I’ve been watching more soccer than movies for the last two weeks but I’ve still been putting together a movie list to accompany the World Cup.  A friend of mine runs the best video rental store in Atlanta and I maintain a Staff Picks section on their website where I try to offer recommendations.  The movies aren’t all soccer-related, but they all relate to teams in the 2010 World Cup somehow.  So if you are looking for movies to watch in the evening to accompany the matches in the morning/afternoon, give these a shot.

Victory (USA, Germany)
Victory Stallone Pele CaineThis 1981 film (called Victory in the States and Escape to Victory elsewhere) drops Sylvester Stallone into a German POW camp during WWII where the prisoners pass the time with pick up soccer matches in the yard.  Stallone is the typical boorish American who only knows how to play “American Football” but he realizes that he needs to team up with the others to make a go at an escape.  Strangely, he does escape, finds a cute French girl, gets plans to bust the rest of the guys out, and then gets himself caught again.

When the Germans organize an exhibition match between the prisoners and a team of Germany’s best, the multi-national superstars (including Pele) and their coach, Michael Caine, decide to use the game as a means to escape.  But at halftime, they have a change of heart when they realize that they can win.  Though the film is a little cheesy and Stallone’s macho American character Hatch isn’t the character that you want to follow, it’s still got some great in-game action and supporting characters.  

Pele is fantastic fun to watch and he’s nicely contrasted by the Germans who seem like cold monsters on the field.  I love the way that Stallone is useless at the game because he can’t figure out how to play without using his hands, but when he winds up sitting in as the team’s goalkeeper, it seems oddly prescient.  I don’t know if this is the greatest soccer movie ever made, but it’s definitely my favorite.

City of God (Brazil)
City of GodPerennial World Cup favorite Brazil seems to be known around the world mostly for three things: Soccer, Carnival, and Favelas.  City of God focuses relentlessly on that last one, and it’s a trying, heartbreaking film.  In order to understand the joy and exuberance of Carnival, or to appreciate the creative and carefree style of Brazilian soccer, it helps to see what life is like in the slums of Rio de Janeiro where roaming gangs of thugs rule over everything. 

City of God is a tough movie, but it’s also beautiful and ever so slightly hopeful.  It presents a world where falling in with the gang seems not much more dangerous than avoiding it, but where people still make choices.  Watching kids sieze power through violence is always disturbing, but in City of God it’s so easy to see how the cycle is hard to break.  These kids are taking lives before they are even old enough to understand what it means to die or to kill.  They only know that having a gun and a gang means getting what you want, and in a place where getting anything is a struggle, that seems like a pretty rational choice.

This might not be a rousing pre-match party movie, but it’s an astonishing look at a culture that we don’t often see on the big screen.  I loved it, but I didn’t have an immediate desire to watch it again.  The film was followed by a television show and a second feature called City of Men and now that I’ve had time for the original film to settle in my brain, it might be time to watch the sequel.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (France)
Zidane: A 21st Century PortraitIn 2005, two film makers approached aging French superstar Zinedine Zidane about featuring him in an abstract art film and he accepted.  The result is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait which might best be described as a cross between a video art installation and a long-form music video.  Rather than create a narrative about Zidane the man or Zidane the player, the directors placed 17 cameras throughout the stadium and filmed one single match between Real Madrid and Villareal on April 23, 2005.

This approach had been tried before in a 1970 film that did nothing more than follow Manchester United winger George Best for 90 minutes, so it seems clear that the film makers weren’t interested in breaking new ground.  Still, their film turned out to be an interesting and somewhat melancholy meditation on Zidane, soccer, and a superstar athlete nearing the end of his career.  The film is not at all about the game as the cameras track Zidane exclusively, regardless of where the action takes place on the field.  What it reveals is a man who drags his toe in the grass a lot, who is prone to sudden bursts of activity and aggression, and who spends most of an entire match waiting for the ball and then passing it to someone else almost as soon as he gets it.  At times, Zidane almost seems completely removed from the action of the game, but then as play weaves his way, he snaps into action and shines.

Perhaps that feeling of melancholy isn’t really part of the film, but something that is hard to ignore given Zidane’s ignominious finale in professional football (he was ejected in the World Cup Final for headbutting an Italian player just as his team was on the verge of taking home the trophy.)  Perhaps it derives from the score by Mogwai that is beautiful, restrained, and always just a little sad.  Perhaps it’s a function of the way that this game versus Villareal actually ends up–a strange ‘twist’ ending to a film that is otherwise devoid of any real narrative depth.  I like to think that Zidane works because all of those things are true, and also because at halftime, the film makers head out of the stadium for a poignant reminder of just what the game and Zidane mean to so many people around the world.  If you can find this, give it a chance.

Fever Pitch (England)
Fever Pitch DVD ArtLet’s get this out in the open–this is nota great movie.  In fact, its a pretty frustrating one because it has some potential to go in all kinds of interesting directions and it only ever nods towards those directions on its way to an ultimately disappointing ending.  It’s still probably better than the baseball-themed American remake with Jimmy Fallon.

Let’s also be clear, nothing at all like what you see in this re-imagined DVD cover happens in the movie.  Fever Pitch is a romantic comedy but it is not full of girls dangling soccer cleats in front of their cleavage.  I am pretty sure that’s not Colin Firth on the cover either, because if you had Colin Firth on your DVD cover, wouldn’t you show his face?  This DVD box art was made to help sell a soccer-themed movie from the UK to a non-soccer-loving audience in the USA.  Way to go, art department!

Fever Pitch is about an obsessive Arsenal fan (Firth) who can’t really commit to a relationship because it interferes with his team’s match schedule.  This story (from writer Nick Hornby) has so much potential to be creepy and sad and there are many points in the film where Firth’s character comes off as utterly pathetic, but the movie wants to give Firth a reasonable ending.  It should have ended with Firth digging himself further and further into a mindless soccer stupor as his love interest got smart and walked out.  It nearly does.  Still, there are some pretty good moments and the movie is an all-too-honest look at football fandom taken to one of its many absurd extremes.

District 9 (South Africa)
In honor of the World Cup’s host nation and especially in honor of that crazy looking stadium they built as the centerpiece of their World Cup, tonight’s pick is 2009’s District 9.  There’s not any soccer in this movie, but look at that spaceship and then look at the Soccer City arena and tell me there’s not some connection.

It just looks like a perfect launching pad or docking station, doesn’t it?

District 9 is an absolute classic sci-fi film, on par with Aliens, Blade Runner, and whatever else you want to throw at it.  It’s a movie of ideas that isn’t afraid to spray the screen with grue when the alien blasters get to work.  It’s an exciting action movie that has such a delicate and interesting ending that it demands a sequel.  2009 was a great year for science fiction films, and District 9 was on the very top of list of provocative and entertaining films.  We might be getting a prequel (which I ‘m not-so-thrilled about) but even if this universe never gets touched again, there are enough fascinating ideas in District 9 to keep you speculating for years.

South Africa is off to a good start in the tournament and they have built an impressive and gloriously weird looking stadium.  If their tournament is as memorable as this film, that’ll be a great achievement.

Joint Security Area (North Korea, South Korea)
JSA: Joint Security AreaSeeing North Korea in the World Cup is a little disorienting.  The country’s isolationist stance works both ways–it keeps them in but it keeps us out too, making it hard to know anything about simple aspects of life there like “do they have a good soccer team?”  As I watched one of the North Korean players weeping while his national anthem played, I couldn’t help but be moved by that sense of pride that seems so strange and misguided to an observer from the west. 

This all reminded me of the early Park Chan-wook film, Joint Security Areathat revolves around a shooting in the DMZ between North and South Korea.  JSAisn’t as much of a thriller as the box art might have you believe, but it’s a fascinating look at the madness that is a single people divided by ideology.  The JSA is patrolled by forces from both sides of the border, and though they operate sometimes mere feet from each other, the soldiers are forced to see each other as enemies.  The building where meetings take place is particularly striking since there’s a line running through it that literally marks the border.  Watching all of the formality and rigidity of the exchanges in the JSA, it’s easy to see how artificial things like borders and nations really are at a personal level.  And that’s what makes it so fascinating to watch people moved to tears by something like a national anthem at a sporting event.

When the two Korean teams were scheduled to play World Cup qualifying matches in the North, the matches had to be moved to China because official North Korean policy prohibits the display of the South Korean flag.  It’s hard to understand just how difficult this must be for the Korean people, but Park Chan-wook’s film is a good place to start an exploration of that struggle.

Mirageman (Chile)
Mirageman is one of the first ever martial arts films to come out of Chile.  Yes, Chile.  If you think that South America is an unlikely place for the newest martial arts talent to sprout, you might be right, but Marko Zaror is the real deal.  Not only is he incredibly graceful and quick, he’s also huge (he was the Rock’s stunt double) so he always looks ferocious.  Mirageman is the comic book hero origin story that I wish we’d see in a Marvel movie.  Zaror’s character takes on a secret identity to fight crime in his city and the movie deals with the reality of a costumed vigilante better than anything that’s come out of Hollywood.  Some of that probably owes to the fact that reaction shots are strikingly real as the film crew consited of the director and star running around the streets making a movie without any permits.

This film is being remade by Zaror in english, but it’s going to have a hard time finding an audience with so many similar properties (Defendor, Special, Kick-Ass) floating around.  Devin raved about Zaror in his Undisputed III review and rightfully so.  My experience with Chilean films is limited, but Mirageman is worth seeking out.

I’m working on another set of picks once we get to the knock-out rounds.  If you have any soccer-related film recommendations (besides the obvious like Shaolin Soccer or Bend it Like Beckham or Ladybugs) let me know!