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2000s: The Decade in Sports
Posted: Friday December 11, 2009 11:20AM; Updated: Tuesday December 22, 2009 4:33PM

Decade in feature films, TV shows, documentaries, books, blogs

Story Highlights

"Million Dollar Baby" is's pick for best sports feature film of the 2000s

Top sports TV shows include "Friday Night Lights," "Real Sports," "Playmakers"

Jose Canseco's "Juiced" ranks among best sports books; "Vindicated" is worst

By Bryan Armen Graham,

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"Always protect yourself," is the mantra of Frankie Dunn in "Million Dollar Baby," our pick for best sports movie of the decade.
Warner Bros.
Sports Movie Superlatives
Actor Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Actress Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
Supporting Actor Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Supporting Actress Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Performance by an Athlete Antonio Tarver, Rocky Balboa
Director Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
Original Screenplay Looking for Eric, Paul Laverty
Adapted Screenplay Million Dollar Baby, Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by F.X. Toole
Song "The Wrestler" (Bruce Springsteen), The Wrestler
Original Score Ali, Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard
Art Direction Seabiscuit, Jeannine Oppewall and Leslie Pope
Costume Design Seabiscuit, Judianna Makovsky
Foreign Language Film Lagaan: Once upon a time in India selects the best (and worst) sports movies, TV shows, books and blogs of the 2000s.

Best Feature Film

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

The best sports movies are often boxing movies, but the best boxing movies often have little to do with sports. Five years ago, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby joined Rocky and Raging Bull on that honor roll of classic fight films only ostensibly about the sweet science. Eastwood -- who directed, produced, acted and wrote the musical score -- likes to use the familiar tropes and trappings of a genre to subvert and mine deeper, unexpected meanings from it (see Unforgiven). Here, it's accomplished with devastating effect.

For the first two acts, Million Dollar Baby unwinds like an old-school, underdog boxing yarn: The grizzled, down-and-out trainer (Eastwood), abandoned by his most promising fighter, reluctantly takes on a 31-year-old, uneducated waitress from the Ozarks (the transcendent Hilary Swank) and guides her up the ranks toward a welterweight title shot. Only after a plot twist hijacks her ascent does Eastwood's mentor realize the atonement he's sought. (Or doesn't, depending on how you viewed the film's controversial resolution.) But regardless of where your moral compass points, Eastwood's measured storytelling and impeccable production -- not to mention Morgan Freeman's Oscar-winning supporting role -- make Million Dollar Baby the finest sports movie of the aughts.

The Wrestler (2008)

As over-the-hill grappler Randy "The Ram" Robinson in Darren Aronofsky's heartbreaking character study, Mickey Rourke -- himself a fallen '80s icon -- turned in a career performance. Forced into retirement when his body gives out, Robinson finds sympathy with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) -- like the Ram, a lonely soul whose body and livelihood are inextricably linked -- and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). But when civilian life as Robin Radzinski offers little fulfillment -- "The only place I get hurt is out there," he laments -- the Ram is soon back in the ring. Anybody who cried cop-out over the Sopranos-style cliffhanger ending (and many did) missed the point: Robinson chooses his fans over making a human connection; whether he physically dies is irrelevant because his life would have been rubbish anyway.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

The title and premise might be enough to scare off most red-blooded American sports fans: a cross-cultural comedy about a plucky Indian teenager from West London (Parminder Nagra) who dreams of playing professional football ... er, soccer ... against her hyper-traditional family's wishes. But Gurinder Chadha's upbeat story about the importance of staying true to yourself and the misunderstandings between kids and their parents was the decade's best feel-good sports flick.

Worst Sports Movie of the Decade
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Anybody can make a lousy sports movie. But lousy and offensive? Those seldom make it past test audiences. Advocacy groups skewered Robert Redford's adaptation of Steven Pressfield's 1995 novel -- in which Will Smith's mystical caddie helps Matt Damon's hard-luck golfer win a tournament and Charlize Theron's heart in 1930s Georgia -- for the use of the archaic "magic negro" plot device. Critics pretty much just stuck to the wooden characters, ludicrous dialogue and undercooked story. Redford's misguided Oscar bait was at best excruciatingly boring, at worst extraordinarily insensitive and racist.

Dishonorable mention: Crossover (2007), Rollerball (2002), The Replacements (2000), The Benchwarmers (2006), Driven (2001)

Best in Show (2000)

Christopher Guest's biting mockumentary about the competitive world of championship dog breeding follows five entrants in the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show and their colorful pack of owners. The brilliant ensemble cast picks apart the idiosyncracies of dog people with inspired verve -- from Parker Posey's neurotic yuppie to Guest's monotonic hayseed. But it's the scene-stealing Fred Willard who shines brightest as Buck Laughlin, a loquacious color commentator whose gauche "insights" make Joe Morgan seem like Vin Scully.

Cinderella Man (2005)

The biopic of unlikely Depression-era champion Jim Braddock features the most gripping ring footage since Martin Scorsese's hallucinogenic Raging Bull fight scenes. Charismatic performances from Russell Crowe (in the titular role) and Paul Giamatti (as Braddock's manager) elevate Cinderella Man above Ron Howard's lesser award-season fare.

Honorable Mention: The Damned United (2009), Bring It On (2000), Friday Night Lights (2004), Big Fan (2009), Miracle (2004)

Best Documentary

Quad rugby player Mark Zupan is one of many U.S. national team members profiled in the acclaimed documentary Murderball.
Think Film Company Inc.

Murderball (2005)

The best sports documentary since the 1994 classic Hoop Dreams takes an uncompromising look at the hyper-violent sport of quad rugby. The primary narrative follows Joe Soares, the longtime star of the U.S. national team who was cut before the 2004 Paralympic Games and seeks revenge the sweetest way possible ... on the opposite sideline as the coach for Team Canada. Shooting on a shoestring budget, Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin created not just a revelatory look at quad rugby and quadriplegic culture, but an examination of team dynamics familiar to anyone who's ever played a sport. This crew will tell you where you can stick your sympathy. "I'm not here for a hug," explains one Team USA player, "I'm here for a medal."

Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait (2006)

The greatest art-house sports movie of all-time. For the duration of a 2005 match between Real Madrid and Villareal before 80,000 fans at the Bernabeu, artist-filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno trained 17 synchronized cameras on Zinedine Zidane. Sound familiar? That's because Spike Lee shoplifted the conceit for 2009's far inferior Kobe Doin' Work (see inset). But Zidane's match is shown uninterrupted in real time -- unlike Lee's bastardized American version -- with a haunting atmospheric score by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai instead of the subject's self-congratulatory voiceover. No detail is too grand or minute, from the roar of the Spanish crowd to the soft crunch of the grass beneath the midfielder's boots.

To some, the experimental cinema and hypnotic beauty of Zidane is boring -- the midfielder spends less than four minutes of the match with possession of the ball. To others, the unique perspective remains the closest you'll ever get to experiencing a game through the senses of a superstar.

Worst Documentary of the Decade
Kobe Doin' Work (2009)
Nearly 20 years after shaking up the establishment with one of the most important films of all-time (Do The Right Thing), Spike Lee's attemped paean to basketball feels soulless and corporate -- a pale imitation of the Zidane pic that inspired it. That Kobe Bryant was Lee's second choice for the project (after LeBron James turned it down) only underscores the pic's second-rate feel.

Dishonorable Mention: Bonds on Bonds (2006), The T.O. Show (2009)

Dogtown and Z-Boyz (2002)

Behold the birth of extreme sports. Stacy Peralta's heralded piece, which ranked a lofty 12th on Sports Illustrated's list of the 50 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time in 2003, is the definitive document of the skateboarding subculture. A defiant, underground spirit powers the story of the Zephyr skating team, a makeshift family of teens from broken homes in Southern California who pioneered the surf-inspired style of skateboarding.

Tyson (2009)

James Toback's riveting portrait of Mike Tyson, history's youngest and perhaps most fearsome heavyweight titlist, is less a critical study and more a window into the former champ's tortured psyche. Through lush, restored archival footage cross-cut with Tyson's lengthy, poignant self-interrogation, Toback's deconstruction is extraordinary filmmaking -- a pic that manages to compel both boxing aficionados and those indifferent to sports without pandering to either group.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2009)

Perhaps the most memorable meeting in the longrunning Ancient Eight rivalry between Harvard and Yale came in 1968, when the heavy underdog Crimson scored two touchdowns -- and a pair of two-point conversions -- in the final 42 seconds to escape with the "victory" revealed in the title. Director Kevin Rafferty intercuts the original ABC telecast of the game with contemporary recollections from several dozen participants -- from Yale tackle Bob Livingston (George W. Bush's roommate), Harvard guard Tommy Lee Jones (Al Gore's roommate), to Yale fullback Bob Levin (Meryl Streep's boyfriend). The stripped-down production and direct approach of Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 -- which borrows its title from Harvard student paper's day-after headline -- makes for an evenly wrought and refreshingly unpretentious 105 minutes.

Honorable Mention: Step Into Liquid (2003), Offside (2006), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005), Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006), Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008)

Best TV Show

At the epicenter of "Friday Night Lights" is Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who balances the roles of father, coach and town ambassador.

Friday Night Lights (2006-present)

Peter Berg's loose adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's 1990 bestseller is a high school soap opera that's always punched above its weight, offering a tableau of Middle America with a realism and introspection seldom seen on network TV. The story of the Dillon Panthers -- and the community that lives through them -- relies on the deepest bench of acting talent in the business. Thanks to a passionate fan base and some creative campaigning, Friday Night Lights survived lousy ratings, a criminally inept marketing strategy and multiple cancellation scares to remain on the air today.

Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (1995-present)

HBO's outstanding monthly newsmagazine keeps getting better nearly 15 years since its debut. An all-star team of correspondents -- among them Mary Carillo, Bernard Goldberg and Andrea Kremer -- tells the ambitious, long-form sports stories ill fit for today's quick-cut media culture. From the groundbreaking 2000 report on steroid use in Major League Baseball to Gumbel's exclusive just weeks ago with professional gambler Jimmy Battista, the longtime accomplice of Tim Donaghy, Real Sports continues to live up to the lofty journalistic standards it's always set.

The Tournament (2005-06)

Virtually unseen outside Canada, The Tournament is proof positive that America doesn't have a monopoly on looney sports parents. The mockumentary centers on a local junior hockey team (the Farqueson Funeral Home Warriors) and megabooster Barry McConnell (the Michael Scott of hockey dads). The short-lived series, worth the plunge on Amazon, is sure to resonate with anyone who's ever known -- or been -- a parent who takes youth sports just a wee bit too seriously.

Worst Sports TV Show of the Decade
Listen Up! (2004-05)
You could have blamed the Seinfeld curse -- or just the half-baked concept -- when the CBS sitcom Listen Up! went bottom up after 22 episodes. Jason Alexander played Tony Kleinman (a not-so-thinly veiled stand-in for Tony Kornheiser), a sports columnist and co-star of a Pardon the Interruption-style talk show who doesn't get the respect from his family that he gets from his fans. Hilarity seldom ensues.

Dishonorable Mention: Bonds on Bonds (2006), The T.O. Show (2009), Tilt (2005)

The Ultimate Fighter (2005-present)

UFC commissioner and ace promoter Dana White delivered a master stroke by fitting the decade's signature cultural trend -- reality TV -- around the nascent sport of mixed martial arts. The premise is simple: Unknown fighters live in a house together and compete for a six-figure contract with the UFC. An instant hit in the 18-to-34 demo, the Spike TV program helped boost MMA from cult sport to mainstream attraction. Season 11 premieres in March.

Playmakers (2003)

There's plenty to savor about ESPN's first original dramatic series as long as you take it for what it is: pure, unadulterated camp. Playmakers followed the lives of the players on the fictitious Miami Cougars with the verisimilitude of The Bold and the Beautiful. Omar Gooding's scenery-chewing turn as prima donna tailback Demetrius Harris -- who leaves the stadium on game day to smoke crack in the pilot -- provided the series' most memorable moments (remember "The Pissman" episode?). The NFL lobbied to have the show taken off the air, which it was after 11 juicy episodes.

Honorable Mention: 24/7 (2007-present), The Sports Reporters (1988-present)

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