• Australian Rules (2002) film starring Nathan Phillips, Lisa Flanagan & Luke Carroll (Australian Rules)Source: Australian Rules
Blak film critic — and footy fan — Travis Akbar lists his top 5 favourite films about sport.
By
Travis Akbar

29 Aug 2019 - 11:47 AM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2019 - 11:47 AM

If you love movies like I do, you’ll likely have favourites in every genre. Favourite actions, dramas and maybe even slasher-horror if your taste extends that far.

Given footy finals are afoot (pun intended), I’m taking a look back at some of my favourite films about sport.

And just like football finals, there are always those who didn’t quite make the top spot, who still deserve an honourable mention. So, I’ll quickly throw the 1988 classic Bloodsport into the ring, where legend has it, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s breakout fight was a total mess until he re-edited the final cut himself and turned it into a classic, spawning several sequels and most recently, a remake. Varsity Blues (1999) also gets a mention — it’s high-school drama mixed with on-field intensity and a few laughs, a great mix.

 

5. Australian Rules

Set a fishing town in South Australian, Australian Rules (2002) is the film adaptation of Phillip Gynne’s 1998 novel — Deadly Unna.

The story follows teenager Gary "Blacky" Black (Nathan Phillips) as he steers through Aussie Rules footy finals with his best mate, and promising footy player, Dumby Red (Luke Carroll). During this time, he starts having feelings toward to Dumby’s sister, Clarence (Lisa Flanagan).

Racism is a major theme in Australian Rules and largely explores the strained relationship that non-Indigenous Gary has with his rough father Bob (Simon Westaway), who isn’t at all pleased with his son mixing with the local Indigenous kids.

Albeit a depiction of Australia's racist tensions, this film highlights the positive, unifying affects sport can. In a town where there are divided black and white communities, the AFL oval is one place where everyone gets together. 

 

4. Above the Rim

Number 4 is surely on every hip-hop lover's favourites list. 

Set in New York City, Above the Rim (1994) tells the story of high school Basketball star, Kyle (Duane Martin) as he navigates relationships in his community, including a local drug dealer and a former promising basketballer, who now works as the school’s security guard. It was a part of the 1990s Hollywood movement of grimy stories based around basketball culture.   

Being a 90s kid, it only took seeing rapper Tupac, who plays drug-dealer Birdie, on the VHS cover for me to take this one home. I had to get it, after all, a $2 ex-rental wasn’t a high price.

The Jeff Pollack (co-creator of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) film depicts what it’s like to be young and talented in a low-socioeconomic community, where many want to capitalise on your promise as a means of escaping poverty. Simultaneously, it highlights the importance of guidance and leadership in these kinds of communities, showcased by some fantastic performances. In particular, Duane Martin, who plays leading actor Kyle Watson, actually has basketball skills, making the whole thing look grippingly authentic. 

Overall, it’s a compelling drama with fast-paced sports elements and offers the best legacy left by the 1990s, a quality hip-hop soundtrack.

 

3. The Express: The Ernie Davis Story

There are so many sports films out there, but there’s something about the fast-paced brutality of NFL that seems to hook me. Hard hits and big bumps abound, this comes in at number 3. 

Powerful biopic The Express: The Ernie Davis Story (2008) features Rob Brown (Take the Lead, HBO’s Treme) as Ernie Davis, a professional footballer and the first African American to win the prestigious College Football Heisman Trophy.

The film follows his college years; from recruitment to Syracuse University during the height of the civil rights movement and his relationship with no-nonsense Head Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid).

As is the case with most sports films, the underlying narrative in The Express broadens beyond the game.  Adversity and triumph are at the heart of this film, with Ernie Davis plighted by extreme racism and segregation. Nevertheless, Davis went on to become one of the greatest college football players his generation had ever seen, so expect victory in more ways than one in this story.

The Express: The Ernie Davis Story airs on Thursday, 19 September at 9pm on NITV (Ch. 34)

 

2. Warrior

When two estranged brothers (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) reconnect, they do so under some quite bizarre circumstances — in the octagon of a mixed-martial arts tournament. The two must face off against each other in the high-pressure final.

While the leading actors in Warrior (2011) are at the top of their game, the standout performance actually comes from Nick Nolte, who plays their father, Paddy. Playing a recovering alcoholic, Nolte was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His refined physical performance is compelling, with shaky tones, as his character Paddy struggles with the bottle.

 

1. Any Given Sunday

Oliver Stone is a master filmmaker (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and my favourite director by a long shot. His talent in creating nail-biting dramas really shines in the NFL fiction, Any Given Sunday (1999)

The film focuses on young Quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), who tries to win the respect of seasoned coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) and over-the-hill injured QB ‘Cap’ Rooney (Dennis Quaid) ... while at the same time, not wasting his opportunities, no matter who he displeases.

It explores all aspects of American Football team through the fictional Miami Sharks club; medical issues players, business affairs of team owners, promotional contracts, drugs and being a black athlete in a not so black industry. It leaves no stone unturned, which, for me, sets this particular sports film miles above the rest.

The performances are not only brilliant, but A-list. Al Pacino is fantastic as veteran Coach D’Amato, Jamie Foxx’s flamboyance and charisma are on full display as third-string-come-first-string Quarterback Willie Beaman and Cameron Diaz plays the ruthless team owner, Christina Pagniacci. The familiar names that Stone has assembled is endless, LL COOL J, Dennis Quaid, James Woods, Matthew Modine — and it doesn’t end there.

Lastly, the cinematography of the football matches is a highlight, where Stone and his team actually had to develop new ways of filming in order to get the intimate shots and brutal hits they wanted. As an Australian, I don’t follow NFL, but Any Given Sunday makes me want to.

 

Sports movies are easy to like — they’re fun, they have feel-good stories and generally, the formula plays out whereby, who you’re rooting for has either a win or fail in some kind of feel-good honourable loss that you can learn a great lesson from. Except for Million Dollar Baby, that ending was just tragic.

 

Travis is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country. He is a Film Critic and Freelance Writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar 

This September, NITV programs its special 'Sportember' season, showcasing powerful stories based around the world's greatest games. Begins 1 September.