Thursday, October 22, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Ten Most Memorable Movie Coaches

This weekend, I watched The Damned United, the fine soccer movie from England with Michael Sheen giving an excellent performance as Brian Clough, legendary football manager. That film, while good, doesn’t make this list, but it did get me thinking about sports coaches in the movies. There are tons of them, and I’m sure that I am leaving off many people’s favorites, but so what? These are mine.

10. Kurt Russell in Miracle (2004)
I had to include a hockey coach on this list somewhere, and when your choices are Russell here and Emilo Estevez in The Mighty Ducks, you’d be stupid not to go with the former. Besides, Russell is actually excellent as real life coach Herb Brooks in Disney’s inspirational sports movie about the “Miracle on Ice” of 1980 – when the underdog Americans beat the Russians for the gold medal in Olympic hockey. What’s more, this is perhaps the only American movie in history (with all due respect to Slap Shot) that actually understands the way the game is played. While obviously being Canadian, and as such not really being all that invested in the “miracle” on display here, the film is quite good, and the main reason why is Russell’s performance. It’s one of his best.

9. Brian Glover in Kes (1970)
Brian Glover’s role in Kes is a supporting one, but one that I find absolutely unforgettable. He is the mean, harsh P.E. teacher at the heros school, he takes pleasure in tormenting his students, and is not above hurling insults at them like “fatty”. Glover’s cruel, mocking performance here is representative of almost all the adults in the young boy’s life, who finally finds an outlet for his pain and lonliness, when he trains a falcon. The movie itself is dark, and dire – there is no redemption to be found here – and one of directors Ken Loach’s best films. The entire film is great, but I’m not sure there is any scene more memorable than when Glover takes the boys out to play football. A great character was born here, and it probably remained Glover’s finest hour.

8. Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears (1976)
Before Billy Bob Thornton took on the role of Morris Buttermaker in the remake, there was Walter Matthau who delivered such a wonderful, hilarious performance that no one could realistically follow up. An alcoholic asshole, and former minor league player, Buttermaker agrees to coach the Bears because it will mean a little extra money. They are made up of the worst players in the league, but gradually (and with the help of two new recruits), Buttermaker turns them into a real team, and becomes ultra competitive, before they all learn a lesson. Matthau’s foul mouthed, beer swilling coach is not the kind we normally see in a kids sports movie, but Matthau makes the role his own, and delivers one of his most memorable performances.

7. Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own
A League of Their Own is one of those movies I watched countless times as a kid, because it was (and remains) one of my mom’s favorite movies. It was, as far as I can remember, the first time I ever saw Tom Hanks on screen, and it remains lodged in my memory as one of my favorite performances. Actors love playing drunks, and Hanks does this incredibly well in this movie. Of course it helps that he has the movies two most memorable lines – when he says to the umpire “Anyone ever tell you that you look like a penis with a hat on” and later when he starts screaming “There’s no crying in baseball!” I love Hanks arc in this movie, which is similar to Matthau’s in The Bad News Bears, but is even a more touching. One of my favorite baseball movies, and a film I still have a hard time turning off when it comes on TV, and Hanks is a large part of my love for it.

6. Burgess Meredith in Rocky
Burgess Meredith takes on the clichéd role of the grizzled old timer coach in Rocky, and makes it one of the most memorable roles in the film and his career. An ex prize fighter himself – 50 years prior – Mickey pushes Rocky harder and harder in each scene, molding him into the kind of fighter he can be. Who doesn’t remember Meredith saying things like “You’re a bum, Rock. You’re a bum” or “You’re going eat lightin’ and you’re crap thunder!”. It’s true that Stallone has done nothing but weaken the reputation of the original film with all the sequels he has made over the years, but the original still stands on its own remarkably well. And Meredith’s Mickey is one of the reasons why.

5. Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday (1999)
Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday is the sports movie that most understands that football is a business first, and a sport second. The same is true for all professional sports really. People play them because they can make money. You make more money by winning more games, by being better than anyone else. If you could make just as much money losing, or even more money, no one would really care (just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs). Pacino plays veteran coach Tony D’Amato, of the ficitional Miami Sharks, who are having a poor season and are in danger of missing the playoffs. When both his first and second string quarterbacks are injured, he is forced to put in Willie Beaman (Jamie Foxx), who becomes a star, but will not listen to anyone – including D’Amato. Pacino gives one of his best late career performances here. His D’Amato is tired and angry and frustrated that he is losing control on his team, yet he still battles onward, and still manages to inspire his team with his speeches. It is a great role for Pacino, in an underrated film by Stone.

4. Gene Hackman in Hoosiers
In many ways, Hackman’s Norman Dale has become the prototypical sports movie coach. Coming from a checkered past as a coach – he was fired from his last job for striking a student – Dale moves to a small Indiana town to become a teacher and basketball coach. At first, the kids do not respond to him, and they lose games, and in a town as obsessed with basketball as this one, that’s a bad sign. Dale’s defensive style, and the hiring of the town drunk (Dennis Hopper) as his assistant, alienate the town, who want him gone, but when the star speaks up, the town listens. The team becomes unstoppable. Dale is a man who has had to deal with his demons, and overcome them, and has come to realize that winning is not the only important things. By doing so, he creates an environment where the kids are comfortable and do win. Hackman is a natural as a coach, and in Hoosiers, he creates one of the most memorable ones in movie history.

3. Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn is one of the most loyal boxing coaches in history. He plays the grizzled veteran who doesn’t like training girls, and turns it from a cliché into a fully realized character. Through the film, he grows to love Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald, and looks to her as a replacement of his own daughter who wants nothing to do with him. He trains her hard, she gets better and better, and soon she is a star on the female boxing circuit. But everything changes when an injury comes along, and causes Frankie to make the toughest decision of his life. Million Dollar Baby starts out like a typical boxing movie, and then slowly grows more and more serious as it moves along. Eastwood gives one of his most fully realized performances ever, as a man who has pretty much given up on life, but then rediscovers it with zeal, only to be crushed once again. The kind of coach anyone would love to have – he cares about the athelete much more than about winning.

2. Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (1984)
I know that in many ways, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi has become something of a joke in the 25 years since the movie has been released. But it only got that way because the movie that contains the character, and his performance, were so damned good in the first place. The seemingly peaeceful and serene Mr. Miyagi reveals his darker secrets to his student Daniel, and through repetitive tasks (“Wax on, wax off”), slowly teaches him karate skills that he can use in a tournament to beat his tormentors. In many ways, Mr. Miyagi was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Morita, who had the role of a lifetime and was never able to live it down. But the legacy continues on in just about every martial arts movie since. A great performance, and a great coach.

1. Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights (2004)
I picked Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights not because it was the best movie on this list, because it’s not. Or even because it is the best performance on this list, because it isn’t that either. The reason why I picked him in this movie is simply because I think that out of all the coaches I have ever seen in a movie, that Gary Gaines, played by Thornton, is the most realistic portrayal of a coach I have ever seen. Friday Night Lights is not just another underdog story of a team that rallies around its new coach, but a portrait of a town whose entire lives revolve around football. When Gaines arrives, he is everyone’s best friend, but when things go bad, the town lets him know that he really is just a visitor there. Gaines is used to this – he has been through the whole thing before, and will go through it again in the future. He depends on this to keep his family afloat. He is a great coach, he can give great speeches, but underneath it all is a fear that if things go wrong, he’ll be out of a job. Football is all he really knows, and if he gets fired, what the hell is he going to do?

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