought together three men from three completely different walks of life that captured both the attention and dreams of an entire nation, all thanks to one special horse.

Seabiscuit tells the amazing real-life story about the unlikely convergence of millionaire Bay Area car owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), all of whom have come on hard times prior to their life changing moment of being connected to Seabiscuit, a broken-down colt with a temperament that would in no way be deemed ready to compete on a track. Through their belief in Seabiscuit’s natural abilities and their belief in each other, these three men were able to turn the impossible into one of the most special underdog stories in the history of sports.

This beautifully-shot film from director Gary Ross, who also wrote the adapted screenplay from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel on which the film is based, also features a powerful and moving musical score from two-time Oscar winner Randy Newman. Justly nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Seabiscuit was shut out in each of its respective categories, but that doesn’t matter. This remarkable true tale still holds the top honors (at least on this list) as the greatest film about horse racing ever created.

 

8)  Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)

There have been tons of sports documentaries that have come our way over the years, but one of the very best is Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, a thrilling, often hilarious, and insightful film that takes a deep look into the rise and fall of one of America’s most famous pro soccer clubs.

In the 1970’s, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was a struggling entity that featured a number of scattered franchises throughout the continent, many of which were barely averaging 5,000 fans a game. However, one man was determined to change the way America looked at this so-called foreign sport and he was going to start that change with his own team.

That man was Warner Bros. chief Steve Ross, the late multimedia visionary who artfully wheeled and dealed to bring THE biggest global names in soccer to New York City, including the greatest ever – Pele (Brazil), along with Giorgio Chinaglia (Italy), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Steve Hunt (England), and Carlos Alberto (Brazil) among many others. In no time at all, the Cosmos were packing 70,000+ fans into Giants Stadium, all to see these established international legends in action on the same team. As big as the 1990’s Chicago Bulls were…these guys were exactly that in the 70’s.

Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, featuring a nice job of narration via actor/NY native Matt Dillon, the best moments in Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos are those off the field, when we learn how big these guys were in NYC during that time. Megastars from all cylinders (Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, The Rolling Stones, etc.) came out in droves to hang out with Pele and his crew, be it in the locker room after games or partying the night away at a number of Manhattan’s hottest night spots. This film cuts no corners about the women, booze, and overall shenanigans that surrounded this team, but it also details how Ross’ overspending to keep his team prominent, especially after Pele’s retirement, may have started the downfall of the league itself.

 

9)  61* (2001)

Beloved lifetime New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal provided HBO audiences with a standout directorial job with his biographical film 61*, which chronicled the controversial 1961 Yankees season that saw the all-time single season home run record, previously set by a team legend, broken by a man that virtually no one wanted to see have that distinctive honor.

The film takes us back to that season featuring the “M&M Boys”: longtime fan favorite and two-time American League MVP, Mickey Mantle, and relative Yankee newcomer, Roger Maris. Portrayed exceptionally well by Thomas Jane as Mantle and Barry Pepper as Maris, 61* recounts the story of these superstar sluggers who were both challenging the immortal Babe Ruth’s all-time 60 home run mark.

The two battled all season, back-and-forth, on the home run lead to recreate baseball history, but between the media and fans, everyone had their sights and wishes on their hero Mantle being the one to break that record, not Maris. Mantle was New York: bold, brash, honest, and filled with charisma. Maris was the complete opposite: shy, quiet, and not a great quote to fill a reporter’s notebook. Crystal doesn’t hide the fact of Mantle’s hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle, which may have ultimately cost him the record that season. However, amidst the fan hatred and season-long heckling, it was Maris that eventually wound up breaking Ruth’s 34-year-old standing record. However, the HR record was broken in a 162-game season, as opposed to a 154-game season when Ruth was king of baseball. As we saw what transpired in the years to come during the “steroid era” when this record was shattered multiple times, the asterisk accompanying Maris’ 61 was thankfully never put in place in the record books.

 

10)  Murderball (2005)

Another documentary that most certainly deserves your attention is 2005’s Murderball, an inspiring and often heart-breaking look inside the world of wheelchair rugby.

Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, is more than a story about physically-disabled athletes who become members of the Team USA wheelchair rugby team; it’s about the lives of individuals who realize their impairments are not obstacles, but opportunities to be a part of something special. We learn about how these individuals became disabled and how their lives immediately changed thereafter, but these guys are fighters. They don’t know how to quit living. In fact, one of team’s stars (Mark Zupan) saw his life improve: “I’ve actually done more in a chair than I did able bodied.”

The physical grind of their preparation, along with the brutally-shocking, full-contact game highlights, are something to truly behold. The flip-side of this film showcases moments of their day-to-day lives, which is equally as appealing as the heart-pounding action in the gymnasiums. The love, pride, and support these athletes receive from their family, friends, and fans is moving to say the least. Murderball is just an amazing sports film experience.

 

11)  Back to School (1986)

Alright, kind of bending the rules on this one, but it’s justified. One of the funniest films that came out in the 1980’s may not necessarily be categorized as a “sports film,” but this one most definitely had a significant sports element within its storyline, which also happened to feature one of the truly great comedians of our time.

Back to School stars the legendary Rodney Dangerfield as Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire who earned success in business through his “Tall and Fat” men’s clothing stores throughout the U.S. that featured a solid celebrity clientele: “Marlon Brando, he was a Tall and Fat customer too. He wasn’t that big then, but he ballooned up nicely. I’d say pound for pound, our finest American actor.”

Thornton never went to college but his son Jason (played by Keith Gordon), a freshman at the fictitious Grand Lakes University (a.k.a. the University of Wisconsin-Madison in this film), is just miserable being there. He lies to his dad that he made the school’s diving team and contemplates dropping out. Being the good dad he wants to be for his son, Thornton makes the snap decision to enroll in college to help his son through it all.

Things turn plenty crazy from that point forward as Thornton is constantly partying, buying off people to boost up his grades, etc. All of this sends Jason into a further downward spiral, but Thornton eventually focuses on his classes to set the proper example for his son and they make amends. The good news is that Jason ends up making the diving team, although a rival teammate believes Thornton was the one who made that possible through his pocketbook, which was not the case and this leads us to the memorable championship diving meet sequence.

With the Hooters (the school’s team nickname) in a dire losing scenario at the end of the meet, the coach calls on Thornton to come out of the stands, get changed, all the while somehow getting clearance from the judges to let Thornton enter the competition (“He’s on my, uh, substitute roster…but I don’t have it right now. But what I’ll do is, first chance I get…I’ll bring it to you.”).

Well, the task at hand is gargantuan as Thornton sets up to perform the hardest dive known to mankind: “The Triple Lindy,” which utilizes the high-standing platform board AND two additional, flanking springboards. Thornton nails it, of course, and saves the day. Kudos to the casting director for hiring Dangerfield’s body double for the diving sequence, you’d swear it was Dangerfield doing the stunt himself.

Featuring an excellent supporting cast, including Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, M. Emmet Walsh, and “Iron Man” himself, Robert Downey, Jr., Back to School is hilarious look at college life, not to mention what a dad will go through for the love of his son.

 

12)  Fever Pitch (2005)

The Farrelly Brothers hit it out of the park in this 2005 romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore as Lindsey, a high-powered business executive who just can’t seem to find the right guy, and Jimmy Fallon as Ben, a kind and humble grade school teacher who has one really big problem: he is obsessed, repeat, OBSESSED with the Boston Red Sox.

In Fever Pitch, Lindsey meets “Winter Ben,” who prioritizes Lindsey above everything else in his life…during that time of year. He falls for her, she falls for him, and it seems like this will actually work out. However, as the winter months head into spring and as their relationship becomes more serious, Lindsey, who is already aware Ben loves the Red Sox, doesn’t quite realize what she’s in for when “Summer Ben” comes into play. His insane passion for the Red Sox puts the team ahead of her now and she has a really hard time dealing with it. Oh yeah, one important thing to mention, she doesn’t care for sports at all, let alone baseball.

Ben’s obsession with the team leads to Lindsey to realize this will not work out, so she breaks up with him. This crushes Ben and he realizes he has to find a way to put her first, even if it means (gulp) selling his season tickets! Anyway, Lindsey becomes aware of this gracious act of love and rushes to Fenway Park to stop the official season tickets transaction moment from occurring, which is a really terrific and funny scene.

Barrymore and Fallon are engaging and charming as an on-screen couple who do a wonderful job of turning Fever Pitch into a very sweet film that speaks to both sports-infatuated men and their devoted women who can’t quite grasp that obsession.

 

13)  Greased Lightning (1977)

The late Richard Pryor, among the greatest comedians of all-time, made a number of films in his successful career, but one in particular stands out and deservedly earns a spot on this list: 1977’s Greased Lightning.

In this loosely-based biographical film, Pryor plays Wendall Scott, a proud and determined man who grew up surrounded by racism and multitudes of doubters in the small, poverty-ridden town of Danville, Virginia. Trying to separate himself from a likely fate in life of working in a cotton mill or tobacco-processing plant, Wendall finds his niche via his love for cars…in particular, racing them.

The film takes us on Wendall’s journey as he hones his auto racing skills over time to a thrilling point that takes him straight to the NASCAR circuit in the early 1960’s, which, as you can imagine, did not have any African-American racers at that time.

Pryor, in all his usual, eccentric, funny mannerisms is terrific from a comedic standpoint as always, but also very effective in dramatic sequences dealing with hardships from both a personal and professional level. Greased Lightning is a lot of fun, so definitely give this one a shot. At the very least, it’s another chance to witness Pryor work his legendary on-screen magic.

 

14)  The Great White Hope (1970)

Based on playwright Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 Broadway play, The Great White Hope was adapted to film in 1970, casting its acclaimed stage actors – James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander – to reprise their roles on the big screen.

Set in the early 1900’s, this stunning, emotionally-driven film tells the story about boxer Jack Jefferson (Jones), whose sheer fighting prowess and inner rage catapulted him to the position of being the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Jefferson is also in love with Eleanor Bachman, his spirited, supportive girlfriend, who is white.

With racial tensions between the black and white race at an extremely high level, Jefferson feels the growing pressure associated with being the champ, but he also knows he must continue to fight in the ring to show the world that no man, of any color, can defeat him. The goal of countless individuals was to find “the great white hope” that would end his title reign. However, it is Jefferson’s relationship with Eleanor that is the real battle that occupies his life and ultimately, leads to his downfall.

Jones and Alexander received Best Actor/Actress nominations for their roles in this film and both portrayals of their respective characters are something to behold. Find a way to see this one, please.

 

15)  All the Right Moves (1983)

One of the truly impressive films about high school football and its impact on an individual’s future was 1983’s All the Right Moves, which featured a very young actor who would have major impact on the movie industry, not to mention box office receipts, for the next 30-plus years.

All the Right Moves stars Tom Cruise as Stef Djordevic, a star defensive back for Ampipe High School’s football team in a small western Pennsylvania town just outside of Pittsburgh. Now Stef knows that the only way he can get out of there is by getting a scholarship to play football in college. He’s a good student and a good kid, which should help his chances, but his coach (Craig T. Nelson, in a role he was born to play) may have a hand in derailing that dream.

The football scenes are terrific and play out with all the realism of some other great football films like Remember the Titans or Rudy, however, the real standout moments in this film occur in the locker room, in particular, a mesmerizing scene in which Djordjevic angrily stands up to his coach to defend a fellow teammate who is outright blamed for single-handedly losing a critical game. You could hear a pin drop in that locker room as we wait for Coach Nickerson’s reaction. On-screen moments like that one made it clear Cruise would be around for a long time to come.

 

16)  White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

One of Director Ron Shelton’s four sports-themed films was 1992’s hilarious offering, White Men Can’t Jump, which starred two actors who could hoop with the best of them in real life: Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

Now, this isn’t Shelton’s best sports film, but that opening sequence when Snipes’ Sidney Deane meets Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle on the beach side basketball courts of Venice, California is one for the ages and truly displays Shelton’s gifts as a writer.

The hilariously crude, face-to-face, verbal taunts thrown out by Deane and Hoyle against one another are simply priceless, but also integral to the early story line of Deane accepting this “slow, white, geeky, chump” as the real deal. A deserved shout-out also goes to Kadeem Hardison, who is absolutely terrific as Deane’s tag-a-long supporter, Junior: “We goin’ Sizzla! We goin’ Sizzla!” Great, great stuff.

White Men Can’t Jump is one of those sports movies that was a big deal back in the early 90’s, but has somehow lost its place over time. Bottom line, Snipes and Harrelson are the reason to see this film. They are that good together as on-court rivals in the beginning and just as effective as mutually-respectful friends in the end.

 

17)  Mystery, Alaska (1999)

Jay Roach, director of such comedic hits as the three Austin Powers films and Meet the Parents, orchestrated this fun and poignant look at life in a REALLY northern town that is obsessed with the sport of ice hockey in 1999’s Mystery, Alaska.

Starring Russell Crowe – who was on a crazy-impressive run of hits which included winning Best Actor for the Roman Empire epic Gladiator in 2000 – Mystery, Alaska tells the story about a group of underdogs who play in the wildly-popular (at least it is in this small fictitious town) “Saturday game,” which is played outdoors…on a pond…but is treated like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final by its townsfolk each and every week. Here’s the premise in a nutshell: an article written by one of the town’s former residents about these weekly games gets published in “Sports Illustrated” and quickly gets the attention of the National Hockey League, which in turn leads to – yeah, of course this would never happen in real life – the New York Rangers traveling up to Alaska for a televised, exhibition game against these random group of hard-edged go-getters.

The side stories that lead up to the big game are okay at best, but the prospect of this game even happening and the excitement that whips this town into delirium is fun to watch. Aside from a solid supporting cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Michael McKean, and even one of Roach’s favorite people to film, the real-life hockey-obsessed Mike Myers, Mystery, Alaska is a visual treat showcasing beautiful surrounding scenery, along with the beauty of one of the world’s greatest sports.

 

18) A Day at the Races (1937)

A Marx Brothers movie?! Seriously?! Yes, seriously. One of the film world’s all-time comedic teams was indeed the Marx Brothers. To say the antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo stand the test of time is an understatement and, if you’re a sports fan who likes to laugh, a lot, then you are urged to see their 1937 horse-racing farce, A Day at the Races.

As with any Marx Brothers film, brilliant comedic timing is the key ingredient served in A Day at the Races, along with heaps of slapstick and mania, all of which these three legends pulled off consistently and effortlessly throughout their box office dominance in the 1930s and 1940s.

Groucho plays Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a veterinarian who gets hired at a sanitarium (it’s a Marx Brothers film, let it slide), which is in danger of shutting down unless a horse named Hi-Hat will win a big race and save the failing medical establishment. Enter Tony (Chico) and Stuffy (Harpo) who help out and find some absolutely hilarious ways to get tips and raise money to enter Hi-Hat in a madcap steeplechase race that is still fun to watch almost 80 years after this film’s release.

A Day at the Races is silly, illogical, and has its moments that are certainly offensive on a number of levels, but the Marx Brothers have always been able to deliver on one thing really well…laughs.

 

19)  Lucas (1986)

If you were an 80’s kid, there is no doubt you caught this sweet, funny, and very moving film somewhere on cable television that did a masterful job of showcasing the confusing and frustrating dynamics of high school life.

Lucas stars the late Corey Haim as the film’s namesake, a gifted academic student who is also considered an outcast. Lucas’ life moves in a positive direction when he meets Maggie (played by Kerri Green), the new girl in town who has similar interests as Lucas, who also respects and treats him like he’s never experienced before in his life. The problems, however, start up when the school year begins. Maggie falls for the school’s football star Cappie (Charlie Sheen) and decides to join the cheerleading squad to be near him. None of this sits well with Lucas of course. He’s heartbroken and feels lost once again. His small group of friends don’t hear from him for days until one of them flies into band practice and yells: “It’s suicide!…Lucas is trying out for the football team!”

Lucas endures torment from the other players and outright disgust from the head coach, all for the attention of Maggie in the hopes that their friendship will blossom into the relationship he so desperately desires. The film takes a sharp turn toward the end that is a real downer, but it’s also very inspirational showcasing how this small, nerdy kid teaches an entire student body to believe in yourself and never give up.

 

20)  The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

The immortal Jackie Robinson will be remembered as a man who broke barriers at a time when he and so many other African-Americans in our country were treated in ways that so many of us today will never quite comprehend. Robinson’s skills as a baseball player got him in the MLB door, there’s no question about that. He was sensational, just look up his stats. In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947), he won the National League Rookie of the Year award and, just two years later, he was the league’s MVP. But what made Robinson special was the fact that he somehow found a way to internalize the hell he went through from fans and, sadly, from even his own teammates. Robinson was the ultimate outsider.

In 1950, The Jackie Robinson Story made its way to the big screen and what makes this film unique is that it stars…you guessed it, Jackie Robinson. For a guy who wasn’t a trained actor, Robinson is very effective in this film from a dramatic standpoint. Equally solid is the great Ruby Dee as his wife Rae, who had to stand by her husband and share his pain, while also dealing with her own acceptance into Robinson’s new world.

It is just fascinating – who knows, maybe it was therapeutic for him at that time – that Robinson wanted to relive his life story on camera, especially those early hardships that were clearly toned down for movie house audiences at that time. However, like many great sports films that highlight the triumphs of the “underdog,” as Roeper noted early in this piece, the mass, nation-wide acceptance of Jackie Robinson – as a groundbreaking ballplayer and, more importantly, as an exceptional human being – is what truly makes this film a must see.


 

In conclusion, there will be even more sports films coming out next year and, of course, many more in the years to come. Who knows? Maybe it’s even possible a young screenwriter out there right now is penning the greatest sports film ever made. Until then, do yourself a favor and watch at least one of the films on this list that you haven’t seen before…and take in that new experience…and escape.

That’s a wrap.

 

What’s your favorite underrated sports film? Share using #CSNTop20 on Twitter for a chance to win a copy of all the movies listed on this list! Click here for complete details: http://www.csnchicago.com/top20rules

TOP 20: PHOTO GALLERY

 

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Photo Credits: 20th Century Fox, Buena Vista, Capitol Films, HBO Films, MGM, Miramax, Sony, Time Warner, Universal Studios