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The Five Best Movies About Non-Traditional Sports

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | September 30, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | September 30, 2009 |

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It comes out this weekend, a comedic grrrrl power movie that concerns the sport of rollerball, and it got me thinking: What are the best sports movies that don’t revolve around one of the major sports — football, baseball, basketball, boxing, or golf? Here’s what we came up with:

5. Kingpin: Nothing tickles internet-using Pennsylvanians’ pinker than the Amish. A living tribute to Pennsylvania’s hard-working and puritanical past, the Amish represent simpler times before the exploitation of harsh, unforgiving modernity. Of course, Kingpin excels at hilariously uniting this dichotomy by tracking the relationship of two unlikely comrades. Roy Munson, played to perfection by a balding, broken-down Woody Harrelson, is a one-handed ex-pro bowler brought to that condition with the help of a ball retriever and his pin-punishing rival Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray). In debt, and battered, Munson meets Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid). Boorg is an Amish farmer with an un-Godly gift for rolling. Munson sees in Boorg his own talent, but the sin-free life of the Mennonite hardly meshes with the rough-and-tumble way Munson makes a quick buck. The plot is rather rote and the execution is somewhat clumsy, but the Farrelly brothers manage to create a comedy that is distinctly Pennsylvanian. Most of the comedic moments center around Boorg’s first encounters with gambling, tattoos, sex and other sins of modern life. However, the fish-out-of-water style is counter-balanced when Munson appears just as out of place in Boorg’s home in Amish country. The resulting impromptu friendship earmarks the film with a Pennsylvanian flavor — the fast living of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with the quiet serenity of the inner country quaintly called “Pennsyltucky.”

4. Spellbound: I’ve always believed that — with the exception of soccer, of course — you can love almost any competitive sport if you get to know the participants well enough. Jeffrey Blitz pushes that theory to the limit in Spellbound, a documentary about what would seem, on its face, to be the dullest competition this side of synchronized swimming. Blitz explores the lives of eight spelling bee participants — ages 11 - 14 — getting to know their family and fleshing out their individual personalities before taking us to the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. We not only get to know their lives in intimate detail, but we begin to understand what’s at stake for these kids, all of whom are dorky overachievers and social outcasts (one kid even has apparent Aspergers). It’s not just a vocabulary competition, it’s the culmination of a year (or more) of obsession, of constant study (up to 4,000 to 5,000 words a day) and, eventually, the highest form of validation some of these kids have ever experienced or — in some instances — may ever again. If you’re in the right mood, it’s easy to watch Spellbound ironically, as a satire of Middle America, but even the most cynical among you will feel invested in the outcome. You will root for your favorite; and when you experience the heartbreak of their loss and die a little inside, you may even agree that a competition this intense is a mild form of child abuse. Still, it’s a surprisingly intense and involving documentary, but what’s most remarkable about Spellbound is the overwhelming sense of pride you feel for these kids — maybe more than any movie I’ve ever seen, you’ll want to give Spellbound a hug when it’s over. — Dustin Rowles

3. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: Seth Gordon’s documentary is a heavy-handed but consistently hysterical and ultimately moving chronicle of two men vying to be the world champion of Donkey Kong. Throughout, Gordon capitalizes on a fact that hounds the increasingly tired genre of “mockumentary”: Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s also much, much funnier. The King of Kong, corny and improbable as this sounds, is about the values of character and integrity trumping the value of coming out on top. And there hasn’t been an underdog story with this clear a crowd favorite since The Karate Kid. — John Williams

2. Dodgeball: Rawson Marshall Thuber’s Dodgeball: A True Underdrog Story was more than just one of the funniest comedies of the decade, it ushered an ironic love of sport into the mainstream. Indeed, it gave rise to leagues around the nation devoted to adults playing elementary school games (I suspect, in some small part, that it’s the reason I’m in an adult kickball league, myself). Dodgeball is the rare comedy that manages to both follow and satirically subvert the underdog sports-movie formula. Just look at the gloriousness: a thinner, funnier Vince Vaughn; Ben Stiller in one of his last amusing roles; Justin Long before he became The Mac Guy; Stephen Root in his second best role (after Office Space); Alan Tudyk before the Browncoats phenomenon really set in; Jason Bateman before his career resurrection; and, of course, Chuck motherfucking Norris before he went batshit Huckabee. After years of Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler shtick sports comedies (which Dodgeball, unfortunately also had a hand in creating), it’s nice to look back on one that did it absolutely right, one that relies on jokes and not the yelly Sandlerese or the macho-bravado Will Ferrell gibberish. It’s not the best sports movie of all time, but it’s an irresistible cinematic treat. More than that, it reminds us all of a time when a punch to the junk could still be funny, but a wrench to the head could be even funnier. — Dustin Rowles

1. Murderball: It’s a misconception that quads don’t have the use of any of their limbs; they do, but with limited functionality. The quadriplegics in the outstanding documentary Murderball, co-directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, are eager to make this point. The whole idea behind playing wheelchair rugby is that men in wheelchairs aren’t delicate, fragile, or really all that different from the way they used to be. There’s also a world of difference between the Paralympic Games and the Special Olympics. The latter is a free-for-all where everybody gets a badge and a check-plus for showing up, and while the men of Team USA Quad Rugby are quick to acknowledge the good done by the Special Olympics, their sport is played at a higher level: “We’re going to win a fucking gold medal.” Rubin and Shapiro have created one hell of a good ride; the fact that it’s a documentary is going to scare some people off, and that’s a shame; it’s got the pacing, structure and immediacy of a feature, and was 10 times more enjoyable than another movie I saw the same day, War of the Worlds. Murderball does what movies should do: it involves us in a story with interesting characters we care about and the complex issues they face. Their lives aren’t picnics, but they’re survivable; with time, most things are. — Daniel Carlson

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.