Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Top 5 Sports Movies You Need to See (Or See Again)

It is, again, that time of year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—and, honestly, all of Hollywood—thinks they get to tell us what is worth our time and what is not. In light of that observation, I decided I would do something unusual (for me) and make a list of my own. Mind you, I do not enjoy this sort of piggybacking-on-the-hype, but every now and then, I let myself to do it. 

I have seen plenty of sports movies, and there are have real merit which don’t get enough publicity. I will not claim to have seen every worthwhile sports movie out there, but I am going to list here a few that are a) recent, and b) undoubtedly deserving of your time.

But first, a disclaimer.

Let’s be real: everyone loves Remember the Titans, MiracleThe Rookie, and Friday Night Lights (I mean the movie, though the TV show certainly has its loyal brood of fans). We love these mostly because they are stories of heroism or agony that are based in fact, even though we are aware that the producers probably took license with some of the details. As for fiction, personal tastes vary. Depending on your favorite sport, you may spend the occasional Saturday morning re-watching the Mighty Ducks trilogy, the Major League series, or even the Bring It On or Air Bud franchises (for which the “sports movie” categorization is highly questionable). In the list that follows, I will do my best to include movies that don’t fall under either the heading “I will watch that anytime” or “Oh, look what ABC Family has on at midnight! Let me grab a Coke, I can stay up.” Additionally, the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary series has been declared ineligible here because of the overarching quality of those films.

So, without further ado, the best five sports movies that you really ought to see:

Warrior (2011) 
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by O’Connor (story/screenplay), Cliff Dorfman (story/screenplay) and Anthony Tambakis (screenplay)
Notable Actors: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison

Before they appeared in The Dark Knight Rises and Zero Dark Thirty respectively, Hardy and Edgerton gave truly gritty performances in Warrior as brothers separated by circumstance who end up entering the same mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament by chance. Hardy plays a Marine gone AWOL whose training helps him stay sober, and Edgerton plays a debt-plagued teacher who sees the tournament as way to finally get his family out from under the bank’s thumb.

Warrior is popular with a lot of the under-30 crowd, but it would probably resonate with older folks as well, given how much it deals with supporting one’s family and battling inner demons. The fight scenes are as authentic as you can get in a fictional film—according to IMDB, both Hardy and Edgerton were seriously injured during production because of the brutal violence involved. I am not an MMA fan myself, but the narrative of sacrifice, triumph, dedication and family bonds is so compelling in Warrior that they could have been competitive gymnasts and I still would have watched. I genuinely felt for all of the four main characters at the end, and any film that can make a person feel that way deserves a DVD rental.

He Got Game (1998) 
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee
Notable Actors: Denzel Washington, Milla Jovovich, John Tuturro, Ray Allen

Lee may be better known for directing Washington in Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues or even Inside Man, but the pair are just as good in this basketball-centric drama about a convict who must try to convince his blue-chip prospect son to play hoops for the governor’s alma mater. The realities of the college recruiting process are shown at their extremes, and while the circumstances may seem exceptional, the message is not: He Got Game sounds like a prescient “cautionary tale” about how far people will go to ensure the profit-minded success that is fueled by collegiate athletics. Forgiveness, trust and the complicated bonds between parents, coaches, and kids are all issues highlighted in the film. Allen gives a very reasonable performance for an athlete with only a small amount of actor training, and Washington is his tried-and-true hard-shell self with a glimmer of inner compassion. The diversity of characters, as in Lee’s other movies, makes this movie engaging beyond the hoops narrative.

Undefeated (2011)
Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
*Won the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary

Mostly on the basis of one article written by reporter Jason Smith (who I mentioned in my previous post), Lindsay and Martin decided to move to Memphis for one year to document the life of O.C. Brown, a talented offensive lineman at Manassas (Tenn.) High who was struggling to improve his grades to be eligible for a college football scholarship. Though the design of their original idea had commonalities with the storyline of “The Blind Side,” Lindsay and Martin’s scope grew when they found out that Manassas had never even won a playoff game.

Despite the widespread poverty affecting the school’s surrounding neighborhoods and facilities, a dearth of athletic talent, and the incredible circumstances that befall the team before the season starts—two starting players shot, one starter arrested—volunteer coach Bill Courtney refuses to allow his team to give in to the hardships of living under duress. Lindsay and Martin take care to document every high and low of the Manassas season, including the stories of violent linebacker Chavis Daniels, fatherless lineman Montrail Brown and the talented-but-undisciplined O.C. Brown, tying them all together through the leadership demonstrated by Courtney under impossible circumstances. What follows is a tale as incredible any “Cinderella” story from the NCAA basketball tournament, except that most of these men and boys will never be recognized under the bright lights of college athletics. I have not shed tears of joy or sadness for any movie in a long time, but I did both while watching this film unfold in the theater. It is an incredible journey that makes you appreciate the perseverance of humankind and the unspoken love that teammates and coaches hold in reserve for one another when “the going gets tough.”

Finding Forrester (2000)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Mike Rich
Notable Actors: Rob Brown, Sean Connery, Anna Paquin, F. Murray Abraham

Here’s another basketball movie that is about much more than basketball. With an intricately woven plot that brings much more to the table than one would expect, Finding Forrester focuses on the relationship that develops by happenstance between reclusive author William Forrester (Connery) and high schooler Jamal Wallace (Brown). Wallace, an aspiring but undisciplined student, comes under Forrester’s tutelage after the writer catches him trying to burglarize Forrester’s apartment when dared. Wallace inadvertently leaves his backpack, and when it is dropped down to the street unceremoniously from Forrester’s apartment window, Wallace finds that Forrester has taken to editing the journals in Wallace’s backpack, critiquing the boy’s writing. What follows that strange start is a meandering chronicle of Wallace’s first year at a prestigious New York prep school, where he plays basketball very well and improves his writing with Forrester’s help. It is only months later, when Wallace is accused of plagiarism and on the verge of being expelled from school, that he figures out where exactly basketball falls on his list of priorities (and on the school’s list).

In his debut performance, Rob Brown does well across from a giant like Connery; despite starring in the ESPN-made biopic The Express and taking supporting roles in Coach Carter and The Dark Knight Rises, Brown remains one of the most untapped young actors of the current age. As much a tale of growing up as of basketball, Finding Forrester makes a point of challenging its characters’ integrity and confounding the stereotypical perceptions that they have of each other.

Cinderella Man (2005)
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Cliff Hollingsworth (story/screenplay) and Akiva Goldsman (screenplay)
Notable Actors: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti

Many men saw unfathomable lows during the Great Depression, but James Braddock is one of the few who truly rebounded from rock bottom, riding nothing but a strong pair of hands and unshakable determination. For all that we hear about the great boxing legacies of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Braddock’s story might be the most improbable of the three, a man who had to temporarily retire from the sport due to inescabable poverty and painful injuries before being given a random chance to resurrect his career. Zellweger and Crowe are genuinely frustrated as a pair who love each other but can’t stand the things that their circumstances have forced them to do, and Giamatti’s turn as loyal trainer Joe Gould is a beacon to all who have ever had an intense belief in themselves and others but not had the courage to see it through. Generosity, courage, humility and the luck of the draw all play a part in this plot, one which will remain an example of American diligence in the face of long odds for decades to come.

Honorable Mention: Space Jam (1996)
Directed by Joe Pytka
Written by Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timonthy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Notable Actors: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Wayne Knight, Charles Barkley

OK, so Space Jam isn’t really in the same league as the previous five, but it was a lot of fun for those of us who were appropriately aged at the time of its release. Factor in the preposterous box score of the Monstars-Looney Tunes matchup, the cute-as-a-button scenes with Michael Jordan’s kids interacting with everyone’s favorite cartoons (spoiler alert: they are not his real-life children), and the surprising amicability of Jordan throughout the movie (especially considering what we know about him now), and you would have to agree that Space Jam is a pretty remarkable B-movie. And who could forget the soundtrack! Probably not worth buying on pay-per-view unless you have kids, but it is definitely up there along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in terms of movies that do their best to mesh 2-D characters with human actors. 

So what movies do you think are watching again and again? Comment below if you feel compelled.

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