Here are my top 5 sports movies of all time, in no particular order:
Zidane: A 20th Century Portrait (2006)
No film about sport subtly encapsulates what it means to the individual performer as Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane. With the aid of 18 cameras under the supervision of the celebrated cinematographer Darius Khondji, the film trains a gimlet eye on superstar Zidane during a match between Real Madrid and Villareal. You watch him doing nothing much or suddenly springing into what looks like lazy action. Towards the end he is sent off following a brawl. You could be forgiven for finding the film a 90-minute bore, despite the music of Scots rock band Mogwai. But the more you know about the game, the more you are likely to appreciate it. Zidane was a footballer who could seem surprisingly ordinary. But that was his best deceit. Given half a chance, he took a whole one. So does this film, filtering almost subconsciously into the imagination.
The Wrestler (2008)
Most films about sport concentrate more on the participants than on the particular sport itself. But the best of them make authenticity as important as drama. Darren Aronofsky certainly does in The Wrestler, which has Mickey Rourke as a once famous grappling star who, some 20 years later, is reduced to appearing in third-rate venues and considering his whole life, inside and outside the ring, a failure. Rourke was favourite for the Best Actor Oscar, deserved it but did not win. Yet as Randy ‘The ram’ Robinson he gives a superbly graded performance, making the sometimes bloody wrestling look intensely real and, outside the ring, contemplating the breakdown of his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) together with the fact that his whole life seems to be an emotional vacuum unless it is arthritically performing in the ring. It is often the case that the comments of sports losers are more intriguing than those of the winner. And undoubtedly The Ram is a loser. Aronofsky examines him and professional wrestling with an anti-romantic but never entirely unsympathetic eye.
Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film is not just one of the most powerful sports films ever made. It is also one of the most powerful ever made in whatever genre. Yet it was shot in black and white, a considerable risk, and required Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta not only to look like one of the most aggressive of professional boxers but to lose several stones of weight to achieve some kind of physical authenticity. The film, as poetic as any dealing with the often brutal business of boxing, is about the downfall of a man who couldn’t distinguish battering his opponents to defeat from a personal life of almost pathological jealousy and lack of control. Admittedly the boxing itself is sometimes over dramatised. But De Niro’s performance, on the very edge of melodrama, never tips over unconvincingly. This is one of Scorsese’s greatest films, containing within it a masterful portrait of a man who carried from the ring his instinct to destroy not only his imagined adversaries but himself.
There have been a number of official films traversing the Olympic Games. But only two have achieved some kind of classic status. The first ever, made by the controversial German director Leni Riefenstahl, was a ground-breaking summation of the Berlin Games of 1936. Almost equally distinctive was Japanese film-maker Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) which exhibited a much more personal approach, often eschewing the actual results in favour of examining the pressures on individuals competing for Gold and often failing. Riefenstahl’s film has been criticised as a product of the Nazi propaganda machine (she was undoubtedly implicated as a supporter of the regime, however reluctant, and there are three minutes of Hitler himself included in the final cut).But also included is a paean of praise for Jesse Owens, the Black American winner of four gold medals whose success infuriated the Fuehrer, and no one can cavil at the brilliance and dramatic impact of the multi-camera film-making. Ichikawa was also under political pressure to produce a film which would make viewers feel that a peacetime Japan had absolved itself from its brutal part on the Second World War. It is palpably humane and an entirely original concept. But Riefenstahl’s film just pips it on my list, largely because no one has yet quite equalled its overall flair and impact.
Hoop Dreams (2012)
Oscar nominated but unaccountably ignored by the Academy’s voters, possibly because it concerned the strivings of two African Americans to become basketball stars in racially divided Chicago, Hoop Dreams has now been acknowledged a classic among sports films. Steve James, its director, shot it over a five-year period and examined, entirely without sentimentality, his two inner city street kids as they try to emulate the stars they adore.The pressures of family life, adolescence, probable failure and the hostile neighbourhood from which they come are brilliantly portrayed, and the boys themselves give performances which seem to ignore James’ camera. The film has an astonishing veracity to it, unsurprising perhaps since it is based on the truth, and it slowly but surely pummels its way into the mind’s eye. It is said that the Academy viewers turned it off after 15 mins. It was one of the worst mistakes they ever made.