Classic or Not? Revisiting 10 Must-See Sports Movies

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2016

Classic or Not? Revisiting 10 Must-See Sports Movies

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    Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    There's a risk in creating a list of 10 popular sports movies and then trying to determine if they are classics. It gets tricky when you throw out Any Given Sunday and Space Jam and slide in He Got Game and Jerry Maguire, because sports movies are personal, and when emotion is involved, logic usually is not.

    But in the spirit of the "no growth without risk" mantra, what follows is my list of 10 popular sports movies in pop culture and whether each movie is a classic worthy of being bronzed or just cubic zirconia that gleams brightly from afar but loses luster under a penetrating gaze.

    The criteria for determining if these sports movies are classics are as follows: Is the movie quotable? Does it elicit strong reactions such as laughter, sadness or heartrending tears? Do you stop to watch it when you’re channel surfing? Is it timeless because its themes are universal and enduring?

    To shorten the list of candidates, films were considered from 1976 to present day, although there are fewer "instant classics" from the 2000s than from the decades before.

         

    Yo Adrian! What’s the most memorable line from your favorite sports movie? From Rocky to The Godfather, Caddyshack and more, the stories behind the movies you love are coming to CNN! The new CNN original series The Movies, from the people who brought you The Seventies and The Eighties, starts Sunday, July 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on CNN.

Honorable Mentions

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    MATT ROURKE/Associated Press

    These movies deserve honorable mentions as the sports films that didn't quite make the cut.

        

    Rocky

    This is undeniably a great movie, let alone a fantastic "sports movie," and it's the heart and soul of the entire Rocky franchise.

    But after all the sequels and rip-offs, the originality of the movie's "palooka from nowhere gets his shot" has been diluted, and while the theme song will forever live, the movie has reached its sell-by date.

         

    Miracle

    This is a really good movie...if you only watch it once.

    Its theme of believing in yourself never gets old, but there are no great lines that stick with you, and as good as the movie is, it just can't beat the real event when it comes to tugging on your heartstrings.

         

    Friday Night Lights

    The TV show's much better.

'White Men Can't Jump'

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    White Men Can't Jump (1992)

    Starring: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson

    Director: Ron Shelton

          

    The Case For

    This may be the most quoted and consistently laugh-out-loud sports movie on this list.

    Thomas Golianopoulos of Grantland called it a sports movie that's really about race, stereotypes and male bonding.

    We can't forget Sidney Deane—played by the never-better Wesley Snipes—dissing a rival on the basketball court with this line: "Shut your anorexic, malnutrition, tapeworm-having overdone on Dick Gregory Bahamian diet-drinking ass up."

    You care enough about the characters that the final "big game" is more than just a sports cliche. We really want to see Woody Harrelson's Billy Hoyle dunk, because we know it's not just a dunk, it's self-affirmation. 

    White Men Can't Jump is a channel-surfer's delight because no matter what section of the film you land on, you're going to watch.

          

    The Case Against

    The sports cliches are starting to creak around the edges, and it's not as emotional as it could have been.

           

    Verdict

    Definitely a classic, and one that would have placed higher if it hit the emotional beats a little harder. But White Men Can't Jump red-lines the joke meter like no other film on this list.

'He Got Game'

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    He Got Game (1998)

    Starring: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich

    Director: Spike Lee

          

    The Case For

    He Got Game is a powerful drama disguised as a basketball movie.

    It's about a felon who is released on a one-week parole to convince his No. 1-ranked high school son to sign with the local team.

    But it's really about fathers and sons and how they come to terms with each other.

    It's not a funny movie in the jokes-per-minute sense, but it has great humor and pungent characters, including Rick Fox's Chick Deagan, a womanizer who often seems to be in another movie entirely.

    He Got Game introduced the slang term "having game" that is now widely used to describe highly skilled athletes.

    And any film in which the lead character is named Jesus Shuttlesworth will live forever in pop culture.

    The film is often re-run on TV, and Spike Lee recently told Dan Patrick on The Dan Patrick Show (via Extra Mustard) that he and Allen had discussed a sequel.

          

    The Case Against

    Ray. Allen. Nothing against "He Who Broke the Spurs," but he's clearly an athlete masquerading as an actor in this film.

    There are scenes that require real skill he just can't pull off.

    And despite the thrilling basketball duel that closes the film, this movie is heavy and dark and doesn't leave you believing in rainbows and unicorns like some of the other films on the list.

           

    Verdict

    Classic. It stops your channel surfing cold, and the movie's basketball scenes, emotional power and father-and-son theme make this a keeper.

'Space Jam'

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    Space Jam (1996)

    Starring: Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Theresa Randle

    Director: Joe Pytka

          

    The Case For

    Space Jam is confounding.

    Sure, the effects were great for its time, and who doesn't like seeing a rogues gallery of Warner Bros. finest animated characters?

    But the film hangs on a floss-thin plot thread about the Looney Tunes playing a winner-take-earth basketball game against aliens, and that's about it.

    It has no memorable lines, and it's not that funny.

    But kids go wild over this movie, even though the effects are like stop-motion compared to what's happening in the digital age.

    And according to Rebecca Ford of The Hollywood Reporter, LeBron James is going to make a sequel with Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin, so it has street cred.

          

    The Case Against

    Michael Jordan is such a bad actor; he can't even play himself in this movie. There's nothing all that special about the basketball scenes.

    The real-life basketball stars are just sad to watch knowing what they became (yes, you, Patrick Ewing).

            

    Verdict

    Definitely not a classic. Space Jam lives better in memory than in reality and doesn't stand the test of time.

'Any Given Sunday'

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    Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

    Any Given Sunday (1999)

    Starring: Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz

    Director: Oliver Stone

         

    The Case For

    Football fans seem to love this sports drama about a boozy coach, his dysfunctional team and how they come together—but mostly don't—to form a real team.

    Like all Oliver Stone opuses, this one goes big on everything, and if you buy into Stone's vision of the NFL as a modern-day Roman bloodsport, then you're a fan for life.

    Adam Rank of NFL.com has it on his list of best football movies of all time, though he does take Foxx's Willie Beamen character to task for eating chips and hot dogs on the sideline.

          

    The Case Against

    The cliches are as thick as a rain forest cloud, and Al Pacino chews scenery like it's candy. You don't really care about anyone in this nearly three-hour mess, and the football scenes are rote. There are more this-is-really-bad laughs at the movie than laughs in the movie.

         

    Verdict

    Not a classic. Any Given Sunday is like a Kansas City Chiefs season, teasing potential greatness at the beginning, and then flaming out with each passing minute. 

'Million Dollar Baby'

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    Mark Davis/Getty Images

    Million Dollar Baby (2004)

    Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

    Director: Clint Eastwood

        

    The Case For

    "'Mo cuishle' means my darling. My blood."

    "You're standing outside my church, comparing God to Rice Krispies?"

    "There is magic in fighting battles beyond endurance."

    This movie is about boxing. Well, not really, but that's semantics.

    It's beautiful, agonizing and funny—and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 91.

    It won four Academy Awards and showcased Eastwood at his finest before he started talking to empty chairs at Republican conventions.

          

    The Case Against

    The hero dies in the end, which is kind of a downer, and even this level of craft doesn't always transcend fight-movie cliches.

          

    Verdict

    Classic. This is pedigree, folks, plain and simple.

'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story'

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    Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

    Starring: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn

    Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

         

    The Case For

    "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball."

    "Nobody makes me bleed my own blood."

    Many of Dodgeball's best lines have become pop culture staples, including, "I just threw up in my mouth a little bit," which was first spoken in this film by Taylor's character.

    Dan Treadway of SI.com ranked Stiller's White Goodman as 11th on a list of the 25 greatest sports movie villains and claimed he makes this film required viewing.

    The movie is rude and funny, even though its rally-the-misfits-to-save-the-kingdom plot is overly familiar.

    But the freshness of the dodgeball subculture—and the expert comic touch of Stiller, Vaughn and Torn—lifts this far above the sports movie Mendoza line.

    And the action scenes are wildly over the top and hilarious.

         

    The Case Against

    Dodgeball isn't a real sport.

    And you don't leave the movie feeling warm and fuzzy about the themes of friendship and loyalty.

    Plus, dodgeball isn't a real sport.

          

    Verdict

    Classic. Just try to surf past this movie on a Saturday night.

'Field of Dreams'

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    Field of Dreams (1989)

    Starring: Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta

    Director: Phil Alden Robinson

        

    The Case For

    Jones' Terrance Mann delivers one of the greatest speeches in sports movie history, but there are a ton of memorable lines in this film.

    "Is this heaven?"

    "It's Iowa."

    Even people who hate sports love this movie because it's not about baseball—it's about fathers and sons, and how small moments in our childhoods shape who we become as adults.

    Twenty-five years after its release, Christian Red of the New York Daily News called it an American masterpiece that allowed millions of men to reconnect with their fathers.

           

    The Case Against

    The film is overly sentimental, more a fable than a fully realized narrative, and there's no big game or urgency in the last act, which makes the movie feel like a vignette of cool scenes.

        

    Verdict

    Classic. To paraphrase the movie's most quoted line: "If you list it, praise will come."

'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby'

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    Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

    Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

    Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen

    Director: Adam McKay

          

    The Case For

    NASCAR was just ripe for a sports movie, and Ferrell stirred all the conventions of race car mythology into an appetizing stew of laughs, debauchery and satire.

    As good ole boy Ricky Bobby, Ferrell created the iconic portrait of a cocky Southern stock car driver who's not very bright and is raising a horde of monstrous children.

    In his oral history at the film's 10th anniversary, Ryan McGee of ESPN.com said that McKay and Ferrell obtained NASCAR's participation for the sake of authenticity and to remind the audience that everyone was in on the joke.

    The movie has spit-take laughs, and it's ridiculous enough that Cohen's Jean Girard is not even close to being the most outrageous cast member.

    Talladega Nights checks all of the boxes for classic status. It elicits a strong reaction by being very funny. It begs to be rewatched. It's filled with great lines. And it perfectly captures a subculture that it both loves and loves to satirize.

         

    The Case Against

    Will the jokes play in 20 years? The film sometimes feels too inside baseball, which could mean a shorter shelf life as time passes.

          

    Verdict

    Classic. No one will ever make another NASCAR movie comedy because this one exists as the perfect example of how to do it well.

'Jerry Maguire'

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    Jerry Maguire (1996)

    Starring: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renee Zellweger

    Director: Cameron Crowe

         

    The Case For

    There are so many great lines in this sports movie that someone could do an entire list of the 10 Best Quotes from Jerry Maguire.

    Everyone remembers "Show me the money," but other lines are equally memorable. And for all its sentimentality, "You complete me" became a universal catchphrase.

    Cruise—in top form—plays a sports agent who regains his soul by trying to become a genuine human being after years of impersonating one.

    Only Crowe could combine character-based humor, raw sentiment, kinetic football scenes and a well-earned happy ending into one of the most crowd-pleasing sports films of all time.

    It holds an 82 rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for five Academy Awards, earning one statue for Gooding as best actor in a supporting role.

         

    The Case Against

    Sports purists may argue this isn't a sports movie even in the most liberal sense, especially since it focuses on agents, who rank just above serial killers in polls of despised professions.

         

    Verdict

    Classic. Twenty years after its release, Jerry Maguire is still relevant, and its keen insight into the corrupting power of sports celebrity hasn't lost any of its bite, especially in the social media age.

'Bull Durham'

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    Bull Durham (1988)

    Starring: Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon

    Director: Ron Shelton

         

    The Case For

    This is the second Ron Shelton-directed film on the list, and if scientists were to create a prototype for a perfect sports movie, this would be it.

    You take an in-his-prime Kevin Costner channeling Gary Cooper, add a manic and hilarious Tim Robbins at his goofball best, stir in a never-more-sexy Susan Sarandon, add huge cups of smart and funny dialogue that would make Aaron Sorkin jealous, and yield greatness.

    It's a sports movie for everyone, a dialogue- and character-driven romance that makes wise observations about love, self-doubt and "long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days."

    SI.com listed Bull Durham No. 1 in its ranking of the 50 greatest sports movies of all time, citing Shelton's storytelling prowess and Costner's generosity in sharing screen time with his co-stars.

         

    The Case Against

    None.

         

    Verdict

    Classic. It will take Ron Shelton's clone to dislodge Bull Durham from any top-10-sports-movie lists.

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