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The five best Olympics movies of all time

From Oscar winners to documentaries to inspiring

The iconic scene from Chariots of Fire. Photo credit: 1981 Warner Bros.

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As the 2018 Winter Olympics play out in Pyeongchang, expect NBC to introduce us to dozens of athletes via well-crafted background packages that often play like mini-movies.

Of course, the most memorable stories will emerge organically from the games. And those are the stories that often inspire full-length movies. In order of preference, here's my top five Olympics movies and a handful of honorable mentions.

5. Chariots of Fire (1981)

It became one of the most memorable scenes in motion picture history: that glorious, time-capsule, slow-motion sequence of joyous British runners, circa 1924, racing along the beach to the sound of Vangelis.

It also became one of the most parodied movie moments ever, but even that is a compliment to the lasting impact of the scene.

Chariots of Fire took us by surprise in 1981. Few of us knew the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a devout Christian who gave all credit for his success to the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jew who overcame anti-Semitism both subtle and overt in his quest for Olympic glory.     

The film won Oscars for best picture, best screenplay, best costume design and yes, best score.

4. 9.79 (2012)     

The title of Daniel Gordon's 30 for 30 documentary refers to Canadian Ben Johnson's almost unbelievable world-record time in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Turns out it WAS unbelievable. Or at least unattainable without an illegal boost. Three days after the Olympics, Johnson was stripped of his medal after testing positive for steroids, and the gold was awarded to the American Carl Lewis.

But that doesn't necessarily make Johnson the evil, cheating villain and Lewis the lovable hero. Gordon conducted extensive interviews with Lewis and Johnson and shows us two talented, competitive, complicated, flawed, very human individuals.

3. Miracle (2004)

To this day, the all-amateur, U.S. men's hockey team's upset of the vaunted professionals from the Soviet Union in 1980 just might be the most stunning upset in Olympics history. With a perfectly cast Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks and a group of little-known actors playing the then-unknown players, an unapologetically heart-tugging screenplay from Eric Guggenheim and Mike Rich, and sure-handed direction from Gavin O'Connor, Miracle follows the underdog-sports movie blueprint with little deviation - and that's why it's so dang enjoyable.

When real life has given you all the ingredients for a classic sports film, why mess with the recipe?

2. Foxcatcher (2014)

A brilliant film about an American tragedy.

The meticulous and greatly talented Bennett Miller specializes in fictional films that bend and shape the facts, but still carry essential truths, e.g., Capote and Moneyball. He does it again with Foxcatcher, which tells the story of the eccentric and ultimately criminally paranoid John E. du Pont (played by the uncanny Steve Carell), his obsession with wrestling and his recruitment of the Olympic gold medal wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Although much of Foxcatcher takes place at the training facility on du Pont's property and not the Olympics per se, there are some sobering insights about the quest for Olympic glory - and the reality that for athletes in non-glamour sports such as wrestling, winning the gold meant almost nothing once the games were over.

1. Munich (2005)

True, this is not a sports movie, but for better or worse, from the triumph of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Games to discrimination against athletes of various ethnicities and faiths, the Olympics have always been about much more than the pure competition. Steven Spielberg's searing historical epic starts with the unspeakable tragedy at the 1972 Summer Olympics, when a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli Olympic team members and a German police officer.

Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Omar Metwally, Geoffrey Rush and Mathieu Kassovitz, Munich is one of Spielberg's most controversial films.

Munich might not be the movie you want to watch to gear up for what we hope will be a glorious Olympics that's all about the athletes and the spirit of competition.

Honorable mentions: I, Tonya; Cool Runnings; One Day in September; Personal Best; and Downhill Racer

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