March Madness at the Movies

Given the romance of competition and intense personal dramas faced by many athletes, it’s no surprise that sports movies have been a Hollywood staple since Harold Lloyd first hit the gridiron in 1925’s “The Freshman.” The best sports movies deliver the pleasures of the sport while showing us deeper truths of character hidden from the fans in the grandstand. These movies thrill us with restless cameras that careen up the field at turf-level, zoom into the determined eyes of players or slow down the trajectory of a knock-out punch. Here are four terrific films that convey the joys, heartbreaks, dreams and (often cruel) realities of sport…and all will leave you cheering.


Rocky (1976)

It’s no doubt that certain images in “Rocky” are burned into our collective memory, but what’s most interesting about this classic are the things we don’t remember. For the first 45 minutes there is almost no boxing in the film. Instead, we’re given a deliberate character study of a good man in a bad world who just can’t catch a break. It’s pure underdog set-up and Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the script for himself and held out until he could star) gives a deep, heartfelt performance. When given the chance to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) Rocky is shrewd enough to know he’s being used and will never win. Nevertheless, his desire to “go the distance” suddenly turns all the sports clichés on their heads and we find ourselves rooting for him all the more. “Rocky” is a movie that asks us to sink into its world and watch an obscure hero struggle for epic victory. It’s a movie that is bigger than its star—which is something that Stallone would leave behind in the sequels where Rocky becomes nearly superhuman. Most of all, it’s a story of love, and a great one, at that. Filmmaker Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”) once remarked that in a great sports movie the hero can either win the match or get the girl—but not both. “Rocky” proves his point in spectacular fashion.


Whip It (2009)

Directed by Drew Barrymore, this film missed at the box office despite generally favorable reviews. That is a shame because this must-see story of a beauty pageant-bound teenage girl (Ellen Page) rebelling to join a women’s roller derby team is funny, tough and full of heart. Robert Yoeman’s shadowy cinematography brings a gritty realism to this low-rent, rough-and-tumble world that somehow makes the constant humor all the more potent. After all, any sport besides wrestling that offers up character names like “Jabba the Slut,” “Bloody Holly,” and “Babe Ruthless” earns my undying love. The movie boasts an excellent supporting cast that includes Juliette Lewis, Kristin Wiig and Jimmy Fallon. Whip It jams and blocks its way through a few predictable turns relying on positive energy and conviction, suggesting that the love of the game is more important than being number one. That may, itself, be a cliché, but only because of the underlying truth.


Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

What happens when Bollywood takes to the soccer pitch with the story of a young girl from a conservative, Panjabi family who would rather play English football than be married off to a proper Indian boy? As one might expect, multiple montages, musical numbers, kitchen sink subplots, deceptions, miscommunications and erroneous assumptions abound. And yet the sports movie at the heart of all this melodrama keeps things on track. Jess (Parminder Nagra) is spotted playing park soccer with a group of young men by Jules (Kiera Knightly) and invited to join her girls’ soccer team. Knowing her parents would never approve, she secretly joins the team and wins the respect of a once-promising, now injured Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). When the other shoe drops and her secret life is discovered by her parents, the pressure realistically mounts, further complicated by Jess’s attraction to the coach. As is often the case in female-centered sports movies, winning and losing take a back seat to themes of empowerment and self-worth, all of which could descend into heavy-handed melodrama. Thankfully, co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha infuses the movie with humor and a knowing sense of how parents can complicate a teenager’s life with their own prejudices, hopes and fears. By embracing both cultural and gender expectations and the absurdities that spring from them, “Bend It Like Beckham” constantly surprises, amuses and entertains.


Tyson (2009) 

James Tobak, himself a combative, controversial, womanizing figure, aims the documentary cameras at Mike Tyson, inviting him to tell his own story. What might have been a self–aggrandizing apology becomes a compassionate, soulful and, at times, tragic story of a brutal man in a brutal world. A the ripe old age of 40, Tyson comes clean on his triumphs, regrets and key relationships providing a portrait of the nasty business of pro boxing and the age-old story of managers putting their own financial success ahead of their client. If that was all there was we’d be mired in a sports cliché swamp, but then another side of Tyson emerges: a portrait of a man who admits being driven at every turn by fear. With the loss of his surrogate father and coach “Cus” D’Amato, we watch the meteoric rise and ungainly fall as the champ lands in prison and upon his release, engages in a shameful comeback attempt (including the notorious biting of Evander Holyfield in the ring). His final fight’s post-defeat confession that his heart isn’t in it anymore takes place before our eyes and catches a moment of truth rarely seen in sports. The weakness behind the strength and the sadness behind the success make for one of the most emotional sports documentaries ever made.

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