There are a lot of basketball movies in the world, and most of them are pretty terrible. They're corny or too feel-good, they feature awkward celebrity cameos or they try to wedge in an uncomfortable romance. But some of them get the sport - and the people who play it - just right.
With March Madness upon us, these are five of my favorite basketball movies. Your bracket will probably look different. You will notice the omission of "Hoosiers," which is not an oversight. Yes, it's the standard for basketball films, but it's too obvious, and has long since felt like a manipulative underdog cliche. Gene Hackman is always great, but sorry, the slow clap doesn't play here; I cringe just thinking about it.
- "Hoop Dreams" (1994): Steve James' documentary about a pair of inner-city Chicago youngsters who aspire to basketball stardom is at once sprawling and intimate. James follows the highs and lows of Arthur Agee and William Gates over about five years, encourages us to root for them by depicting them exactly as they are, lets us get to know their families, their playgrounds, their neighborhoods. It's both inspiring and heartbreaking without trying too hard to be either, and it's far more enthralling in its realistic twists than any scripted melodrama. Not just one of the best basketball films ever, but one of the best documentaries ever.
- "He Got Game" (1998): Young Ray Allen does just fine here, showing off that pure shooting ability and holding his own opposite a nicely understated Denzel Washington. Allen had only been in the NBA a couple years at this point and had never acted in a film before, but he rises to the challenges of some highly charged scenes as the nation's top high school prospect, who's struggling not just with the decision of what college to play for, but also with his father's return from prison. Writer-director Spike Lee, the world's most famous New York Knicks fan, actually lets you see the game played out; he doesn't clutter it up with frantic camerawork and needless cuts.
- "Blue Chips" (1995): Directed by William Friedkin and written by Ron Shelton, this thing is crammed with both celebrities and athletes without feeling forced. There's Nick Nolte as a volatile, Bobby Knight-type coach at a UCLA-type school, Ed O'Neill as the reporter who grills him and former Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy as the university's athletic director (who likes to shoot free throws after hours). Most amusing of all, though, is seeing a young (and much leaner) Shaquille O'Neal as a beast of a prospect from the swamps of Louisiana, alongside his then-real-life Orlando Magic teammate Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway (with Alfre Woodard as Hardaway's bad-ass mom). Larry Bird and Rick Pitino are among the big names who are surprisingly believable showing up as themselves.
- "The Basketball Diaries" (1995): Leonardo DiCaprio is electrifying as Jim Carroll, the late New York poet and musician who chronicled his teenage descent into heroin addiction in his memoir of the same name. Growing up in Manhattan, Carroll played basketball for his elite Catholic high school and dreamed of athletic stardom. Instead, he would follow a dangerous path of sex and drugs, artistic inspiration and self-destruction. (The film moves the time period from the 1960s to the present.) This early DiCaprio performance, along with his Oscar-nominated work in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," offer an exciting glimpse at the fearless actor he would become.
- "Teen Wolf" (1985): Who doesn't like young, furry Michael J. Fox? At the height of his "Family Ties" and "Back to the Future" fame, Fox came out with this comedy about a scrawny player on a struggling high school basketball team who discovers he's a werewolf. It's as high-concept as you can get. Turning into a werewolf turns him into a monster both on and off the court - and yes, "Teen Wolf" turns into a very traditionally "80s-style cautionary tale about the perils of instant popularity. But there's something nostalgically comforting about that, and Fox, with his endearing sense of self-deprecation and natural comic timing, somehow makes it all work better than it should.
Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire.