As all good sports fans know, yesterday was Selection Sunday, in which brackets for the NCAA tournament and March Madness were revealed. I did not know this, as I am not a good sports fan, until my sport-savvier girlfriend Carrie informed me a few weeks back. However, if the two of us don’t have the same working knowledge of sports timelines, there is one thing we definitely agree on, and that is that sports movies are awesome.
So in the spirit of the season, we decided to watch several. Normal people would probably just move on from this discussion and turn on a movie; we, on the other hand, are nerds, so we turned it into a game. We each chose 4 top movies of the genre, and then polled others for their favorites. From here, we created a seeded bracket, with our respective top 4’s competing against the winners in general voting which neither of us had already seen. Here it is:
Throughout the month of March, these films will be going head to head, like so many NCAA basketball teams — whether it’s in pairings that make a certain amount of sense like The Mighty Ducks vs. Slap Shot, or less so, as when Big Fan squares off with A League of their Own. Winners will be decided on the basis of an ad hoc and arbitrary system of our own devising, and which we may change randomly if it pleases us.
Below, we each provide a case for our top picks as an introduction. Stay tuned for further exciting developments as things heat up.
CARRIE’S TOP FOUR SEEDS
#1: Love & Basketball
Many sports movies lead up to a climax of a championship, a big race, or a long-awaited game against a rival, but this one is just about the love of a sport, the dream of playing that sport, and the complication of balancing that dream with gender expectations, relationship expectations, and familial expectations. Although it’s a movie that’s really about love, relationships, dreams, disappointment, supporting one another, and finding your priorities, basketball is at the center of every conversation. And winning in this movie isn’t necessarily about the score, but about getting to play. Plus, I just love watching it. Every time. Over and over.
#2: The Sandlot
Its been over 20 years, and people are still seeking out The Sandlot. I only narrowly beat the single other customer in the video store to the one copy they had. The library had its one copy out, plus another hold in front of mine. And every other movie in our bracket was just… available. My initial thought when I think of The Sandlot is, strangely, a twinge of sadness. Mostly because its deep dose of nostalgia hits me hard. It’s a baseball game that has no beginning or end, no winner, and only momentarily even has a second team. It captures the magical ‘present’ moment of childhood, where imagination, friendship, adventure, and dreams are all unified into a perfect thing that is impossible to capture again. Maybe except in rewatching The Sandlot, and maybe that is why its hard to get a copy.
#3: Mighty Ducks
When I think of the quintessential sports move, the first thing that pops into my head is mighty ducks. It follows what I think of as the sports movie formula – hopeless group of misfits, come together (and have fun, its not all about winning), and somehow pull off an upset over the team of bullies. It wasn’t the first, but it’s the one that stuck with me. Also, as a kid who loved to ice-skate, it really captured that love of ice-skating, and made me want to ice-skate, and play hockey, and to be a mighty duck.
#4: A League of their Own
I had a hard time filling in my fourth slot, but A League of their Own fills a unique spot in sports movies. In this case the unlikely team, defying all odds, and winning, isn’t about a single team, but is about an entire league. What happens when you open up an entire sport to a group that has been excluded from it? The movie is fun and heartbreaking and complicated. I also loved this movie because it so wonderfully undermines one of my most hated of often-used statements: ‘you throw like a girl.’
RICK’S TOP FOUR SEEDS
#1: Raging Bull
Scorcese’s magnum opus, with its masterful editing, luminous cinematography, and the blisteringly iconic performance from Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta, isn’t exactly what many of us would think of as a “sports movie.” Sure, much of it transpires in the ring as Paul Schraeder’s script follows Lamotta’s quest for a title bout, but nearly as much focuses on the boxer’s personal life and his almost pathological tendency to destroy himself and everything around him. But it’s the links between those two narratives that makes Raging Bull top my list. It’s an epic character study and an examination of unhinged masculinity, but it also deploys a standard sports movie trope: the guy who’s only good at one thing. The provocation at the heart of Raging Bull asks, “But what if that thing is violence?” De Niro’s Lamotta is a pulsing live wire, a cyclone of animus, paranoia, fear, and self-loathing. However, he doesn’t exactly channel these into the boxing ring; the ring is almost incidental, a limited space where these flaws are celebrated rather than viewed with horror. Lamotta can’t help but fight, inside the ring or outside of it, as he seeks to prove something even he doesn’t seem to understand, and leaves a trail of pain in his wake. It’s a bracing, tense experience, and one of my favorite films, period.
#2: Breaking Away
Breaking Away has everything you could want from a sports movie: a scrappy underdog narrative, disillusionment with heroes, lightweight jokes paired with much more serious undercurrents related to class and identity. At points where it could veer into broad Slobs Versus Snobs territory, the film opts instead for a much more nuanced kind of entertainment … goofy and stand-up-and-cheer fun, sure, but also filled with characters who grapple with the limitations of their circumstances and want something better for their families. In “the Cutters,” Breaking Away also gave us a shorthand for the townies, the locals living their lives in a university town where the rich and prospering visit and leave. (And if nothing else, it also provided inspiration for this excellent song by The Hold Steady.) The class sentiment is never laid on too thick, and doesn’t get in the way of the jokes or the final uplift, but instead rounds out the contours of this place and time. And it’s about bikes! Bikes are fun.
#3: White Men Can’t Jump
Director Ron Shelton is king of the sports movie. He brought us Bull Durham and Tin Cup, both legitimate contenders for the crown, but, for my money (which Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes would surely con me out of almost immediately), White Men Can’t Jump is the best of the bunch. It’s a story of street hustles at pick-up games, but Shelton’s got much more on his mind: issues of race, class, personal growth and personal responsibility all arise amid the hilarious banter, and the performances are uniformly delightful (a special shout-out to Rosie Perez, at her very best here). If the film can’t quite regain the comic brilliance of its first half, it succeeds on so many levels that it doesn’t get old, despite the outfits and slang that, by any reasonable account, should keep it locked up in a time capsule from the day-glo 1990s. I think it has lasted because of its wit but also because of moments of much quieter insight into its characters. For a movie with so many Yo Momma jokes, it packs an impressive emotional wallop.
#4: The Big Lebowski
Like Raging Bull, I got some pushback on whether or not the Coens’ ode to bowling, bathrobes, slackerdom, weed, White Russians, and rugs that really tie the room together was, in fact, a “sports movie” at all. Of course it is! Jeff Bridges’ dazed, accidental would-be detective is yet another guy who’s only good at one thing (and it’s not being a detective) — he operates on the margins, gets swept up in things he doesn’t understand, haunts low-stakes bowling alleys and lower stakes murder mysteries, and generally takes it easy for the rest of us (when not getting knocked around by virtually everyone he meets). The Coens might not care one way or another if it’s a sports movie — “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for others than it does for us,” Joel Coen has said, in case you want to clarify just how much they’d prefer to talk about anything else — but Lebowski is a film that has only grown in stature over time, despite its single-minded determination to be little more than an entertaining lark. Bowling comes to represent a number of things throughout the film, surely enough to justify the sports movie tag, and the film is full to bursting with quotable lines and perfect performances. What it “means” is, as always in a Coens universe, a different matter. It ends, appropriately enough, with a shrugged “Fuck it, let’s go bowling,” an almost Chinatown-esque concession to the fundamental incomprehensibility of the universe, but with a sport there to provide some measure of stability and community. If that’s not a sports movie, then I don’t know what is.