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Top Winter Sports Movies: A Sampling

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In my recent research on sports movies, I've been keeping a rough mental tally of which athletic endeavors adapt most readily and successfully to feature films.

Topping the list is boxing, no big surprise since the sport embodies the inherent primal drama of two people knocking each other silly, a theme that speaks volumes about us and the society we've shaped. Baseball comes in a close second, evoking a heroic, nostalgic sense of our American character like no other sport. Ranking at number three, the punishing, macho world of football is also fairly well-represented on celluloid.

For whatever reason, winter sports movies receive fairly short shrift in the cinematic realm. Maybe people don't like to feel cold watching a movie. Still, my scouring of DVD titles centering on skiing, basketball and hockey yield seven films I can recommend.

In Downhill Racer (1969), Robert Redford plays downhill skier Dave Chappellet, who gets called up to the U.S team when another member is injured. While there's no denying Chappellet's talent and fearlessness on the slopes, off his skis he exhibits an unfortunate combination of cockiness and aloofness that many, including Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), mistake for arrogance. Or are they mistaken? Michael Ritchie's underrated debut film finally gets a first-rate DVD release from the Criterion Collection, and not a moment too soon. Racer holds up beautifully, thanks to a script that dispenses with all the sports movie clichés about hero athletes, a pair of dynamic, layered performances from stars-to-be Redford and Hackman, and Ritchie's breathtaking verite camerawork that makes us feel we're right alongside Redford on his heart-pounding descents. This is one feature that, forty years after its initial release, definitely merits another look.

The riveting documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1975) trails champion Japanese skier Yuichiro Miura and his team as they ascend the world's highest peak -- an arduous, perilous undertaking in itself, ultimately hoping to descend on skis -- a virtual suicide mission. Tragedy and hardship befall the intrepid group on the way up, but Miura does get his chance to ski the 45-degree glacial slope, but not without consequences. Everest boggles the mind, both as a world-class feat of derring-do and as testament to the devastating grandeur and dangers of the Himalayan range. But mostly, it explores the drive and motivation of an adventurer risking his life to for a personal ambition that seems impossible to attain. It's difficult to prevent your heart leaping into your throat as you watch this footage -- especially Miura's climactic run down an 8,000-ft. slope of ice and boulders -- and realize it's no stunt, but the real thing. Hold on to your goggles!

We then proceed to basketball, and the exciting, atmospheric Hoosiers (1988). Norman Dale (Gene Hackman again) has a checkered coaching past, largely due to a volcanic temper. His days in college ball over, Norman takes a job coaching a disorganized, demotivated high-school team in rural Indiana. He proceeds to whip the team into shape, but not before ruffling some influential feathers. Will Norman keep his job long enough to see how far his team can go? Intense and involving on and off-court, this movie benefits from a bravura Hackman performance as a flawed man who confronts his demons and marshals his strengths to redeem himself. Another standout is Dennis Hopper in an Oscar-nominated turn as Shooter, a former player who loves the game, but is also the town drunk, that is, until Norman jolts him back to help the team. This is a feel-great movie for the whole family (though best for older children).

Next comes the summit in sports documentaries: the ambitious and insightful Hoop Dreams (1994). This enthralling, nearly three hour film chronicles the fortunes of two Chicago inner-city youths who look to basketball as their ticket out of a dead-end existence. The story begins when William Gates and Arthur Agee win basketball scholarships to St. Joseph's, the prestigious high school that turned out legend Isaiah Thomas. Tracking William and Arthur's progress over a five year period, the film-makers capture the twists and turns of each individual's odyssey. This highly personal film, years in the making, lets us get to know both young men: their families, friends, and how each reacts to a whole new world of pressure at St. Joe's. We think we see where it's all going early on, but of course we're wrong, a subtle reminder that life has a way of surprising us, and that everyone develops at their own rates of speed.

My third basketball pick is a movie few people know, about a player few remember: Earl "The Goat" Manigault. The film, originally aired on HBO, is Rebound (1996), a gritty true story of a prodigiously talented black player in Harlem who takes a disastrous turn towards drug addiction, blowing his NBA prospects, only to come back and find his life's meaning by helping young athletes avoid his mistakes. Earl Manigault (Don Cheadle) rose with the likes of Lew Alcindor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Earl Monroe on the cement courts of Harlem in the late fifties, and matched their ability and promise. Though Earl's basketball skills take him to college, strained relations with a hard-headed coach (Clarence Williams, III) combine with a single tragic event to send him off the rails. Directed by actor Eriq LaSalle, the film boasts a top-flight supporting cast, including James Earl Jones as Earl's college mentor, and Forest Whitaker as an early role model who spots and nurtures Earl's gift. Cheadle makes a magnetic Earl, as you'd expect. Rebound, which features rampant drug use, is decidedly not for kids.

The same holds for the first of my two hockey-themed titles, Slap Shot (1977), a savage black comedy re-teaming director George Roy Hill and Paul Newman, who'd done Butch Cassidy and The Sting together. Slap Shot tells of aging, cynical Reggie Dunlop (Newman), player/coach of the Chiefs, a losing minor league team on the brink of losing its franchise. The team's fortunes revive only when Dunlop resolves to play dirty and give the fans what they want: blood. The arrival of the Hanson Brothers, a trio of infantile Neanderthals from up north, helps propel this new strategy, to hilarious effect. But soon Reggie suffers a crisis of conscience: is this really the way to play hockey? This wildly profane film is consistently funny, and often side-splitting. And Newman's Reggie adds poignancy; he's a perennial rogue with plenty of charm, but hardly a responsible adult, evidenced by his failed marriage to Francine (Jennifer Warren), for whom he still carries a torch. Veteran character actor Strother Martin makes the perfect weasel as smarmy team manager Joe McGrath, and Andrew Duncan is memorable as a radio announcer with the worst toupee on the planet.

My second hockey entry, Miracle (2004), transcends a familiar underdog team formula to vividly recreate a triumphant moment in Olympic history: the 1980 USA team's upset victory over the more seasoned USSR squad, who'd won the Gold Medal handily in the last four Olympic Games. Under the leadership of no-nonsense Midwest coach Herb Brooks (an assured Kurt Russell), a rag-tag group of talented young players coalesce into an unbeatable machine. Despite our knowing the outcome, Miracle keeps us riveted right up to the final buzzer. Russell is ably supported by Patricia Clarkson as Herb's wise, supportive wife Patty, Noah Emmerich as assistant coach Craig Patrick, and Eddie Cahill as team leader and goalie Jim Craig. Full of humanity and fun period detail (just check out Kurt's haircut and wardrobe!), Miracle scores as a first-rate family film. Sadly, the real-life Brooks was killed in a car accident shortly after filming was completed, and never saw the final product. No doubt he'd have been pleased with the outcome.

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