A few weeks back I wrote about Tom Hooper's The Damned United (2009) and commented about the often dreadful nature of sports films. Far too often, films about sport lazily rely on the built in drama of the sport or game to produce the drama and emotion. Unlike the actual drama that a sports match can produce, the cinematic sports drama comes across as more artificial than the flavorings in children's cereal. Beyond the all too hokey game re-creations, sports films lean on the character stereotypes: grizzled baseball manager, overly talented player who refuses to listen to the coach, gritty overachiever. Combine these elements with predictable plots (team/player overcomes all wins game/championship!), and lousy films are the inevitable result.
Fortunately, The Damned United and a few other select films serve as outliers, sports films that succeed as cinema. Below are my five favorite sports films.
Soccer Film: The Damned United (2009) -- directed by Tom Hooper
Check out my previous review of this excellent chronicle about an amazing episode in the life of the legendary Brian Clough.
Baseball Film: Sugar (2008) -- directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Easily the greatest baseball film I have ever watched, this Boden and Fleck flick reverses the logic of the sports film (and sports narratives in general). Sports films rest on the logic that the film will end in triumph; the protagonist (team or individual) will overcome all odds and emerge victorious because sport only rewards the victorious. In Sugar, Miguel Santos, a young Dominican pitcher played by Algenis Perez Soto, finds meaning not by overcoming the odds and winning, but by rejecting the logic of the sports narrative. He quits on his team and dream of making the major leagues, yet still finds meaning in his life. This is a beautiful film.
Cricket Film: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) -- directed by Ashutosh Gowariker
Out of all the films on my list, this, oddly, is the most stereotypical sports film. Sure, it was a Bollywood blockbuster, but all the stereotypical Hollywood sports film elements are present. A gritty underdog team defies the odds, defeats the villainous bullies, and gives hope to the community. Despite this predictable formula, the film still works quite well. Bollywood legend and star Amir Khan is amazing, the song and dance sequences are fantastic, and, above all, this is a fun film. We cheer for Khan and his band of underdogs and relish hating the evil Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Even with a running time of 224 minutes, I wanted more. Finally, I should add that this film accomplishes that which is nearly impossible: it concisely explains the rules of cricket.
Boxing Film: Fat City (1972) -- directed by John Huston
Boxing, more than any other sport, has been the center of critically acclaimed films. Among this subset of sports films, Huston's Fat City is the resident champion. Beautifully rendered in a grainy, washed out color scheme that fits its Stockton, CA setting, Fat City tells the tale of one over the hill pugilist (Stacy Keach) trying to work his way back into the game while a younger man (Jeff Bridges) discovers the troubles that come with trying to earn a living in boxing. Fat City exposes one of the hard truths about the sport it portrays. Boxing has little glamor and even less hope, but Fat City is an incredible film.
Rugby Film: This Sporting Life (1963) -- directed by Lindsay Anderson
In many ways, This Sporting Life displays many of the same characteristics as an excellent boxing film. Instead of showcasing the glory and triumph, the film illuminates the grim underbelly of the sport and the toll the sport takes on bodies and lives. The brilliant and beautiful Richard Harris plays Frank Machin, a gifted rugby player who believes that his talent and the sport represent a way out of working class hardships in Northern England. Every time I read the character's name, "Machin," I initially want to pronounce it as "Machine." And maybe that is the intent. Machin, like the other rugby players and miners in the town, are treated as machines that can be easily discarded or replaced when they cease to operate properly.
Director Lindsay Anderson's eye in this film is quite keen. The opening rugby sequences are terrifically rendered. Rather than try to capture an actual match, Anderson distills the match into small snapshots, all beautifully framed. Anderson's depiction of the rugby matches is reminiscent of (and a possible inspiration for) the boxing sequences in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980).