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The Best Sports Movie Of All Time (this year)

written by rick June 13, 2016
The Best Sports Movie Of All Time (this year)

The people of a small village in Victorian India stake their future on a game of cricket against their ruthless British rulers.
Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker
Produced by: Reena Dutta, Aamir Khan
Starring:
Aamir Khan
All the way back in March, I announced The Great Sports Movie Bracket of 2016, with the intention that a victor would be crowned by the end of March Madness. That … did not happen.

It turns out watching 16 movies, discussing them, and then deciding on victors in individual pairings takes a little while.

But never fear! Just in time for the inevitable victory of my Golden State Warriors over my Cleveland born-and-bred girlfriend Carrie’s Cavaliers (sorry, love, you know it’s true), I am pleased to present the final decisions in each match-up.

The sweat, the struggle, the heartbreak, the glory! Who will prevail? Read on to find out.

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As you may or may not recall several months later, Carrie and I each picked four favorite sports movies. Another eight – none of which either of us had seen before – were determined by a very scientific process involving asking friends for recommendations. The entries were then seeded based on vote tallies and a bracket was determined.

THE SWEET 16 (IN WHICH WE RAMBLE ON AT SOME LENGTH)

Raging Bull vs. North Dallas Forty

Winner: Raging Bull

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In a surprise to very few, Robert De Niro triumphed over Nick Nolte, and Martin Scorcese over, um, Ted Kotcheff. (Kotcheff would not appear in the Games again; Ol’ Grizzly Nick, however, will have another shot down the road.)

Raging Bull was my top pick, which I referred to in my intro as “a bracing, tense experience, and one of my favorite films, period.” So it’s not surprising I stuck to my guns here. Carrie, who had never seen it, abhorred its physical and emotional violence but conceded that she was on the edge of her seat.

Neither of us particularly understood why North Dallas Forty, the prototypically gritty and dour 70’s portrait of down-and-out Texas football players, has a cover that makes it look like Caddyshack. North Dallas Forty is a number of things, and none of those things involve wacky hijinks or drinking champagne out of oversized cowboy boots.

Love & Basketball vs. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Winner: Love & Basketball

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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s perennial favorite, featuring endlessly lovable performances from both Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, topped Carrie’s list, a film she described as about “love, relationships, dreams, disappointment, supporting one another, and finding your priorities.” I love it plenty myself, and we concurred that it should advance here, edging out Tony Richardson’s kitchen-sink realism and Tom Courtenay’s iconic Angry Young Man.

However, it wasn’t as easy you might suppose! We were both struck by The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, particularly its cinematography and Courtenay’s performance. This is in many ways an austere film, but its examination of working-class rebellion, alienated British youth, and the freedom one can find in a chosen sport impressed us. Of all the films we first-watched for this series that didn’t move on in the tournament, this might well be a new favorite all the same.

White Men Can’t Jump vs. Murderball

Winner: White Men Can’t Jump

WHITE MEN CANT JUMP

Murderball is a fascinating documentary, a glimpse into a world neither of us were familiar with (or had ever really considered). But, visceral and heartbreaking as it is, there is simply no way it could triumph over Ron Shelton, King of the Sports Movie.

White Men Can’t Jump gamely (and hilariously) tackles issues of race, class, and gender, deploying sports movie tropes for what ends up amounting to a sensitive set of character studies. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson have rarely been this good, and Rosie Perez turns in the best performance of an illustrious career. It’s a powerhouse of a film, and the smartest comedy that also features 1,000 Yo Momma jokes around.

We were both ultimately frustrated by a lack of narrative coherence in Murderball, which is inherently interesting in terms of subject matter but seems to lose the thread in its last third. White Men Can’t Jump, on the other hand, starts and finishes strong. It’s a genre masterpiece with more on its mind than sports.

The Mighty Ducks vs. Slap Shot

Winner: The Mighty Ducks

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In one of our rare contests between films focused on the same sport, there was no contest. Despite spending several years in Minneapolis, I had, somehow, never seen The Mighty Ducks, and while I found it corny, I also thought it succeeded on its own terms. Carrie, on the other hand, confesses to growing up wanting to be a Mighty Duck, so Slap Shot had a lot of ground to cover if it was going to triumph.

It did not. In fact, we both found Slap Shot offhandedly nasty and unpleasant, with its litany of gay jokes and bargain-bin characterization. Neither effective as critique or comedy, we were mystified why it’s considered a classic. The formulaic gentleness of The Mighty Ducks won in a rout.

The Big Lebowski vs. Shaolin Soccer

Winner: The Big Lebowski

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I have received, and continue to receive, a bunch of guff from sports movie pedants who dispute The Big Lebowski’s claim to the genre. “Why is that even here?” they ask, holding signs outside my house and badgering me at the store. (Note: this doesn’t actually happen.)

Well, upon yet another rewatch, I started to agree with these critics. The Coen brothers’ ode to bowling, weed, and White Russians isn’t exactly a sports movie … but then it’s not exactly anything. It centers , hilariously and typically for my favorite filmmakers, around a competition that’s ultimately of no consequence: semifinals, actually, which we don’t even get to see. In a surprise turn of events, Carrie, initially very skeptical, ended up being more sympathetic to my nomination after rewatching it. The sport of bowling is the wobbly structure on which the shaky narrative hangs, and it serves multiple functions in the film. It’s a sports movie that isn’t interested in the sport, except as a means of community and connection.

Stephen Chow’s amusing and inventive Shaolin Soccer was a lot of fun, mashing up genre motifs and producing one of the single biggest laughs of our sport-related adventures (if you’ve seen it, you can probably guess which one). But The Dude abided and The Coens advanced.

A League of Their Own vs. Big Fan

Winner: Big Fan

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The first (but not the last) bona-fide upset!

Carrie’s enthusiasm for A League of Their Own notwithstanding, we were equally impressed with the pitch-black comedy of Big Fan, in which director Robert Siegel and star Patton Oswalt turn the genre lens to fandom. It’s the story of a crisis of faith masquerading as a football movie, and it mines unexpected depths.

It may just be my sensibility, but the saccharine quality of Penny Marshall can’t stand the cold light of day. In A League of Their Own, Geena Davis is winning and Tom Hanks is at his Tom Hanksiest, but the cutesy quality never really lets the film breathe. It’s still a pleasant diversion, but even Carrie, whose love of the film remains unvarnished, was blown away by the off-kilter and askew focus of Big Fan. It’s a cult favorite for a reason, and it won the day.

Breaking Away vs. Warrior

Winnter: Breaking Away

breaking away

Another “no contest” decision.

Warrior, we decided, is a mess, a muddled mix of tones and impulses that never grabbed either of us. The central, brotherly rivalry seemed unmoored, despite Tom Hardy’s fierce commitment to the role and Joel Edgerton’s biceps. Nick Nolte showed up again, many years and many beers down the line from his earlier, sexily mustachioed appearance in North Dallas Forty, but with no better result, as far as we were concerned.

Breaking Away? Oh, you mean the film about bikes, Italian opera-singing in the shower, the dreams of the future entertained by working-class kids on the cusp of adulthood in a Midwestern college town, and friendships forged, strained, and reinforced through ultimate cycling triumphs? Yeah, I already loved it, and Carrie just might’ve found her new favorite movie.

The Sandlot vs. Lagaan

Winner: Lagaan

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This was technically an upset – the unseen Bollywood production Lagaan edging out Carrie’s second-seed – but it was less surprising in the moment.

Despite routinely using the phrase, “You’re killing me, Smalls” in real-life, I’d never actually seen The Sandlot, and it’s pretty clear why: I missed it when I was 10, and I’ve never managed to be 10 again since. Like The Mighty Ducks, it’s a perfectly acceptable movie for youngsters, and even kind of sweet in its way. But the plodding narration seems like it was excised from a made-for-TV version of Stand By Me and generally hokey. Also, I didn’t really like the kids, which can’t help matters.

The real surprise was Lagaan. In two ways: first of all, that it’s four fucking hours long, and second, how much we enjoyed it. A Bollywood cricket movie didn’t seem like it would be up either of our alleys, but we adored every minute – the training montages, the romance, the songs, the anti-colonial narrative. It’s really just an immensely enjoyable film. People would come through the room while we watched and end up sitting for a while, unable to tear themselves away from a movie about a sport they don’t even understand particularly. It’s a Good Time At The Movies, as they say, and it beats the hell out of The Sandlot.

THE ELITE EIGHT (IN WHICH WE SPEED THINGS UP A BIT)

Raging Bull vs. The Big Lebowski

Winner: Raging Bull

raging bull2

A cursory look at bowling was enough to propel the Coens through the first round, but it couldn’t withstand this pairing. Raging Bull places you in the thick of its depiction, beating you mercilessly inside and outside of the ring. Disastrous machismo prevailed.

Love & Basketball vs. Big Fan

Winner: Love & Basketball

basketball-1024

While we were both impressed, somewhat unexpectedly, by the queasy-comic nuances of Big Fan, Monica and Quincy’s love – for each other, for the sport – will not be denied.

Breaking Away vs. White Men Can’t Jump

Winner: Breaking Away

breaking away2

Both my picks, and I would’ve been fine with either advancing. But Carrie’s adoration of Breaking Away proved too much even for my Ron Shelton boosterism. These are both immensely enjoyable films, but we agreed that Breaking Away is the more winning of the two, sports movie-wise. This match-up is still the definition of a can’t-lose proposal.

Lagaan vs. The Mighty Ducks

Winner: Lagaan

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Let’s face it: The Mighty Ducks was only really here because it faced off with the execrable Slap Shot. At the end of the day, it’s a goofball lark with Emilio Estevez and some kids. Lagaan is straight-up awesome, and has better dancing.

THE FINAL FOUR (IN WHICH WE DESPERATELY WRAP THIS THING UP, BEFORE THE GAME STARTS LATER)

Raging Bull vs. Breaking Away

Winner: Breaking Away

breaking away3

Are you surprised?

Love & Basketball vs. Lagaan

Winner: Lagaan

lagaan3

And here we met the single most difficult decision of the tournament.

Love & Basketball holds a special place in both of our hearts. Lagaan amazed, surprised, and entertained us for a solid four hours.

It could’ve gone either way, but the wily upstart knocked off the top-seed. Sports! They are unpredictable.

And so we arrive at the Championship. Breaking Away, initially seeded #2 in my bracket and suddenly beloved by Carrie, squaring off against the unseen Lagaan, recommended by some kind souls on The Dissolve Facebook group, a film neither of us had so much as heard of prior to this endeavor.

AND THE VICTOR……..

lagaan4

Lagaan

Despite my fond remembrance of Breaking Away, it was actually carried this far by, well, Carrie. Rewatching it, I found the comedy broader than I recalled, though the class aspects still resonated and, fundamentally, bikes are cool. As should be clear by now, Carrie simply adored it, for a whole host of eminently justifiable reasons.

But Lagaan simply has too much going for it. It is maximalist in the best sense: it’s bursting with life and fun. It’s a sport movie that goes out of its way to explain the sport (very helpful, for those of us who’ve never seen a cricket match), but integrates that explanation into a broader narrative encompassing a critique of colonialism, a lovely romance, and more. The requisite scenes in which the unlikely team is assembled are self-aware and funny, the performances are uniformly strong, the songs are catchy as hell, the dancing slaps an idiot smile on your face, and the plucky upstarts stick it to the prigs. What more do you want?

So there you have it. As of today, Lagaan is officially the greatest sports movie of all time.

We’ll see how it holds up next year, and if we can manage to get through this in fewer than four months next time.

Stay tuned, and get your ballots ready.

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