As I mentioned yesterday, my Top 10 sports books was so popular that I’ve decided to make similar lists a regular feature on this blog. I was challenged by a few people to come up with the ten best sports movies.
Like last week’s effort, I decided to limit myself. I chose to not include any documentaries – When We Were Kings, Ken Burns’ Baseball and half of ESPN’s 30-for-30 series would force aside some very worthy films – but it should be noted that most of these are based on real people or events.
So, roughly in order of preference, here we go:
Jerry Maguire – This movie stands apart from the other entries on the list because its protagonist isn’t about an athlete or a coach. In fact, there’s hardly any football in the entire film, even if one of the main characters is a professional football player. Instead, Jerry Maguire looks at the culture surrounding sports. Whether it’s Jay Mohr’s conniving agent or Cuba Gooding Jr.’s selfish prima donna wide receiver, this movie does a better job than most of exposing the greedy and egotistical culture that’s developed around modern sports.
The Replacements – Gene Hackman makes the first of two appearances on this list as Jimmy McGinty, the coach of the fictional Washington Sentinels. As the unnamed professional football league that the Sentinels are a part of goes on strike, the owners decide to hire scab players to replace their regular players. Just like every sports movie ever, McGinty puts together a group of ragtag athletes. His replacements are led by dreamboat quarterback Shane Falco (played by real-life dreamboat Keanu Reeves). Hilarity ensues as the Sentinels come together as a team. There’s lots of memorable scenes, including Falco’s big speech in the climactic game, and when the twin offensive linemen shoot a rivals car full of holes. My favourite, however, is the dance scene:
Mighty Ducks – Quack! Quack! Quack! Many of these selections spawned their own franchises. Slap Shot, Rocky, Friday Night Lights, all have sequels or spin-offs. But Mighty Ducks is the only one on this list that was so successful that it earned its own professional sports teams. Yeah, it’s a typical kids’ movie with Emilio Estevez teaching his group of misfit hockey players important life lessons while he learns from them. But it’s still a great movie, even if the flying V is a ridiculous strategy.
A League of Their Own – Based on the real life experiences of veterans of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Penny Marshall’s dramedy sheds some light on a chapter of baseball history that is often overlooked. Tom Hanks excels as Jim Dugan, a thinly veiled stand-in for Boston Red Sox great Jimmie Foxx, the alcoholic and acerbic manager of the Rockford Peaches. Even terrible actresses like Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell can’t slow this movie down, and, of course, it gave birth to one of the best lines ever uttered about baseball:
Rocky – Critically acclaimed when it came out in 1976 – winning the Academy Award for Best Picture that year – Sylvester Stallone’s masterpiece is surprisingly resilient. Although some of the lustre was rubbed off thanks to too many sequels, watched by itself Rocky is incredible. Although a lot of Stallone’s iconic scenes have become cliché, his screenplay still stands as a classic. Fortunately, the sixth and final entry in the series, Rocky Balboa, added some polish to the series and capped one of the most iconic stories in film history.
Slap Shot – When I was travelling regularly with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues lacrosse team Slap Shot was a staple of every bus ride. Literally every other movie we’d watch was Slap Shot. Other films were just used to raise our appreciation of this Paul Newman vehicle, the best hockey movie ever made. Slap Shot is filled with hilarious vignettes of life as a professional hockey player, but to me it’s the interactions between the players on the Charlestown Chiefs that make this movie. Director George Roy Hill perfectly captures what the downtime is like on any high-level sports team.
Hoosiers – The story of the 1951-52 Hickory High basketball team and their journey to the Indiana state championship is loosely based on the 1954 Milan High School basketball team that managed the exact same feat, despite the school’s small enrolment of 191. Gene Hackman is excellent as Coach Dale, the controversial coach of the team. His lessons about consistency and focusing on fundamentals is inspiring and the movie eminently watchable. One of the best things about this movie, however, is how subtle some of the character work is. In particular, star player Jimmy Chitwood’s narrative is handled with great restraint.
Friday Night Lights – Last week I wrote about the incredible book by H.G. Bissinger that inspired this movie. The film is also excellent and stays remarkably close to the source material. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance, in particular his speech about perfection, is magnificent. Director Peter Berg’s decision to use the soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky and moody, washed-out video creates an almost unbearable tension throughout the movie as the young football players of Permian High School struggle under the pressure of their small town’s expectations.
Any Given Sunday – Another artsy football movie, Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday follows a season with the fictional Miami Sharks. Although it relies heavily on pretentious cinematography – including silhouetted cheerleaders dancing in front of a lightning storm – the writing and acting are as tight as a drum. Al Pacino’s penultimate speech about life being a game of inches is, hands down, the best motivational speech in movie history. Stone handles the themes of mortality and morality with incredible aplomb, despite the heavy-handed camera work.
Bull Durham – Another classic baseball movie, Bull Durham is the first, and best, piece of the Kevin Costner baseball trilogy - sorry folks, For the Love of the Game isn’t as strong and Fields of Dreams is overly sentimental. Bull Durham, however, is just about perfect. From the characters on the team and their superstitions to Crash Davis’ words of wisdom, this film expresses the aura of baseball better than anything short of the game itself. There are few movies that can be watched again and again without losing any magic, and Bull Durham is in that select number.
As always, I'd love to know what your top 10 is, and why. Please, go ahead and comment below. Also, if there's a top 10 list you'd like me to write, shoot me an email or post a comment.
Gretzky’s Tears is the latest book by the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt. It examines the controversial trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, almost bringing an end to Edmonton’s Stanley Cup dynasty and launching the National Hockey League’s sputtering Sunbelt Expansion.
Brunt is one of Canada’s foremost sports journalists, and one of the best “big picture” writers in the newspaper business today. Unfortunately, Gretzky’s Tears does not meet Brunt’s usually high standards, particularly in contrast to his own body of work and other media on the subject.
The closest comparison is Brunt’s previous book, Searching for Bobby Orr, which I reviewed on my old blog . Indeed, in the Acknowledgements section of Gretzky’s Tears Brunt says that it was intended as a sequel to Searching.
Both books spotlight the greatest hockey player of their generation, both address the theme of innocence lost and both subjects shy away from the limelight. Orr was always intensely private and Gretzky is big on controlling his own public image.
As a result, Brunt was unable to interview either player for his books. Instead, he focuses on interviewing the people around Gretzky and Orr, painting a picture of the circumstances and personalities surrounding these prominent Canadian figures.
It was a very effective method in Searching for Bobby Orr, but falls flat in Gretzky’s Tears.
The difference is that Orr’s entourage has maintained an omerta-like silence around the former Boston Bruin. Even former business associates like Alan Eagleson and Harry Sinden, both of whom have fallen out with Orr, did not participate in Brunt’s research for Searching.
However, in Gretzky’s Tears, two of the principals in the trade, former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and former Kings owner Bruce McNall, submitted to extensive interviews. The result comes across as a rather jaundiced account of the deal. Pocklington and McNall (and to a lesser extent former Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather) all get to say their piece, wheras Brunt, and therefore the reader, are left to guess at Gretzky’s state of mind before and after the move.
This would be fine if Gretzky’s Tears was created in a vacuum.
Unfortunately for Brunt, Pocklington wrote (with the help of Terry McConnell and J’Lyn Nye) a book of his own called I’d Trade Him Again that includes a forward by the Great One.
Worse yet, ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary Kings Ransom also looks at the trade and filmmaker Peter Berg spoke extensively with Gretzky.
A smaller problem with the book is that it seems as though the editors backed off of Brunt’s copy. This might be because of the success of Searching for Bobby Orr, but Gretzky’s Tears suffers without a firm guiding hand.
The first chapter of Gretzky’s Tears is a ponderous exploration of loss of innocence that could have been cut completely. Further, Brunt has, for whatever reason, begun to copy sentences from one chapter to the next almost verbatim.
For example, towards the end of the book Brunt discusses Canada’s Olympic gold medal in 2002 and the rousing speech Greztky made at a press conference early in the games.
“[Gretzky] suggested that Canada was all alone, that the rest of Planet Hockey wanted it to fail, that it was us against the world. Standing in the room listening to him that day, it was difficult to tell how much was honest emotion, how much was a contrived attempt to inspire his team.” (p. 245)
Interesting commentary, except that just 45 pages earlier Brunt had described the same incident:
“Gretzky without prompting launched into a tirade – spontaneous or contrived – about how the whole hockey world wanted Canada to lose, it became a natural call to arms for both the country and the players.” (p. 200)
I only used excerpts, but aside from sentence structure the passages are almost identical.
It’s not an isolated incident either. There are several paragraphs throughout the book that repeat information and use similar phrasing. It’s a distracting habit and one that Brunt or his editor should have picked up on.
And that is the most disappointing thing about this book.
Stephen Brunt is an excellent writer who, in my opinion, is one of the best sports columnists in Canada. Searching for Bobby Orr was thoroughly researched and did a wonderful job of explaining the magic of Orr. On the other hand, Gretzky’s Tears is a flawed book that suffers by comparison to Brunt’s earlier work and the work of others.
By any other author this would be a solid book, but Brunt is a victim of his own success.