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Whenever an Olympics rolls around, those of us left to spectate and not compete become instant experts in all things sports. Thanks to ever-growing Olympic coverage, we devour an ongoing flow of stories, stats, and soundbytes, and as we trade stories and predictions, the whole thing grows into a delightful, cumulative fervor that unites us all as countrymen for a few weeks. Just ask anyone who's watched the U.S. compete for gold in any given event on a bar-room television - suddenly, we're all pals when Team USA does us proud.
As we trudge through this polar freeze, it seems we're due for some of that Olympic fever a little earlier. Since the Sochi Games officially don't begin until Feb. 7, we suggest the following films as great material for pre-Games preparation. Whether cloaked in comedy or melodramatically earnest, these films capture the thrill of competition and will ramp up the spirit of good sportsmanship in your household just in time for the Opening Ceremony.
- Marisa Nadolny
BLADES OF GLORY (2007)
As one of the 10 or so people who liked "Napolean Dynamite," I made it a point to flock right to my video store to see "Blades of Glory," featuring ND breakout star Jon Heder, alongside comedy veteran Will Ferrell. Heder and Ferrell star as two disgraced singles skaters who were stripped of their Olympic medals and banned for life from the sport. To get back in the game, they must compete as a pair. Craig T. Nelson as the coach of this reluctant duo works nicely.
While I'm pleased I didn't spend the $10 to see it in theaters, I can report this movie is good for a few yuks, while poking gentle fun at the Olympic sport of figure-skating. (Of course, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a rival skating pair aren't so gentle.) Throughout, comedy fans will enjoy a series of cameos by some big names (includes Dorothy Hamel) and wait 'til you see the costumes!
- Marisa Nadolny
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
Hear the phrase "Olympics film," and you think of this movie, don't you? And then you flash to a bunch of runners slo-mo-ing their way down a beach to the very 1980s strains of the Vangelis theme, right? That is the lasting image of this Oscar winner. (Yes, it was named 1981's best picture, beating out "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "On Golden Pond," "Atlantic City" and "Reds.") I remember watching this with my fellow college rowers, as a way to get fired up for a race - and all I got was groggy. So, no, it's not exhilarating in a "Rocky"-esque way. It is, though, a quality art film. "Chariots" takes its story from real life, from two British runners who competed at the 1924 Olympics. One was Eric Liddell, a Scot who believes strongly in his Christian faith, and the other was Harold Abrahams, a Jewish Brit who faces prejudice. Ian Charleson and Ben Cross play the runners, and Hugh Hudson directs.
- Kristina Dorsey
One afternoon in 1993 I was 10 years old and visiting the local video store with my father and little brother. A box with four freezing Jamaican men and John Candy on the front was displayed on the wall and caught my eye. A nice lady also browsing there told us she'd seen it and loved it and we had to rent it. We did, and I found a new favorite movie.
"Cool Runnings" very loosely tells the story of the Jamaican bobsled team's hard-won debut in the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary. Already obsessed with the 1992 summer Olympics - I watched them almost every night the summer between third and fourth grade and decided I wanted to be a Romanian gymnast named Cynthia - I was in love with "Cool Runnings" from the first mention of the word "Olympics."
This is the quintessential "jump out of your seat and cheer" movie. It's a Disney film, so no surprise there. So many things stand out: Sanka's lucky egg. Junior's puppy dog eyes. The mean driver on the Swiss bobsled team with his ice-blue eyes and perma-sneer. The scene where John Candy crashes the Winter Olympic Committee's meeting with the perfect speech to convince them to let the team compete. That moment when the team picks up the broken sled and carries it over the finish line and the mean Swiss driver kicks off the crowd's slow-mo clapping! And Junior's formerly disapproving father is on the sidelines proudly wearing his yellow Team Jamaica shirt! To this day Jimmy Cliff's "I Can See Clearly Now," which plays during the closing credits, reminds me of my time with the Jamaican bobsled team.
The actual team is still competing and they're heading to Sochi. I admit I'm half expecting to hear them chant, "Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time!" as they push off from the starting line. Now that Apolo Ohno has retired from short track speedskating, the Jamaicans will be my reason to tune in.
- Melissa Babcock
THE CUTTING EDGE (1992)
The 1988 Calgary Olympics were disastrous for hockey player Doug Dorsey (D.B. Sweeney) - he suffered a career-ending injury at the hands of the West Germans - and figure skater Kate (Moira Kelly) - her partner's flubbed lift sent them both crashing to the ice. Fast forward two years and diva Kate remains spoiled rotten and partnerless with her sights on the 1992 Games in Alberville. At her coach's urging, Doug agrees to become Kate's partner when he realizes figure skating may be his last chance for an Olympic medal. It's slightly more delightful than your run-of-the-mill prima-donna-meets-Neanderthal romantic comedy. The movie, directed by Paul Michael Glaser, otherwise known as Starsky, gets even better if you drink every time Kate says, "Toe pick!"
- Jill Blanchette
DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY (2004)
As someone with absolutely no natural athleticism, movies like "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" give me hope that perhaps one day I can excel at something vaguely physical. "Dodgeball" tells the story of a rag-tag dodgeball team, led by Vince Vaughn's Peter Le Fleur, en route to Las Vegas to compete in a tournament for some big prize money. Their coach? A fabulous Rip Torn who adheres to the "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball" school of training. (Poor Stephen Root as Gordon gets it the worst.) Painful slapstick aside, we get one of Ben Stiller's most hilarious turns as chain-fitness-club owner White Goodman, who for no good reason really wants to shut down Le Fleur's indie Average Joe's Gym. One can only imagine how many takes it took to get him through the scene with real-life wife Christine Taylor in which he attempts to woo her character, Kate, in super slimy fashion. Second best part? Jason Bateman's cameo as ESPN - The Ocho correspondent Pepper Brooks.
Will the little guy triumph over this evil fitness freak? Take a guess. In the interim, you'll laugh, maybe cry, and really want to throw something at someone. Win, win, win!
- Marisa Nadolny
SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING - Harry Shearer and Martin Short on "Saturday Night Live" (1988)
Just before the 1988 Olympics, as networks and local stations were dutifully churning out "pursuing his dream/going for gold" formula pieces, "Saturday Night Live" aired one of its funniest skits ever. In perfect mockumentary style (can you feel "Spinal Tap" lurking in the wings?), Harry Shearer explains, "I'm leaving the accounting firm, and Lawrence and I are going to pursue a dream we have." The dream is, of course, to win the first men's synchronized swimming competition (eerily prescient of the run-up to the first women's ski jumping at Sochi).
A grinning Short (he never stops grinning) cheerily points outs, "I don't swim." Short, with an orange life jacket and nose clips, and Shearer, his hair plastered with Vaseline, splash around the shallow end and train out of water with none other than Christopher Guest, their dance coach. Just as "Spinal Tap" made all rockumentaries seem hilarious, this SNL skit has forever made the pre-Olympics up-close and personal video seem silly, but not nearly funny enough.
- Milton Moore
ICE CASTLES (1978)
Lexie (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is an Iowa farm girl who lost her mother and loves to skate - and, P.S., is pretty good at it. (Johnson herself won a silver medal in the novice division at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1974.) Her cranky but lovable coach Beulah (Colleen Dewhurst) convinces Lexie's dad (Tom Skerritt) to allow her to skate competitively, despite his fears of disappointment and unrealistic expectations. But when Lexie skates, she blows everyone away and lands on the fast track to fame and fortune. Initially, she is seduced by the glamor - and by a sports reporter - but she becomes disillusioned and ends up losing her eyesight in a freak accident. Johnson channels Patty Duke after the fall, withdrawing to her room back at the farm, staring into space and flailing around for a few scenes before her boyfriend Nick (Robby Benson) literally drags her out to the frozen farm pond and gets her back on skates. If you were a high school junior in 1978, Robby Benson was all that. His man-boy facial fuzz and his big-eyed belief that her dreams still could come true made him super sexy. The dark, moody bleakness of an Iowa winter is soon warmed by the love and support of family, and by Melissa Manchester, whose theme song "Through the Eyes of Love" snagged an Academy Award nomination.
- Jill Blanchette
Even in our national barroom arguments over the best American sports moments, there is a sizable consensus that what happened on the evening of Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid, N.Y., is the gold standard.
At the XIII Winter Games, the United States ice hockey team, made up of college stars and amateurs, shocked the Soviet Union, who were arguably the best team in the world, in the semifinal. Gavin O'Connor's "Miracle," gets so much right because of the director's restraint. This could have been a jingoistic schmalzfest. Instead, for the most part, Johnson, much like USA head coach Herb Brooks (played by a solid Kurt Russell) did at the games, keeps his focus on the team, even as international affairs - the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - swirl around them.
Still, by the end the film, you do want to break out the "U-S-A" chant. Sports, and sometimes even sports movies, do that to you.
- Stephen Chupaska