Whether it’s James Earl Jones giving an impassioned speech about America’s favorite pastime or Bugs Bunny rallying the Tune Squad at halftime by passing around what he claimed was a performance enhancing drug, sports movies have spanned generations to give audiences something they love. Something to quote in everyday life. Something to watch over and over and over again.
I remember making my mother watch 1996’s “Space Jam” three times in one day. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave my father out as he must have seen 1994’s “Little Giants” about 75 times. Of course, both were more than willing to continue to take those VHS tapes out of their clamshell containers because they enjoyed them just as much as I did.
A few decades later, I’m a 30-year-old sports writer and movie reviewer. When compiling this list, I decided to start by writing down five films that had to make the cut. I thought it would be a good starting point … until I wrote down 30. How do I pick between a movie nominated for six Academy Awards and a cartoon where Michael Jordan gets second billing to Bugs Bunny?
I whittled it down to 10 and will break down each film into categories (pictured below), including Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, veteran performance, Sixth Man of the Year, blown calls and one shining moment.
So, the 10-day series begins with my 10th favorite sports film: 2005’s “Cinderella Man.” Based on a true story, the biopic about boxer James J. Braddock stars Russell Crowe and is directed by Ron Howard. Nominated for three Oscars, the inspirational film has great performances, a beautiful score and a triumphant ending.
Paul Giamatti, who plays Braddock’s manager Joe Gould, makes the movie. He perfectly balances drama with comedy and steals every scene. During Braddock’s title fight, Giamatti taunts Max Baer throughout the bout in flashy and subtle sequences. His ringside taunts help Braddock sneak a few punches in before the end of a round. His best part during the title fight comes in between rounds when he shares an emotional moment with Braddock and then tells him to “Get in there.” He ducks under the ropes to leave the ring and comes up on the other side to scream, “AND BURY HIM!”
That’s just one fight. One 15- to 20-minute stretch of the film. Giamatti is excellent throughout, as he hilariously tries to avoid Braddock’s wife, produces perfect non-verbal reactions and facial expressions and shares an unconditional love for his guy, Jimmy Braddock.
It’s no shock Giamatti earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role.
Rookie of the Year
Braddock’s three kids do an excellent job in “Cinderella Man,” but Patrick Louis separates himself as Howard Braddock. At one point, he’s jumping on a spring for what looks like a mattress and his father asks what he’s doing. Howard responds, “I’m being good, I’m being calm, I’m being-have.” He also has an adorable moment when the family gets electricity and heat back. He runs to a lamp, turns it on and says, “Good.” Finally, when Howard finds out his dad used to box a priest, he turns to his dad worried and says, “You hit the father?”
All great moments from a child actor whose only other movie role is unconfirmed according to the Internet Movie Database.
There were a few options here. Bruce McGill is a great character actor who has a role in every movie. In 2005, Ron Howard was only a few years removed from winning best director for 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind,” which also won best picture at the Academy Awards. He puts together another stellar effort here, but this honor goes to Russell Crowe.
Without Giamatti, Crowe is the standout. He handles the physicality of the boxing scenes brilliantly and shows exactly what he’s feeling with his body language and facial expressions. When he goes to Madison Square Garden to beg for money and talks to Gould, hoping he can make up the difference, Crowe’s face with tears welling at the bottom of his eyes perfectly captures that moment of desperation. Also, when Gould gets Braddock a $250-fight and they hug, the scene works because of Crowe’s face and realistic embrace.
Craig Bierko, who plays heavyweight champion Max Baer, had a shot at this. He gives his all toward the end of the film and becomes a viable villain. However, he goes a little over the top in doing so.
David Huband, who portrays ringside announcer Ford Bond, nails his role with his old-timey radio voice. It fits perfectly into the film and transports the audience into the 1930s. Although memorable, his voice never overtakes a scene. It complements it and adds to my favorite part of the film, which I’ll discuss later.
Even the best movies have their flaws and one stands out in “Cinderella Man.” The writing of Renee Zellweger’s role as Braddock’s wife is weak. When I rewatched it recently, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but it’s still noticeable. Zellweger is a two-time Academy Award winner (“Judy” and “Cold Mountain”) and the movie at times reduces her to the nagging wife trying to stop Braddock from boxing. It makes sense, as Baer killed people in the ring. However, there’s a way to have the significant other show concern for his or her spouse without allowing the character to become annoying. Mae Braddock reminds me of Adrian screaming, “You can’t win!” in “Rocky IV.”
One shining moment
The final round of the Braddock-Baer title fight encapsulates everything that makes “Cinderella Man” phenomenal. Gould urges Braddock to stay away from Baer as Gould knows Braddock will win the fight as long as he doesn’t get knocked out. Giamatti is great in the corner with his facial expressions and desperation to stop Braddock while finding time to taunt Baer. Despite Gould’s warnings, Braddock goes right at Baer because that’s who he is. He doesn’t want handouts. Earlier in the film, he makes his son return meat he stole even though his family is hungry. He also pays back the unemployment office when he starts rising back to the top of the boxing world. He doesn’t run from his problems. He doesn’t slack off in the final round of the biggest fight of his life and leave his fate in the judges’ hands. I always tear up when the beautiful Thomas Newman score swells, the crowd charges the ring and Huband as Bond stands up as he’s broadcasting and shouts, “Baer is trying violently for the knockout, but Jimmy is still standing. And he’s not only standing, he’s moving forward.” Braddock earns that victory and it’s incredibly inspirational.