By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 11, 2023)
Why not kick off Superbowl Weekend by watching some sports movies? I’ve put together a list of 10 personal faves for you. Hey…save some of that guac for me (no double dipping).
Bend it Like Beckham – Writer-director Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that entertainingly marries “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood energy. The story centers on a headstrong young Sikh woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her tradition-minded parents by pursuing her “silly” dream to become a UK soccer star. Chadha weaves in subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.
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 tale and a rumination on 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 are warm and funny as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.
Bull Durham – Jules and Jim meets The Natural in writer-director Ron Shelton’s funny, sharply-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 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 special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues.
Downhill Racer –This underrated 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. Ritchie’s debut film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge. James Salter adapted the screenplay from Oakley Hall’s novel The Downhill Racers.
Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).
This film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft.
Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.
Hoop Dreams –One of the most acclaimed 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 you’d expect. A winner.
North Dallas Forty – Nick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are based on the real-life hi-jinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for his later films Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s.
Personal Best – When this film was released, there was so much ado over brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic, empowering portrayals of female athletes to date. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time observing Olympic track stars at work and play. The women are shown to be just as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly give fearless performances. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard-driving coach.
Slapshot – Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this puckish satire (sorry), directed by George Roy Hill. In a desperate play to save the team, Newman decides to pull out all the stops and play dirty.
The entire 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) is a scene-stealer. Perennially underrated Lindsey Crouse (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest striptease in film history, and the cheerfully truculent “Hanson Brothers” are a hoot.
This Sporting Life –Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 drama was one of the “angry young man” films that stormed from the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young, Brando-like Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight star. Former pro rugby player David Storey adapted the screenplay from his own novel.
Here are 10 more recommendations:
Any Given Sunday
Bang the Drum Slowly
Field of Dreams
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
The Longest Yard (1974)
When We Were Kings