We’ve covered both the best baseball movies ever (which I felt more than comfortable enough ranking out), and the best football movies ever (which I felt much more iffy about on the whole). So naturally the next sport to get the movie blog treatment has to be lacrosse.
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Basketball. The sport has been around for longer than football, but for whatever reason, there just aren’t anywhere near as many films centered around the sport as there are for football or, especially, baseball. In fact, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find many films at all in the genre that date back further than 1980’s The Great Santini. (Unless you really want to stretch it in order to count Randle P. McMurphy teaching Chief Bromden how to pass in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)
With that in mind, I decided to just whittle it down to the top 5 basketball movies ever, one for each player a team can have on the court. And bear in mind of course that by “ever,” I basically just mean from the last three or four decades.
- Teen Wolf (1985)
The oldest movie on the list and in almost every conceivable way the most awkward, but how can you resist the pull of Michael J. Fox (then reaching the heights of his star power in tandem with his Emmy-winning work in Family Ties and his blockbuster idol might in Back to the Future)? Of course the sight of his grizzly, furry self in those incongruously sheer basketball shorts and that headband is memorable in and of itself, but the movie is even more amusing as a metaphor for adolescence in general. As Peter Brady once sung, “Time to change!” (The guilty pleasure MTV series it spawned only sweetens the pot.)
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- Hoosiers (1986)
When Dennis Hopper was nominated for best supporting actor in 1986, even he was taken aback. “Hoosiers? They gave it to me for Hoosiers?” You see, he had another little movie that came out that year: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which Hopper gave the sort of performance that comes along only once in a career, if that. OK, sure. Hopper’s Frank Booth is a force of nature and, in a just world, would’ve been the performance that got the nod (an actor can’t be nominated twice in the same category, according to Oscar rules). But we think Hopper was perhaps undervaluing the feel good credentials of Hoosiers a bit. Off the amyl nitrate, maybe it’s easier to appreciate it’s slightly retrograde charm.
- Space Jam (1996)
Those who didn’t grow up with it can howl about its “corporate synergy” until they’re blue in the face. The rest of the world is perfectly find with the awesomeness of Michael Jordan’s shotgun marriage to the cast of Looney Tunes, Roger Rabbit-style. A relic of the ’90s in the best possible sense, Space Jam is the loose, free-wheeling, zippy live-action throwback to Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck’s heyday that even Joe Dante’s later Looney Tunes: Back in Action couldn’t match, at least among basketball fans, who got not only Jordan, but also Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Shawn Bradley.
- He Got Game (1998)
Basketball and basketball culture lurks at the fringes of a lot of Spike Lee’s films. (Remember Do the Right Thing‘s Buggin’ Out, well, bug out when John Savage’s bicycle scuffs up his brand new, gleaming white Air Jordans?) But there’s no question which of his oeuvre belongs in this lineup. With a powerful soundtrack by Public Enemy and searing performances by Denzel Washington, John Turturro, and professional basketballer Ray Allen playing Denzel’s son, who is being pressured from all sides to make a choice about his sporting future. At 136 minutes, there are, of course, some of Lee’s trademark digressions and loose plot threads. But rarely are Lee’s movies not vivid, and this is certainly no exception.
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- Hoop Dreams (1994)
Few Oscar snubs have been the subject of such widespread derision as the documentary committee’s refusal to grant Hoop Dreams a nomination for best documentary feature. Its failure to make the slate ended up being the straw the broke the camel’s back, actually, for the heavily criticized AMPAS branch. Normally in the ’90s, campaign controversies were stoked almost exclusively by Harvey Weinstein. This outrage was in comparison an almost entirely organic phenomenon. Why? Probably because the story of inner city students William Gates and Arthur Agee and their recruitment to play basketball in deep suburban Chicago was an amazing piece of filmmaking and, given its humanistic, heartrending, absolutely compelling narrative chops, also should have been right in Oscar’s comfort zone. The good news is that the snub led infinitely more people to take notice. Quite simply, no other basketball movie is operating at the same level.