Sports and movies share many common characteristics. Both inspire intense devotion and hatred among their legions of fans. Both receive obsessive press attention. Both are examples of excess, with Tom Cruise and Manny Ramirez being just two of many options for wasting $20 million in Los Angeles.
The sporting world is littered with offbeat and grandiose characters, narratives of glory, disappointment and redemption. With the World Cup in mind, we hereby celebrate celluloid sport.
Hollywood, like the rest of the US, has largely ignored the beautiful game, but other countries have picked up the slack. Last year's The Damned United, starring Michael Sheen as a beleaguered Leeds United coach, demonstrated the passion club football evokes in Britain. Bend It Like Beckham sets a cultural narrative about a young Sikh girl against a soccer backdrop. Further off the beaten path is Kicking It, a documentary about the 2006 Homeless World Cup in South Africa.
Only two movies are really worthy of attention. There's Slap Shot, wherein Paul Newman provides grizzled leadership and the Hanson brothers prove that if you won't hit a guy in glasses, he'll hit you first. Then there's Miracle, which chronicles the American upset of the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics. Kurt Russell's brilliant as coach Herb Brooks, the hockey scenes are the best ever filmed.
Hollywood loves it some baseball. It's America's pastime and the game moves slowly enough that it can be staged for cameras. The best is Bull Durham, which depicts the slog of the minor-league season while entertaining us with the Costner-Sarandon-Robbins love triangle. And few sports movies can match the climax of The Natural, when Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs sets off sparks with a game-winning, slo-mo home run.
Football (North American)
The '70s ruled for gridiron action, with Burt Reynolds leading a team of inmates in The Longest Yard and James Caan and Billy Dee Williams tugging at heartstrings in Brian's Song. More recently, Sean Astin was the underdog Rudy and Friday Night Lights examined America's obsession with high school football.
With its textbook improbable-winner storyline, Hoosiers is a feel-good winner. But no basketball fiction compares to Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary about two inner-city kids who find the path to the pros much more difficult than in movies.
Invictus may have sucked, but the rugby didn't---Clint Eastwood even managed to make the boring 1995 World Cup final seem compelling. Tin Cup applied the Bull Durham formula to golf. Chariots of Fire contributed one of the most famous theme songs in history. Jerry Maguire completed us with a look at the ruthless business that is modern sport.
Great sports movies share the ability to make viewers believe that underdogs can become heroes, that obstacles can be overcome, that Kevin Costner can be charismatic. When you watch the World Cup, you could be watching the basis for a film classic.