Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 26, 2012
This week millions of viewers will tune in to watch the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London so I thought it would be a good time to discuss sports movies here at the Movie Morlocks. To be frank, I’m not a big sports fan. I don’t watch or follow any sport but I can still appreciate a good sports film.
One of my favorite sports movies is LE MANS (1971) starring Steve McQueen as a professional race car driver taking part in the 24 Hours Le Mans race in France. The film beautifully captures the intense focus and determination that these skilled drivers must devote to the track. In LE MANS racing is an endurance test and a commitment to excellence where one mechanical malfunction or wrong turn can cost a driver their life. Another sports film that I’m extremely fond of is DOWNHILL RACER (1969) starring Robert Redford as an ambitious member of the U.S. ski team competing for Olympic gold. Both LE MANS and DOWNHILL RACER contain strong performances from their male leads and spectacular cinematography that literally transports you into the mind of an athlete. They also offer viewers an intimate and provocative look at how competitive sports can challenge individuals and strain personal as well as professional relationships.
To get further insight into the appeal of sports films and more viewing recommendations for Movie Morlock readers I decided to contact some fellow writers and ask them to share a few of their favorite sports movies. Their opinions are diverse, thoughtful, occasionally challenging and make for an interesting read.
SCOTT JORDAN HARRIS
(Film critic, sportswriter and Roger Ebert’s UK correspondent. Editor of the books World Film Locations: New York and World Film Locations: New Orleans. His work can be found at The Telegraph and you can follow him on Twitter @ScottFilmCritic)
“As I am English and this is London’s Olympic year, the film I have to mention here is CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981). It demonstrates the perfect way to build an inspirational sports movie out of real-life events: dozens of small facts are changed or omitted but the most important truths are retained and amplified. No film ever made being British quite so exciting, and my biggest hope for the 2012 Games is that members of Team GB achieve something so extraordinary they inspire a sequel.
WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996) is the sports film I have watched most often. It’s not the best sports documentary – that, surely, is HOOP DREAMS (1994) – but it is among the greats, as befits a film chronicling the legendary heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The cast is incredible. Besides Ali and Foreman, there is Don King, James Brown and President Mobutu. And besides them there are the talking heads, including George Plimpton, Norman Mailer and Spike Lee, whose insights are as fascinating as the fight footage.
It’s easy to make a good documentary about Ali: he is such an interesting subject, with such a captivating personality, that so long as a film contains footage of him it will be interesting too. But it is difficult to make a great documentary about Ali, because that requires a film to teach us something new and significant about the most studied and celebrated athlete of the 20th Century. Miraculously, WHEN WE WERE KINGS does this throughout. The only aspect of The Rumble in the Jungle it didn’t illuminate for me was what Ali said to Foreman in the moments before the fight. (In the film, he can be seen speaking but his words aren’t clear.) In the most enjoyable piece of research I’ve ever conducted, I asked Foreman to tell me. The answer: “George, you were just a kid in school when I fought Liston. You can’t beat me.”
Like sports films, professional wrestling presents sport that follows a script, so it’s fitting that one of my favorite sports films is about it. So often in movies we are shown a believable loser and then suddenly shown his unbelievable redemption. In THE WRESTLER (2008), we just watch a self-destructive has-been being a self-destructive has-been. And the result is astounding. That Mickey Rourke didn’t win an Academy Award for his role as Randy “The Ram” Robinson still upsets me. No performance of its decade deserved an Oscar more.
Finally, I always like to point out that perhaps the first film ever made – Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 short SALLIE GARDNER AT A GALLOP – was a sort of sports movie. Shot to prove that horses lift all four legs off the ground at top speed, it only lasts three seconds and only shows a racehorse running, but I like to think there was something in the glorious motion of that handsome animal that first suggested to filmmakers how scintillating sports films could be.”
(Has written for Indiewire’s Press Play blog, Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door blog and Nomad Editions Wide Screen. You can read more of his work at Cinema Viewfinder)
“It sends chills down my spine. When it comes to sports flicks, it usually comes down to that one moment when the underdogs somehow manage to turn it around and win big. Whether it’s Rocky’s ambiguous moral victory against Apollo Creed or Hickory’s clear last-second win of the 1952 Indiana State Championship in HOOSIERS (1986), the movie moment most of us remember is that final, big win against overwhelming odds. And for me, no film pulls that off better than Barry Levinson’s THE NATURAL (1984). This fable focuses on Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a gifted player sidetracked from a promising career after a disturbed fan shot him. He returns – older, but not necessarily wiser – to play with the struggling New York Knights. Over two hours, Levinson slowly, diligently lays the foundation for what will be one of the most pregnant moments in cinema, the seconds before Hobbs gets one final chance to win the pennant for Knights coach Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).
Levinson stacks this moment with incredulities. Hobbs’ old wound bleeds through his jersey, his stomach threatening to explode under the strain of his powerful swing. The Judge (Robert Prosky), the Knights’ corrupt co-owner, has bribed Hobbs into throwing the game, cheating the cantankerous Fisher out of his chance to buy the Judge out. Hobbs’ childhood sweetheart (Glenn Close) has just informed him he’s the father of her son, and the young man is in the stands watching the game. As if that weren’t enough, the bases are loaded at the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and Hobbs has only one more shot before he is called out. The sound of the cheering fans spikes before it fades to silence. A shot of the ball heading right towards the frame is followed by the crack from Hobbs’ bat, and the ball soars into the stadium lights. They explode, sending a shower of sparks down on the now darkened stadium as Hobbs rounds the bases. Yes, it’s a cornball climax that runs counter to the cynical ending of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel but, as jaded as I’ve become when it comes to movies, THE NATURAL’s cathartic finale still makes me tingle.”
(Has written for Film.com, The Spectator Arts Blog, MTV’s Next Movie, Cinematical and CHUD. She’s also contributed to World Film Locations: New York and New Orleans. You can keep track of her on Twitter @ElisabethRappe)
“I went through a bizarre jock phase in the last gasp of my teens. I abandoned film – well, almost – in favor of watching, playing, and obsessing about ice hockey. During that brief and violent time, I discovered SLAPSHOT (1977). It remains my favorite sports movie to this day, in part because it reminds me of nervously lacing my skates in dim and icy locker rooms, but also because it’s one of those deliciously grubby slices of ’70s cinema. It’s foul-mouthed, gloriously adult, a bit weird, and endlessly quotable. It has the sour vibe of a low rent locker room, and yet it’s bursting with a love of hockey and team camaraderie that’s genuine. (I don’t know if the film and its characters even want to admit that, but it’s true.) It seems impossible that a film this off-beat and niche stars Paul Newman, but it does, and that only makes it absolute perfection.
While I’m tempted to put MIRACLE (2004) in the number two spot, I just don’t think I’ve watched it enough to truly sell it as a favorite. So, I have to give that coveted slot to a recent gem, WHIP IT! (2009). It’s a bit twee in its mix tape motif, and I don’t have a lot of patience for its romantic interlude, but I’m a sucker for girls who encounter a hard-hitting, beer-soaked culture and fall instantly in love. That girl was me once, and so I find myself re-watching this one more than I should, and psyching myself up to play roller derby as Dirty Harriet. The truly great sports movies transcend athletics altogether – but it’s a darn good one that gets your blood going, and insists you ought to go out there and play, even if it’s at the smallest scale possible.”
“It is actually rather hard to set a specific role for sports in film. Is the sport itself the star of the movie? Is it simply a vehicle to get a shady collector for the mob, to boxing notoriety? Sports in film have always had presence ranging from the fringe suggestions as in THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), how the cooler king (Steve McQueen) was able to pass countless days with a glove, a baseball, and a wall to bounce it off of, or as in the buddy film THE VAN (1996), where two pals manage to laugh and fight their way around Ireland, while in the background Ireland itself is enjoying an incredible run at the 1990 World Cup. In 1975’s ROLLERBALL we learned that one man can be larger than the sport he plays when the sport itself is perverted to unbelievable ends by global corporations in an attempt to prevent it from happening. In a sports film one could use a game in nearly any way they wish to further sell an idea.
The list of movies that feature sports or a single sporting event are too many to even begin a count on. To put it bluntly; if it’s a sport, there’s been a film about it. Unfortunately with sports and thereby sports films, my own interests change with the seasons. During Hockey season, SLAP SHOT, would be high up on the top sports films totem, while in spring CADDYSHACK would compete. It’s currently summer so baseball it is. There have been some incredible baseball films over the years and two will always stand out as iconic examples for me.
1988’s BULL DURHAM gave cinema goers a look inside the locker room of an AAA ball club, the Durham Bulls, and the relationships formed, forced, and fought over during one season in the minor leagues. Kevin Costner has done several baseball films, most notably FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) and FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (1999), and each with their own charms, but his role as Crash Davis in BULL DURHAM had some real depth to it and was fueled by Costner’s true athletic abilities. An aging catcher brought in to the team to simply teach a young soon to be star what the game and life therein is really all about. There are outbursts, voodoo, sex, laughs, baseball and even a glimpse into what all those guys really talk about mid game on the pitcher’s mound. It’s a fantastic baseball movie and well worth a re-visit, especially during these lazy summer days.
My other great not to be missed classic is from 1976; THE BAD NEWS BEARS. Walter Matthau stars as a burnt out pitcher turned cigar smoking, alcoholic pool cleaner, tasked with coaching a little league baseball team full of misfits. The film itself shatters the image of organized sports for kids, and hosts myriad borderline horrific behavior from the kids as the film goes along. It has foul language, chain smoking, lechery, racism, sexism, kids with beers, elitism, violence, and is still hilarious to the day. There are other meaningful lessons hidden in the film but why spoil the fun? … Did I mention kids with beers?”
(Dennis continues to try to find time to write his P.U.-litzer Prize-winning blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. He has also written about the 2010 and 2011 editions of the TCM Classic Film Festival (His 2012 adventures at the festival are Coming Soon to a Computer Near You!) and is a proud member of that not-so-secret organization known as the Horror Dads.)
“Sports movies tend to be too formulaic—not much else matters other than the build-up to the big, redemptive win—or too sloppily sentimental for my taste. And assaults on tear ducts are especially prevalent in baseball movies. Many who ought to know better seem convinced that because phony, manipulative movies like THE NATURAL or FIELD OF DREAMS get them all choked up, well, then they must be great movies. But the baseball movies I love appeal to my curiosity about what the game says, good and bad, about us as people, about our perspectives on the nature of character and heroism as defined within the diamond, and of course the ramifications of baseball—and American– history.
Ron Shelton has written and directed many terrific movies, including BULL DURHAM. But his crowning achievement is COBB (1994), an unsparing, difficult dissection of the psychology of baseball’s most repellent Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb (embodied with anger and deep wells of self-righteous bombast by Tommy Lee Jones). The movie is a gift to fans who like portrait of troubled historical figures straight up– Jones’ magnetic performance hurtles full speed away from the usual concerns about whether an audience can bear to be in the company of such an unrepentant bastard for two hours, yet it holds us anyway, and the actor slides into home plate cleats up. Shelton uses Cobb’s story as a portal to probe the nature of the relationship between athletes and their followers and what true heroism in baseball means when the ones who play best might also be the biggest sons of bitches of all.
COBB was released in 1994, the year of the baseball strike that canceled the World Series for the first time in the game’s history, and just four years before the advent of the Steroid Era. And so was Ken Burns’ epic, flawed, yet utterly compelling and definitive documentary BASEBALL, to which Shelton’s movie serves as a bitter, essential companion. Burns’ film, segmented into nine chapters (or innings), has since been augmented to include the specious and spectacular events in the game’s history since it was first aired on PBS, and I’d love to think that the director will continue adding extra innings to it. What other sport has been so thrillingly, maddeningly documented? This is the movie that yanked me from the status of casual observer and placed me squarely on the base path of lifelong fandom.
Finally, I don’t think there’s a better, more deserving candidate to wear the mantle of Best Baseball Movie Ever than Michael Ritchie’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976). Shelton’s overwhelming concerns are directly descended from Ritchie, who made competition—in sports, politics, even beauty pageants—his great American subject throughout the ‘70s. In the Little League Bears and their besotted, worn-out coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) Ritchie finds the perfect representation of American pluckiness, cynicism, dirty play, and yes, even redemption. But that redemption arrives in unexpected fashion, after this raucous, graceful, unforgiving movie has demonstrated how creeping national distrust in our most favored institutions are projected by adults and then reflected back in the faces of these pint-sized ballplayers, who only want to play the game. Turns out baseball is a microcosm of American life, and these three movies honor their subject with the passion and honesty it truly deserves.”
ROWENA SANTOS AQUINO
“Despite their surprisingly small number against the expansive context of film history, films that address football (Editors note: often referred to as Association Football or soccer by American fans) have done so in rather startling ways; so much so that they challenge what a “sports film” can mean—or put another way, make more dynamic what a sports film and representations of sporting bodies can be. What may be more surprising is the diversity of locales in which these films take place, in dialogue with the transnationality of the game.
From Hong Kong: Comic actor/filmmaker extraordinaire Stephen Chow’s kung fu-meets-football SHAOLIN SOCCER (2001) is absolute riotous fun in the way it merges these two systems of movement, defying the laws of football and gravity in the process, to present the tale of the underdog via a group of former kung fu masters applying their skills to the beautiful game.
From Mexico: RUDO Y CURSI (2008; Alfonso Cuarón) is a hilarious, scathing satire-fable of different tiers of national culture and society (media, fame, narco) through the lens of football and football fandom, with two of Mexico’s most popular transnational stars, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, reveling in a comic turn as football-playing brothers who become famed rivals.
From France: In 2006, legendary French Algerian footballer Zinédine Zidane retired and Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon premiered their experimental documentary ZIDANE, A 21ST CENTURY PORTRAIT, a really stunning tribute to the man that inquisitively and sensually follows Zidane in an actual match in real time and simultaneously deconstructs and mythifies him, accompanied by a stunning sound design.
From Iran: In THE TRAVELER (1974) and LIFE AND NOTHING MORE (1992), Abbas Kiarostami explores different aspects of life and football’s subtle role in them: in the former, he tells the tale of a boy’s dream of watching his favourite football team—and the shenanigans he concocts to fulfill it, with ironic consequences—and in the latter, he journeys to post-earthquake northern Iran in 1990 and discovers among the inhabitants that even in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and mourning, life somehow goes on, which includes keeping up with the World Cup, which occurred in the same year.”
“In her absolutely scathing review of Sydney Pollack’s BOBBY DEERFIELD (1977) legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote that if the film’s star Al Pacino had sent his agent to “search the world for the role that would call attention to all his weaknesses”, they, “could not have come up with an unholier grail” than this race-car driving themed film that broke Pacino’s astonishing winning streak of the seventies. It was a bitter failure for Pollack and Pacino as they had put their heart and soul into the film, centered on a lonely American driver who falls in love with a Swiss woman stricken with cancer. Pacino would later admit that he felt as close to the role as any he had ever played but BOBBY DEERFIELD remains the most maligned film of his greatest period.
Adapted from the 1961 novel Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque, BOBBY DEERFIELD viewed more than three decades after its initial release plays as a cinematic enigma. Part existential art-film, part love-story and part race-car spectacle, BOBBY DEERFIELD is one hell of a hard film to pin down. Guided by one of Dave Grusin’s most melancholic scores, Pollack’s sensitive direction and Pacino’s haunting shell-shocked performance, BOBBY DEERFIELD is a strange picturesque travelogue into a man’s self-absorption and doubt. It stands in stark contrast to the inspiring (ROCKY) and funny (SLAP SHOT) sports films audiences were flocking to in the late seventies and, in hindsight, it’s easy to see why it failed, even though its pleasures ultimately far outweigh the faults Kael and other critics spotted.
Despite the authentic racing footage filmed throughout the 1976 Formula One Season BOBBY DEERFIELD stands as one of the loneliest ‘sports films’ ever made. This isn’t a film with a triumphant second act that will have audience members cheering, this is instead a work where the playing field has become a prison and the only victory is a chilling final moment where Deerfield realizes that the only person he can truly let inside his fractured shell is someone guaranteed to slip away.
For those willing to overlook its faults, like its lethargic pace and its miscast romantic interest Marthe Keller (one can only imagine how the film would have been received had Catherine Deneuve snagged the role she petitioned for), BOBBY DEERFIELD is available on Region 1 DVD, although it is missing the audio commentary that the much-missed Sydney Pollack recorded for the earlier European disc.”
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Have a favorite sports movie that didn’t get mentioned above? Feel free to share your own viewing recommendations in the comments below!
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