breaking away

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition we take a look at some of the best underdog sports movies you’ve probably never seen.)

I’m not a big fan of sports films in general, and it’s due at least in part to my disinterest in the sports themselves. The only ones I actively participate in, as a player and/or spectator, are tennis and racquetball. Neither sport has exactly lit up the multiplex, and while I have a soft spot for the goofiness of Wimbledon the dearth of truly good tennis movies means I don’t see my sporting interests represented up on the screen.

That changes, though, when the subject is tweaked a bit into the form of underdog sports movies. That’s a subject even someone like me can fully get behind, and thankfully filmmakers are happy to oblige. Were this a “best of” list with no other qualifiers, it would include the two actual best, but I think enough of you have seen Breaking Away (1979) and Lucas (1986) that adding them to a list of movies you haven’t seen would be preposterous and unsportsmanlike. You have seen them right? Right?! Breaking Away is among the very best American films, period, and Lucas stands tall as an underdog sports tale that succeeds while subverting the myriad tropes of the sub-genre. Seriously, seek them out immediately if you haven’t already seen them as they will re-calibrate the meaning of pure joy for you.

Keep reading for a look at the best underdog sports movies you probably haven’t already seen.

offside

Offside (2006)

The Iranian soccer team has pulled off a minor coup and qualified for the World Cup, but women in the country, by law, are forbidden from attending men’s sporting events. What’s a female soccer fan to do but dress up like a man and risk imprisonment for a glimpse of the game?

Jafar Panahi‘s slightly satirical look at his country’s ridiculous laws isn’t quite the norm for an underdog sports tale. For one thing it’s the fans, not the players, who are the underdogs hoping to pull out a win in accomplishing their goal. For another, we never really see the game in action. We hear it just as we hear the crowd of men in the stands cheering and hollering throughout the match, but the details of the game come to viewers solely through the play by play chatter of the guards sneaking a peek while standing over their prisoners – the women who risked jail because they wanted to watch a sporting event and support their home team.

Panahi’s best known for more “important” films like The White Balloon, The Circle, and This Is Not a Film, but while this somewhat sillier entry in his filmography goes for laughs, it does so on very serious footing. It walks a fine line, as many of his movies do, between criticizing his country’s strict laws and celebrating its people and culture. Much of this film’s fun comes in witty exchanges between female prisoners and male guards as they debate the weak rationale behind such laws and bond over a shared love of the game. It feels absurd on its face, exactly the tone Panahi’s looking for, while never quite shying away from its more serious implications sitting just beneath the surface.

Buy Offside on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

love and basketball

Love & Basketball (2000)

Two pre-teens meet, fall in and out of friendship, and chart their paths towards becoming professional basketball players. They’re far different journeys, though, as only one of the pair is a man.

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood broke through with 2014’s brilliantly satisfying Beyond the Lights, but viewers who’d been paying attention have been in her corner since her feature debut. As the title implies, the film explores the highs and lows of both romance and the game, and it treats both with equal affection and skill. The two head to college together, but while Quincy seems to have a road paved with golden access, Monica’s is a path loaded with more obvious obstacles. Both navigate with success and failure, but their greatest struggle comes as they try to square their feelings towards each other with their ambitions on the court.

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps are both terrific in the lead roles and convince at every turn as determined individuals hoping to make it work with their team and each other. Both characters face challenges, but the film is smart enough to know that the ones facing Monica are far greater – and inordinately more frustrating as her talent is pure and clear. There are no easy answers here, but there are also no such things as insurmountable odds when it comes to love and sport ball.

Buy Love & Basketball on Blu-ray from Amazon or watch via Amazon video.

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