Tuesday, May 17, 2011

5 for 30: The best of ESPN's sports movies

On the surface the idea of ESPN producing a series of short documentaries (30- of them, so far) wouldn't seem like the recipe for greatness, but if you pick and choose wisely among them, some surprisingly entertaining moments can be found in its "30 for 30" series.

The movies, in fact, are much like sports itself: If all you did was watch sports all day, you wouldn't have much of a life at all, but picking out what appeals to you - which for me this time of year means Braves' and, when I can find them, Orioles' games - certainly makes life a little more sweet.

And this week on DVD, ESPN has released the second collection of "30 for 30" films, making them now available in two volumes or as individual titles. Or, if you're on a budget and a Netflix kind of person like me, I know the movies I've listed below are all available for rent individually.

So, with full regional and sports bias on display, here are my five picks for the best of the "30 for 30" movies, with the titles followed by their directors.

"The Band that Wouldn't Die": Barry Levinson
Though most of Baltimore has moved on with the success of the Baltimore Ravens, Levinson's valentine to Charm City focuses on my kind of people, those who never gave up their love of the long-gone-but-never-forgotten Colts. The Colts band members that remained behind when the team left are a colorful bunch whose mix of anger and still-burning enthusiasm is an entertaining mix.

"The Two Escobars": Jeff and Mitchell Zimbalist
The 1994 FIFA World Cup should have been a grand celebration of the game and our country, and it was, except for one black mark: The appalling death of Colombian player Andres Escobar after his own goal in a match against the host team. The Zimbalists' movie looks at his life and that of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the connections between the murders of both men. The best movie of the bunch.

"Without Bias": Kirk Fraser
There were certainly more important historical events that happened during my childhood, but few hit me harder than the death of Len Bias (hey, when you're 16 years old, these things do lose a bit of perspective.) Fraser's movie, before it drifts off into an unfortunate and tangential segment about legalizing drugs, re-creates that awful night with Maryland players who were there, and it's often chilling to watch.

"The Legend of Jimmy the Greek": Fritz Mitchell
The life of Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, from his career as a Las Vegas bookmaker to his time on "NFL Today," is certainly great fodder for a movie, and Mitchell almost succeeds at making it work, except for one big flaw: a voice over that's clearly not from Snyder but, I guess, is supposed to represent his voice. It really takes away from the story, but if you can get past that (or even try to ignore it), this is an engaging tale of a man who lived life very large.

"The Birth of Big Air": Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze
There's nothing I love more in movies than big, beautiful dreamers, and you won't find many as gloriously goofy as BMX rider Mat Hoffman, whose singular pursuit of catching "big air" from a bike ramp, and its effects on all aspects of his life, is lovingly documented here by three of his friends and co-conspirators. Easily the most fun of the "30 for 30" movies, and really, what more can you ask for from a movie like this?

And there you have it. Please feel free to add your picks of any I may have snubbed, and since this a free-form kind of forum, any sports documentaries you love, since I'm always looking for rental ideas (in that broader category, my choice is still Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" - perfection), and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.

No comments: