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The Greatest Sports Movies

Sports IllustratedEver since part-time boxer Elmo Lincoln became the screen's first Tarzan, in 1918, the movies have been linked with sports, reaching the heights of Olympia and the depths of Space Jam. But which are the best? Our process was democratic and unscientific. We solicited nominations from our staff, then lateraled them back and forth in meetings, in e-mails and around the Goobers dispenser until reaching consensus -- which, naturally, provoked more debate.

Our top 10 selections are revealed below. To see which flicks round out the rest of the Top 50, pick up a copy of the Aug. 4, 2003, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated's Greatest Sports Movies
1. Bull Durham (1988)
The Baseball Hall of Fame might not want Tim Robbins and Sarandon (or their liberal politics) on display at Cooperstown, but as wild-armed pitcher Nuke LaLoosh and a philosophizing Baseball Annie named Annie, they are assured of celluloid immortality. Some of the best-remembered scenes (particularly the candlesticks-make-a-nice-gift mound conference) strain credulity, but writer-director (and former minor leaguer) Ron Shelton has superb storytelling chops. Best of all, Costner, as crafty catcher Crash Davis, is a team player, having not yet maxed out on the self-importance scale.
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  • 2. Rocky (1976)
    In America's bicentennial year Rocky Balboa became the first of the post-Vietnam War heroes, a frenzied expression of old-fashioned individualism. A slow-on-the-uptake palooka who gets a chance to survive a fight with the heavyweight champ (Apollo Creed, played with panache by Weathers), Balboa has a Philadelphia story with heart and purity and just enough cruelty for resonance. Stallone informed his loser with a colossal goofiness that was impossible not to watch. He was so convincingly sincere that audiences actually jumped
    up and screamed for him to win.

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  • 3. Raging Bull (1980)
    A fight film like no other, it charges at you headfirst,
    the way its savage protagonist did in the ring. Adapted from Jake La Motta's candid confessions and filmed in garish black-and-white, Raging Bull is a sort of anti-Rocky. Director Martin Scorsese presents La Motta's bouts as masterly edited one-act miniatures and goes toe-to-toe with fight-film clichés: He neither romanticizes La Motta nor "explains" the anger that drives the champ inside and outside the ring. De Niro's unsparing portrait of this opaque, repellent villain is poignant in its precision -- even his silences are smoldering.

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  • 4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
    It's almost three hours long but director Steve James's saga of Chicago basketball stars William Gates and Arthur Agee is worth every minute. An air of dread hangs over this cautionary tale, as its protagonists confront the inevitable disappointments of hoops after high school.
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    5. Slap Shot (1977)
    Newman's hockey coach, Reggie Dunlop, revives a deadbeat minor league team by recruiting the hard-checking, high-sticking Hanson brothers. Eyes obscured by taped-up glasses, fists swathed in tinfoil, these geeky goons revel in dirty play. So does the audience.
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  • 6. Hoosiers (1986)
    Jack Nicholson was first choice to play coach Norman Dale, but he declined. Just as well: It's hard to imagine anyone other than Hackman goading his eight-man Hickory High team. So what if Indiana hoops history was slightly rewritten for this uplifting upset?
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  • 7. Olympia (1936)
    Intended as Nazi propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl's film is also a lyrical account of the Berlin Olympics. Critic Pauline Kael called it an elegy on youth, "dedicated to the highest ideals of sportsmanship -- these young men who were so soon to kill each other."
    8. Breaking Away (1979)
    This boy-meets-bike classic kickstands the test of time. Dooley is hilarious as a refundphobic used-car salesman, but this is above all a career movie for Christopher, who croons arias and pedals to an exciting finish against snooty college boys in the Little 500.
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    9. Chariots of Fire (1981)
    It's amazing that a movie about Caucasian sprinters, some of whom look slow even for the 1924 Olympics, won the Academy Award for best picture in the go-go '80s. But there's so much heart at the finish line that we accept the lack of soul on the blocks.
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  • 10. When We Were Kings (1996)
    This long-delayed account of the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman is nearly as enthralling as the bout. The footage is a heartbreaking record of Ali as a cultural force. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton provide sharp commentary.
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    Issue date: August 4, 2003

    Photographs courtesy of Photofest

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