The Sport Market Movie awards: Heart, heavy dose of reality elevated 2014’s films

 

It’s not an uplifting sports story, but Foxcatcher is a work of art

 
 
 
 
Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about MLB pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, at top, takes this year’s Sport Market Movie Award for best picture.
 
 

Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about MLB pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, at top, takes this year’s Sport Market Movie Award for best picture.

Photograph by: Courtesy of ESPN

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In much the same way that sport television is the king of reality television, sport movies typically pack quite the punch on the strength of the currency of real-life events. And we’re not just talking boxing movies.

Of the 17 sport movies released theatrically in 2014, the vast majority of them — all but three — are based on or inspired by true stories. That doesn’t include another dozen or so sport documentaries designed to capture some of the many remarkable stories manifested through sport and sport personalities.

In terms of dramatized fare, Foxcatcher is a true story — and a dark one — that’s far too slow to be a particularly inspiring sports movie (with all due respect to the brilliant acting performances of its three leads in Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). Unbroken is the true story of U.S. track and field Olympian Louis Zamperini that’s inspiring but is far more war story — and prisoner of war horror story — than it is a sports movie.

When the Game Stands Tall is another true story that doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts and Million Dollar Arm is a nice story with an endearing payoff, but it’s no Million Dollar Baby.

Add it all up and those four dramatic films based on true stories allowed the ESPN sport documentary Brothers in Exile to sneak up through the middle and earn top honours as the best sport movie of 2014.

The remarkable story of Cuban defectors and World Series champion pitchers Livan and Orlando Hernandez marks only the second time in eight years that a sport documentary has won best picture in The Sport Market Movie Awards. The other came in 2012 when Pelotero, a documentary about another Caribbean baseball factory — the Dominican Republic — won as best documentary and best picture overall.

Brothers in Exile is one of another fine crop of sport documentaries produced for the fifth anniversary of the 30 for 30 film series by ESPN. Without it and 30 for 30 cousins such as The Day the Series Stopped, Brian and The Boz, When the Garden Was Eden, Rand University and The U Part 2 and other documentaries such as The Battered Bastards of Baseball, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist and the Happy Valley feature on the horrific Penn State sexual abuse scandal, 2014 would have been a disappointing year for sports movies.

All you need to do to put the year in context is watch the NFL infomercial that is Draft Day starring Kevin Costner. Costner isn’t the problem with Draft Day. Despite the NFL’s hands-on involvement, it just doesn’t come off as authentic. The league’s litany of off-field disasters would have made a much more compelling film.

The genre that has generally come back in strong fashion this millennium has stalled the past few years after The Wrestler (2008), The Blindside (2009), The Fighter (2010) and Moneyball (2011). Over those four years, sports movies were nominated for Academy Awards every year, with Sandra Bullock winning best actress for The Blindside, the true story of NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher, and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo winning supporting actor Oscars in two of seven nominations for The Fighter, the true story of boxer Mickey Ward. Moneyball was shut out at the Academy Awards but the sport documentary Undefeated won an Oscar to keep the streak going in 2011.

At Sunday night’s 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Foxcatcher will give wrestling an unusual moment in the spotlight. Yet it is more a dark story of how entitlement and dysfunction can plague the richest and most prestigious of American families. Carell is hauntingly impressive as multimillionaire John E. du Pont, Tatum turns in the best performance of his young career and Ruffalo continues to show why he is one of the continent’s most underrated actors. It wins four of the five acting categories in The Sport Market Movie Awards for 2014.

Tremendous acting notwithstanding, Foxcatcher is a creepy, uncomfortable and ultimately tragic film. In its slow pace and disturbing darkness, it ultimately falls short as a sport movie.

Meanwhile, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm suffers from the opposite problem. It is arguably too soft and light to challenge the Jerry Maguire types of the world before it, not to mention the many excellent sport movies inspired by the true stories of baseball. The year’s sport movie box office champion at a modest $36.5 million, Million Dollar Arm is the true story of Rinku Singh and Danesh Patel, who were recruited in a made-for-TV talent contest in India and launched into contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates only 10 months after they first picked up a baseball.

Mad Men’s Jon Hamm stars as sports agent J.B. Bernstein. He and his reflective foil — the year’s best actress in a sports movie Lake Bell — make Million Dollar Arm easy to watch, as does the small role played by the grizzled veteran Alan Arkin. Arkin portrays retired baseball scout Roy Poitevint and generates much of the movie’s comedic relief by literally sleeping through the talent ID contest.

Yet Million Dollar Arm is too neat and too cute to carry more weight among sport fans than Brothers in Exile, this year’s best picture and best sport documentary. It’s such a remarkable story at so many different levels, it’s difficult to imagine dramatic screenwriters could have come up with such a plot had they tried.

Livan Hernandez defects to the United States from Cuba in a boat one year. His half-brother Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez is suspended by the Cuban Baseball Federation on the suspicion that he helped his sibling escape and then joins him in exile the next year. Both wind up winning World Series titles, Livan with the Florida Marlins and Orlando in pinstripes with the New York Yankees.

They’re very different films, but the long-shot odds overcome by Singh and Patel in the dramatized Million Dollar Arm and by the Hernandez brothers in the documentary Brothers in Exile give them a common bond. It’s the bridge between dreams and reality that make sport the real-life fantasy world that it often is.

Sport business commentator and marketing communications executive Tom Mayenknecht hosts The Sport Market on TSN 1040, Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

 
 
 
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Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about MLB pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, at top, takes this year’s Sport Market Movie Award for best picture.
 

Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about MLB pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, at top, takes this year’s Sport Market Movie Award for best picture.

Photograph by: Courtesy of ESPN

 
Brothers in Exile, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about MLB pitchers Orlando and Livan Hernandez, at top, takes this year’s Sport Market Movie Award for best picture.
Steve Carell in a scene from the movie Foxcatcher.
Jack O’Connell portrays Olympian and war hero Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini in a scene from Unbroken.
Mark Ruffalo (right) and Channing Tatum in a scene from the movie Foxcatcher.
Jon Hamm (right) demonstrates a pitch to Madhur Mittal in the movie Million Dollar Arm.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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