The 50 greatest sports movies: part five
If there was any doubt that the sports movie is an overwhelmingly masculine affair, part five should put them to rest: we've got proud pugilists Mohammed Ali, John Garfield and Bobby De Niro, baseball braves Robert Redford and John Cusack and hockey jockey Paul Newman, not to mention a gaggle of horny Dutchmen with hot metal between their legs...
10. When We Were Kings (1996)Dir: Leon GastOnce there was a battle thereThe movie responsible for herds of inebriated morons loudly mispronouncing the Swahili word ‘Bumaye’ at every bloody sporting event around the world, ‘When We Were Kings’ is nonetheless a remarkable piece of work, eschewing the usual clinical directness of the sporting doc in favour of a passionate, grandstanding celebration of boxing in all its gory glory. Perhaps more interesting as a historical document than as a sports story (everyone knows who won, after all), Gast’s film paints a fascinating portrait of mid-’70s African regeneration, and all the hope and hard work, the corruption and exploitation that went with it. ‘When We Were Kings’ also has one mighty strength which most other sports docs lack: a true star. With no disrespect to George Foreman, Ali in his prime was arguably the single most charismatic man of the twentieth century (and boy, does he know it), infusing every frame with his effortless, electrifying, self-glorifying charm. THWatch Michael Parkinson celebrating Ali Read the original Time Out review
9. Slap Shot (1977)Directed by George Roy HillNot-so-jolly hockey sticksProfanity, bonecurdling violence and provocative butt-waggling are familiar to sports as diverse as bullfighting, dwarf tossing and the mixed biathlon, but nowhere are they more completely indulged than in the world of professional ice hockey. A bawdy, bloody romp through social fallout from the decline of American heavy industry, ‘Slap Shot’ employs the galvanising aspects of sport to throw a lifeline to the players and supporters of the ailing Charlestown Chiefs as they struggle to stay out of the red both on and off the ice. Paul Newman holds centre stage as the team’s redoubtable player-coach, while future ‘Twin Peaks’ lawman Michael Ontkean makes for a fine playmaker, but all anyone really wants to hear about are bespectacled, heavy-impact enforcers, the Hanson Brothers, a trio of whirling dervishes that director Hill uses to devastating effect without ever allowing their four-eyed, crowd-pleasing mayhem to destabilise his perfectly balanced film. ALDWatch the trailer to 'Slap Shot' Read the original Time Out review
8. Raging Bull (1980)Dir: Martin Scorsese ‘What a piece of work is a man……in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!’ With ‘Raging Bull’, Scorsese set out to simultaneously reaffirm and disprove Shakespeare’s theorem by painting a warts-and-all portrait of a boxer who is certainly a piece o’ work, though not necessarily in the way the Bard intended. It’s a film knowingly built to be a masterpiece – every shot studied and precise, every line pored over, every moment and mannerism intended to reflect some minute detail of our hero’s inner life. This leaves the film feeling ever-so-slightly self-conscious, a little too icily perfect for its own good. But there’s no arguing with the blunt, brute power of those fight scenes. Inspired by Kubrick’s dynamic early documentary ‘Day of the Fight’, Scorsese shot the film in high-contrast monochrome: a wise choice, because in colour these furious bouts could have seemed too bloody, too grotesque. Black and white gives us the opportunity to stand back and admire the balletic grace on display, rather than simply be shocked by the punishing violence. THWatch the Kubrick short that inspired 'Raging Bull' Read the original Time Out review
7. The Endless Summer (1966)Dir: Bruce BrownCatch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the worldIn ’66, surfing was still in its infancy, associated with free spirits, all night beach parties and twangy guitars as opposed to preening douchebags with made-to-order drawls and corporate sponsorship, as it is today. Bruce Brown’s film, a globe-spanning surfin’ safari set to the best in upbeat California-flavoured pop, single-handedly set the precedent for the millions of surf movies that would follow. It’s basically a collection of brief to-camera interviews with his sporting heroes, intercut with sun-kissed, celebratory footage of the boys riding the wave, shooting the curl and generally trying not to wipe out. It’s also worth mentioning John Milius’s masterful ‘Big Wednesday’, which took Brown’s template and added a simple, heartfelt story of friendship and small-scale rebellion. THWatch Val Kilmer shooting the curl
6. Body and Soul (1947)Dir: Robert RossenThe late John Garfield bluesThere can hardly ever have been a face so perfectly suited to the compromise, suffering and hard-won understanding at the heart of the big-screen boxing lesson than the star of ‘Body and Soul’, John Garfield. While Paul Newman looked plaintive and martyred in ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (1956) and Robert Ryan skulked, complicit, through ‘The Set-Up’ (1949), Garfield’s fallen-angel countenance offers a far more complete portrait of hope and frustration. The film as a whole brings nothing especially original to the stable of fistive flicks, but Garfield’s performance alone is enough to elevate it into the highest echelons of sporting dramas. Its few, brutal fight scenes are a clear inspiration for the purgatorial pummelings of ‘Raging Bull’, and Garfield’s eventual predicament even foreshadows that of Bruce Willis’s wilful slugger in ‘Pulp Fiction’. A poem that has no time for poetry and a parable with little taste for allegory, ‘Body and Soul’ forgoes the butterfly for the bee every time, yet still soars. ALDWatch a clip from ‘Body and Soul'Read the original Time Out review
5. Spetters (1980)Dir: Paul Verhoeven‘Basic Instinct’ on scramble bikesThere can’t be many mainstream sports movies that feature gang rape, attempted suicide and long, lingering close ups of erect penises, but that’s not the only reason ‘Spetters’ holds the crown as the most extreme celebration of sport in cinema. Arguably the best, certainly the most bewildering of Verhoeven’s pre-Hollywood challenges to taste and decency, ‘Spetters’ takes the traditional sporting format – plucky underdogs make good – and stuffs it chock full of the director’s own loopy, leftfield, distinctly Dutch scatological preoccupations. The sport in question is moto-cross: not, you’d imagine, an obvious hotbed of filth and deviance. But when the contestants are a gang of hopped-up, hypersexed Dutch teens high on glue and synthpop, anything can happen. What’s most remarkable is how true Verhoeven stays to the sports-movie format: he’s not here to challenge narrative convention, just to see how far he can push it. As a result, ‘Spetters’ is a film which expands the envelope of taste through a series of sometimes exhilarating, sometimes harrowing, always graphic sequences of unchecked sex and violence without ever alienating its audience or testing their patience. Love it, loathe it, recoil from it or lap it up off the floor, ‘Spetters’ is one sports movie you can’t tear your eyes away from. THWatch the loopy American trailer to 'Spetters' Read the original Time Out review
4. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)Dir: Kon IchikawaReclaiming the hubristic sporting event chronicle from the Nazi partyLeni Refenstahl may have been first across the line with her grandiose 1936 film ‘Olympia’, which appropriated the Berlin Olympics as a podium on which to plant German national power, but Japan’s premier genre-hopper Kon Ichikawa trumps her at her own game with his quietly stunning conceptual art movie. Despite calls from the organising committee to make a film that would act as a journalistic document of the ‘64 games, Kon instead chose to observe it from the human angle, filming athletes in hypnotic slow-motion in order to capture every ripple of every muscle and every bead of hard-won sweat. We rarely see who wins or loses the contest, yet, despite its pointedly apolitical approach both to the sporting events and the Japanese organising body, the captured essence of the sheer pomp and enormity of the games stands as a glowing testament to the rapidity and breadth of Japanese reconstruction after WWII. DJClick here for some top waddling from 'Tokyo Olympiad' Read the original Time Out review
3. The Natural (1984)Dir: Barry LevinsonBatter up!F Scott Fitzgerald famously noted that there are no second acts in American lives, but what happens to those who get cheated out of their first bite of the cherry? After his youthful dreams of life in the majors are shattered by a deranged groupie’s bullet, country-fried baseball prodigy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, so perfect for the role that you forget that he’s 20 years too old for these early scenes) spends an unremarkable career in minor league anonymity before being traded up to the mighty New York Knights and offered that elusive second hit at glory. Shot through with Arthurian imagery – knights, lightning bolts, poisoned chalices (in this case a poisoned éclair, but you get the idea) – Levinson’s film touches on themes of classical tragedy. There are also elements of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in Roy’s reinvention, but this is Tinseltown mythmaking at its grandest and most implacable, so the literary allusions and bleak denouement of Bernard Malamud’s source novel are ditched in the bottom of the ninth in favour of scenes of unabashed grandstanding that are hard to deny. But whatever ‘The Natural’ lacks in subtlety it makes up for in simplicity. It also manages to conjure up the holy grail of sports movies by turning cornball last-reel home-run bombast into a thrilling reminder of the elemental power of sport. ALDWatch the ‘golden showers’ finale of 'The Natural'Read the original Time Out review
2. Eight Men Out (1988)Dir: John SaylesSay it ain’t so, Joe!The incomparable scandal that surrounded the 1919 World Series of baseball, during which the Chicago White Sox threw the game after accepting bribes from gamblers, not only tainted the image of America’s purest sport but also marked it out as the one that could – if it endured – forever exist as a burnished vessel for heartbreak, bruised pride, wasted talent and misty-eyed recollection. Sayles’s cool-handed, perfectly framed treatment of the incident is monumental in every way. The cast, which includes Sayles mainstay David Strathairn, John Cusack and Charlie Sheen, could not have been bettered, and their athleticism and commitment blesses the film’s baseball scenes with true authenticity. The dramatic scenes are similarly vivid thanks to the expertly delineated team dynamics and a seductive rogues gallery of sagacious sportswriters, duplicitous owners and high-rolling bookmakers who oversee the fates of these underpaid, undervalued players.Sayles’s insightful script and sterling direction steer us through the arcane proceedings with his usual light-fingered rigour, from getting to know the team to the intricacies of the fix, from the collateral damage of the players’ majority decision to the courtroom showdown during which they begin to realise the enormity of what they’ve done and how completely it will come to define them. But it’s the film’s mournful coda – which draws together two of the ‘Black Sox’ (Buck Weaver and ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson) for a minor league game years later – that lingers longest in the mind, reminding us of the redemptive capacity that sport can allow and that, at the end of the day, it is the fans, not the headlines, who decide whether or not the myth is ultimately to be held distinct from the man. ALDWatch a local news report on the filming of 'Eight Men Out'Read the original Time Out review
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