The sports movies filmed in any given state reveal much about that particular region's mythologies and pastimes. Texas, for example, has hosted as many notable football productions in recent decades as Westerns, and New York's hallowed playgrounds constantly woo basketball movies.
Oregon's sports movie history, as you might expect, is less focused. Sure, these titles reflect the occasional athletic institution—like the University of Oregon's track program or the Pendleton Round-Up—but Oregon also offers the cinematic promise that any obscure game or team might find an audience where only a few pro franchises exist.
So until we get that stirring Thorns or Timbers drama or the Damian Lillard biopic of Rip City's dreams, here are the best Oregon sports films.
Criteria: A significant portion of the project must have been filmed in Oregon (sorry, The Great Race and Prefontaine). Also, sports must hook integrally into the setting or plot. (Example: Lean on Pete has great horse track scenes but simply isn't constructed as a sports movie.)
1. The Lusty Men (1952)
This morality tale set at the rodeo, directed by Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) is easily the best overall film on this list. Its script holds fast to endless cowpoke witticisms and features a brilliantly balanced triangle of love and dilemmas among a retired bronco rider (Robert Mitchum), an aspiring rodeo star (Arthur Kennedy), and a bookkeeping wife determined not to be corrupted by whiskey and trailer parks (Susan Hayward). As for the rodeo action, Ray astutely sits back in wide shot and just lets those beasts buck.
2. Personal Best (1982), Without Limits (1998)
Chinatown scribe Robert Towne directed two fascinating, underappreciated Oregon track movies in his day. While Personal Best follows female pentathletes striving for the doomed 1980 Olympics and Without Limits chronicles Steve Prefontaine's quests for 5,000-meter glory, they share a few things: an unashamed thirst for rippling quadriceps, electrifying use of University of Oregon's Hayward Field, and a penchant for complicating sports-movie formulas with runners' and coaches' unwieldy egos. Make it a double feature: Billy Crudup's striding is almost as impressive as track star Patrice Donnelly acting for the first time.
3. Calvin Marshall (2009)
Writer-director Gary Lundgren has carved out a niche for himself making Southern Oregon dramedies (most recently Phoenix, Oregon) that routinely land as charming ground-rule doubles. Lundgren's first significant feature centers on Calvin (Alex Frost), a junior college try-hard who cares more about his school's baseball team than anyone probably should. Even so, he can't quite make the squad. The transcendent element here is Steve Zahn doing his best Crash Davis.
4. Drive, He Said (1971)
Just like its fictional University of Oregon basketball star, Hector (William Tepper), Jack Nicholson's directorial debut has to decide whether to reject sports and embrace a slightly disturbed countercultural streak. But Nicholson's famed basketball fandom keeps Drive, He Said in the genre. Legendary cinematographer Bill Butler shoots the game from striking ceiling and floor angles so the athletes appear as gods one moment and puppets the next. With the Vietnam War raging, every basketball scene ponders whether on-court cooperation is a beautiful metaphor or merely a distraction. Still a burning question this very summer.
5. Kansas City Bomber (1972)
While this Raquel Welch-led roller derby slugfest doesn't offer much in terms of quality writing or acting, the atmosphere carries the day. Rooting on a bombshell skater traded from Kansas City to Stumptown, the '70s Portlanders at the Expo Center practically foam at the mouth in their giant glasses and frilly shirts. Plus, there's something genuinely aspirational about a movie trying to convince you that both roller derby and movies about roller derby are about to catch on. Never mind that; just don't miss the hangout scene at a packed Kenton Club.
Not Making the Varsity Squad:
8 Seconds (1994): Luke Perry's stunt double rides bulls.
Good Luck (1996): A semi-inspirational rafting movie marred by disability high jinks.
Quarterback Princess (1983): Young Helen Hunt airs it out for '80s TV.
Finish Line (1989): Josh and James Brolin TV track movie lost to time.
Ski School (1991): Powdery Mount Hood has aged great; predatory bro-out comedies have not.