We come to sports for endings. Life so rarely gives us winners and losers, much less a firm beginning and an end that we can either revel in or brood over.
That said, sports movies, like so many games, rarely end well. They’re given to improbable physical acts and overlong montages. Those that finish with the same satisfaction of the best sporting events deserve their props. Thus our Top 10:
10. Rocky IV
In its final minutes, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky has not only bested Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, perhaps the Cold War’s greatest, blondest champion, but he’s also won over the crowd in Moscow and even avenged Apollo Creed. When Drago stumbled, the aura of Eastern Bloc invincibility went with him. Yes, we’re saying Rocky IV may have ended Communism. Deal with it.
For all the initial comedy surrounding Dennis Christopher’s bicycle-mad David Stoller at the movie’s start, Breaking Away is fundamentally about that uncertain time after boyhood when things seem full of wild possibilities without a clear idea of how to make those possibilities happen. Before the “Little 500” bike race, Stoller has tried to pass as an Italian, but he wins the race with his friends, as himself. When we last see him, he’s won over the heart of a french exchange student who has fallen for the thin but worldly townie from Bloomington, Indiana, a young man aware of both where he came from and what he could be.
Until we saw Bring It On, we thought competitive cheerleading was silly. OK, stupid. Yet, as with all sports movies — and all sports — Bring It On is about striving toward an achievement no one else can lay claim to. For Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst), it’s about proving that she and her lily-white suburban team can do great without the benefit of malfeasance. Isis (Gabrielle Union) wants to show what she and her less privileged team can accomplish on a national stage. In the big finale, Torrance’s team finishes second, but happily and with honor. Isis’ team, on the other hand, perform spectacularly and deservedly win. Torrance ends up with the brooding dude who likes The Clash. All is right with the world.
It ends in a bar. But it starts with struggling attorney and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) becoming the “guardian” of an elderly, confused client, and making a questionable call. For a moment he does win — both with the financial rewards from being a guardian and with his client’s grandson Kyle, whose wrestling prowess could take his team and Flaherty himself to unimagined heights. Of course everything can’t work out, even if his initial act of deception was small and for the right reasons. Kyle, faced with the presence of his birth mother, intentionally blows his chance to advance to the state championships. To save Kyle, and really himself, Flaherty must forfeit the money to Kyle’s mom that’s been keeping his family going. In Win’s
last scene, we see him in his second job as a bartender. Asked how he’s doing while pouring a drink, he says, “Pretty good” — not exactly a win, but not bad.
We could see the ending coming from the moment Keira Knightley’s Jules first tells Parminder Nagra’s Jess about the opportunities for women footballers in America. As much as soccer, Bend It is about two women trying to transcend culturally separate but equally rigid environs in England. They find that new life with college scholarships in America. But the movie’s closing montage, featuring neither girl but both their families, is telling and true to the movie’s thematic underpinnings. It serves to remind us of how our actions, our dreams, affect those around us. In its final scene, we not just their once-coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), playing cricket with Jess’s father, but a world wholly broken open … for everyone.
The best movie ever made about professional football finishes as it should. Phillip Elliott (Nick Nolte) struggles with a game he equally loves and hates, one that’s destroyed his body and spirit. The team used Phil’s hopes of starting in order to prod another player to take painkillers in order to play. In the movie’s climactic game, he caught what seemed the game-tying touchdown, then watched his kicker miss the extra point. Like everything in his professional life, others have determined his fate. The team’s determined to excise him from its ranks with a trumped-up drug charge. Facing suspension, he quits instead. Walking out, Elliott sees his quarterback, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis) — his best friend, and the o
ne who ultimately betrayed him. When Maxwell tries to throw him a football out of conciliation, Elliott lets it bounce against his chest, his arms splayed out. That life is over. Now for the next.
Acquitted in court but banned from the Major Leagues, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney) and his peers would live out their lives as “The Black Sox,” the men who sold their souls to throw the 1919 World Series. But here, some years after the scandal, is Jackson, playing beneath an assumed name on a field in New Jersey, while his once-teammate Buck Weaver (John Cusack) looks on. For just one moment Weaver and the audience sees Jackson as he once was: physically brilliant. Fearless. Iconic.
Football is far from their lives in the end. Gavin (Dennis Quaid) is no longer the Grey Ghost. Babs (Jessica Lange) is no longer the Magnolia Queen. They’ve ascended and descended. He’s struggled with his life after the game, while she’s thrived as the family breadwinner. But in the Ghost’s tearful, beautiful banquet speech at the movie’s end, Babs comes and stands with him as they once did when they were campus icons. They are not, as they have been for years, two people on different trajectories held together merely by marriage vows. Perhaps for the first and last time in their lives, they are finally together.
Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige) had seen her beau — the talented Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) — drive himself to extraordinary lengths, including emotional seclusion, to win gold at the 1924 Summer Olympics. Thus it’s fitting that well after his teammates have left, she waits for him as he finally, at long last, emerges from the train. There is, for the first time in the film, a peace about him. She feels it. We feel it. It’s subtle and telling and is a worthy ending to a terrific film about young men devoting their lives to a cause.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) had failed and won. His Oakland A’s had failed to take the pennant, but his team’s success had made others think differently about how the game could be played, perhaps forever. In turn, he’d been offered the chance to run the Red Sox with limitless resources–something he never had in Oakland.
In the movie’s wonderful last scene, we see Beane driving without reason, listening to his daughter sing a song she recorded for him. The camera falls in and out of focus. It moves from his face to the bucolic environs. Suddenly we’re close to his eyes, themselves welling up before the scene fades to black. In the end, Beane’s still a man looking, trying to make his work, his life, mean something. Moneyball‘s ending doesn’t break away from the same traits that made the movie great. We feel like we’ll always be with Beane in that car, on those roads, seeking out an end that will truly make us happy.