There’s a lot more to Foxcatcher, released in theaters this weekend, than just the chance to see Steve Carrell look unsettlingly like his Despicable Me character thanks to the eyebrow-removing make-up that transformed him into John du Pont. Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo breathe new life into that most overlooked of genres, the sports movie.
As Netflix is all too willing to demonstrate, there are a lot of great sports movies out there. Sure, many of them may follow a similar formula in which an underdog comes good thanks to hard work and determination, but really, isn’t that something we need to see every now and again? Here, then are ten movies ready to be streamed to your device of choice and leaving you by turns elated, triumphant and utterly desolated by real life tragedy. (No, really; maybe you should start with *Prefontaine just so that everything is more upbeat as a result.)
THE LONGEST YARD (1974)
What could be better than a chance to watch Burt Reynolds in his mid-‘70s, sarcastic prime? How about the chance to watch Burt Reynolds in his mid-‘70s, sarcastic prime playing a disgraced NFL pro finding an intense new appreciation for the game as the result of a prisoner/guards game he’s involved with after being sentenced to 18 months in jail? The Longest Yard — remade twice to date, with a 2005 version featuring Adam Sandler in Reynolds’ role — has all that, and more.
THE BINGO LONG AND THE TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS (1976)
Considering the talent on display — Richard Pryor and the Star Wars twofer of Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones lead the cast — the “all-stars” tag could be applied to this movie itself, in addition to the baseball team at the center of the story. Loosely based on true events (the Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings are stand-ins for real-life team the Indianapolis Clowns), the movie tells the story of a group of players ignored by Major League Baseball’s segregation of the 1930s and their attempts to make a living playing the sport they love.
Arguably Sylvester Stallone’s finest hour — although fans of both Judge Dredd and The Expendables might argue — the first Rocky isn’t just a classic sports movie, but a classic movie about the rags-to-riches American dream, as well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie yourself, you’ll already know what to expect: Stallone’s plucky Rocky Balboa rising from the streets to get a chance at the world heavyweight championship, while Talia Shire watches in the background as faithful girlfriend Adrian. Once you’ve finished this, feel free to enjoy the many sequels, all also available on Netflix.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)
No matter what your feelings may be about baseball — although please remember that it is, officially, America’s Favorite Pastime™ — The Bad News Bears is a must-see thanks to Walter Matthau’s performance as a washed-up former minor-league player reduced to coaching a team made up of the worst Little League team in Southern California. Despite the syrupy feel-good nature of the movie, Matthau remains surly as hell, and a joy to watch. And if you’re interested in the kids who learn that just taking part is like winning the game, then you’ve also got a young Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earle Haley to enjoy as well.
SLAP SHOT (1977)
Never mess with Paul Newman. Admittedly, while that’s a lesson that many would have gathered by the time this 1977 hockey movie hit theaters, his appearance as Reggie Dunlop — a con man and coach of a local team who’s not above manipulating his players and starting fights in order to shore up the best attendance for his games — is something that will cement that impression. As a plus, anyone who’s ever dismissed ice hockey as an excuse for brawls and mindless violence will be glad to have their prejudices being give some weight (The original script for the movie was written by future Saturday Night Live writer Nancy Dowd and based on her brother’s experience of playing minor league hockey).
Years before Sean Astin hung out with the other hobbits in Lord of the Rings, he played Daniel Eugene “Rudy” Ruettiger, who harbored a simple ambition: he wanted to play for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. There was a hitch, of course — he was only 5’6” and 185lbs, and his dyslexia meant that even getting into Notre Dame in the first place looked unlikely. Astin and the rest of the cast (including Ned Beatty as Rudy’s father, and Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughan in their movie debuts, pre-Swingers) elevate the real life story beyond the movie-of-the-week formula into something genuinely heartwarming. You’ll find yourself cheering for Rudy before the whole thing’s over.
The tragic life of Steve Prefontaine, a runner who represented America in the 1972 Olympic Games — which featured the Munich Massacre — and died in a car accident a year ahead of a planned 1976 Olympics appearance is brought to life by a cast including Jared Leto, Modern Family’s Ed O’Neill and Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey. Prefontaine is the fiction feature film debut of director Steve James, better known as the director and producer of Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams.
THE PERFECT GAME (2009)
More Little League drama, this movie (from the director of Harry and the Hendersons) revisits the real-life events surrounding the 1957 Little League World Series, which just so happened to be the first time the series was won by a non-American team (Industriales de Monterrey, a team from Mexico, if you were curious). While there’s no Walter Matthau to undercut the feel-good factor of this particular kid-underdogs-seize-the-day movie, it’s hard to feel too cynical about a movie where it’s impoverished moppets triumphing over racism and bigotry in addition to the traditional odds being stacked against them. Plus, there’s always Louis Gossett Jr. chewing scenery as “Cool Papa Bell.”
If you worried that Slap Shot had given ice hockey a bad name, then Goon might make you feel a lot better — or, perhaps, a lot worse. Sure, it’s just as violent as the earlier movie (if not moreso), but there’s a lot of heart behind the thuggishness, thanks to Sean William Scott’s performance as Doug, the dim-but-well-meaning enforcer of the Halifax Highlanders. Again, based on a true story — you can see the real Doug in action during the closing credits of the movie — this is the closest thing to a hockey version of Rocky that you’ll find, and that’s meant in the best way possible.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2006-2011)
If you’ve not already watched this love letter to high school football and the culture surrounding it, then drop everything and get started. Sure, the show can also be very soapy at times — and the less said about the aborted second season, the better — but no matter your feelings about football before you start watching, you’ll be a fan before you’ve finished the first season… and by the end of the series, you’ll find yourself wondering whether or not a move to Texas and a new career as a coach would be entirely out of the question. After all, all it apparently takes is clear eyes and a full heart. You can’t lose.