Best 20 sports films ever: from 10 to 2

It's getting tense, as our countdown of the greatest sports films of all time gets down to number two...

Shaolin Soccer. One of the finest sports movies of all time

Yesterday, we counted down from 20 through to 11 in our top 20 sports movies of all time (documentaries excluded). So let’s cover 10 to 2, and then let the arguments begin in the comments field below…10: Eight Men OutDirector John Sayles delivers a wonderful piece of cinema as he explores the first major scandal of US professional sport. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox – or eight of them – threw the World Series at the behest of a betting syndicate. At least that’s what the Baseball authorities said – banning them all for life when the scandal broke two years later. The real story is one of under-appreciated players lured into taking gambling money by an exploitative mobster, who understands the effects of a penny-pinching boss on team morale. These are not the richsportsmen of today; these guys just want their slice of the pie – but they pay for it.

The story is told in unsentimental terms. Sayles’ direction, alongside standout performances from John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney (two men who try turn their back on the deal, but get punished anyway) and Christopher Lloyd, never allows the viewer to slip into the easy route of damning these men out-of-hand for sullying America’s Game. Instead, by the end, you understand the pain of Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson; two great players who would never take to the field again.

9: Tin CupThis is a film that sneaks up on you; on the surface, it’s appears a by-the-numbers tale of underachiever made good under improbable circumstances… But, this is just a ruse the film uses to muse upon the ability of sport to bring moments of profound beauty to otherwise pretty ugly lives; those of both the players and the spectators.

Where the surprise comes is just how charmed you are by Costner’s self-destructive, cocky, washed-up golf pro; and how easily the unexpected conceit of the film’s final moments sits with what has gone before it. This is only possible because of the great central performances of Costner, Rene Russo and – surprisingly – Don Johnson, who provides a quality turn as the withered, heartless, soul-less, take-the-cheque pro.

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8: Shaolin SoccerGlorious, dumb fun from Stephen Chow… It’s got soccer, it’s got Shaolin Kung-Fu, it’s got some glorious set pieces, some great comedy moments and a finish so far removed from any known sporting reality it makes Rocky look like Raging Bull. What makes it so watchable is the fun that the star and director has with the material; and the hoot they’re all obviously having making the film.

The sub-plot featuring the can-someone-please-put-my-mandable-back-in-its-socket gorgeous Zhao Wei is great, adding a real heart and soul to the film – as well as some extremely sweet eye-candy and a nice pay-off. Then there’s the brilliant closing sequence; which I bet loads more of you have seen than you think you have.

7: Million Dollar BabyThe dark-side of Cinderella Man, Clint Eastwood’s undeniably brilliant film is a rough, rough ride. In the same way as a good boxer would, it takes its time to set you up before delivering a shattering blow that you don’t even see coming. Sometimes life’s just grim; and Clint makes sure we know it.

Sometimes we can redeem ourselves by our deeds and actions towards others – but sometimes your demons can drag other people down with you. Some things can be forgotten, some can’t. Sometimes God smiles, sometimes he frowns… All of these things you can be felt in this movie.

It’s almost incalculably bleak – and yet in the relationship between the three main characters (Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman) there is beauty, banter and truth that at least gives some hope for a better future; but not for long. From the basis of these wonderfully observed performances – and the fantastic script – the final third of the film finds a power that is almost devastating.

6: Escape To VictoryDirected by John Huston, this is the best football movie ever made; simple… yes, the pitch to the studio probably went “Imagine The Mean Machine crossed with The Great Escape… But they all get away”.

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Yes Sylvester Stallone looks like he’s never seen a ‘soccer’ ball in his life… Yes, that’s John Wark… But we all love sticking one over on the Nazis don’t we? You can’t beat it. Pele’s equalising goal (completing the 4-4 final scoreline) was one of the highlights of my youthful video viewing; sheer uncompressed joy – and I still remember booing the Germans mercilessly, much to theamusement of my dad. Michael Caine dons his ‘hard-man’ hat as John Colby; captaining the team – a travesty when England’s greatest, Bobby Moore is on the same pitch – and providing the glue that holds the footy boy’s patchy performances together; but the dialogue is of little concern… Let’s just get on the pitch.

The film was made at a time when soccer was trying to break into America for the first time; and if all the rumours are true about Becks’ plans after he finishes playing, what price a 30th anniversary re-make? Be afraid!

5: Raging BullA downright masterpiece of cinema; Scorsese’s tale of Jake LaMotta, ‘The Bronx Bull’, is one of the most atmospheric, brutal and brilliantly acted films in any genre – let alone this one. Boxing is the essence of sport, man-to-man brutality where physical prowess is all… Even if that relates solely to an amazing ability to take punishment long enough to be able to dish some out in return. And the ‘stay-in-the-ring’ approach of the director taps straight into this physicality; brilliantly personified by De Niro.

The films portrayal of LaMotta’s later life – and the accompanying themes of breakdown and redemption – of sorts – were (allegedly) heavily influenced by Scorsese’s own drug problems. All in all it adds up to a powerful, often brutal, sometimes almost un-watchable movie; where (like Million Dollar Baby) the pursuit of sporting success can make and break lives.

4: Field Of DreamsKevin Costner’s finest moment as an actor; and baseball’s finest moment on celluloid. Like Tin Cup wasn’t about golf, ‘Dreams is not about Baseball; it’s about faith, remembrance and the power of a sport to bring families together and pull them apart… It’s also about loss, and – heck – the meaning of life too.

It centres around the ‘spirit’ of Shoeless Joe Jackson – one of the 1919 White Sox team which also provided the subject matter of Eight Men Out. When Ray hears voices in the corn telling him ‘build it and he will come’, takes a leap of faith, pulls up his farm’s crops and builds a baseball diamond instead. Shoeless Joe does come back to play again; pulling with him other players and people with the need to re-connect with the past, a lost innocence and the people they left behind.

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“The one constant through all the years,” says James Earl Jones, turning in a brilliant performance as the damaged writer, Terence Mann “has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come”.

My one question is this; if Simon loves this film so much (and heck does he love it), why do I have to take his shit over Bagger Vance?

3: The Longest Yard/The Mean MachineI can’t tell you why this is above Field Of Dreams, I don’t even know why… It just is. Everything about this films is archetypal; the failed sports star, the hot-as-hell US prison, the brutal guards, the compassion-less warden, the raggle-taggle inmates, the psychos, the snitches, the sub-groups divided on race lines, the chain gangs, the food and the friendship. Yet The Longest Yard still manages to break these shackles and deliver a whole ton of subversive fun… 70s anti-heroes par excellence in the riotous style established by Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.

Everyone turns in bravura performances for Dirty Dozen helmsman Robert Aldrich – especially Ed Lauter as Knauer and James Hampton as Caretaker; switching effortlessly from comedy to pathos to drama effortlessly (often within the same scene); with Reynolds’ coolest performance by miles underpinning the whole she-bang. A great sit-com, a great sports movie with a suitably redemptive ending. Just brilliant. Just forget the Vinnie Jones and Adam Sandler remakes.

2: Ping PongThe second most memorable film I’ve ever seen featuring ping pong balls – the first won’t be getting a cinema release any time soon – and probably the best film that ever has, or ever will, be made about table tennis.

Again – and I’m starting to see a bit of a theme here – this Japanese film uses sport as a cover for an analysis of friendship, interpersonal relationships, competitiveness and psychological conditioning. Though more than many others, this film translates those things directly onto the ‘field’ of play in interesting; and often surreal ways. What really grabs the attention though is the visual poetry and power of the matches themselves – portrayed as gladiatorial battles where precision and power combine to devastating effect; the style is brash, often flashy and nota little tongue-in-cheek, but perfectly put together and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the film.

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At the core of Ping Pong is a universal truth. It’s also one of the hardest things that those of us wannabes have to learn at some point about sport; that if you haven’t got that natural talent, no amount of hard work is going to get you where you want to be – and if you have, you can still waste it. Thus watching central character Smile waste his talent through indifference is only marginally less painful than having to watching Peco over-achieve and eventually come crashing down. A great looking film, with a great soundtrack, Ping Pong is sport distilled; beautiful, but often painful too.

So what is the finest sports movie of all time…? Click here to find out…