If you hadn’t noticed, it’s World Cup time again. So what better way to celebrate than putting together a list of the best football films of all time?
So what if you disagree? Well, you can come into my office, we’ll chat about it or 20 minutes and decide I’m right….
9. Shaolin Soccer
Any film whose intro morphs our Solar System’s planets into a bald head and a football must be worth a mention. Shaolin Soccer is on this list simply because of the utterly ridiculous take on the beautiful game that only the Chinese could achieve. Years before China would be known as the cash-cow for ageing footballers, it was known primarily in the arts world for its wonderful martial arts movies. At its core, Shaolin Soccer is typical bunch of misfits against a brilliant set of opponents, yet characters like Mighty Steel Leg, Iron Shirt, Light Weight, Iron Head and Hooking Leg really gives it some stunning individuality, mixing the beautiful game with Shaolin Monks with some added salty bun love. It’s football. It’s fighting. It’s fighting football. It’s mental, and it’s really enjoyable. Plus, it has the weirdest cover of California Dreamin’ you’ll ever hear. Oh, and it’s got a blooper reel. Yes, it has.
8. I Believe in Miracles
When Brian Clough was sacked by Leeds after 44 days, even the ego-centric Big ‘Ed must have been reeling a little. He eventually decided to team back up with the estranged Peter Taylor to go back to the East midlands where he had lead Derby to the English championship only 2 years before. I Believe in Miracles documents his time from taking Nottingham Forest from a provincial second division side to two times European champions. I Believe in Miracles is a fascinating insight into how Clough ruled the roost at his football clubs. It led the way of the modern biopic; picking a contained segment of time to portray a character as opposed to taking a cradle to grave autobiography. There are wonderful anecdotes of pre-premier league football; proper muddy pitches, chip cobs before games, fining Frank Clarke for running on his day off, signing a player after meeting him outside Leek Town’s ground, signing a player for a world record fee then putting him on the bench for 2 months. It’s lovely. Clough is feared. It’s not modern football. It’ll never happen again. And you need to see Tony Woodcock’s modern-day hair-cut. You really do.
7. Zindane – A 21st Century Portrait
Let’s face it, the idea of two concept artists making a 90 minute documentary following the actions of a single footballer throughout a game deserves elevated eyebrows. However, Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s Zinedine Zidane focused interpretation of Real Madrid’s visit of Virrareal in 2006 was a surprising delight. This wasn’t the first time a single player was the sole focus of a match-based documentary; George Best was a similar subject in Hellmuth Costard’s 1971 documentary Fußball wie noch nie, but Zidane took the art/football hybrid to a new modernistic level. Glasgow’s finest post-rock cinematic noise-mongers Mogwai were bought on board when the band were shown footage of the film with their own Mogwai Fear Satan being played over the top, and subsequently wrote the fabulous accompanying soundtrack. Zidane himself pretty much lets everyone down by having an average game, then getting sent off for fighting in the last few minutes. That aside, it’s a remarkably captivating watch.
6. The Damned United
Very few people mentioned in David Peace’s controversial book The Damned United agreed with any of its contents. A story based on Brian Clough’s disastrous tenure at Leeds United during the 1974-75 season, Peace bent real life events to suit his narrative, and quickly became the target from Clough’s surviving wife and many of the Leeds player who come across in a particularly ugly fashion. His character assassination on Don Revie is also rather questionable. However, Michael Sheen’s performance in the cinematic version is possibly one of the greatest pieces of character acting these shores have ever seen. He becomes Brian Clough. His voice, mannerisms, looks are barely distinguishable from the real thing. He oozes the cockiness and confidence of the quick-witted Clough, as he takes on players, journalists, club owners and the public alike. The cinematography and design are also top notch, transporting you right back into the mid-70s. Stephen Graham does a wonderful Billy Bremner, ditto Timothy Spall as Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor. Fully true or not, The Damned United is one of the finest football films ever made.
5. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble
In many ways you could view Jimmy Grimble as the football version of Kes. The film follows the life of a young working class Man City fan who is a talented footballer but lacks any confidence when out on the pitch alongside the local school bullies. When he is given a pair of supposedly magic boots from a homeless lady living on a derelict estate marked for demolition, he suddenly becomes the school’s top player. When a local businessman promises to buy a new sports centre for the school if the team win the Manchester schools cup, PE teacher Mr Wirrall – played brilliantly by a young Robert Carlisle – in his own words ‘doesn’t give a shit’. Yet Jimmy discovers a secret about Wirrall which changes everything. Taking place when football loyalty was gained on terraces rather than superstar Facebook followers, Jimmy Grimble feels like the last hurrah of a forgotten era. It’s a timeless story of becoming at peace with oneself, yet the time and surroundings place it in that fuzzy period between televisual football wilderness and the global phenomenon we have today.
There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble writers Rik Carmichael and Simon Mayle joined VH for a chat about the film:
What were your inspirations for making Jimmy Grimble?
Rik: The idea for the film came from Simon. Jimmy was his creation; I’ll let him answer this one.
Simon: I had the idea after watching Gregory’s Girl and thinking about confidence or the lack of it sometimes when you are a kid and you want to play sport. I had a very clear idea of who Jimmy was,and growing up in a single parent family was familiar to me because that was me and my mum. The boots were an obvious device. Luckily for us Man City were the poor relations in Manchester and made the setting obvious.
What are your memories of making the film?
Rik: For me, the memories are all about the writing; happy days spent working and laughing with Simon at his home in Cornwall. John, who also directed was far more involved in the production side by the time the script was becoming finalised. Once shooting had started, I was on another script and wasn’t really involved again until the edit.
Simon: I would say the same. John and Rick gave me an invaluable film writing education and we wrote on Rik’s houseboat in London or in my cottage down in Cornwall. Lots of laughs and then lengthy sessions in the pub afterwards. When the film went in to pre-production my wife and I went up to Manchester for a few days to have watch some scenes at the old City ground in Maine Road, which was very satisfying to see after all the work that went in to the writing it and before the old football ground was developed into whatever it is now.
When you watch Jimmy Grimble now, it feels like a moment before football changed. The days when grounds were in council estates and not on business parks 5 miles out of town, a time when the terrace was more important than social media, are long gone. When you were making it did you think you were on the cusp of a major social change?
Rik: I’m not sure I would define it as “social” change. Of course football has changed beyond all recognition. Certainly we knew that football was transforming into big business but no-one could have predicted how global it would become. But I would argue that very little has changed for families like Jimmy’s in terms of social improvement.
Simon: I agree. The internet had just arrived, John and Rik introduced me to email, but football was still only seen on the telly or at the ground.
Do you think you could make a film like Jimmy Grimble now?
Rik: A film “like” Grimble? Yes, of course. Football might not be the backdrop for a new film but Jimmy’s story is universal. Growing up, lack of confidence, the discovery of self-belief are all themes that have strong resonances for anyone who has ever been a child!
Simon: I Agree.
What is your favourite football film of all time?
Rik: Purely Belter, Fever Pitch, Bend it like Beckham
Simon: I would add Gregory’s Girl.
Part 2 will be here soon with more footballing cinematic ponderings.