Beyond the Boston Marathon
Slap Shot (dir. George Roy Hill, 1977, 123 minutes)
PN1997 .S53 2002
It'd be easy to call Slap Shot, a Caddyshack on skates, but somehow I don't think that would be doing justice to the edgier and more extreme brand of humor in this movie. I don't know much about pro hockey but I found this to be one of the most rewarding comedies I've ever seen, period. If you're actually a hockey fan this will probably end up being a solid gold classic for you (if it isn't already). Paul Newman leads a struggling minor league squad as an aging player-coach who brings in three brawling, yet totally likeable, ice goons in an effort to stir the fan base and keep the team from folding. Hilarity ensues both on and off the ice. What makes this film so successful, aside from the ultra-observant writing, is the diverse cast of players, announcers, front office staff and wives/girlfriends. Everyone is distinct and pulls their weight when it comes to boosting the movie's comedy quotient, and Newman brings a quiet apprehensiveness to his role as a man fearing what his life will be after hockey when that's all he's ever known. Some of the most fun I've ever had watching any comedy or sports film.
Blue Chips (dir. William Friedkin, 1996, 93 minutes)
PN1997 .B5843 2005
Whether it's improper gifts and payments used to land a big name recruit, or shady academic "assistance" to a struggling star, or overactive boosters working behind the scenes it seems that every year, in every major college sport, there's a well publicized scandal of some kind. Blue Chips looks at the choices made by an elite college basketball coach (Nick Nolte) after his very first losing season. He's followed all of the rules for his entire career but after one bad year he finds himself under immense pressure to do whatever it takes to turn things around. Blue Chips is great in that it doesn't judge the activities of the coaches, players and "friends of the program" we see so much as make us wonder how anyone could expect to remain 100% clean in such a high-stakes, high-profile enterprise with millions upon millions of dollars involved. Aside from being a smart indictment of the hypocrisies of elite amateur athletics this movie is just plain fun, featuring cameos from a number of high-profile basketball personalities including Larry Bird, Rick Pitino, and Bobby Knight. Best of all: Shaq features in a large supporting role as an uber-talented recruit. If you've seen Kazaam you might have doubts regarding Shaquille O'Neal's ability to act, but in a move like Blue Chips, where he's essentially playing himself, his charisma and comic timing are much appreciated assets.
Pumping Iron (dir. George Butler and Robert Fiore, 1977, 85 mins, documentary)
GV546.5 .P86 2003
Whether or not bodybuilding is actually a sport is a matter of debate. What's completely indisputable is the fact that Pumping Iron continues to fascinate more than thirty years after its release. Before this film bodybuilding was a relatively fringe pursuit in the US. It took an Austrian ex-pat with a thick accent and a flair for showmanship to break through to the mainstream and help usher in the era of obligatorily chiseled action heroes, fitness magazines at every newsstand, and gyms on every corner. While introducing the viewer to a wide and colorful cast of characters, the main arc of the film is Arnold Schwarzenegger's quest to become a (then record) six time winner of the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding contest and the attempt by the crazy-intense Lou Ferrigno (of the Incredible Hulk TV series) to beat him out for the title. While he was light years away from becoming the action movie icon (and two-term California governor) that we know him as today, it's clear throughout Pumping Iron that "Ahnuld" had what it takes to reach the top from the very beginning. Even if you hate the very idea of someone spending six hours a day picking up metal and then putting it back down again, it's ridiculously fun to watch Schwarzenegger psychologically game his opponents and wax poetic on his competitive focus and love for lifting. Plus, the gym scenes are pretty compelling in themselves. A movie of its time that remains fun today.
Searching for Bobby Fischer (dir. Steve Zaillian, 1993, 109 minutes)
GV1439 .W35 W35 2006
OK so, chess is definitely not a sport, but if some of the things you admire about athletics include drive, focus, obsession, inexplicable natural gifts and cutthroat competition then Searching for Bobby Fischer is most definitely a sports movie. Based on the memoir of the same name by Fred Waitzkin, father of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, this film explores how a kind-hearted child's remarkable genius for a ruthlessly competitive game affects his relationship with his parents and his sense of self. Add in a failed and obsessive chess fanatic (Ben Kingsley) and a Washington Square Park chess hustler (Laurence Fishburne) who school the boy in opposite styles of play and an unsmiling nine-year-old chess automaton nemesis raised by an unscrupulous grandmaster and you have the makings of perhaps the best movie about a childhood devoted to competition. The film is punctuated by elegiac ruminations about Bobby Fischer, the brilliant and eccentric American world champion (also a prodigy) who, at the time of the film's release had been abroad and unheard from for almost 20 years.
Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James, 1994, 171 Minutes, documentary)
GV884 .A1 H66 2005
This is without doubt one of the greatest and most human of all documentaries. The people and events in it are 100% real, but you wouldn't have gotten a more surprising or rewarding narrative if you'd tasked a Hollywood screenwriter to come up with it. Spanning five years, Hoop Dreams follows Arthur Agee and William Gates, two young African-American basketball prospects from Chicago, as they're aggressively recruited by a mostly white suburban Catholic high school, and stays with them as they cope with the an unfamiliar school setting, the constant pressure to perform on the court, and the trials of an inner-city life of poverty. Spending such an extended period of time with their subjects granted the filmmakers a familiarity that allowed for remarkable on-camera ease and candor from the players, their families, and coaches. You're granted insight into the ruthless and exploitative world of elite high school athletics, the healing power of family in the face of tremendous strife, and the manner in which both success and failure can find us in the least expected of ways. At the end of the film, having seen Arthur and William mature from boys with wide-eyed hopes of the NBA to young men with equal amounts of pain and triumph in their pasts, you feel as if you've grown up with them. If you only ever watch one documentary on sports, make it this one - it's so much more than that.
The Foot Fist Way (dir. Jody Hill, 2006, 85 minutes)
PN1997.2 .F668 2008
Sensei Fred Simmons (Danny McBride of Eastbound and Down and Pineapple Express) is rude, dimwitted, egotistical and fantastically insecure. He's also a relentlessly compelling character. It's impossible to not be fascinated as he bumbles his way through a shaky marriage and his job as an instructor at an all-ages Tae Kwon Do academy in a suburban strip mall, managing to pretty much always say the wrong thing and look incompetent. Though he violates them in almost every word and action Fred sincerely believes in the principles of honor and character that are intrinsic to Tae Kwon Do. You end up wondering if someone like this could actually survive in the world, and that's just in the first twenty minutes. When Fred's Zen-creepy best friend and fellow sensei shows up for a road trip to see their favorite low-budget martial arts movie star the cringe inducing comedy kicks into overdrive.
Shaolin Soccer (dir. Stephen Chow, 2001, 113 mins, in Cantonese or English dub)
PN1993.5 .C4 S33 2004
Yeah, this movie has about as much to do with actual physics-bound soccer as the WWE has to do with NCAA wrestling. But just like Vince McMahon's stylized gladiator-theater Shaolin Soccer is LOUD, quirky and thoroughly entertaining. It's best not to get too hung up on the plot here, but the short version is that a wandering Shaolin master and his equally talented brother monks get recruited by an aged and fallen soccer star to take to the pitch against a team of evil opponents (conveniently named Team Evil) in the inevitable "big match" at the end of the film. Head-on performances, inspired slapstick and ridiculous visuals make this one of the funniest (if less subtle) sports comedies to come out in the last decade. This is pretty much what happens when you mix Rocky, The Bad News Bears and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon together.
Touching the Void (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2003, 107 minutes documentary)
GV199.92 .S57 A3 2004
You might go your entire life and never see a better film about mountain climbing. In 1985 two friends attempted to climb the unconquered west face of Siula Grande in Peru. They made it to the top well enough, but their descent was hampered by foul weather and food shortages... and then one of them shattered his leg in a fall. This a documentary that examines real events and has the full participation of the people who experienced them, but which also features stunning reenactments by actors and stunt double climbers. You won't look away. At bottom, Touching the Void is a movie about really, really, really wanting to live. It's hard to remember another film that features someone who, against such soul-crushing odds, decides to push through pain, isolation and a brutally inhospitable landscape in an effort to survive. A classic of the 2000s.
Wes Hazard, Media Services Assistant, O'Neill Library