Give me an 'S'! Give me a 'P'! Give me an.... oh, yuck, sports movies, definitely among my least liked film genres. I can understand why someone would want to play a sport, but I'm at a loss as to why anyone would want to spend hours upon hours watching other people play. As a result, few sports films hold my attention, let alone enjoy my sympathy, for very long. However, I firmly believe that a true cinephile will find treasures even amid the most unappetizing dross and, so, here are ten sports movies for people who, like myself, don't like sports:
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
This charmer directed by Gurinder Chadha stars Parminder Naga and Keira Knightley as young women who want to play soccer against their families' wishes and Jonathan Rhys Myers as their coach and eye candy. Jess's conservative Indian expat family forbids her participation in sports and tries to hustle her into an arranged marriage, while Jules rebels against her mother's rigid conformity to femininity, which comes to a head with an embarrassing display of misplaced homophobia. Ultimately, Bend It Like Beckham is a frothy romantic comedy with a soupçon of social commentary, starring girls wearing cleats instead of heels, a pleasant means of wiling away a rainy afternoon.
Breaking Away (1979)
This quietly brilliant dramedy stars Dennis Christopher as an aimless guy in Bloomington, Indiana, a passionate cyclist who exuberantly embraces all things Italian. With no more jobs at the local quarry and no serious plans to enroll at the university, he and his friends (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley) are unmoored from their own futures. The four end up competing against the university teams in the Little 500. The screenplay by Steve Tisch won a much deserved Oscar and the sensitive, warm-hearted, but rather thorny performances do it justice. What elevates Breaking Away above the run-of-the-mill coming-of-age movie lies in its refusal to succumb to simplistic Hollywood solutions without tipping to the other extreme into existential despair. Perfectly balanced between drama and comedy, dejection and blithe good humor, bitterness and sugar, this film pleases whether the viewer would snooze through the Tour de France or not.
Good News (1947)
Directed by choreographer Charles Walters, Good News exists in a lily-white fantasy world where college students cheer the football team, stay thin on a malt and milkshake diet, and take classes only to impress the girls. June Allyson, somehow both a student and a librarian, tutors quarterback and heartthrob Peter Lawford and they end up hotfooting it at the most choreographed prom this side of High School Musical. Unquestionably silly, this film in distress is rescued by lively, pithy songs, some wacky Technicolor costumes, and frenetic, virtuosic choreography.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
This delightful comedy, recently released by the Criterion Collection, stars baby-faced Robert Montgomery as an eccentric, sax-playing boxer who is accidentally collected by his anxiety-ridden guardian angel (the brilliant character actor, Edward Everett Horton) fifty years before his time. The angel's boss, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, utterly perfect), gives him a second chance, in a different body, since his own has already been cremated. Though the movie at times betrays its origins as a stage play, it radiates a sweetness that is never cloying and a robustly chipper sense of black humor.
National Velvet (1944)
Clarence Brown's adaptation of the Enid Bagnold novel stars Elizabeth Taylor as a horse-mad kid who sets her heart on her gelding, The Pie, winning the Grand National Steeplechase, Mickey Rooney as an embittered former jockey, and Donald Crisp and Ann Revere as Taylor's taciturn, if supportive parents. An undisputed classic, National Velvet shines as a superlative example of a family picture, as powerful for adults as it is for children. It also gave Mickey Rooney a rare opportunity to flex his dramatic acting muscles in a role tailor-made for the scrappy actor, while Taylor is radiant in every sense of the word.
While The Triumph of the Will betrays not the slightest deviation from slavish devotion to Hitler and Nazism, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia is a more complex beastie, for the visionary director allows herself to be distracted from her reprehensible politics by her artistic sensibility: Jesse Owens's victory is too plummy to avert the camera's eye, or downplay its heart-stopping triumph. If the politics of Olympia are a tad confused, the artistry and sheer beauty of shot after glorious shot of Olympic athletes are undeniably mesmerizing, especially after the transition from the first part, "Festival of Nations," to the second, "Festival of Beauty."
To my surprise, Sylvester Stallone's wildly successful boxing film completely beguiled me, winning me over with a vulnerable performance and a sensitive screenplay from Stallone, expert montage work by editors Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad, a quirkily unconventional leading lady in Talia Shire, and Bill Conti's score, which somehow hasn't been spoofed to death. Though the core of story is the fight between Rocky and the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the emotional heft of the film is built up from the richly drawn life of an Italian immigrant neighborhood in Philadelphia, its shops and street markets, a too-fleeting savor of a culture that's all but disappeared.
Doug Pray's oddball documentary about the Paskowitz family captures both the winning charms and the mangy miseries of a ruthlessly idealistic adherence to the countercultural forces of the 1970s. Doc Paskowitz, disgusted with the emptiness and conformism of American middle-class life, leaves behind his medical practice and hits the road, taking his wife and nine children along for the ride (in an obscenely cramped trailer). The family's passion is surfing, but the carefree, back-to-nature ideologies that Doc embraces also come with bone-scraping hunger, a struggle to attain basic literacy, the impossibility of lasting friendships, and a total lack of privacy, along with endless opportunities to ride the waves. Pray is wise enough to let us sit with the tangled mess that idealism has wrought for this family, wise enough to withhold absolute judgments without falling into credulous acceptance.
Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
A solidly crafted and consistently entertaining live-action Disney film, Third Man on the Mountain is formulaic, but succeeds in demonstrating why the formula came to be in the first place. James MacArthur stars as a Swiss youth determined to follow in his mountaineer father's footsteps, Michael Rennie is his mentor, Janet Munro is his spirited, adorable sweetheart, and Laurence Naismith gives a memorable turn as a crabby climber-cum-chef. Filmed on the Matterhorn, the film is worth watching for the dizzying climbing footage alone.
Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)
I have a huge soft spot for this first team-up of my beloved Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Garland plays the plucky niece of a boardinghouse landlady (Sophie Tucker, criminally forgotten today) and something of a mascot for the jockeys who board with them. Had Freddie Bartholomew not been replaced by the far less charismatic Ronald Sinclair, the film would have more powerful star credentials, but as it is, it's a bubbly romp at the race tracks. As far as sports movies are concerned, Garland debuted the year before in Pigskin Parade, an unusually silly and ungainly football musical, recommended for Judy completists only.
Readers, what sports movies do you recommend for people who are apt to take a catnap at the ballpark, snooze at the ice rink, and seek a sad solace at the bottom of a thermos at the football arena?
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