Get your kicks: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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This being Super Bowl weekend and all, I figured this would be as good a time as any to trot out my top ten favorite sports films. As usual, my list is arranged alphabetically, as opposed to ranking order.

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Bend it Like Beckham – Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in a subtle subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face while assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s an insightful coming of age story and a rumination about the social fabric of small town life. Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

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Bull Durham- Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some, er, special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

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Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding as the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. The film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – This 1972 character study is one of John Huston’s lesser-known works, but I consider it one of his finest. Stacey Keach (in the role of his career) is an alcoholic, down-and-out prizefighter who mentors a neophyte boxer (Jeff Bridges). Susan Tyrrell is a real standout as Keach’s love interest (she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this role). I’ve always preferred this film to Rocky because there’s no sentimentality or audience pandering. The song “Help Me Make it Through the Night” haunts the film, and has never sounded so bittersweet. A downer, but well worth a peek.

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Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family; which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics. Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than one might initially expect. A winner.    

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North Dallas FortyNick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most non-condescending portraits of female athletes to ever reach movie screens. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deserve credit for not sugar-coating their characterizations. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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Slapshot – A puckish satire. Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this classic, directed by George Roy Hill. When Newman learns about a possible sale of the franchise, he decides to pull out all the stops and start playing “dirty”. The entire acting ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest “striptease” bit in the history of film, and the endearingly sociopathic “Hanson Brothers” have to be seen to be believed.

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This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young,  Brando-esque Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.

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