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With the NCAA Final Four kicking off Friday, we thought it'd be a swell time to look at how Tinseltown has approached basketball. As with any sports genre, there are more bricks than swishes: More Waterboys than Friday Night Lightses, more Sudden Deaths than Slap Shots, more Major League 3's than Bull Durhams, and so forth. It wasn't easy selecting four masterpieces, but here's one, along with three very good contenders. And read on, if you dare, for our whittled-down list of the worst of the worst.
THE FINAL FOUR
4. Blue Chips
Punch-Drunk Love is not an Adam Sandler movie, I've always said to the skeptics who doubted seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's mini-masterpiece. He just happens to be in it. I would say the same for William Friedkin's enormously underrated Blue Chips. Please don't call it a Shaquille O'Neal movie — the star of Kazaam and Steel just happens to be in it. Blue Chips is really about the lengths college sports coaches go to when they want to hook the biggest fish in the high school athletic pond. If this means a little illegal bribery, then so be it. The film features Nick Nolte at his Noltiest — the harder to decipher, the better! — and Shaq and his former Orlando Magic colleague Anfernee Hardaway deliver stronger support than expected, probably thanks to Friedkin. Wonder what Kazaam would have been like if it was made by the dude who directed The French Connection?
It's kind of dated, it's overly sentimental and it's photographed like a beer commercial, but there's a reason Hoosiers is one of the most beloved sports films of all time. Nowadays, it's easy to spot the clichés in David Anspaugh's tale of a hotheaded coach and a sagely alcoholic who lead a ragtag group of farm boys to the tops in high school basketball (just count the clichés in that plot description alone), but keep in mind that this movie set the formula, and we've only grown jaded to this type of thing because of the innumerable doppelgängers that followed. Like the inspirational team the players in the film become, Hoosiers is a well-oiled machine: screenwriting 101 for your underdog sports film class.
2. He Got Game
Spike Lee would be at the top of anyone's list to direct a basketball movie, and he lends a rugged street poetry to this story of a fractured father-son relationship set amid a star basketballer's pending college scholarship. Lee's film is kinetic and full of surprises as it explores, like Blue Chips, the sundry world of college-recruitment malfeasance. Lee deserves creative kudos for casting Denzel Washington against type as a convicted felon and deadbeat dad, but loses cred by casting the awkward NBA star Ray Allen opposite him. Allen only appears comfortable in the scenes on the court, but poor casting is hardly a new criticism toward Lee — have you seen She's Gotta Have It?
1. Hoop Dreams
The crème de la crème of basketball movies — nay, sports movies in general. If you've yet to spend the time on Steve James' devastating three-hour epic, trust us: All the praise you've heard about Hoop Dreams is true. There's a reason this indie darling was on more critics' Top 10 lists than any title for 1994 — besting Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump. The subject of the film happens to be basketball, and the twin quests of two inner-city high schoolers from Chicago to make it to college hoops and then the NBA. And so detailed is the film about the difficulties of that dream that it should act as a blueprint and required viewing for the countless kids with the same ambition. But its message about pursuing those dreams and rising above the mire you were born into can apply to anyone.
THE BOTTOM FOUR
4. Inside Moves
Call me a soulless cynic all you want, but I didn't buy very much of Inside Moves, Richard Donner's treacly, inspirational message movie with John Savage as a partially crippled man (following a suicide attempt) who befriends a barman with a bum leg (David Morse) and dreams of playing in the NBA. In the film's grand scheme, basketball is only tangentially related, but it's at the heart of the film's flaws as a ludicrous and saccharine exercise.
When David Zucker revealed himself to be a right-wing tool with his direction of An American Carol, it gave us a nice reason to hate on the guy. As if we haven't been doing that since BASEketball, his torturous vehicle for South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone as inventors of a baseball-basketball hybrid that takes the sports world by storm. It's as predictable and tiresome as any formulaic sports film, only dirtier. But chances are you won't laugh a whole lot when Stone licks a vibrator or when Ernest Borgnine sings "I'm Too Sexy."
2. Celtic Pride
This movie has developed something of a cult following over the years, prompting one superfan to compile a greatest hits video of classic Celtic Pride moments on YouTube. But I have trouble forging through that seven-minute compilation, let alone the 91 minutes of Tom DeCerchio's lame feature about a couple of obsessed Celtics fans (Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern) who kidnap the superstar of a rival team (Damon Wayans). Its preposterousness is matched only by its stupidity, with most of the jokes being the kind of ideas hack screenwriters think up on bar napkins while on drunken benders. But looking at the meager talent involved, this should come as no surprise.
1. Slam Dunk Ernest
It's Ernest, and this time he plays basketball. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — co-stars as an angel who delivers our titular hero a pair of magic sneakers. Got it?