Friday, September 16, 2011

Okay, which sports movies do I like?

I haven't done a Flickchart Tuesdays for a couple weeks. This week, it falls on a Thursday. So be it.

Last Friday I opened up a can of worms when I said I didn't like sports movies in a piece about Gavin O'Connor's Warrior (which I hadn't/haven't seen). I don't mean it was a can of worms in the sense that you tore me a new one -- just that it was an issue I'd wanted to broach on the blog for a long time now, but hadn't previously done. Now that the can is open, I want to dig deeper into it -- you know, to find the worms at the bottom, the ones that were squished by having all the other worms on top of them.

(Note: Although I owned up to the mistake in my comments section for that post, I thought I should repeat it here: My entire premise for the post was somewhat flawed. I thought (assumed?) that Warrior was a boxing movie, so the entire post was about boxing movies -- in fact, Warrior is about mixed martial arts. That may be splitting hairs, but I thought I should mention it here anyway just to set the record straight.)

I have this general idea in my head that I don't like sports movies, or at least that I am wary of them. Of course, that's not entirely true as I have some sports movies ranked very highly in Flickchart. Also, as I tried to get into last Friday, not all sports movies are created equal. Some sports movies are "sports movies" in the way we tend to think of them, where an underdog athlete/team overcomes huge obstacles or a huge talent gap to beat the favored Goliath, who is also probably kind of an asshole. Then there are some sports movies that just exist in and around the world of sports, concentrating on the characters rather than pointing toward the outcome of a climactic game.

For the purposes of this post, where I will look at my favorite sports movies, I'm not going to draw a distinction between the two categories. And at the end, I'm going to see how the list breaks down, between traditional and non-traditional sports movies. I think it'll be quite educational.

I'm also interested to see how the movies on this list are divided between the various sports. Since baseball is my favorite sport, will the lion's share of my favorite sports movies be baseball movies? Or will the sheer quality of the movie trump all other considerations, making the sport in question irrelevant? Of course, this can never be a perfectly fair exercise, since I'm quite sure I've seen more movies about baseball than I've seen about any other sport. I also know that I tend to like the presentation of baseball on film more than I do some other sports, particularly basketball. Basketball is my second favorite sport, yet I think basketball movies are almost always lacking.

In choosing what I consider to qualify as a sports movie, I'm going to make some judgment calls. For example, I'm not going to count Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which would be very highly ranked if I did count it. This may be obvious, since professional wrestling is staged -- thereby removing it from the realm of "sport." But it's sort of a gray area. Would I include The Wrestler if it were the same movie, except that Mickey Rourke were playing a boxer? I guess I would, but it's a tough call -- it's still more about him, his character and his demons than it ever is about competition and athletic outcomes. I guess it will be a "know it when I see it" type situation, and I will include the ones that pass my sniff test.

Incidentally, I should note that Flickchart has a perfectly good filter that could tell me right off the bat what movies it considers to be sports movies. Just by using that filter I could immediately have my top ten (which I will discuss) and my 11-20 (which I will only list). However, the spirit of this exercise is not to use the filter, but rather, just to drill down through my rankings to see what I come up with. It's a little bit more interactive that way, and I get to choose what I think qualifies -- rather than having someone else choose that for me.

Okay. Shall we begin?

1. Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson). I guessed that this would be my favorite sports movie, and indeed, it is. Not surprisingly, it's about baseball, and not surprisingly, it isn't about the outcome of a particular game. What better way to please a sports fan who doesn't like sports movies, than to make the movie about the love of the game itself, and use it to help explore the relationship between a father and a son? Few images in sports movies are as iconic as the line of cars winding through the darkened roads leading up to the baseball field in an Iowa cornfield. Of course, the climax -- not a World Series game, but a simple father-son game of catch -- gets me every time. Flickchart: #126

2. The Karate Kid (1984, John G. Avildsen). I wasn't sure at first if I should include this, because I tend to think of it as a coming-of-age story first and foremost. But heck, karate is a sport, right? I wouldn't want to say otherwise, lest a bunch of martial arts devotees come up to me on the street and kick me in the windpipe. My highest-ranked David vs. Goliath sports movie ... and yeah, the Goliath sure is an asshole in this movie. In fact, couldn't you say that Daniel-sahn is the ultimate underdog, and Mr. Miyagi the ultimate coach? Flickchart: #224

3. Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone). You may recall in my aforementioned piece on Warrior that I described this as my favorite boxing movie of all time, and also told you that I hadn't seen either of the two Rocky movies that came before it. You may also recall that I love this movie so much because I had it on videotape when I was a kid, and watched it probably ten times. Rocky III is an interesting kind of underdog movie, because the former heavyweight champion of the world is the one who's the underdog. Not your typical underdog at all, but it works in this movie, in part because they make Mr. T such an (I'll say it again) asshole as the physically superior Goliath. At least Hulk Hogan is a good sport after Rocky comes back to whip him. (Funny tie-in to what I said about The Wrestler earlier -- in Rocky III, wrestling is treated as if it were real.) Flickchart: #226

4. Major League (1989, David S. Ward). My second favorite baseball movie is in fact a typical David vs. Goliath type sports movie, but I still love it. (I actually name-checked this in last week's post as well.) There's something about that goofy group of misfits they get to play the woebegone Cleveland Indians that just makes this movie so lovable. Perhaps what I also like about it is that the big finale does not involve them winning the World Series -- it just involves them winning the division, hence making it to the playoffs. Fictitious sports movies where the grand finale involves something less than the whole enchilada have their own kind of charm and restraint. Flickchart: #264

5. Eight Men Out (1988, John Sayles). And baseball rears its head again. And here we have our first sports movie that's a recreation of actual events. This kind of sports movie theoretically interests me more than the David vs. Goliath sports movie, because I know whatever the outcome was, it was not the result of a screenwriter dreaming up some wild and improbable ending. In fact, the outcomes of the games in Eight Men Out are anticlimactic by design, since the movie's about the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. Very definitely a period piece about integrity and honor, not to mention the corruption of the purity of a sport Sayles clearly loves, than a straight sports movie. Flickchart: #282

6. Cobb (1994, Ron Shelton). One of my favorite biopics of all time just happens to be about one of the greatest baseball players of all time. It is borderline in terms of whether it qualifies here, because it's much more about an irascible old man and the sportswriter who's trying to write a biography of him, than it is actually about baseball itself. In fact, if memory serves, there is only a single scene devoted to Ty Cobb's on-field exploits, which is included to demonstrate his cruel and ruthless nature -- as he steals second and then third base, he comes in spikes up at the fielder waiting to tag him out, seeming to relish the harm he inflicts on the opposing player. Still, my own personal definition of a sports movie is broad enough to include Shelton's underappreciated gem. Flickchart: #474

7. He Got Game (1998, Spike Lee). The first movie on this list that isn't about either baseball or fighting. (Or in the case of Cobb, both.) I wouldn't have immediately produced this title as my favorite basketball movie of all time, but it makes sense that it is. And of course, it makes sense that it isn't about actual games -- basketball game choreography tends to be some of the sloppiest sports choreography in movies. In fact, like Field of Dreams, it's mostly about the relationship between a father and a son. I also like the way the film touches on the business aspects of sports, how Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) is trying to resist the corrupting influences of sports agents (before he's eligible to use them). Of course, since it's Spike Lee and Lee loves basketball, it's not surprising he'd make a good basketball movie -- an intelligent basketball movie. This movie also has to do with why I love NBA player Ray Allen so much -- even before he became a member of my hometown Boston Celtics. Flickchart: #499

8. Bull Durham (1988, Ron Shelton). And the Hollywood director most known for being dedicated to sports movies makes his second appearance on the list. I must say my appreciation of Bull Durham is more abstract than the other films on this list -- I remember liking it a lot, but I've seen it only once, and I elevate it in my rankings based more on its general reputation than on a specific love I have for it. In fact, I can't even remember if there's a climactic game in which Crash Davis, Nuke LaLoosh et al are involved -- I suspect there is, but I couldn't say for sure. So maybe this is more of a romantic comedy than a straight-up sports movie, but in no world are you not going to say that Bull Durham is a sports movie. Flickchart: #509

9. Blue Crush (2002, John Stockwell). This is another fringe inclusion, because it's a lot more about teenagers coming of age and a bunch of beautiful Hawaiian scenery than sports. But at the heart of the story is a surfing competition, so I'm including it here. It may be sacrilege to some of my readers (I'm thinking of one in particular) that I am counting this as my favorite surfing movie of all time, but it really worked for me, and I've been longing to go back for a second visit to see if I wasn't crazy. Flickchart: #513

10. Bring It On (2000, Peyton Reed). And we finish the discussion portion of the list with possibly another cheat. You don't think "sports movie" when you first think of Bring It On -- several other genres would occur to you first. However, there's no doubt that cheerleaders are incredible athletes, and just as I wouldn't want to cross a karate expert by telling him his pursuit is not a sport, neither would I want to cross a cheerleader. (Sharp nails.) Bring It On builds toward the big showdown with the rival team at the end, just as dozens of other sports movies do. It's most likely the other aspects of this movie -- the cheery, bubblegum world, Kirsten Dunst at her most spunky and fetching -- that cause me to rank it as highly as I do. But the sports aspect also works for me because it's not an underdog team trying to rise up -- it's the multi-time state championship trying to hang onto glory under a new regime, and make itself respectable after a cheating scandal. Neither does the film have a strictly predictable outcome ... though you can predict it pretty easily if you know anything about Hollywood racial politics, and can sense the subtleties in how the rival inner-city team is portrayed. Flickchart: #597

And now, the honorable mentions:

11. Surf's Up (2007, Ash Brannon & Chris Buck). Flickchart: #613
12. When We Were Kings (1996, Leon Gast). Flickchart: #686
13. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese). Flickchart: #704
14. Seabiscuit (2003, Gary Ross). Flickchart: #709
15. We Are Marshall (2006, MdG). Flickchart: #715
16. The Karate Kid Part II (1986, John G. Avildsen). Flickchart: #752
17. Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James). Flickchart: #812
18. Happy Gilmore (1996, Dennis Dugan). Flickchart: #889
19. Caddyshack (1980, Harold Ramis). Flickchart: #906
20. Chariots of Fire (1981, Hugh Hudson). Flickchart: #911

So, no hockey movies make my top 20. Consistent with my sports fandom in general. Also, I've really only seen one or two hockey movies. In fact, I can't immediately think of another hockey movie I've seen other than Miracle (ranked at #1694).

The sport I'm not seeing here, which I do really love, is tennis, but that's because there are almost no movies about tennis. The only movie devoted to tennis that I've ever seen is Wimbledon, currently at #1568 (which is too low -- it's a sweet movie).

So I feel like I had to make exceptions all over the place on this list. For example, once I included Blue Crush, I felt like I needed to include what is apparently my second favorite surf movie (blasphemy again): Surf's Up, which is actually an animated movie. Did I expect an animated movie to appear on this list? I did not. But you have to make the judgment calls as you see 'em. And part of me even wonders if surfing movies should show up here, since they are sort of their own genre. If there had started to be more of them, I might have arbitrarily excluded them.

There were also some movies I didn't include that might have made it in under logic I'd used previously. If I include surf movies, do I include skateboarding movies? Well, I didn't, passing up the opportunity to include Dogtown and Z-Boys on this list.

Not surprisingly, baseball was the leader here, but not by as much as I expected: Five films out of the top 20, all appearing in the top 10. Oddly enough, boxing was the next most prevalent, with three movies -- even after I said last week that I didn't like boxing movies. Then again, I've probably seen more movies about boxing than I have about either basketball or football -- strange as that may be to say -- so it doesn't surprise me that a couple more of them showed up here.

In terms of what kind of sports movies they were, it seems clear that most of them were not of the David vs. Goliath variety. In fact, the only ones I'd describe that way are the two Karate Kid movies, Rocky III, Major League, Surf's Up and Happy Gilmore. The rest were in-and-around sports type movies, as well as documentaries and recreations of events that really happened.

Useful exercise, I thought. What about you?

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