There have been a selection of winter sports movies over the years, but at over 40 years of age, "Downhill Racer" pretty much remains the pinnacle of the genre. The directorial debut of Michael Ritchie (who would go on to make "The Candidate" and "Bad News Bears"), the film stars Robert Redford as Dave Chappelet, an arrogant small-town skier picked out to join the U.S. Olympic team by the coach (Gene Hackman) after someone else is injured. In theory, the path to winning the gold is much the same as other sports pictures before and since, but Ritchie takes a much quieter, more documentary-like approach to the drama than most. Like his later collaboration with Redford on "The Candidate," it's ultimately a character study, and one that rings true today. Like many sportsmen, Dave is an uncharismatic, unappealing, not-especially-bright guy who's exceptionally good at exactly one thing in the world, and it's a testament to Redford's skills that he's able to subdue his persona so effectively. Prefiguring many of the smart, unsentimental pictures that were to follow across the '70s (but still capturing the skiing action somewhat thrillingly), it's about as good a film about sports as has ever been made. The film's burial by Paramount partially inspired Redford to set up Sundance, but its fortunes have been revived recently thanks to a Criterion release.
Lawn bowling: the fringiest of fringe sports in the U.S., barely more popular in the U.K., and generally deemed to be a game for the elderly wherever it's played. So the idea of introducing a charismatic rock-and-roll upstart to the sport does at least hold some comedic promise, which 2003's "Blackball" unfortunately doesn't fulfill. A remake of Australian film "Crackerjack," it's a vehicle for never-quite-got-there British comic Paul Kaye ("It's All Gone Pete Tong," the upcoming season of "Game of Thrones"), who plays Cliff Starkey, a once-promising bowler who was banned from the game only to be picked up by an American sports agent (Vince Vaughn, at the nadir of his career, just before "Old School" and "Dodgeball" revived it) and thrust into something like stardom. It has everything you might expect: a vulgar best friend (Johnny Vegas), an underwritten love interest (Alice Evans) and an elder statesman who eventually comes to respect his colleague (James Cromwell). It's a fairly decent cast, who were presumably attracted by an impressive behind-the-scenes pedigree -- "Calendar Girls" writer Tim Firth wrote the script and Mel Smith ("The Tall Guy") directs -- but they're wasted on a broad, crass and unimaginative comedy, with Kaye peculiarly unappealing as the lead. Thanks to Vaughn's sudden career comeback, it got a belated U.S. release, branded as "National Lampoon's Blackball" in early 2005. I'd like to apologize on the behalf of Great Britain for that.
A slightly more palatable and very British sports film that landed the same year focused on another sport that baffles the U.S.: cricket. The sport has been the center of a few films in cricket-mad India (most notably the Oscar-nominated 2001 blockbuster "Lagaan"), but even the British have generally deemed it too uncinematic to make it to the big screen, with the exception of this mediocre but harmless coming-of-age tale. Young David Wiseman (Sam Smith) is the son of a pair of Jewish immigrants (Stanley Townsend and Emily Woof) who look suspiciously at their new neighbors, West Indian father Dennis (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter Judy (Leonie Elliott). David falls for Judy quickly, and bonds with Dennis over a shared passion for cricket, while his mother finds herself entangled with Dennis as well, but not everyone in the community are as welcoming... It's mostly well-meaning fare, predictable and cosy, but there's a touch of Sirk in the relationship between Woof and Lindo, and the period setting is nicely done. Unlikely to spark a sudden rush of cricket movie copycats, but probably on the better edge of British sports movies.