The Best Sports Movies

Sports movies are supposed to motivate us. Most of them are about the underdog beating the No. 1 selection. They aim to tell us that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough. And they get a little redundant with their inspiration.  Most of my favorite sports movies are not inspirational (with the exception of Invictus), because the truth is the best sports movies are the ones that get at all the ugly realities of  “this sporting life”…

Invictus (2009)

Invictus is not actually about rugby. There is actually very little rugby on screen — and what is on screen isn’t stupendous (the 1995 World Cup final was not the most exciting game in World Cup history). Invictus is about Nelson Mandela and his attempts to unite a country. It just so happens that rugby, a sport that represented the prejudices that crippled South Africa, was at the heart of his campaign for unity.  Appropriately, Invictus is not a movie about a sport’s team’s triumph. It is a movie about a nation’s triumph. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon deliver Oscar-worthy performances as Mandela and South African Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, respectively. Director Clint Eastwood has done a stupendous job of presenting the racial conflicts and the challenges Mandela faced when he came to power without making them theatrical — the history of apartheid and a nation in its wake is too important for theatrical story-telling; it has to feel real.  Ultimately, Invictus testifies to the power of international sport to galvanize a country behind a common goal. If you can get 42 million people to cheer for one rugby team, when more than half of  those 42 million used to cheer against it, what can’t you motivate 42 million people to achieve?

This Sporting Life (1963)

Richard Harris, yes, Dumbledore Richard Harris, was a stud. This is not a movie well-known to American audiences, but is should be.  It is about a rugby player, but no, that doesn’t make it like “Invictus.” Rather, it’s a hybrid of “Downhill Racer” (see below) and “On the Waterfront.” Frank Machin (Harris) is a talented rugby player who finally gets his big break to go professional. But his new-found glory is nothing but poison. He soon learns that while the spotlight is his, and while he can buy all the trappings of wealth, he can never buy love or “class.” He is a sportsman, and to the real elite he will only ever be a rugby player, never an equal. The rugby scenes are great. The acting superb. The moral — an eloquent reminder that the pursuit of greatness is a lonely one if all you’re after is personal glory.

Downhill Racer (1969)

One of Robert Redford’s first starring roles, and easily one of his best. For anyone that’s ever been an athlete in an individual sport, this one should really hit home. Redford plays an American skier, vying for Olympic gold at a time when Americans were the underdogs on the international skiing circuit. A talent who climbed his way from the foggy unknown, he is a self-centered egoist out to hog the spotlight from his US teammates. There is no I in team, but there is a me. Over the course of the film, Redford’s character learns that success is as a dependent on luck as it is on skill — a terrifying reality for any athlete. It’s a great movie with understated performances that ring true and incredible shots of the downhill skiing (imagine this was shot in ’69, before today’s modern steadicam and digital capabilities). Bode Miller needs to see this one…

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Besides an epic theme song, “Chariots of Fire” boasts a great directing and stellar performances. Much like the other movies, the punch line of this one is that those who seek ever ephemeral glory need a helping hand from Lady Luck.  Of course, that theme is encased in a well-told story of class struggles and religious prejudices. Actually, has anyone noticed that this movie is really about religion?

The Continuously Inglorious Tarantino

When I saw “Kill Bill” back in 2003, I swore I’d never patronize another Quentin Tarantino film. Then I saw “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” …and I made a similar pledge.

I managed to successfully avoid “Sin City” and “Grindhouse.” But in a momentary lapse of judgment, or perhaps it was a Post-New Years Eve Veuve Cliquot-induced haze, I rented “Inglorious Basterds” and put it into my DVD player. 2 hours and 32 minutes later, I again declared: “This is the last Quentin Tarantino movie I’m ever going to see.”

Why do I so adamantly dislike “Inglorious Basterds?” It has a lot to do with its director’s editing… or rather, the lack thereof. Self-indulgence, thy name is Tarantino. Let’s start with the opening scenes. A French dairy farmer is outside his farmhouse, hacking away at a tree stump, ominously, with a sharpened axe. His daughter hangs laundry from a clothes lines. The rolling hills, the yellow grass, the highly saturated hues, the beating sunlight, the sweaty bearded man, the Nazi soldiers driving up the dirt road — highly reminiscent of that scene in “Gladiator” when the Roman army saunters up to Maximus’ villa and slaughters his family. We all more or less know what’s going to happen, yet it takes nearly half an hour of drawn out dialog and swirling camera angles before the first anticlimactic shot is fired. And believe me, the firing squad execution is anticlimactic.

Anticlimactic — that’s the best way to describe “Inglorious Basterds.” Despite the fire and flames and gunshots that end the movie, there is really no final burst of building tension, no final resolution that the plot moves towards. Maybe it’s there in theory, just not in actuality. I find this ironic, because Tarantino is brilliant at building tension (I’ll give him that). But herein enters the two problems present in all his films. The first is that he allows the moments of developing conflict to drag on longer than necessary. Eventually, the length of these scenes causes the tension he establishes to lose air; the viewer loses interest. Secondly, he is completely incapable of resolving that tension in an interesting manner. Guns are fired, people are blown to bits. There’s no daring escacpe, not even an attempt at a daring escape. Everyone is just dead. Lame.

Perhaps the most insulting failing of “Inglorious Basterds” is that it neither a serious WWII flick a la “Schindler’s List” or “Band of Brothers” nor a spoof/satire a la “The Dictator.” It is in a no-mans-land category, though it’s marketed as a black comedy, and that makes it difficult to digest. Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa is a legitimate, charming and believable villain — other than an over-sized pipe, he isn’t particularly comical. The scalping isn’t funny. Other than a little “Nein, Nein, Nein, Nein” temper tantrum, Tarantino’s Hitler is not a very compelling characture of the most hated man in history. The ending is problematic in its historical inaccuracy given the movie’s predominantly serious tone. There are moments that make us cringe, others that make us chuckle. But when the credits roll, I’m left with no particular overwhelming emotion. The film is utterly neutral.

I will give Tarantino’s otherwise dull film some credit — Inglorious Basterds is an excellent demonstration of film privileged ability to play with history. When Hitler committed suicide, he denied his victims the right to revenge — it was, in fact, the greatest declaration of his power. Through Inglorious Basterds, those that suffered under the 3rd Reich are re-empowered, they get to have their justice, their revenge on Hitler and his henchmen. Film has the power to shape history — driving the plot of Inglorious Basterds is the Nazi propaganda film industry — it also has the power to eradicate it in a blaze. The final regime-ending fire, started by combustible nitrate film but contained within the movie house is symbolic of both the movie’s power to re-empower and it’s real-world limitations. Hitler only gets to be assassinated by a band of Jews  in a movie.

I’m sorry I didn’t like “Inglorious Basterds.” Christopher Waltz was amazing. Some of the camera work is masterfully choreographed. That velvety red is so gloriously tangible. A script in German and French performed by German and French actors  is a refreshing change. The little movie-buff-only citations are nerdy-cool. Yet, its few merits fail to compensate for “Basterds” overwhelming shortcomings… the least of which is a failure to use spellcheck.

Everyone loves a closing dance number

Last night, both Dirty Dancing and Napoleon Dynamite were on TV. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” vs. “Gosh!” I kept flipping back and forth. I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a thousand times, and even though I’ll say it’s incredibly hokey, I just can’t not watch it when it’s on.

Dirty Dancing and Napoleon Dynamite easily boast the greatest, most joyous dance scenes in movie history (well, in movies since 1985). The best? I still can’t decide.

Your vote counts.
1. Vote for Pedro?
2. Vote for Swayze?

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