Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nine favorite baseball films

Temperatures are rising,the frozen tundra is all but gone, birds are chirping and the sultans of swing are back at it. Yes, spring, and perhaps more importantly, baseball, are here again. In honor of our national pastime, on deck are nine baseball film favorites to help fill the time between games.

“Fever Pitch” (2005)
Jimmy Fallon begins a relationship with Drew Barrymore, who struggles to compete with Fallon’s first love: the Red Sox. This remake of a little seen 1997 British comedy about an obsessive Arsenal soccer fan taps into a different sport and a different team, but proves to be no less observant about what it means to be a diehard sports fan. Directors the Farrelly Brothers had no idea when they started filming “Fever Pitch” that the Sox would reverse the curse that season, in fact the film was originally going to end with them losing, but destiny had a different plan and this is a fitting, hilarious tribute to a sport, a team and fandom.

“The Sandlot” (1993)
A sweet, good-natured movie about a group of kids playing ball in the 1950s that is equally enjoyable for kids and adults alike. The new kid on a backyard team doesn’t know much about baseball. He knows so little, in fact, that when the team needs a ball he swaps his step-dad’s ball signed by Babe Ruth. When the ball is hit over a fence the film becomes a riotous battle to get it back from a supposedly man-eating dog called The Beast. A fine young cast makes this an utterly charming piece of nostalgia.

“A League of Their Own” (1992)
A loving look at a brief, but important chapter in baseball history in which a women’s league was formed to fill the void left behind by the men who went to fight in World War II. Rich, well-written characters are ideally cast from top to bottom from the league’s star player Geena Davis to the league tramp Madonna to talent scout Jon Lovitz to coach Tom Hanks. The period detail feel authentic as does the baseball, but this earns a place in baseball and movie history if only for the classic line “There’s no crying in baseball.”

“Field of Dreams” (1989)
Kevin Costner seems his best when he’s in movies about baseball but if you have to pick just one Costner baseball movie to put in a time capsule it is “Field of Dreams.” This is a movie that transcends mere sports movie conventions to be about the mystic, the history and the very reason we watch baseball. James Earl Jones delivers a monologue about the timelessness and magic of baseball that is absolutely perfect. And even the toughest guy is likely to shed a tear when the "he" of “if you build it he will come,” finally comes.

“Eight Men Out” (1988)
John Sayles' dramatization of the infamous Black Sox scandal in which players took bribes to throw the 1919 World Series is a compelling piece of drama because it doesn’t paint the players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, as being innately crooked. Instead Sayles shows how each player is slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, convinced to take the fall. The dream cast is packed with rising stars and veterans of the 1980s including Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, David Strathairn, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker and D.B. Sweeney.

“The Natural” (1984)
A film that deserves to be on this list for featuring the iconic, oft-parodied scene of a home run that rains down a cascade of sparks when it smashes into the stadium lights. That single scene is so tremendous it nearly overshadows the rest of the film, which has respect and reverence for the game, but also isn’t afraid to show the shady behind-the-scenes deals of owners and managers. Robert Redford’s 35-year-old Roy Hobbs just wants to play for the love of the game, and Redford brings a passion to his character that is the film’s heart.

“The Bad News Bear” (1976)
This is the original underdog kids' sports movie and still the best. Crotchety drunk Walter Matthau reluctantly becomes the coach of a team of misfit little leaguers. The team starts to win when he brings in daughter Tatum O’Neal as a ringer. These sort of movies would later become pure formula, but “Bad News Bears” played by its own rules. Too often kids' movies have a bad case of the cutes, but that’s not the case here. It is foul-mouthed, not political incorrect and wonderful for it.

“Naughty Nineties” (1945)
What is a movie set on a steamboat in the 1890s doing on a list of baseball movies? Well, it just so happens to feature Abbott and Costello’s classic comedy routine “Who’s On First?” Although the bit had appeared numerous times before on radio, television and partially in the film “One Night in the Tropics,” this is perhaps the best filmed version of the definitive baseball comedy routine. It is only six minutes out of a running time of 76 minutes, but it is one of the funniest six minutes you’ll ever see.

“Pride of the Yankees” (1943)
No matter what you think of the Yankees, it is hard not to be touched by the story of Lou Gehrig, the baseball hero whose life was cut short by the disease that to this day still bears his name. Made only two years after Gehrig’s death, he was already a legend in his own time, and in an era of war, was an example of strength and grace in the face of adversity. The recreation by Gary Cooper of Gehrig’s farewell speech is a guaranteed tearjerker, and there’s the added bonus of Babe Ruth playing himself.

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