A Salute to the Olympics, An Ode to Sports Movies

The 2016 Olympics kick off today in Brazil, and in true Idle Time form, we’re commemorating this epic contest of nations with a list of some of our favorite sports movies.

Our collective is delighted to have long-time friend and impeccable lifestyle blogger, Christine Amorose, collaborate on this particular list, as she has the most genuine love of sports movies of anyone I know. Before settling down to watch the opening ceremonies tonight, get a dose of locker room inspiration reminiscing over these classic sport tales!

C’est ChristineConfession: I love sports movies. Just love them. Give me a story with an underdog who overcomes adversity and comes out on top (wins state, brings home the gold, total knockout in the 11th round!) and I am hooked. The thing about sports movies is that they’re always feel-good stories. They give you something to root for: a person,a team, a town, a country.

I grew up playing sports and watching sports. To me, sports are mostly about community: playing on a team binds you to your teammates and cheering for a team instantly turns strangers into friends. Sports movies manage to bottle up this feeling and turn you into a fan, to make you part of the community who’s behind the protagonist.

TyrannofloresRex: While Christine loves sports movies, for the most part, I can’t stand them. They are always the same, it’s the same underdog story, it’s the same story of perseverance in the face of adversity, blah blah. I know you’re thinking, “Who doesn’t like that?”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those stories, there’s just no surprise in them. I know what’s going to happen, I know the gist of the inspirational speech. Why am I going to waste time on something when I already know the end? Now, my aversion to sports in my youth probably has played some part in how I feel about sports movies, but sometimes those stories come just shy of being propaganda. At their worst, sports movies perpetrate narratives that supports outdated ideas in America (think of something like The Blind Side). If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s using movies to do wrong!

CC: I remember the moment when we realized that our ever-inspirational college lacrosse coach was simply quoting Miracle during timeouts: even if it wasn’t original, it still had the desired effect. Great sports movies remind you how great you can be and how much farther you can go. It’s a testimony of the power of perseverance and determination. And because basically every good sports movie is “inspired by a true story” you’ll feel like it actually IS possible. 

Sports movies aren’t usually very nuanced. There is a good team and a bad team, the team you cheer for and the team you boo. You want the good guy to win and the opponent to lose.

TFR: While I think it’s fair to criticize the cultural politics of sports movies, there is something about them that I’ve grown to admire. It took me years to really appreciate the dedication of athletes and the drama of competition. I rediscovered sports in my twenties. I began watching basketball as a way to bond with my mom and new step-dad. I found an appreciation for the leisure of sports, drinking beers while Frolfing or dressing up as a super hero to play dodgeball. 

Despite never playing a day in my life, I strangely found myself with the opportunity to help coach a middle school basketball team with some friends. We had a terrific group of boys, a cast of odd, but lovable characters, and together we became champions! Now I was the coach giving inspirational talks, I was the coach concerned that a student’s grades would get him kicked off the team, and my friends and I would spend hours after practice devising plans for our next game. I had become a sports movie cliche, but I was loving it.

CC: The best sports movies are able to layer on something important beyond the sports– racial diversity, gender equality, overcoming poverty –to define that good goes beyond the field. Good is about supporting your teammates no matter what color their skin is and understanding that your body is capable of whatever you put your mind to. That’s why you root for the good guy: because they’re not only great on the field, but off.

TFR: To reach the top of your game as an athlete or artist takes blood, sweat, and sacrifice. Respect for  the determination that it takes to excel in any field should be unilaterally applied, even if the processes involved are technically different. I could list a bunch of metaphors about how filmmaking is a team sport, but the bottom line would be that the connection between sports and movies is elemental. Sports are all about intent and obstacle. Cinema is driven by drama, and the world of professional sports are inherently dramatic. Both industries thrive on spectatorship, and more importantly, it’s the relationship between spectator and content that makes watching either so special. The two fit together so perfectly, both connecting with something primal inside of us, that it’s no wonder we like to see true-life sports stories told as movies.

CC: I’m not here to get into a “best sports movies of all time” debate. Everyone has their favorites, and these are mine. Bonus of all of the below: they’re all based on true stories!

1. Remember the Titans (Directed by Boaz Yakin, 2000): A small town Virginia high school is forced to integrate in the early 1970’s—and so is the football team. Emotions run high, but football comes first. (Of course!) Bonus: the soundtrack is so, so, so good.

2. Miracle (Eric Guggenheim, 2004): Nothing better than a good USA versus Russia hockey game when the red, white and blue prevails against all odds—in the middle of the thickly tense Cold War. This movie is like an inspirational speaker on patriotic steroids.

3. The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010): I love the camaraderie aspect of team sports movies, but really, boxing is the ultimate for sports movies: Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man are all excellent. But The Fighter is just such a solid underdog, wrong-side- of-the- tracks story.

4. A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992): We’ve got a woman running for president, and the foundation for that sort of female bad-ass- ness came from the women who played in a professional baseball league during WW2. It’s got some serious feminist undertones and an A+ cast.

TFR:  I don’t consider myself an expert on sports or anything, I just picked my favorite movies that had sports as a big part of the story. These movies subvert the expectations of average sports movies, in the best way possible. Some are real, some aren’t, but they’re all really entertaining stories. I also did a Top 5, cause that’s how Idlers roll (and because when Christine sent me this list to proof, I forgot how to count).

 

1. When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) – When Christine talks about being “good” both on and off the field, the first person I think of is the Greatest, Muhammad Ali. This film chronicles the epic 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle”, in which Muhammad Ali flew to Zaire to reclaim his title belt (which was stripped from him after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War) from the imposing George Foreman. The story unfolds through candid documentary footage and the testimonies of fans and friends who witnessed the fight (hearing George Plimpton describe the night he came to Zaire is so eloquent, it’s comedic). Not only do we get an intimate look inside the Ali camp leading up to fight, we see Africa in a way rarely shown in Western films, and how this boxing match transcended mere sports to become a fight between two different ideas. Ali’s rhetoric is a bit radical, but his intellect, his ad-libbed poetry, the physical strength he wields with such grace, is mesmerizing. What makes this film so compelling is put best by one of Ali’s trainers, Drew Bundini Brown: “This is real! Hollywood come here and take these kind of scenes and have somebody in the movies playin’ his life–this is real! We don’t pick up a script…”

 

2. Beerfest (Jay Chandrasekhar, 2006) – In a perfect world, drinking would be a sport, and I’d have what it takes to go pro. In the real world, drinking alcohol competitively is fundamentally stupid and can lead to trouble real quick. But in movie world, Beerfest is the funniest spoof of the archetypal sports story, lampooning every cliche the genre relies on. The plot surrounds a rag-tag group of American drinking buddies who must win an international beer drinking competition against a team of evil Germans. Characters include a pair of brothers trying to save the family business, a nerdy, Jewish outcast who wants to prove he’s worth his weight in beer, a good ol’ boy, who dies, then is replaced by his brother, who is exactly like him, and my favorite, Barry Badrinaff, a scoundrel with a severe ping-pong injury trying to redeem his past. This is my favorite sports comedy and it’s the last great picture by the Broken Lizard crew, and they stuff it with great visual gags and quotable lines.

 

3. Personal Best (Robert Towne, 1982) – Produced, written, and directed by legendary Hollywood scribe Robert Towne, this is one of the most thoughtful looks at the psychology of an athlete ever put on film. The story follows Chris Cahill (Marial Hemingway) a young track athlete with her eyes set on the next Olympics. The film chronicles her training, her development, and her relationships, both professional and romantic, in painstaking detail.  Chris’s pier and lover, Tory (Olympian Patrice Donelly), and her coach, Terry (Scott Glenn) act out the conflict of duality within Chris’s character, exploring feminist themes along the way. Not only are the characters fascinating, the attention the cinematography gives to the technique and physique of the athletes is beautiful. The way it’s filmed definitely owes something to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.

 

4. Space Jam (Joe Pytka, 1996) – I respected Michael Jordan as a kid, but I’m not going to lie, I was a way bigger fan of Bugs Bunny. The pairing of one of my favorite cartoons with maybe the most revered figure in sports at the time was a bridge between me and several friends. The story is so ridiculous, it’s fun to just say it allowed: A famous athlete rediscovers his love of the basketball after competing in a high stakes game, in which he teams up with a bunch of cartoon characters that live in the center of the earth, against a group of aliens that stole the talent of famous NBA players using a magic basketball. MJ’s acting leaves something to be desired, but Billy West, Dee Bradley Baker, and Bob Bergen  do a fine job of filling in Mel Blanc’s big shoes. Bill Murray’s mere presence is outrageous, and Space Jam was throwing him in “just because” long before Zombieland thought it was cool. I could try to defend the influence of this film on the hearts and minds of kids everywhere, but I think that would be best left to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine.

 

5. Olympia: Festival of the Nations & Festival of Beauty (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938)– I would feel guilty as a movie fan if this movie wasn’t mentioned, on today of all days. While He Got Game may be my favorite basketball story (with a terrific opening sequence) and The Sandlot remains a classic tale of friendship and baseball, Olympia is maybe the most pure sports movie, using the art of cinema to chronicle the 1936 Olympic games. Though this movie’s reputation is somewhat tainted by Riefenstahl’s affiliation with the Nazis (she was booted out of America while promoting the film when the public became aware of the Jewish Pogroms in Nazi Germany), as sheer cinematic spectacle, no other movie gets close to elevating the athlete, their strength of will and determination, as works of visual beauty. Even though it doesn’t have the personal narrative that other sports movies depend on, it’s still packed with excitement and drama because of how wondrous it makes the reality of the Olympics feel.

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