So the envelopes have been opened and the celebratory parties in Tinseltown have yet to truly begin as Hollywood’s version of the NBA All-Star Weekend draws to a close. BallinEurope spent most of the weekend flipping between the ACB, NBA, “Black Swan” and “The Kids are All Right,” and is thus in perfect mindset to present the 2011 Oscar (Robertson) awards for cinematic basketball excellence.
Wait, did BiE say “cinematic”? That particular adjective may be slightly inaccurate for the films of 2010, especially considering the key noun “excellence” is also involved: In terms of basketball movies, the good news/bad news summation for last year’s roundball cinema subgenre informs that, while the volume of full-length features, documentaries and short videos was up in 2010, a single force dominated in terms of quality. And that force was ESPN. And last year’s best basketball films were, simply put, all on TV.
First, the field in the race for the “Best Dramatic Full-Length Feature” Oscar (Robertson).
The film BiE had forecast to take this award since last January, Just Wright, ultimately turned out to be one of the year’s single most disappointing films – and the letdown started “wright” from the poster’s public release. Seriously, the S.O.S. on this flick should’ve been sent upon first glance at the thing. With Queen Latifah cast as the love interest plus the assistance of a spoon-feeding trailer, you know that this movie’s certain to be about a, let’s say, unorthodox-looking woman winning over the scamming pro athlete. (Either that or it’s about Dwight Howard trying not to laugh while encouraging a 6’1” point guard with no hops.) So, why the poster featuring the most obvious head/body crop since “Pretty Woman,” for Welles’ sake?
Look, BiE loves the Queen. BiE sought hard for any redeeming qualities in “Just Wright,” but what can a would-be sycophant do when the screenwriters on this thing somehow forgot certain key aspects of the craft four pages in; you know, stuff like plot twists and conflict. Common’s Scott McKnight is a nice guy loyal to the New Jersey Nets who suffers a knee injury sometime after getting his team past the Miami Heat and into the NBA finals (giggle), during the long rehab process with Latifah’s physical therapist Leslie Wright, McKnight becomes … a nice guy loyal to the New Jersey Nets.
Naturally – and BiE trusts this isn’t a spoiler – McKnight lands with Wright, at which point complex machinations in the plot have morphed the baller into a nice guy loyal to the New Jersey Nets. He is, however, no longer bothered when the Nets take a decisive six-point loss at movie’s end. Good thing he and Doc Wright signed that multi-year deal.
The sole other basketball-related offering out of Hollywood in 2010 was “Grown Ups,” a sad-bastard glory-days sort of shared misery tale of the sort that features “Saturday Night Live” refugees. Starring Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade and Rob Schneider – How the hell did Kevin James sneak in there, anyway? – “Grown Ups” is a sledgehammer-subtle story of a quintet reuniting with their families 30 years after they together took a championship in hoops … when they were 12-year-olds.
Three questions: Didn’t this kinda thing turn Robert de Niro psychopathic in “The Fan”? Is this film as big a waste of time as “Just Wright”? Is the best part of “Grown Ups” in fact the opportunity to use an adjective like “sledgehammer-subtle.” Answers: Yes, yes, and oh yes.
The Oscar (Robertson) for “Best Dramatic Full-Length Feature” therefore goes to independently-made “The Saints of Mt. Christopher,” sort of a bizarro version of “Guru of Go” in which Hank Gathers-like Delroy Links (Joel Haywood) collapses and dies during a college basketball game … except anti-Westhead Phil Nevers (Rus Blackwell) had insidiously covered up the lad’s medical condition.
While handling well some tricky questions of American race relations (in this instance of the southern sort) that only indie basketball films seem brave enough to pose, the story of Nevers’ redemption is a tad incongruous against them – but only slightly, and this is a credit to scriptwriter Chris Shields for performing a decent juggling act.
Unfortunately, this one’s even trickier to catch than last year’s Oscar (Roberston) winner, “Who Shot Mamba?” With exceedingly few release dates, no availability online and even a non-existent official website, you’ll have to go the download route.
One addendum after handing out the first trophy must be made, however: BiE has yet to see “Playin’ for Money,” a seriously promising-sounding film from Japan Entertainment Company; the synopsis, ubiquitously available online, reads as follows.
“Money, the charismatic coach of the Oosumi Park Ballers, gets an opportunity to haul his Kagoshima League Championship team across the country to play in an elite basketball tournament in Tokyo, where the winner gets to play the Tokyo Professional Basketball team! All of the players have to confront their own individual challenges, as they learn to play together in this road trip adventure from hell. The trials of the trip pay off, until an unexpected twist throws the whole team into disarray. It takes everything Money has learned along the way to bring the team back together and lead them to an unforgettable ending.”
So let’s give “Playin’ for Money” the tentative award in the “Best Foreign-Language Film” category while BiE gets to securing a copy.
All blockbusters and fiction-telling aside, though, basketball movies in 2010 were dominated by the documentary, specifically several works within ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. (Accuse BiE of being a company man if you will, but best is, ultimately, best…) Of the 30 documentary films produced by the network, five were devoted solely to basketball; a sixth, “Jordan Rides the Bus” featured the game’s most influential-ever player and was directed by “White Men Can’t Jump” scriptwriter Ron Shelton. And a Knicks-Rockets championship series featured heavily in “June 17, 1994” as well.
Of these seven films, the only miss was “Without Bias,” a pretty uncompelling look at perhaps the single biggest “what if” question in basketball history. One wonders why Bill Simmons, producer/visionary behind the documentary series and surely the thumbs-up guy for this particular project, wasn’t given some screen time in this one himself. If nothing new was to be brought to the table and the paucity of highlight clips foregone, director Kirk Fraser might’ve been better off simply dramatizing (or at least working around) one of The Sports Guy’s genuinely touching columns on Lenny.
But hey. The Oscar (Robertson)s aren’t supposed to be about negativity, so onto the positives. Slipping outside the ESPN realm again, a pair of documentaries released in ’10 featured a pair of charismatic characters: “Man in the Glass” is all about the “P.T. Barnum of Basketball”/longtime LSU coach Dale Brown, while “The Street Stops Here” details nearly four decades of Bob Hurley Sr.’s work at St. Anthony High in Jersey City. “Street” packs a bit more emotional punch while “Glass” lines up the names to praise Brown from Shaquille O’Neal to Matthew McConaughey to Dick Vitale. Both films are worth a viewing, but neither delivers the knockout punch of rough living juxtaposed with basketball; if “Hoop Dreams” is a 10 in this aspect, “Street Stops Here” packs about a 7.5. “Man in the Glass” is around 5.
Meanwhile, nominations from the “30 for 30” series include…
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, co-starring Spike Lee and a cast of thousands of New Yorkers.
The aforementioned Guru of Go, a tale of Paul Westhead’s time at Loyola Marymount with a couple players named Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble.
Jordan Rides the Bus, wherein the man who some at that time called the greatest athlete of the 20th century tried to find his way in America’s national pastime, with mixed results personal and professional.
And almost as good as the winner of this year’s Oscar (Robertson) for “Best Documentary Film” was “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” one of the hardest looks at incipient race issues ever made – no hyperbole.
The winner, however, is clear. A good measure ahead of any other production in 2010 was Michael Tolajian’s indescribably fantastic “Once Brothers.” Loaded with highlight films and emotional impact, not only were fans moved by the millions by Vlade Divac’s heart-stirring tale of his lost friendships with Team Yugoslavia teammates in the 1990s but a whole new generation was able to appreciate the greatness of Drazen Petrovic. This film is a virtual textbook on how to tell a personal story with one that seems untranslatable to anyone not living in those halcyon days of the late 80s/early 90s
Congratulations to Mr. Tolajian and the entire crew of “Once Brothers.” This Oscar (Robertson) is for you!
And until next time, save BiE the aisle seat…