OK, let’s admit and face it, no one on planet Earth is really looking forward to “Playing For Keeps,” except for maybe Gerard Butler’s mom (god, this guy’s been in a lot of miserable movies no one cared about in 2012), but hey, we’ll take any excuse we can get to discuss some movies that revolve around our beloved futbol (sorry, Chuck Klosterman, we still disagree with you here).
With this, uhh, romantic comedy about soccer (or soccer moms? DOES ANYONE REALLY KNOW WHAT THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT?) coming into theaters this weekend, we figured, shit, this is as good as time as any to talk about some of our favorite, and not so favorite soccer films. They’re not all the “best,” per se, but these are ten, sometimes interesting, sometimes great and off-kilter picks that are probably better worth your time than watching Butler be a dad/washed up soccer star/sports broadcaster/whatever.
“Bend It Like Beckham” (2001)
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a good old fashioned crowdpleaser, and Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” wears that designation with pride. Even though it’s only ten years old, they truly don’t make ‘em like this anymore — a geniunely enjoyable comedy that you can actually watch with your mom and not worry that a penis joke or boobs are suddenly going to appear. Yep, it’s wholesome but also the kind of multi-culture picture people continually ask for and that we still don’t see too often at the multiplex. Parminder Nagra stars as Jess, the daughter of Indian immigrants who not only loves soccer, but has the talent to make it a career. Her best bud Jules (Keira Knightley) and coach/quasi-love interest Joe (a surprisingly subdued Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) are thrilled, but of course, her parents aren’t. Yes, it’s a familiar formula, but spirited, sincere performances and a light but insightful script by Chadha keep things fresh and involving, even if you know where every beat of the story goes next. ‘Beckham’ effectively captures the passion for the sport that infects players and fans worldwide, and allows viewers to feel it as well, all while deftly weaving the story against the backdrop of a teenager forced to make very adult decisions about her life. Warm and earnest, ‘Beckham’ doesn’t need tragedy or upheaval to sell the pure joy of soccer.
“Fever Pitch” (1997)
It always helps with a sports movie if it focuses on your own team. And so it was with “Fever Pitch.” Nick Hornby‘s breakthrough 1992 memoir focuses on his life-long obsession with Arsenal F.C., who happened to also be Playlister Oli’s local club, and his first true love. He’d read, and not really understood the book (to be fair, he was ten years old at the time), but in 1997, it came to screens, adapted by the author and starring Colin Firth, who’d recently become the nation’s favorite heartthrob thanks to the TV miniseries of “Pride & Prejudice.” In David Evans‘ film, the material was fictionalized and turned into a rom-com, with Firth playing Hornby surrogate Paul, a North London schoolteacher who’s lived for Arsenal since going with his dad as a boy. He sparks up a romance with colleague Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), but as Arsenal head towards a game against Liverpool on the final day of the season that will decide the title, Paul may be forced to decide between the girl and the game. It’s a modest, conventional little entry in the post-‘Four Weddings‘ run of British rom-coms, and certainly outshone by the adaptation of Hornby’s “High Fidelity” three years later. But Firth is winning (as is a young Mark Strong, as his best friend; one can see why their relationship in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” has added weight), there’s real insight into the world of obsessive fandom and the toll it can take on your relationships, and it’s pretty fitfully funny. (Side note: the team had also featured front and center in another film, 1939’s “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery,” an oddity of a pre-war thriller).
“Kicking & Screaming” (2005)
“Kicking & Screaming” was hated early on in some small cinephile circles for having the gall to steal its title from Noah Baumbach’s 1995 disenfranchised post-college comedy of the same name. While the corporate entity of Universal won the battle (there was some talk of exploring a lawsuit, but it quickly fizzled out), Baumbach’s film won the war — the original is now regarded as an indie-classic and has the Criterion stamp of approval, while the Will Ferrell-starring soccer movie is largely regarded as mediocre and forgettable. And it is… but it also isn’t. Directed by Jesse Dylan (“American Wedding”), the story and filmmaking is about as pedestrian and predictable as it can get. The story centers on a easy-going family man (played by Ferrell) who suffers the lifelong abuse of his father’s (Robert Duvall) competitive nature (the casting of the veteran seems to nod to “The Great Santini“). But the mild-mannered man transforms when he takes on the coaching duties of his son’s pitiful ragtag soccer team. Pitted against his father who is coaching a crackerjack team of youngsters, Ferrell’s Phil Weston soon snaps and turns into a raging dysfunctional asshole obsessed with winning and beating his father. While it’s rated PG, and therefore seemingly safe as milk in many ways (though it feels like a PG-13 film), fans of Ferrell will at least appreciate the second half of the movie when he turns into a ballistic animal. Scenes of the comedian screaming insanely at children are good stuff and the absurd caffeine-addiction subplot (which is supposed to be part of the reason he turns into a maniacal fiend), which culminates in a coffee shop meltdown, is deliciously funny. Again, while kinda dumb, avid soccer fans will appreciate some of it, including the two Italian ringer kids brought in to help Ferrell’s horrendously untalented team get into the playoffs. Co-starring ex-Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and Kate Walsh, it’s difficult to vouch too hard for this fairly forgettable comedy, but soccer and Will Ferrell fans should get at least a tiny kick out of some of the actor’s pricelessly moronic freak-outs and breakdowns.
“Looking For Eric” (2009)
All team loyalties aside, one of, if not the most gifted and charismatic players of all time was volatile French genius Eric Cantona, a sensation for Manchester United in the 1990s, before he disgraced himself by attacking a rival fan at game in 1995. Banned for eight months and retiring two years later, Cantona went into acting, with a small role in Shekhar Kapur‘s “Elizabeth,” and several others back home in France. And ten years later, the two sides of his life came into perfect harmony with Ken Loach‘s wonderful “Looking For Eric,” a kitchen sink fantasy in which Cantona plays himself (he also co-produced the movie). The film stars character actor (and former bassist for The Fall) Steve Evets as Eric Bishop, a postman and lifelong Man United fan, with an estranged relationship to his ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop), a stepson (Gerard Kearns) getting involved in gang culture, and a generally crumbling life that’s left him on the brink of suicide. But one day, a weed smoking session sees him greeted by the vision of his namesake and hero Eric Cantona, who becomes a sort of guardian angel and advisor, giving Bishop the confidence to get his life together. Screenwriter Paul Laverty (a serious United fan, and it shows) plays on Cantona’s quirky, philosophical persona, and his reputation as a “flawed genius,” as Evets puts it at one point, making him a charming companion to the hero, and their discussions of the Beautiful Game are among the best in cinema — this scene in particular. But it’s Evets who’s the stand out — a deeply warm, good-hearted man who’s finally trying to get his shit together and be a better person. The gangster subplot leads the film astray, and stops it from being among Loach’s very best, but it’s still one of his sweetest and most accessible films, and was a deserving box office hit on release.
“Maradona by Kusturica” (2008)
For ardent fans of soccer, Argentine futbol player Diego Maradona was/is one of the most colorful characters in the sport, and arguably, along with Pele, considered one of the greatest players to ever step foot on a soccer pitch A huge, dominating force in global soccer, Maradona played in four FIFA World Cup tournaments, led Argentina to a victory in 1986 and almost another one in 1990 (they lost 1-0 to Germany in the final match). But towards the end of his career, the outspoken Maradona became more infamous for his off-field antics, testing positive for cocaine in 1991, and sent home from the 1994 World Cup after failing an ephedrine test. It’s rich material for a documentary, and so in 2008, filmmaker Emir Kusturica took on the player in “Maradona by Kusturica,” which played at the Cannes Film Festival out of competition in 2008 but never received a North American theatrical release (and arrived quietly on DVD in 2011). Unfortunately, it’s nothing if not a missed opportunity. Granted tremendous access with the star, the resulting effort is an absolutely bizarre mix of Maradona apology that fails to ask any hard questions, lots of Kusturica himself for some reason, clips from the director’s films and an endless repeat of Maradona’s goals soundtracked to Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in some kind of limp political statement. This is hardly a definite portrait of the sport’s most controversial names, but instead a document of a director hanging out with a celebrity and writing a half-hearted mash note. It’s not a surprise it barely got a release before limping to DVD.
“Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos” (2006)
Soccer/Futbol is long ridiculed by (mainly U.S.) sports writers, perhaps because it’s the biggest sport in the world and yet has failed time and time again to break in the U.S. despite many predictions over the years that when it did finally take, it would become America’s favorite new pastime. That obviously never happened. But the closest soccer did come to being a national phenomenon — at least from a publicity perspective — was in the mid-’70s with the New York Cosmos. An improbable tale like all good documentaries, ‘Once In a Lifetime‘ charts the rise and fall of the team against the backdrop of the colorful 1970s in New York. A fascinating and curious tale, the path to soccer becoming a success begins with unlikely players. Warner Communications chief Steve Ross is friends with with the late Turkish American musician and businessman Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records (owned by WB). Ertergun wants to leave Atlantic, but Ross begs him to stay, telling him he’ll do whatever he wants to keep him happy. Well, Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi, want a soccer team. The empire-building Ross, an energetic and charismatic man, soon gets hooked, finds investors and a real team is born. But a team isn’t enough for the competitive and animated Ross. Brazilian forward Pelé is hired for $4.5 million making him the highest paid athlete in the world. The higher of Pelé (he’s coaxed out of retirement at 34, thanks in part to Henry Kissinger) is massive sports news and it immediately rockets up attendance. Soon famously brusque Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and the West German sweeper Franz Beckenbauer are hired and the Cosmos have an international team of talent that attracts stars like Mick Jagger, Muhammad Ali and Robert Redford to games, and results in endless nights hanging out at Studio 54 and New York’s swankiest disco clubs. Soccer mania is finally sweeping the nation. Narrated by Matt Dillon and featuring a tasteful collection of 1970s funk, disco and soul (Parliament, The Commodores, Dinah Washington, James Brown, etc.), the story of the scrappy New York Cosmos, makes for an entertaining and wholly absorbing documentary that is a must-see for all hardcore soccer fans (who have probably seen it by now).
“Rudo Y Cursi” (2008)
“Rudo y Cursi” is the perfect soccer movie for anyone who has no actual interest in soccer because, even though it follows the rise and perilous fall of two brothers who go from kids kicking around a half-inflated ball in a dusty dirt lot to professional superstardom (and back again), it never features any actual soccer. It’s kind of amazing. Directed by Carlos Cuarón (Alfonso Cuarón’s brother) and one of the few films actually produced by the “Three Amigos” (Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), the movie reunites “Y Tu Mamá También” confederates Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as two brothers who are each drafted by major soccer teams and whose relationship, predictably, deteriorates as a result. Gorgeously shot and possessing an amiable, off-kilter charm, “Rudo y Cursi” is also genuinely funny, oftentimes gently poking fun at the brothers’ dirtpoor upbringing and their incompatibility with fame and money. Bernal and Luna are, of course, terrific, and even though it was a huge hit overseas (eventually becoming the sixth highest grossing Mexican film of all time), it made little impact here. At least you couldn’t blame the overabundance of soccer footage this time. Weird side note: one of the funnier subplots in “Rudo y Cursi” involves Bernal having a career as an incredibly cheesy pop star, complete with an amazing music video where he bounces a soccer ball on his head. Somehow, this footage (from the music video), wound up in Amy Heckerling’s recent horror comedy “Vamps” as its own bizarre subplot (Sigourney Weaver wanted to travel to Spain to have sex with him or something). So the legend of “Rudo y Cursi” lives on. Sort of.
“The Two Escobars” (2010)
This documentary, made as part of the excellent “30 for 30” series for ESPN, and directed by Michael and Jeff Zimbalist, is a film that seeks to interrogate the connection between drug trafficking and soccer in Colombia in the early ’90s, specifically through the figures of the titular Escobar men: the notorious and beloved Pablo, and the squeaky clean soccer star Andrés. The two men (unrelated) both rose to fame and fortune in Medellin, Colombia; Andrés as the talented athlete, and Pablo as the cocaine kingpin cum Robin Hood of their town. A fanatical soccer fan, Pablo built the fields and sponsored the teams that incubated young Andrés, who grew up as a respectful and religious young athlete, sought after by many international clubs. At this time, the Colombian club teams were owned by the different drug cartels, who used soccer as their outlet for their blood feuds. The flood of money into the system allowed Colombia to become a soccer powerhouse, fostering and attracting the talent that took them on their meteoric rise to the ’94 World Cup in Los Angeles. Everything fell apart for the national heroes at this tournament, who were beset by curses, death threats, and the kidnappings of family members, resulting in the disastrous own goal scored by Andrés, eliminating the team. The film is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of these two Escobars, and at the explosive (literally) political situation in Colombia at this time, but if you’re looking for good game, “The Two Escobars” more than delivers. The soccer displayed is jaw-droppingly, particularly some of the absolutely insane saves made by goalie madman Higuita. It’s an investigation of these two men, and their country, but it’s also a touching portrait of this once-in-a-lifetime team, who when they were on, were magical. That such talent was tainted by association with crime and scandal is only a sliver of the tragedy on display, with the murder and destruction they had to face in the aftermath of the World Cup and Pablo’s political machinations. “The Two Escobars” is required viewing for any soccer fan but it’s also a fascinating look at the culture and politics in Colombia at this time, which wasn’t that long ago, or that far away.
Did you ever think you’d see Max Von Sydow, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and famed Brazilian soccer star Pelé in the same movie, let alone the same room? With all the talk of directors retiring early (thanks Tarantino…), someone recently pointed to John Huston as an example of an aged director still making good films far into their twilight years, and it’s very true. While “Escape to Victory,” as it was known everywhere outside the U.S., was no “Fat City” or “Wise Blood” (two great, later-era films of his that we love) it’s a terrifically entertaining movie and one that’s become a little forgotten. Set in the heart of WWII, the film centers on allied prisoners of war interned in a German POW camp. A former national soccer team player-turned-major for the Third Reich (Sydow) decides to put on a soccer match between these allied prisoners of war and a professional German football team. And of course, the game, to be played at Colombes Stadium in Paris, becomes a publicity stunt for the Nazi propaganda machine. Led by Michael Caine (whose character was a professional footballer before the war), the team are trying to win, but also planning a risky escape to freedom post-match. The most rousing moment in the film might just belong to Pelé. The star, who is faced with racist epithets during the game from the mostly German crowd, the Nazis and other players, wins everyone’s respect by coming back onto the field while injured and scoring a beautiful goal with a backwards scissor kick. It’s such an astonishing moment that Sydow the Nazi bolts out of his seat with uncontrolled applause, his unbridled enthusiasm and awe for this man’s magnificent athletic talents far outweighing his hatred in the moment. The film also features appearances by Bobby Moore, the captain of Britain’s 1966 World Cup champions, Argentine soccer star Osvaldo Ardiles and co-stars British character actor Daniel Massey.
“Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” (2006)
Directed by artistes Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” is not really a film about soccer, nor is it really much of a film. But, revolving around the beloved Algerian French footballer Zinedine Zidane, it’s an interesting picture for several reasons, not the least being the fact that it came out (at least internationally) in 2006, the year Zidane retired following a failed bid to win the World Cup for one last time (win or lose Zidane vowed this would be his last professional match and he’s kept his word). Featuring a scorching and moody score by atmospheric Scottish post-rockers (and avowed soccer fans) Mogwai, ‘Zidane’ is a strange experiment that focuses on the titular athlete in a 2005 match between Real Madrid (his team) and Villarreal CF. Seventeen synchronized cameras captured Zidane in real time during the game, but unfortunately for soccer fans (or admirers of coherent cinema), the cameras tend to focus solely on Zidane, the back of his head, his ears, and his forehead, often in arduous close-up as the star runs around on the field. It’s excruciatingly boring and yet mesmerizingly hypnotic experience that fans of Zidane (and maybe Mogwai) should experience once (and only once). Regular civilians shouldn’t touch this experimental art project with a 20-foot pole, but hey, that’s why you have us. Ironically, during the last minutes of the match, in dramatic fashion, Zidane was sent off as a result of a brawl, but of course, the film doesn’t even show one frame of this event.
– Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernath, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh, Oliver Lyttelton