The 50 greatest sports movies: part six

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We have a winner! In pole position, it's Robert Redford's icy, Aryan turn as a heartless ski champ in Michael Ritchie's monumental anti-sporting epic 'Downhill Racer'

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1. Downhill Racer (1969)

Dir: Michael RitchieDo you go as fast as you can all the time?It’s fair to say that Michael Ritchie's emotionally and narratively spare Olympic skiing drama ‘Downhill Racer’ has little in common with the majority of sports movies that make up this list. Robert Redford plays David Chappellet, a haughty young hotshot from Idaho Springs, Colorado (read: Anytown, USA) drafted into the US Olympic ski squad as they tour Europe in preparation for the 1968 Winter Olympics. Immediately at odds with his straight-arrow coach (Gene Hackman) and on frosty terms with his teammates, Chappellet nevertheless starts to win races and soon becomes a ski sensation.So far, so familiar, but this is no fuzzy, heartwarming sports parable about teamwork, fair play and love of the game, but a sour, impersonal, emotionally aloof study of a protagonist who exhibits all the warmth and empathy of black ice. Ritchie’s glassy study of the price of success and the ends of empty ambition may loosely conform to the tried-and-tested template of the underdog story in which a plucky outsider scraps his way to gold medal glory, but in this instance, the underdog is an unconscionable shit whose eventual triumph is entirely meaningless to him and mildly galling for the audience. Its message – that there is no justice in sport – is wholly un-Olympian. In this game there are no should’ves or could’ves: success requires nothing less than a vacuum of self-absorption and a lunatic will to win. We may want to see nice guys come first, but it’s usually the likes of Chappellet who take the gold. Let them, Ritchie seems to say. Leave them to their spoils.downhill racer 1.jpgRedford cashes in on his corn-fed jock looks to play Chappellet – described by scriptwriter James Salter as ‘golden, unimpressable’ and who carries immaturity even in his name – as a crass, swinish child who has never needed to work to succeed on the slopes and feels no reason why he should expend any more effort in his dealings with others. Despite this, he is constantly in need of attention, be it from women, adoring fans, mirrors, shop-fronts or camera lenses. It's fitting, then, that Redford’s preternaturally fine, all-American features mean that it’s hard to take your eyes off him, even while his performance is ruthlessly enigmatic and distancing. Director Ritchie later became known for spunky, offbeat sports movie like ‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976), ‘Semi-Tough’ (1977) and ‘Wildcats’ (1986), but there’s barely a flicker of his trademark amiability in ‘Downhill Racer’. Humour would crack the ice, and Ritchie doesn’t want to give us any purchase as we hurtle toward a finale that allows Chappellet only a hollow, fleeting moment of triumph. It’s a grueling, rigorous film that refuses us any relief or relaxation. As the film contends, there is no room for sentiment, cordiality, glory or joking around in competitive sport, then why should we insist on them in our sports movies? Refusing to pander to any such expectations, ‘Downhill Racer’ is instead a pure, diamond-eyed meditation on the meaning of sport and the hefty price tag attached to gold. But it’s also the most riveting, revealing and thrillingly shot sports movie of them all. The ski scenes themselves are positively gut-clenching, with immediate, never-bettered point-of-view shots of the athletes tearing down the mountains, some especially gnarly wipe-outs and an ever-changing palette of spectacular Alpine vistas. If you’re looking for easy-going larks and bottom-of-the-ninth heroics, then maybe ‘Downhill Racer’ isn’t for you. But if you want to be challenged and electrified, then buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride. ALD
Watch the trailer to '
Downhill Racer' Read the original Time Out review

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Author: Adam Lee Davies


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22 comments
Ct
Ct

Should have been called the "50 greatest sports movies about men" ...speechless...

anya
anya

who the fuck are you??? you put the Sandlot above 40. you didnt even put Remember the titans on the list when it should be in the top 5. This list is a discrace to sports and the film industry. Take this site down.

John
John

Remember The Titans Should definetly be on this list!

SportMovieGod!
SportMovieGod!

What...Are you fucking kidding? Where is Chariots of Fire?

kafkasmonkey
kafkasmonkey

not too sure about downhill racer as 1st however it's so good to see john sayles 'eight men out' has been recognized for its excellence (just a shame his movies tends to so frequently get overlooked)

Rob
Rob

The list is far from complete. How do you have a top fifty and Rudy does not show up??

Ed Smith
Ed Smith

Where the hell is The Color of Money? The Hustler may be a better film, a better character study, but it's not a better sports movie.

Dunk
Dunk

Where was "Tha Last Indian"? Truly superb film about racing.

Nick Telfer
Nick Telfer

Who picks these films and ranks them? What about NO LIMIT about the TT races in the Isle of Man - classic. Also re. a baseball film - RHUBARB -look it up with the cat inheriting a baseball team and leading them to the world series the gangsters are trying to kill it and as well as those left out the will. Its no so sickly as a Disney film. And the cat got an animal oscar.

El Duderino
El Duderino

Good list, but I leave you with one notable omission: "There's no crying in baseball!"

guy
guy

Spetters at 5 and Seabiscuit not in the top 50????

Tim
Tim

I'm no great fan of Chariots of Fire, but you leave it out on the basis that it's dull and yet include When Saturday Comes? Chariots should be in the list. So should Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and so should White Men Can't Jump.

Rob
Rob

No Escape to Victory? You guys are crazy! You were right to ignore Million Dollar Baby, which is an awful film, one of the most overrated of all time.

Jenks
Jenks

icfecex, are you by any chance Burt Reynolds?

icfecex
icfecex

The last message. Here is Time Out's review of "The Longest Yard" The Longest Yard (1974) Director: Robert Aldrich From Time Out Film Guide A fiercely anti-authoritarian parable mixing broad, black comedy and fast action, this portrays the conflict between prison inmate Reynolds and head warden Albert when a football game is organised between prisoners and guards; the inmates see it as their chance to take revenge for all the brutality they've suffered, while the guards are pressurised by Albert into playing dirty and humiliating their opponents. The themes are dignity and compromise, freedom and betrayal; if it all gets bogged down occasionally in its macho-violence trip, it's nevertheless very exciting, very witty, and elevated above its action-movie status by Aldrich's deliberate references to Nixon in Albert's characterisation of the warden. Author: GA There you go! Thank you for the attention.

icfecex
icfecex

Of course, I meant "remakes", not "sequels".

icfecex
icfecex

Hi Tom, Thank you for the comment! Fair opinion on the SI list. However, you list has 2 baseball movies in the top 3 and 2 of those 3 have Robert Redford, so - at least on the top - you are as American-centric as SI. And, IMHO, while you have it right with "8 men out", "Bull Durham" is one that has shown more legs then "The Natural". Since you have shown some clues on how your list came up as it did, I look at your football (American) movies. "The Freshman" and "North Dallas Forty" deserve to be there, "The Best Of Times" I have not seen and "Any Given Sunday" is guilty to the utmost degree of conventionalism. Therefore, I ask you again: Why "The Longest Yard" is not here, since all the elements that are praised in the comments to the movies are present on it? Is this Robert Aldrich masterpiece being punished because of the horrible sequels (the one with Adam Sandler and the soccer adaptation with Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham)? If so, please reconsider.

s ford
s ford

No "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" or 'This Sporting Life"?

tom huddleston
tom huddleston

Hi, icfecex. There are some decent movies on that SI list, but it's a list of mainstream American movies (except, ironically, 'Chariots of Fire', which we left out because, well, it's a bit dull), focusing almost exclusively on the big American sports: baseball, American 'football' and boxing. We tried to be a little more global with our choice of movies and a little more interesting in our choice of sports (moto-cross, bobsled, rollerball). But then, I very much doubt if the writers of Sports Illustrated have actually seen 'Tokyo Olympiad', 'Spetters' or even 'Downhill Racer', so its perhaps not surprising their list is so uninspiring.

icfecex
icfecex

Ok, since in your list only four films were made in 2001 or after, I think it is fair to compare it with Sports Illustrated’s list on the same subject made in 2001. Here is the list with SI's rank / Title / Year / Time Out's Ranking. 1. Bull Durham (1988) [21] 2. Raging Bull (1980) [8] 3. Rocky (1976) [23] 4. Hoosiers (1988) [24] 5. Body and Soul (1947) [6] 6. The Hustler (1961) [11] 7. Chariots of Fire (1981) [-] 8. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) [-] 9. Slap Shot (1977) [9] 10. Jerry Maguire (1996) [-] 11. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) [48] 12. The Natural (1984) [3] 13. The Bad News Bears (1976) [18] 14. North Dallas Forty (1979) [26] 15. Breaking Away (1979) [14] 16. Field of Dreams (1989) [-] 17. Fat City (1972) [16] 18. Damn Yankees (1958) [-] 19. The Harder They Fall (1956) [-] 20. The Set Up (1949) [-] I think that SI’s list puts your list into perspective. “Chariots Of Fire� was not on your list. Think about it.

Ray Hyland
Ray Hyland

great call on No.1, saw it on bbc 2 one saturday and thought it was lush.

icfecex
icfecex

"The Longest Yard" is not here? Shame on you! Prison / football / life brutality together on one film. Even manipulation of sports results! Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert on their prime. Prisoners against guards. 70's! I am sorry, but this list is not worth a... And please do not tell me that "The Longest Yard" is just a prison film: Would it be a film if you took away the football scenes and final match? Of course, it it had been a cricket match... straight to number one!



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