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A critic's choice for best sports movie performances

By SCOTT PITONIAK
On Sports
Rochester Business Journal
February 24, 2017

 Sports and Hollywood are an interesting double-play combo. At times, they’ve dropped the ball. And at times their collaboration has been as seamless as a beautifully executed pick ’n’ roll on the basketball court. The indelible cinematic sports moments have been many.

Who can ever forget boxer Rocky Balboa sprinting up those museum steps to the strains of “Gonna Fly Now”? Or Roy Hobbs smashing that baseball into the lights? Or little Rudy Ruettiger being hoisted onto the shoulder pads of his Notre Dame teammates? Or pool shark Fast Eddie Felson outhustling Minnesota Fats? Or golfer Roy McAvoy failing to play it safe in the final round of the U.S. Open? Or high school coach Norman Dale pulling out that tape measure to show his players the basket in the big arena where the state championship will be played is 10-feet high, just like it is in their tiny Hoosier gymnasium? Or Parminder Nagra’s character bending that soccer ball like Beckham? Or Gale Sayers urging that audience to say a prayer for his dying teammate?
 
In recognition of Sunday’s Academy Awards, I’m putting on my movie critic’s hat and presenting my all-time Oscars for sports movies. It was a much tougher task than I imagined; so many films and performers that, in the immortal words of Marlon Brando, “coulda been contenders.” Let the debating begin.
 
Best Actor
Nominees: Kevin Costner, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman and Sylvester Stallone.
 
Winner: Costner. Whether swinging for the fences as Crash Davis in “Bull Durham” or refusing to lay up as McAvoy in “Tin Cup” or calling the shots as the Cleveland Browns general manager in “Draft Day,” Costner comes across as the most believable sports figure in movie history. Washington has been superb and prolific, too, turning in stellar performances in “He Got Game,” “Remember the Titans” and “The Hurricane.” He’s up for an Oscar this year for his performance in “Fences,” in which he plays a former Negro League slugger haunted by the fact Major League Baseball’s color barrier wasn’t broken until after he hung up his spikes. De Niro is fabulous as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” and as a dying catcher in “Bang the Drum Slowly.” And Newman shined as a pool shark in “The Hustler” and as an aging minor-league hockey lifer in “Slapshot.” 
 
Best Actress
Nominees: Geena Davis, Hilary Swank, Susan Sarandon, Parminder Nagra and Elizabeth Taylor.
Winner: Swank. Under the mentorship of a gruff boxing trainer played by Clint Eastwood, Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald, becomes a skilled pugilist who lands a title match. Her dream, though, abruptly turns into a nightmare as she suffers a broken neck in the ring and becomes a quadriplegic. Swank deservedly won an Oscar for that performance in “Million Dollar Baby.” Davis was magnificent as the catcher in “A League of Their Own.” Taylor makes the list for her performance as a 12-year-old who wins a National Steeplechase in the 1944 flick, “National Velvet.” It was her breakthrough role. 
 
Best Director
Nominees: Barry Levinson, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Ron Shelton, Spike Lee, Hugh Hudson.
Winner: Shelton. I went with the former Rochester Red Wings infielder because of the quality and breadth of his work. Sports Illustrated labeled Shelton’s “Bull Durham” as the best sports movie of the 20th century. Tough to argue. But he also directed “Tin Cup,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Cobb.” Sayles did a masterful job with “Eight Men Out.” And Scorsese’s decision to shoot “Raging Bull” in black and white was brilliant.
 
Best Documentary
Nominees: “O.J. Simpson: Made In America,” “Baseball,” “Hoop Dreams,” “When We Were Kings,” “Pumping Iron.”
Winner: “Hoop Dreams.” Another tough, tough category. The Simpson series is my favorite to win a 2016 Oscar. And it’s difficult to argue with Ken Burns’ seminal, 10-part series on baseball, which was as much a story about America as it was about baseball. I just found “Hoop Dreams” absolutely riveting. Director Steve James and writers James and Frederick Marx spent two years taking us inside the lives of two Chicago kids from the projects with NBA aspirations. 
 
Best Soundtracks/Songs
Nominees: “Chariots of Fire,” “The Natural,” “Rocky,” “Major League” and “Pride of the Yankees.”
Winner: “The Natural.” It’s difficult to go against the theme from “Chariots of Fire,” but there’s just something about Randy Newman’s transcendent score from “The Natural,” especially when Hobbs (played superbly by Robert Redford) is rounding the bases after his triumphant homer. The Rocky movies gave us “Gonna Fly Now” and “Eye of the Tiger,” two jock-rock staples. Irving Berlin’s “Always” from “Pride of the Yankees” is one of the greatest love songs. Watching bespectacled, hard-throwing Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) warm up on the mound to the strains of “Wild Thing” is pretty darn cool.
 
Best Picture 
Nominees: “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham,” “Raging Bull,” “Hoosiers,” “The Natural,” “Rocky,” “Eight Men Out,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Brian’s Song,” “The Hustler.”
Winner: “Field of Dreams.” Yeah, I know, this really is a movie about fathers and sons, and they made a historical blunder by having Shoeless Joe Jackson bat righty instead of lefty, but I don’t care. It’s a powerful movie about generational connections, disconnections and reconnections. It’s about coming home, finding peace, with baseball as a backdrop. I’ve probably watched it at least 30 times and I’ve never not cried at the end. “If you build it, he will come,” is one of the most recognizable and repeated lines in movie history. If they show it, I will watch. But I’ll also watch so many of the other sports movies I’ve mentioned and plenty that I haven’t. Again, just one man’s opinion.
Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak played an extra in the Kevin Costner film, “For Love of the Game.”
(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.

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