In a bit of pointed counterprogramming, Netflix released its latest original film “Amateur” — about a 14-year old basketball prodigy who gets recruited by a shady prep-school athletics program — in the middle of March Madness. The NCAA has taken a lot of heat for its systemic exploitation of young college players, offering them academic scholarships but then forcing them to sideline their education in order to play ball full time, making the school millions in the process.
Based on his short film of the same name, Ryan Koo’s “Amateur” explores not only the corrupt business of athletic recruitment, but how those recruiters are targeting younger and younger players, forcing them to make difficult life-defining decisions before they’re even in high school — decisions that are often offered in bad faith. Given that the film is executive produced by current NBA superstar Tony Parker and former NBA All Star Michael Finley, there’s a authenticity on the screen that is rarely matched.
“Amateur” is not the first movie to deal with the messy behind-the-scenes business of sports onscreen. Here are a few others that explore the inner workings of the game — be it high school, college, or the big leagues — and show how the rules aren’t always as straightforward or fair as they might seem. Watch the “Amateur” trailer below, and click here to watch it on Netflix.
Hands down the greatest basketball movie ever made, and arguably the greatest documentary of all time, Steve James’ three-hour opus “Hoop Dreams” was initially meant to be a half-hour PBS special about basketball culture on the streets of Chicago. But after meeting William Gates and Arthur Agee, two inner-city kids laser-focused on making it to the NBA, the filmmakers set out on a nearly six-year journey, following both Gates and Agee through high school and into college, by which point the shape and reality of their dreams had changed, in sometimes heartbreaking fashion.
“Hoop Dreams” does what all great documentaries do: lets a very personal story reveal universal truths about the world at large. Class, education, family, race — all of these issues are pushed front and center as they become obstacles for two endlessly resilient kids. But with these challenges come small and sometimes surprising victories — like when Agee’s mother completes her nursing assistant training, or when Davis finally aces the ACT — that are just as triumphant as any three-pointer at the buzzer. “Hoop Dreams” celebrates every victory, consoles every loss, and leaves you breathless at the scope of life explored in a film Roger Ebert called, “one of the great movie going experiences of my lifetime.”
“He Got Game”
Spike Lee’s deep love of basketball — specifically the New York Knicks — is well documented to say the least, and calling his 1998 basketball drama “He Got Game “a passion project would be an insult to understatements.
Denzel Washington stars as Jake Shuttlesworth, a convict granted temporary release from prison by the governor so he can convince his nationally top-ranked son, Jesus (played by NBA all-star Ray Allen), to play ball at Big State. But Jake’s gonna have to get in line as everybody and their mother wants a piece of Jesus — and Jesus wants nothing to do with his criminal father.
Operatically scored by Aaron Copeland and shot with Lee’s signature flair, “He Got Game” is at its best when it’s luxuriating in the love of the game — a highlight being when a squad of players speak directly to camera about what basketball means for them. Less successful are Lee’s female characters, all relegated to the role of prostitute, sex object, or duplicitous girlfriend. But the central relationship between Denzel and his son is powerfully drawn (with echoes of Arthur Agee and his father in “Hoop Dreams”) and the final one-on-one game between them is one of the best, most emotional matches put onscreen.
Remembered primarily as Shaquille O’Neal’s acting debut, William Friedkin’s “Blue Chips” is actually a cutting (and still-relevant) take on the big business and corruption of college basketball. Nick Nolte stars as Pete Bell, a coach coming out of a three-season losing streak who finds himself pressured by the system’s shadier side when he scouts some young “blue chip” players (including O’Neal and former Magic superstar Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway). These kids would certainly take his team to a championship season, but not without a little under-the-table compensation.
Written by Ron Shelton — the man behind sports-movie classics “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “Tin Cup” — “Blue Chips” manages to be both a scathing indictment of college sport practices and a loving tribute to the game itself. Basketball legends fill the screen (like Larry Bird and Indiana coach Bobby Knight, who Nolte shadowed to prepare for the role) and Nolte brings 100 percent to his passionate performance as a man who would do anything for the game, but not anything to win.
‘North Dallas Forty”
The NFL wanted nothing to do with this vulgar and deeply cynical inside look at a professional football team based on the bestselling novel by former Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent. Watching “North Dallas Forty” even now, it’s hard to blame them.
Nick Nolte plays aging wide receiver Phil Eliot, whose body barely hangs together after years of damage on the field. The league deals with this by pumping him and the rest of the team full of painkillers. In Dallas, players are treated like livestock and the game is considered a business first, and when Nolte’s Eliot doesn’t conform to the league’s corrupt idea of “family,” he comes under heavy fire.
Directed by the underrated Ted Kotcheff — whose films vary wildly from “Wake in Fright” to “First Blood” to “Weekend at Bernie’s” — “North Dallas Forty” is a vicious, often barbaric look at 1960s football culture, with its hard partying and general lawlessness. It’s as rough-and-tumble as sports comedies get, but its message about the NFL’s attitude towards players’ longterm health and safety makes it more relevant now than ever, now that the toll the game takes is undeniable.
Michael Lewis’ bestselling nonfiction book about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his risky statistical approach to picking players seemed impossible to make work as a film. But leave it to screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Foxcatcher”) to turn this strange story of applied mathematics and baseball into one of the more compelling sports dramas of the last 10 years.
“I hate losing more than I even want to win. There’s a difference.” That ethos drives Beane, played by Brad Pitt, as he risks his job and what’s left of the A’s ball club on the untested theories of a young Yale economics major (Jonah Hill, in his first dramatic turn). Beane decides to focus on stats, numbers — not personalities or name players — to assemble an aggregate winning team. This calculating experiment, however, has emotional, redemptive results — not just for bottom-rung players like Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) who gets a second chance thanks to Beane’s plan, but for Beane himself, who chose the pros over college, blew his chance at both, and so tries to reinvent himself as he reinvents the game.
“Moneyball” might be about stats and figures, but it ends up being one of those movies where if it’s on, you can’t help but keep watching, like the final innings of a great game. As Beane says, “It’s so hard not to be romantic about baseball.”