1. Major League (1989): One of the problems with serious sports films is that they focus only on the ugly, cynical side of sports. They may or may not have that one moment of triumph at the end, but they skip all the other things that make us love sports. Major League is a comedy and it chooses instead to focus on all of that. And the end result is the definitive baseball movie. Seriously. This comedy has it all: the whacky hijinx that surround sports teams, the good and bad characters, the tropes we really believe, the ugly underbelly that we sometimes read about as well as the childlike joy of playing sports, bad owners, crazy fans, fair weather fans, loyal fans, the start of brilliant careers, the end of other careers, and all the amazing lows and the unbelievable highs that only sports can bring. It's all here.
2. The Longest Yard (1974): That this ranks as a sports film really shows you how poorly Hollywood does sports. This is really a prison movie with a sports subplot. That said, it's a hell of a film. This film takes all the tension and drama of a prison movie and lets that tension be released in a brutal football game between the guards and the convicts, with Burt Reynolds as their quarterback. Solid fun here.
3. The Bad News Bears (1976): This is a fascinating film. This is a "losers do well film," which has become the standard format for sports films, but this is the first film I can recall doing that. What really makes this film work for me though, is the sense of nostalgia it brings for the 1970s. This was an era where people weren't rule bound or litigious, didn't obsess about safety and self-esteem, and weren't afraid to let their kids be kids. And while the Bears are a multi-ethnic team to make a point and their star is a girl, this film was not making a politically correct point... it was making comedic points. That's so refreshing in our demographically-regulated world.
4. All The Right Moves (1983): This is a depressing film, but it's compelling. It's the first film that really made me realize that Tom Cruise can act. It also felt very real to me in terms of the high school football experience.
5. Rocky (1976): This is one of the best sports films around, even though I don't like boxing. Rocky's character and his struggle to prove himself is truly inspiring and there is just enough of a glimpse into the boxing world (without smothering us) that it feels like you are getting some insight from the film too.
6. Friday Night Lights (2004): This is the definitive high school football "exposé film." This film is highly derivative, but it derived well. I can't say I love this one, but I do find that I watch it periodically and I enjoy it.
7. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004): First of all, I love dodgeball... damn you sick f***s who got it banned from schools. What I love about this film though is both that it's so ridiculous, yet it perfectly parodies other sports films, and Rip Torn, who delivers some of the best lines of all time.
8. Real Steel (2011): Yeah, how sad that a movie about fake robot boxing makes the list... what does this say about other sports film? Anyway, this is a highly manipulative film that really lands every blow it attempts. What makes this film work ultimately is the touching father-son story, where the roles are reversed and the son is the more responsible one. It's hard not to cheer during this film.
9. Slapshot (1977): Yeah, I like this one. This is a dark comedy that's a lot more dark than comedy, but it's satisfying. The story involves a failing minor league hockey team captained by Paul Newman who decides to inject a little chaos into things when he realizes the team is falling apart. It's an interesting film with some compelling characters and moments.
Others I Like: There are other sports films I like, but not enough to really recommend. Days of Thunder was a decent movie, but forgettable. Bull Durham was good, but feels overshadowed to me by Major League. I do love Field of Dreams and The Blind Side, but neither really includes any sports. Here's one I like though, Heaven Can Wait, a 1970s comedy that is well worth the time... and has a great theme song. I also sort of recommend North Dallas Forty as a fascinating, but unsatisfying film -- it needed more. I despise Any Given Sunday, however, as nothing more than a glitzy rip off of North Dallas Forty, with nothing new to say.