Posted on Friday, July 27th, 2012 by Jordan Hoffman
The 2012 Summer Olympics are in full swing and you know what that means: once again you are looking up the definition of the word “dressage.”
The sports film, when done right, can be one of the most exhilarating genres of all. And once you get past The Fighter, The Sandlot and Hoosiers you’ll find that there are more and more treasures out there. This list just scratches the surface of great, lesser-known movies out there whose subjects match events playing out in London over the next few weeks.
Breaking Away(1979); Peter Yates, director.
Breaking Away is really a film about the end of adolescence, and a kid with a dream figuring out his place in the world. Dennis Christopher’s Dave Stoller is one of my all time favorite film characters – a cycling enthusiast obsessed with Italy who puts on a phony accent around girls and around the house. He comes from the wrong side of the tracks – a blue collar family in a college town, and the big cycling race at the end is his one shot to prove his worth.
Breaking Away features one of the finest supporting casts in movies. Come pal around with the very young Dennis Quaid, Dennis Stern and Jackie Earle Haley. Also, Paul Dooley, the used car salesman Dad, in perhaps his funniest performance ever.
This movie was a massive critical and commercial success at the time (it even inspired a terrible TV spinoff) but I have a hunch that the youngsters today maybe haven’t seen it. I can safely call it a masterpiece, perhaps even a perfect film.
Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India(2001); Ashutosh Gowariker, director.
Cricket is weird. Imagine baseball, but even more boring. And yet by the end of this four hour (!) film you’ll be cheering the bowlers and batsmen from the first sticky wicket to the last innings out. (No, what I just said probably isn’t technically correct, but I really don’t mind offending Cricket fans: your game is horrible.)
Lagaan tells the story of an impoverished village during the British Raj. They are getting the screws put to them by the Man, but whereas in the American West a call would go out for the Magnificent Seven, here the community rallies for an all-or-nothing Cricket match. If they win, they shall have financial relief. If they lose, they will be taxed to death.
It may sound preposterous, but with a four hour length you really get to care for these characters. Plus, as in all good Indian films, there are a few musical numbers. (Music by A. R. Rahman, I should add.)
If you are unfamiliar with Bollywood films, this is a good gateway drug. It has all of the tell-tale beats (and even one of the biggest stars, Aamir Khan) but is still very Western in its approach. If you dig Lagaan it’s only a matter of time before you are renting Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.
Personal Best (1982); Robert Towne, director.
When Personal Best came out it was heralded as an IMPORTANT film. Then, time moved on, social acceptance of homosexuality increased and opinion on this one somewhat soured. Looking at it now, with the gay angle being just part of the fabric of the film, the subtleties of the story come more into focus.
Mariel Hemingway is a young Olympic track and field athlete who has spent her entire young life in training. She meets an older woman also on the US team and she falls in love. (Or is she seduced?) Is the relationship for real, or is this just a way to angle for glory?
Towne’s film was modern for its time, but now is a glorious time capsule of the world of sports 30 years ago, as well as our attitudes toward sexuality.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); Tony Richardson, director.
Based on the Alan Sillitoe short story you probably read in high school, Tom Courtenay stars in one of the classic examples of Angry Young Man cinema.
This artfully composed film tackles Britain’s class structure and rebellious youth. (This ain’t Hogwart’s, that’s for sure.) It uses the central metaphor of the race to get inside the main character’s head, and is shot in a remarkable, documentary-like style. I don’t want to give too much away but it ends big. Big enough to inspire an Iron Maiden song, anyway.