by Oliver Lyttelton
October 26, 2012 2:42 PM 6 Comments
This weekend sees the Gerard Butler-starring, Curtis Hanson/Michael Apted-directed surfing picture "Chasing Mavericks" sneak unheralded into theaters, joining a relatively small but illustrious list of surfing movies. Not many fringe sports have been as lucky to have movies like "Big Wednesday," "Point Break" and "Riding Giants" focused on them, of the relatively few that have been made.
While IMDb is littered with football, baseball, basketball and hockey movies, most sports are lucky to get one movie made about them, let alone a decent one. So, with "Chasing Mavericks" in mind, we've picked out five films that center around sports that you don't find on cinema screens all that often. Some are great, some are terrible, but all provide a side of athletics that's rarer than some inspirational football movie or goofy basketball comedy. Read on below, and let us know your own favorite obscure sports movies in the comments.
Cycling: "Breaking Away" (1979)
Cycling is in the news for all the wrong reasons these days, thanks to Lance Armstrong. It's likely that the revelations of his doping have put paid to the various Armstrong biopics that were in the works, but fans of gear-and-spoke movies can still find something a little more uplifting with Peter Yates' 1979 film "Breaking Away." A coming-of-age tale, it focuses on Dave (Dennis Christopher, soon to be seen in "Django Unchained"), a 19-year-old Indiana native obsessed with competitive bicycle racing (and the Italian pros in particular). Along with his three best friends (an impressively starry line-up of Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley), they're adrift and not sure what to do with their lives, but Dave finds a new purpose when they're invited to join the Indiana University Little 500 race, a gruelling 50-mile annual event. There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the film, bar the central role of cycling, but it's a warm, humane and affecting story, thanks to a sharp and funny script by cycling enthusiast Steve Tesich (who won an Oscar for the screenplay, and who returned to the sport less successfully for the Kevin Costner-starring "American Flyers") and direction by veteran Peter Yates ("Bullitt"). It's a film about people, but the sports elements are pretty thrilling when the race sequences come. Somewhat undervalued these days, it's certainly worth taking another look at for the uninitiated.
Chess: "Searching For Bobby Fischer" (1994)
Probably the most sedentary sports movie ever made, "Searching For Bobby Fischer" focuses, as you might imagine from the title, on the humble, yet endlessly complex game of chess. And while fans of more athletic pursuits might sneer at the idea, it's as thrilling a sports movie as you can find. The directorial debut of Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar the same year for his "Schindler's List" script) and based on the memoir by Fred Waitzkin, it follows Fred's son Josh (Max Pomeranc, at the time a highly ranked player himself), a young chess prodigy, whose parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen), when they discover his skills, put him into training with legendary chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who tries to encourage him to take a win-at-all costs approach, similar to the legendary Fischer. But Josh is a decent kid, and he resists Bruce's cold approach for the warm tutelage under the wings of street hustler and speed chess player Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne). Given the subject matter, it's no surprise that the film did poorly, but it's a terrific little picture, one in which Zaillian's understanding of both the game and of human nature shines through. Josh's dedication to not just winning, but winning right, is a simple message but one that resonates not just when it comes to games of all kinds, but to life as well. And that Zaillian also manages to make chess work as cinema (thanks in part to gorgeous autumnal lensing by Conrad Hall), when so many others have made immediately big screen sports look dull on screen, is something almost miraculous.