Part 2 of the Best Fiction Sports Movies Ever Made
What are the best movies about Soccer, Martial Arts, Bicycling, Skiing, Ice Skating, Rollerskating?
Wow! What an amazing response I had from Part 1 of “The Best Fictional Sports Movies Ever Made.” We’ve had five times the usual number of comments, making this one of the most popular columns for subscribers. I loved hearing your suggestions for sports movies you thought I’d missed, even though I actually had already been writing about them in Part 2. Nevertheless, reading your enthusiastic comments is one of the reasons I cherish this Substack community so much. Your knowledge, intelligence, and passion make this all so enlightening and a lot of fun.
Just to clarify a few things that were brought up by subscribers: 1. I did include stories based on real people and real events. They are still fictional because they change events and characters to suit the story. 2. I did not include documentaries because that is an entirely different genre. Maybe in the future I’ll do a list of “Best Sports Documentaries.” 3. Some of your favorites that I didn’t include are still good movies that are memorable, touching, and exciting. But there were others that were just a bit better.
So, let’s get to the rest of my suggestions. I know you’ll have opinions, and I look forward to reading them.
Best Bicycling Movies
Breaking Away (1979)
This would be on my Top 20 movies ever made, not just sports movies. It is one of the best coming-of-age stories, one of the best sports movies, and one of the best character-driven movies. Once you’ve seen Breaking Away, you’ll never forget it or the four working-class boys whose lives are forever changed by that one summer.
The story focuses on four “loser” townies who have been drifting aimlessly for the past year since graduating from high school. The small Indiana town is struggling financially ever since the local quarries closed, making the boys’ futures seem hopeless. Each boy’s story is so original and compelling as he tries to find some way to reach for a future that is perpetually beyond his grasp.
They finally come together to challenge the smug university biking team in a climactic race. If you haven’t seen it, watch it today.
Runner-up: American Flyer
Also Recommended: The Flying Scotsman
A note on why so many movies on my list are from the twentieth century. You may have noticed that most of the best movies are from before 2000. This may lead you to think I’m just being a cranky old codger chasing kids from my yard while shouting about the good old days. Not really. The reason so many of the best films are from the seventies and eighties is because there was a Renaissance in filmmaking that started in the late sixties and continued into the eighties.
The traditional Hollywood movie machine was sputtering: Big budgets and big stars weren’t bringing people to the theaters. The executives blamed the rise of television, but the real culprit was that they were trying to churn out the same old formulas for a younger audience looking for new stories and new ways to tell them. When Easy Rider came out in 1969, everything changed. Made for about $400,000, it earned over $60 million. Suddenly, everyone with long hair and frayed jeans was handed a camera, a crew, and a small budget and told to do something original. From that desperate seed bloomed many surprising movies (Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, Eraserhead, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars) and a new generation of daring filmmakers (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, etc.). They set out to turn familiar genres on their heads—and some of these selections are the results.
The 2000s have produced some good and very good sports movies: Moneyball, Friday Night Lights, Million Dollar Baby, The Wrestler, Miracle, Remember the Titans—all of which I mention as Runners-Up or Also Recommended. While I like them all, none quite rise to the level of greatest film in their specific sport. Part of the reason is that they may stick too closely to the expected tropes of the genre without varying enough into originality. The best sports movie of the 2000s is I, Tonya (2017), precisely because it dares to be original, still makes the sport exciting, and has thematic depth beyond, “Let’s put aside our differences and pull together as a team.”
Best Soccer Movies
The Boys in Company C (1978)
This is a sports movie disguised as a war movie. In 1968, five misfit recruits are sent to Vietnam. Having endured brutal training, they have become a close-knit team, surviving the horrors of combat. Then they are given a golden opportunity: They must play a game of soccer against their South Vietnamese allies. Their commanding officer promises them that if they lose, they will no longer be sent into combat, but if they win, they will. The stakes couldn’t be higher, yet, the “boys” can’t help but struggle with the idea of throwing a game. It’s a metaphor for our involvement in Vietnam as well as Americans’ attitude about competing.
The final entry into one of the soldiers’ journal says it all: “We actually had a chance to get out of this goddamn war. All we had to do was throw the game and walk away. But for some reason, we just couldn't. For some reason, winning that stupid game was more important than saving our ass. So I guess we'll just keep on walking into one bloody mess after another, until somebody finally figures out that living has got to be more important than winning.” For me, this movie encapsulates the entire idea of what winning means, should mean, and rarely does mean.
Runner-up: Shaolin Soccer
Also Recommended: Bend It Like Beckham
Best Ice Skating Movies
I, Tonya (2017)
I didn’t expect much when I read they were making a movie about the tabloid-juicy story of Olympic ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and the assault by “friends” of Harding on Kerrigan. It seemed like an exploitation movie from Lifetime. Man, was I wrong. The dazzling mocumentary is much more about how class difference in the U.S. and as well as our obsession with physical beauty negatively influences sports.
Despite being the first American female skater to complete two triple Axel jumps in competition, Harding is still looked down upon for her lower-class upbringing. The attack and the aftermath tell a disturbing story of how excellence in a sport is not always enough for success. Harding’s fall from grace is tragic, and the movie captures her disgrace with sympathy and insight.
Runner-up: The Cutting Edge
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Best Skiing Movies
Downhill Racer (1969)
This movie about the U.S. Ski Team competing in international competitions features Robert Redford as an arrogant star skier whose climb to the top means stepping on others on the way up.
The title tells us everything: he’s not only racing downhill in his sport, but he’s going downhill in his life. The icy atmosphere suits his personality just fine, because he is unable to make human connections or to find any value in his life beyond the emptiness of winning. The movie makes it clear that because winning is all he has, he’ll have to spend the rest of his career looking over his shoulder at the next rising star.
Runner-up: Eddie the Eagle
Best Martial Arts Movies
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee was a close friend, as well as my martial arts teacher. In fact, I was on my way to visit him the day he died. But that friendship has nothing to do with my reverence for his performance in Enter the Dragon. The influence of the film in popularizing karate around the world cannot be overestimated. The movie grossed, when adjusted for inflation, the equivalent of $2 billion.
It’s a spy romp movie that is not believable on any level. (The core set-up is the villain has invited the world’s best martial artists to a competition in which they fight to the death.) But the far-fetched plot in no way diminishes the sheer enjoyment and giddy pleasure of watching Bruce fight, posture, and joke around with equal parts charm and menace. The scene when Bruce puts on a display with nunchucks is mesmerizing.
A note about samurai movies. The best samurai movie ever made is Seven Samurai (1954), the basis for one of the best Westerns ever made, The Magnificent Seven. I didn’t consider samurai movies as part of a sports genre because the martial arts in these films are not for sport but a code of behavior and a means of survival.
Runner-up: The Karate Kid
Also Recommended: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Ip Man; Drunken Master, Bloodsport
Best Rollerskating Movies: 3-Way Tie
Kansas City Bombers (1972)
Whip It (2009)
What I like about pairing these three movies together is that they all show a different aspect of rollerskating as a sport—and yet, they also tell compelling stories about why the characters are so passionate about their sport.
Whip It is Drew Barrymore’s directional debut, and she does an impressive job of telling the story of a small town pageant girl, Bliss (Elliot Page, then Ellen Page), who finds her voice and identity when she joins a roller derby team. Roller derby is an exciting sport and this movie captures the brutality, the grace, the athleticism, and the sheer adrenaline joy of it.
Kansas City Bombers could be a sequel to Whip It, with Raquel Welch (K.C. Carr) basically playing Bliss after she’s spent another fifteen years in roller derby. Carr is a single mother of two children trying desperately to provide for them. But for all her outward independence, she is manipulated by an unscrupulous team owner and love interest. I especially like stories of aging athletes figuring out how to adapt to their sport. Just as Bliss uses roller derby to define who she is as a young adult, K.C. uses the sport to define who she is at a more mature stage in her life.
Rollerball is a futuristic movie set in 2018, which at first may seem quaintly corny, until you realize how much the movie projected about how some in government try to rewrite history to suit their personal ambitions and political agenda, and you wonder if it wasn’t prescient. (FYI: the 2002 remake is largely forgettable.) James Caan plays Jonathan, a superstar in the deadly game of rollerball. Jonathan’s popularity worries corporate executives who rule the world, so they want to force him to retire. When he refuses, they keep changing the rules, hoping he will be killed in the game. The final game is played without rules and against a team that are basically assassins. The rollerball scenes are brutal but exciting. And I like the meditation on what the popularity of sports figures means to society—and the responsibility of athletes who have that power.
What I love about your choices is how they bring humanity into sports, something you've done all your life. I mentioned before that I've been friends with the author of Vision Quest since 1965, actually read it chapter by chapter as it was being written; got to spend an evening with part of the cast after shooting. I actually had a short conversation with J.C. Quinn, who delivered the Pelé speech. I've been writing Young Adult fiction since 1983, almost all of it with a sports background...and am proud to say all of those books have been banned in one place or another over the years. There's a fairly serious attempt to make one of them a movie, or Netflix series, at which time it will become your favorite Swimming movie. I was also a therapist for many years, working with child abuse and neglect families, so loved your Tanya Harding choice. Man, everyone has a story. You and I are the same age...so I gotta let you know, there's no way Elvin Hayes would have beat you had you been healthy that night. If memory serves, I broke a TV tray at the end of that game.
Bravo! So glad you included Breaking Away, an all around favorite movie and definitely my favorite sports movie.