The 50 greatest sports movies: part four
Part four is all about youthful exuberance, from the doomed female wrestlers of 'Gaea Girls' to those foul-mouthed scrappers 'The Bad News Bears', from plucky college ball boy Harold Lloyd to Dennis Quaid and his gang of small-town bike fanatics
20. Gaea Girls (2000)Dir: Kim Longinotto & Jano WilliamsOff the top turnbuckle!Don’t be put off by the fact that this superb observational doc opens with Republica’s hideous technopop anthem ‘Ready to Go’ – it’s merely the tune the Japanese female wrestling community use to get limbered up on bout night. Give the whole thing a little time and you’ll be on the business end of an inspiring and empathetic study of a group of women defying gender stereotypes by choosing to kick ass for plenty of Yen. Not a million miles away from the opening chapters of Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Gaea Girls’ documents the spirit-sapping training techniques of Japanese female wrestling champ Nagayo Chigusa and their effects on her bevy of wannabe warriors. It’s a film that addresses the harsh realities of extreme sports – where fighters have body and soul tested to the very limit – but it also works as a teary triumph-of-the-underdog tale, as we follow determined underachiever Takeuchi who claws her way into the professional ranks, and – like Rocky Balboa before her – gets totally pummelled. DJ Watch some 'Gaea Girls' goodness Read the original Time Out review
19. The Freshman (1925)Dir: Fred C Newmeyer & Sam TaylorSilent but deadlyHarold Lloyd didn’t have the funny bones of, say, Chaplin, Keaton or Nicolas Cage, but he more than made up for it by risking life and limb to thrill his audience. As one character in ‘The Freshman’ puts it, ‘He’s got more spunk in his little finger than the rest of you put together!’ As usual, Harold’s idealistic nitwit is charged with duping a naive little strumpet into believing that he’s successful and popular. Having packed up his golf clubs and ukulele (eh?) and set out for the prestigious Tate University, his sole aim is to unseat meatbag quarterback Chet Trask as most popular man on campus. A lavish dinner dance proves unsuccessful, as does rebranding himself ‘Speedy’ and greeting each and everyone he meets with a little jig. The only thing left is the college football team, into which he is grudgingly accepted as an unused substitute while actually being used as waterboy. Fans of contemporary chronicles of university life such as ‘Animal House’, ‘Old School’ and ‘King Frat’ might be surprised to see a film where horrific debasement is not a cause for celebration: here, all you need is spirit, moxie and to score an unlikely winning touchdown against the big rivals to be man of the hour! DJWatch the big game from 'The Freshman'
18. The Bad News Bears (1976)Dir: Michael RitchieOut of the mouths of Babe Ruths…Is it merely a by-product of beery nostalgia, or was sport just better in the '70s? Looking back, the kits are more iconic, the footage seems infinitely more authentic than the super-saturated 3D HD eye-melt we get today and – of course – knee-high Little League baseball players could describe their own team as 'a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron' and no-one would bat an eye. A warm, inclusive and tender-hearted film, ‘Bears’ just happens to be about a drunken, last chance, shyster coach (Walter Matthau), a worldly pre-teen female pitcher (Tatum O’Neal) saving up for a boob-job and a sex-obsessed adolescent loan-shark (future ‘Watchmen’ star Jackie Earl Haley) all batting for a team sponsored by a bail bonds company. It’s an utterly charming essay on the corrosiveness inherent in competitive sport, and the only real bad news came in the form of a couple of reductive sequels and a largely woeful 2005 remake starring the once goof-proof Billy Bob Thornton. ALD
Watch a cockle-warming where-are-they-now? featurette
Read the original Time Out review
17. Hoop Dreams (1994)Dir: Steve JamesB-Ball of confusionLess Harlem Globetrotters, more ‘The Wire’ season 4 with a backboard, James’s exemplary documentary about two African American inner-city basketball prospects channels the glare of its subject matter onto far bigger societal problems without ever losing focus on its young protagonists. While many of the movies on this list pick over the machinery of modern sport, few of them so unsentimentally chart the short yet gaping distance that exists between the assembly line and the scrapyard. This truly seminal and affecting film will not only have you gripped as to the eventual fortunes of the two kids, but will leave you by turns elated, hopping mad and weeping like a willow. ALD
Watch Siskel & Ebert’s sterling TV review of ‘Hoop Dreams’Read the original Time Out review
16. Fat City (1972)Dir: John HustonThe hard luck roundThe lower reaches of life’s undercard are given a few bruising, shambolic rounds in Huston’s beautiful, broke-ass, Bukowskian boxing drama starring Stacey Keach and Jeff Bridges as a couple of small-time pugs. If ‘Raging Bull’ turned the ring into a cauldron of redemption and ‘Rocky’ presented it as a window of opportunity, ‘Fat City’ offers it up as an anvil upon which half-formed, half-forgotten dreams have the stardust pummeled out of them night after night. Set in the seedy dilapidation and late-afternoon languor of Stockton, California, it’s less about boxing itself than how intimately sport can bind men together in a shared pursuit, especially when – as the film’s heartbreaking climax reveals – that really is all they’ve got. ALDWatch the opening sequence of 'Fat City' Read the original Time Out review
15. Any Given Sunday (1999)Dir: Oliver StoneNo winners, only survivorsDoing for the gladiatorial fury of American football what ‘The Natural’ did for the loose-limbed grace of baseball, Oliver Stone’s love letter to the NFL leafs through every run, shuffle and Hail Mary in the director’s cinematic playbook to capture the pure steaming essence of a sport that combines all the noise and bombast of a Metallica concert with the strategic complexity of a moon mission. As with the giddy schizophrenia of ‘Wall Street’, Stone is torn between hero-worshipping his subject and damning it for its institutional shortfallings. Yes, tradition, teamwork and ethics are being replaced with franchise chicanery, showboating and The Big Mamoo, but the trappings of modern gridiron are so fetishistically pored over by Stone’s rampaging lens that we can’t help but be tempted by the glitz.You could, maybe, complain about the clichéd cast of characters (brash rising star, over-the-hill quarterback, gnarly-but-benign coach), the incessant sturm und drang or the cake-and-eat-it attitude toward progress, but you’d be complaining to an unblinking, slathering juggernaut of a film that’s pumped to the gills with celluloid steroids and just itching to rip off your head, shit down your neck and use your still twitching corpse as a hand puppet. Hut! ALDWatch the greatest speech in sports from 'Any Given Sunday'Read the original Time Out review
14. Breaking Away (1979)Dire: Peter Yates‘The Wonder Years’ on wheelsConsidering that its station within the pecking order of US sports is somewhere down there with the likes of frolf and bog snorkelling, it’s perhaps a little unusual to find cycling at the hub of so successful and beloved an American movie. Toss in the fact that the lead character (Dennis Christopher) is a deluded Europhile with an obsession for classical music who spends the bulk of his time hanging around a grotty swimming hole with his slacker chums (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and ‘Bad News Bears’ veteran Jackie Earl Haley) and it’s even harder to see the crossover appeal. But beneath all these incidentals there’s a mighty heart pounding away. Every character is so perfectly rounded and effortlessly drawn, and the vagaries of small-town life so expertly directed with a canny outsider’s eye by Aldershot’s finest, Peter Yates, that it all gels into a winning portrait of four guys caught between the ease of coasting along in their cosy, overextended adolescences and breaking away into full-blown maturity. ALDWatch the trailer to 'Breaking Away'Read the original Time Out review
13. Junior Bonner (1972)Dir: Sam PeckinpahBack in the saddleIt may look like a cheery and laid-back tip-o’-the-Stetson to the Southern Rodeo circuit, but ‘Junior Bonner’ is in fact another of Peckinpah’s elegiac odes to the inexorable decline of the Cowboy Way. Steve McQueen essays the eponymous rodeo rider with his usual mix of angular bravado and off-hand charm as he returns to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona to partake in an Independence Day exhibition of ranch sports. Unruffled by the fact that everyone around him seems to have been enticed away by various rootin’-tootin’ get-rich-quick schemes, Junior remains the one man who will not be bought, determined to ride an Ornery Bull (named ‘Sunshine’) for that vital eight-second period. Though the film flopped at the time of release (unusually for Peckinpah, it contained very little violence, save for a comedy slo-mo barroom brawl), it endures as one of the director’s sweetest and saddest pictures. Not merely hinting at the fact that the American Cowboy’s days were numbered, this presented the gaudy results of commercialisation in which the noble traditions of the west are reduced to a bring-the-kids-along sideshow. DJWatch the moseyin’ opening sequence to 'Junior Bonner' Read the original Time Out review
12. Tin Cup (1996)Dir: Ron SheltonCostner and Shelton’s tasty cheese sand-wedgeSeven years after their classic baseball-based collaboration ‘Bull Durham’, sport movie impresario Ron Shelton hauled in best bud Kevin Costner for another swing, this time focusing on that louchest of all popular sports: golf. Costner plays Roy McAvoy, a one-time pro gone to seed, who attempts to qualify for the US Open in order to win the heart of his foxy intended Rene Russo. It’s an old, old, old story, but Shelton and Costner invest it with all the sprightly charm and whipcrack banter they can muster, hauling in seasoned professionals like Cheech Marin and Don Johnson to caddy their comic clubs. Sure, it’s old-fashioned, predictable and cheesy as all getout, but it’s also beautifully written, warmly performed and genuinely uplifting: it’ll be a hard-hearted bastard who doesn’t raise a valedictory fist in the rousing finale. THWatch Don Johnson teach Kev a lesson in gamesmanship in 'Tin Cup' Read the original Time Out review
11. The Hustler (1961)Dir: Robert RossenMagic eight-ballPaul Newman was the blue-eyed boy of Hollywood when he took the lead in this masterful celebration of America’s seedy, hard-drinking, pool-playing underbelly. Which just goes to show how fast the times were a-changin’ back in ’61: could you imagine Clark Gable, Cary Grant or even Steve McQueen pulling off such an unsavoury role with such boyish aplomb? Fast Eddie Felson would return 24 years later in Scorsese’s ‘The Colour of Money’, this time mentoring a frighteningly young Tom Cruise, but this first outing remains the cornerstone of barroom sports movies, and an unflinching expose of the all-American male. THWatch one of 'The Hustler's classic monologues Read the original Time Out review
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