essential viewing

10 of the best sports films you've (probably) never seen

Featuring ‘Next Goal Wins’ and ‘The Harder They Fall.’

LAST UPDATE | Apr 26th 2020, 12:37 PM

MOST OF US know the likes of Rocky, Hoop Dreams, Moneyball and Raging Bull are great sports films.

But what about those under-the-radar movies and documentaries that you may well have missed over the years.

Below are 10 of the more obscure-but-brilliant films that should keep you entertained during the lockdown.

N.B. (In no particular order)

1. The Harder They Fall (1956)

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Humphrey Bogart’s last film, it concerns Eddie Willis, an over-the-hill sportswriter who forms an uneasy alliance with gangsters to promote a talentless Argentinian boxer. Eddie justifies his dubious decision by suggesting there is little difference between selling fighters and “selling soap”. The mob’s influence means the boxer rises to stardom despite his ineptitude, with his opponents all coerced into taking dives. It’s no surprise this drama contains a ring of authenticity — it originated as a novel by an actual sportswriter, Budd Schulberg, featured real-life fighters, and was allegedly based on the Primo Carnera boxing scandal (Carnera unsuccessfully sued Columbia Pictures after the movie was released). With its array of ruthless gangsters and central theme of moral duplicity, there are plenty of parallels with a more famous film, the 1954 Marlon Brando-starring ‘On the Waterfront,’ which Schulberg also wrote. It in addition features a climactic fight that rivals anything in ‘Raging Bull’ for realism and sheer brutality. Bogart, who would die at 57 from esophageal cancer less than a year after the film was released and was understood to be in considerable pain during the production, is highly convincing as the cynical, tired, world-weary protagonist.

2. Night and the City (1950)

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If you assumed Darran Aronofsky’s 2008 drama The Wrestler was the only great wrestling-related film, you’d be wrong. The London-set Night and the City is a superbly constructed, intelligently shot film that was largely overlooked on its release, but has since gained a reputation as a classic of the noir genre. It is directed by Jules Dassin — who had been recently blacklisted by Hollywood for alleged communist connections — and featured real-life professional wrestlers Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki. It stars Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, a forever-scheming drifter continually trying to get rich quick and always “running” from welfare officers, thugs and the like. He is consequently attracted to the world of wrestling, as he aims to take over the sport in London, attempting to convince friends and associates to give him the money necessary to pursue his ambition, much to anger of a rival promoter who will stop at nothing to ensure his control over the industry is maintained. Made long before WWE became famous, wrestling is portrayed by Dassin in a respectful manner — there are no allusions to it being ‘fake’ — though the sport is merely a convenient backdrop to a thrilling, intricately plotted crime story that makes for gloomy viewing even by noir standards. Robert De Niro starred in a remake in 1992, though the original is widely considered the superior version.

3. Next Goal Wins (2014)

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Immediately, you know ‘Next Goal Wins’ is not your typical sports film. It begins with American Samoa’s infamous 31-0 defeat to Australia during the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. That loss lingers over the American Samoa side a decade later, as they bid to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The team don’t have much going for them. They are part-time and, in some cases, work more than one job on the side. They have never won an official match in international football and are bottom of the Fifa World Rankings. Motivational lines include: “They needed nine goals today. We only gave them eight. These are steps in the right direction.” Dutch coach Thomas Rongen, a strict, single-minded and ultimately likeable character is drafted in as they attempt to reverse their ill fortune. The film makes you care for the characters despite their obvious lack of talent, while giving an interesting insight into Samoan culture, including a section on the 2009 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country. There are also some amazing personal stories woven into the overall narrative, such as the case of Jaiyah Saelua, who becomes the first transgender player to start a World Cup qualifier over the course of the film. It’s now being turned into a motion picture starring Michael Fassbender as the inspirational Rongen, though the movie has a tough task on its hands if it seeks to better the original.

4. Breaking Away (1979)

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This perceptive coming-of-age movie, set in Indiana and starring a young Dennis Quaid, might feel uncomfortably close to the bone for anyone struggling with the current lockdown — it’s about a group of teenagers who feel life’s passing them by, that they’re simply drifting by aimlessly not doing anything of note. “The only thing I’m afraid of is wasting my life with the rest of you guys,” quips one character. “I thought that was the whole plan,” answers another. “I thought we were going to waste our lives together. The group are known as “the cutters,” owing to the fact that they appear to be a rare instance of teenagers in the town who are not attending college. They haven’t fulfilled their potential essentially, and are fearful of the consequences. However, an upcoming bike race provides a shot at redemption and gives them a sense of purpose. Peter Yates’ film was well received at the time, earning its writer, Steve Tesich, the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1979. However, it’s been somewhat forgotten and overlooked since, and is likely a victim of the fact that the 1970s wasn’t exactly short of great films. But for the spectacularly executed bike races alone, it’s well worth revisiting, though there is plenty of wit and heart contained in the story too.

5. Personal Best (1982)

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Written, directed and produced by Robert Towne, who is better known for Chinatown, widely regarded as one of the best screenplays ever written. Personal Best is a love story involving two female track-and-field athletes competing in the trials for the 1980 Olympics, which were held in the Soviet Union and ultimately boycotted by the US along with many other countries. The lesbian relationship is treated with a sensitivity, at a time when the movie industry’s attitude to homosexuality was not always positive (it still isn’t to some degree). It’s also secondary to the main plot, which focuses more on the sheer pain of sport and the physical challenges of making it at an elite level. The bullying, abusive and creepy male coach, Terry Tingloff (played by Scott Glenn) who constantly mistreats the female athletes also foreshadows the me-too movement and countless sports-related scandals that would surface in subsequent years. Both Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly are convincing in the lead roles, and the movie’s authenticity is aided by the fact that Donnelly was a real-life track-and-field star.

6. This Sporting Life (1963)

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You could probably count the number of great rugby movies on one hand, but This Sporting Life – based on the novel of the same name by David Storey and often compared to Martin Scorsese’s similarly bleak Raging Bull — certainly belongs in that category. It stars Limerick native Richard Harris, who plays the European equivalent of the type of character that was Marlon Brando’s signature — brutish, emotionally inarticulate and ultimately well-meaning. The story concerns Frank Machin’s (Harris) complex relationship with a widower who is also his landlady, coupled with his rise from obscurity as a coal miner towards stardom in rugby league (albeit, at one point he tells another character: “We don’t have stars in this game — that’s soccer). The sports scenes, shot with the co-operation of Wakefield rugby club, are well-executed and realistic, while the physical pain he experiences on the pitch serves as a convenient counterpoint to the obvious emotional scarring he suffers throughout. Harris — whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination — is superb as the film’s protagonist in this classic, gritty British kitchen-sink drama, while director Lindsay Anderson’s visual style lends a poetry to proceedings.

7. Love and Basketball (2000)

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Disappointment is far more prevalent in sport than glory, yet sports films too often shy away from the former in favour of the latter. What makes ‘Love and Basketball’ stand out is the fact that it feels authentic and devoid of the clichés that often mar the genre. It focuses on two aspiring basketball players — a girl and a boy — looking at their journey into adulthood as they navigate the tricky terrain of college sport combined with real-life relationships, and the problems both can pose. On the surface, it may seem like a fairly standard love story, yet sports films told mainly from a female perspective were rare enough in the early ’00s, while a number of deeper themes are intelligently interwoven into the plot to add greater depth to the picture — the difficulties of playing abroad, the different ways male and female athletes are treated and the trappings of fame are among the subjects tackled. The two lead actors have great chemistry and there’s also an enjoyable soundtrack, while the basketball action is consistently shot with a panache, all of which adds up to an accomplished drama that is literally told in four quarters.

8. Gregory’s Girl (1981)

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If Wes Anderson was older, Scottish and interested in making a sports film, he’d come up with something akin to ‘Gregory’s Girl’. The story concerns Gregory, an awkward and shy boy who falls in love with Dorothy, a tomboy who has replaced him up front on the local football team. It’s breezy viewing with plenty of quintessentially Scottish, laconic humour. Sports films are rarely this low key, while movies in general are seldom so fun and effortlessly brilliant. John Gordon Sinclair is the standout performer, as he perfectly encapsulates the uneasy, eccentric mannerisms of a teenager who appears to take nothing in life too seriously and then everything, upon meeting the girl of his dreams. Like its protagonist, Bill Forsyth’s second film has a sense of romance beneath its witty veneer, which peaks amid an indelible and wonderfully understated dance scene towards the end.

9. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

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A year after sharing the screenplay credit for what many consider to be the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane, Herman J. Mankiewicz co-wrote The Pride of the Yankees along with Paul Gallico and Jo Swerling. It’s the story of Lou Gehrig — the son of immigrant parents who rose to become a star for the New York Yankees, playing a record-breaking 2,130 consecutive games, before dying tragically young from an incurable neuromuscular illness that was subsequently named after him. Perhaps wisely, the film doesn’t devote too much time to the tragic aspect of his story — it’s only in the last 20 minutes where his illness becomes apparent. For the most part, it’s a witty and enjoyable two hours starring Hollywood icon Gary Cooper in the lead role, while a number of baseball players, including Babe Ruth, play themselves. Gehrig is portrayed as a kind of saintly figure in a way that seems scarcely imaginable in the social media age. Nevertheless, this overtly reverential love letter seldom feels too sentimental and remains entertaining throughout. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, though it was released at a time where the idea of a sports movie was still relatively novel. ”It’s box office poison,” was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s reported reaction to the idea of filming Gehrig’s story initially.  ”If people want baseball, they go to the ballpark!” This theory was proved wrong in spectacular fashion, while the story of a hero who accepts his grim fate with admirable dignity and bravery would have resonated in particular with audiences at the time, as it was released just as America was entering World War II.

10. Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998)

Paul Jay / YouTube

Together with ‘Beyond the Mat,’ which was released the following year, this Bret Hart-starring film is considered a seminal documentary on professional wrestling. Even if you have no interest in the sports entertainment business, there are elements of this story with which anyone can identify — the Hitman is even compared to Hamlet at one point. While there are invariably intriguing deviations into other topics, the central theme of the film is the increasingly tense relationship between star performer Bret Hart and WWE (or ‘WWF as it was known at the time) owner Vince McMahon, with the film culminating in the infamous ‘Montreal Screwjob‘ — widely considered one of the most controversial onscreen moments in the history of the business. For a documentary crew to be filming Hart on this night is incredibly good fortune and turns an already interesting film into an utterly compelling one. Hart’s frequent brutal honesty and refusal to tow the company line also make for fascinating viewing, while the level of access afforded to filmmaker Paul Jay is pretty astonishing.


First published today at 07.30

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