Two recent releases, “Moneyball” and “Warrior,” have reminded audiences (the former a bit more than the latter, I’m afraid) of the nutritious, old-fashioned pleasures of the sports movie, that versatile and yet frequently formula-populated genre which filters the live physical thrills of, say, a ball game or a boxing match through the less spontaneous entertainment medium of a subjective camera.
A good sports movie braids the physical tension of athletic competition with the aesthetic and emotional tension of cinema, to such a point that the two languages fuse: I know not a single thing about mixed martial arts, for example, yet the finale of “Warrior” had me utterly invested in the outcome of the climactic duel. You needn’t care for a sport to care for a sports movie (which was good news in 2008 for those of us who think wrestling is the stupidest non-sport imaginable).
Of course, this recent one-two of autumn sports-themed releases is hardly reviving a long-dormant genre: only two years ago, the unlikely combination of Sandra Bullock and American football made “The Blind Side” the sleeper hit of the season, while even more recently, David O. Russell’s double Oscar winner “The Fighter” extended a line of American boxing movies so long as to merit a wholly separate list one of these days. This summer, Formula 1 documentary “Senna” broke box-office records in the UK, emphasizing the carry-over audience of fans that a successful sports film can draw from the source, as it were.
Many of the aforementioned films follow classical Hollywood-informed arcs of triumph against the odds, of course, but it was when I sat down to compile a list of my own top sports movies that I realized how many great examples of the form trade as much in failure as in success; it’s a genre so broad and densely populated as not to be a genre at all.
Before getting to the list, though, I owe an apology to the ladies for the neglect of female-focused sports movies: the diverse likes of “Girlfight,” “National Velvet” and “Water Lilies” were all on the shortlist, yet after my intuitive ranking, none cracked the Top 10. I toyed with swapping in Drew Barrymore’s delightful and underrated “Whip It!” at the last minute, but that seemed tokenistic; consider this an honorable mention for valued reserve players.
Check out my list at our new gallery, and feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below.
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