I checked out a couple of new sports-themed films last weekend, one a doc, one a feature, both superb. The doc, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, takes its title from a Harvard newspaper following the match, and is a gripping re-telling and remembering of an epic 1968 college football game between (surprise!) Harvard and Yale. Both teams had gone undefeated in the regular season and were to play a tie-breaker to determine playoff status (I think). Through a series of interviews with surviving players from both sides and actual game footage spliced between, director Kevin Rafferty (of Atomic Cafe fame) weaves a suspenseful tale that leads to the near-laughably unbelievable conclusion. The game footage is fantastic, but what sticks are the interviews with the one-time players. We are shown a range of personalities from Ivy League lawyer types to working class heroes, all lifted to glory on the gridiron, but somehow faded and human in present day. There is, in that sense, a bit of nostalgic melancholy to the interviews, but it never veers into saccharine territory. The film is well-paced, and you don't have to be a football fan to appreciate it as a wonderfully crafted narrative that a thousand Hollywood hacks could only dream of scripting. Well worth the time investment, and highly recommended. Immediately after I finished watching, I went and bought a copy for my dad, who is a big football fan, and with whom I'm certain the film will resonate much more. I can't wait to show it to him.
The other film I watched is the highly acclaimed baseball drama Sugar, which charts the rise of a young man through Dominican baseball and into American professional ball. I admit I picked this up only because of the baseball theme, but as I watched, I realized that the focus is less on the sport, and more on the man, and the film has far less in common with Rookie of the Year than it does with Latin American films El Norte, City of God, and Maria Full of Grace. An excellently acted drama that just flirts with sentimentality, but never crosses the line, mainly due to the performance of Algenis Perez Soto, who plays Miguel 'Sugar' Santos. The cast of side characters comes and goes fluidly, and the brief glimpses of simple kindness shown to Sugar had me thinking a bit of Wendy and Lucy. I liked the honesty (or, rather, what I can only imagine to be honesty) of the scenario - not every rising star makes it to the top. In fact, far more often fizzle out far before they even catch a glimpse, whether due to personal demons, lack of talent, lack of confidence, or a combination thereof. Yes, Sugar has an upbeat ending, but it's probably not what most people would expect. Because of that (and a bit of swearing and a very tame, show-nothing sex scene), I fear it's gonna be a tough sell - increasingly permissive (though, oddly, not at home) parents will likely balk at the PG-13 rating, and serious film fans will likely shy away from what they perceive (wrongly) to be "just a sports film". Both sides lose, though, because Sugar has much to offer - a touching and truthful drama where "going to the show" isn't always getting to the big leagues, and in which the main character comes to the hard realization that sometimes dreams are simply just that.