Monday, January 25, 2010

10 Favorite Sports Movies (#6-10)

10. Downhill Racer (1969, Michael Ritchie)
"Skiing isn't much of a team sport."
Downhill Racer is a quiet movie where the cinematography sharply captures the angles and curves of a ski slope and here are several long takes that show skiing from the skier's point of view. It also tells the story of a champion like it is a tragedy. It's the story of a man who concentrates on honing his skiing skills so much that he ignores everything else. Skiers after all go down the slopes by themselves. They sit in a hotel room the night before a competition. by themselves. David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is the champion of the US ski team and he never falls in love, he is never interesting in a conversation, and he never expresses much emotion. Unless you talk to him about the one thing he loves to do, winning. Redford has the challenge of playing an emotionally detached character while making him believably interesting and he accomplishes the role with a great deal of nuance. David behaves like a champion (there is no underdog story here), like a man who is the best he is at what he does. Gene Hackman also co-stars as the coach who must hold his team together as they all have to deal with not being as good as Chappellet. In the meantime, David's relationship with his lover fails while his career succeeds.

9. Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
"If you build it, he will come."
Ray (Kevin Costner) is a modest farmer who while walking in his cornfield suddenly hears a voice from above deliver a message. With those words, Ray then sees the image of a baseball field in the middle of his corn field where Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta in his breakout role) will return to play along with other greats from the 1919 Black Sox. The movie requires sensible acting to ground the story and the cast is rounded out by Ray's relaxed wife Annie (Amy Madigan), a doctor (Burt Lancaster) who always wanted to play with the pros, and a writer (James Earl Jones) who used to be in love with baseball.  Yet the film doesn't lose any sensibility in the meantime because the story is more about baseball than any form of a religious message. The imagination in this movie is very tough to analyze. It is similar to Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart in which a man truly believed he had an imaginary friend (who happened to be a bunny). There is just something about the structure of this film that draws us into the believability of a man walking into a field to hear a voice. The movie never questions that event, instead it concentrates on Ray's struggle to build the field as he feuds against a corporate villain. There was a time when baseball was this peaceful and simplistic national pastime and this explains why the players from the past wish to return, to ward off the corporate business that sports have become.

8. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973, John D. Hancock)
"When I die, in the newspapers they'll write that the sons of bitches of this world have lost their leader."
Baseball catcher Bruce Pierson (Robert De Niro in his breakout role) learns that he will only have one more season left to play the sport since he has an incurable disease. This may sound like a morbid starting point for a sports movie but the catch (no pun intended) of this movie is that the team's pitcher, Henry Wiggins (Michael Moriarty), is the only man who finds out about Pierson's secret and decides to make Bruce's last season his most memorable. This dynamic is interesting because Wiggins is the star of the team who everyone worships while Pierson is the runt who everyone makes fun of and teases. The film follows the pair from spring training, to a strong pre-season start, to problems playing in the hot weather, to dissent from fellow players on the team, and all the way up to the final game of the year. The movie follows these players on the road as well and we see Henry and Bruce experience everything from falling in love with a prostitute to talking to telephone operators about the latest sports scores. The baseball very quickly takes a backseat to these characters and the film is not full of that many of those "inspirational sports moments." Instead, a majority of the inspiration comes from Henry and Bruce's relationship on the road and in the clubhouse (where Oscar-nominee Vincent Gardenia plays the team's manager who is just as humorous as he is good at giving inspirational speeches). Soon Bruce starts playing some of the best ball of his life and Henry is the man who is sure that Bruce's last months have joy and dignity.

7. Any Given Sunday (1999, Oliver Stone)
"Ever since college, people have been telling me what to do."
Any Given Sunday is 170 minutes long but it is the quickest movie you'll ever experience. The film is full of MTV style cuts, montages, violent close-ups, and jarring sound effects. Yet the film isn't just a masterful example of editing, the story survives the style despite the plot being relatively cliched. Stone casts a wide variety of actors to play an injured veteran quarterback, a doctor who allows injured players to play, the promiscuous wife of a team owner, a new quarterback who becomes an overnight sensation, and a coach who retains his wisdom despite the fact that his team is on a losing streak. Dennis Quaid is the injured quarterback who ponders retirement because his entire life has been dictated by his elders, but now he has had enough of the game. The quote at the beginning of this passage is from his character and this is truly one of Quaid's most endearing performances aside from Far From Heaven. James Woods and Matthew Modine are team doctors that constantly disagree (one thinks the other is letting injured players play just so the doctor can keep getting paid). Ann Margret plays the late owner's wife whose daughter (Cameron Diaz) has taken over the team because the wife can't see what her late husband saw in a "man's sport." Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) is the third string quarterback whose predecessors have been injured and he is so new to the game that he even throws up during a huddle. Yet Willie suddenly gets a hang of things and becomes the star of the team as the fame starts to get to his head leading him on a road to redemption. Finally, Al Pacino stars as Tony D'Amato, the coach of the Miami Sharks. Do I need to say more? Well the rest of the cast includes John C. McGinley, Aaron Eckhart, Jim Brown, Bill Bellamy, LL Cool J., and Charlton Heston. Yet somehow, this film remains underrated despite these wonderful performances.

6. Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh)
"Strap, God wants you on the floor."
There's something about high school and college sports that is just more exciting to me than pro. Just my opinion, but I feel like David Anspaugh knows this as well. I'm not knowledgeable enough about sports to know what it is about college/high school sports that makes them more exciting to me as a viewer, but Hoosiers captures the suspense and energy that I find in watching games from my high school on a local TV channel. Now I may not come from as small of a town as the one in this film, but I feel that this movie accurately captures small town America at its finest. The film shows the feeling of support behind a team whether it be from the guy who cuts your hair or the concerned parent at the town hall meeting. The film also uses the art of montage extremely well, setting up these shots of buses going back and forth across middle-America. Yet this film would be nothing without the performance of Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale. Norm is trying to make a comeback because of a scandal that sent him to this small town and we quickly see how efficient, skilled, experienced, kind, and rough of a man that he is. For such a complex character, he is so likable. Dennis Hopper also stars as Shooter, the alcoholic father of a player who Dale also tries to redeem along with himself. In short, the film is just as beautifully shot as it is enjoying.

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