The Best Movie Ever: Running

What movie best encapsulates the experience of running? Crave's critics put their picks on the starting line.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Best Running Movie Ever 

Some movies are about complicated plots, ideas and emotions. But some movies are pretty danged simple. Some of them are about everyday experiences like running. The feeling of the wind against your cheeks, the burn of your muscles as they strain to keep up with whatever drives you, and – of course – what you’re running from, and to.

This particular installment of The Best Movie Ever is tackling that very simple subject, visceral and cinematic. We asked our three film critics – William BibbianiWitney Seibold and Brian Formo – to search their extensive viewing histories and each come up with one film, just one film, that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of running. It’s The Best Running Movie Ever, and it’s going to be quite a debate.

Take a look at what they picked, and come back next time for another highly subjective installment of Crave’s long-running series! 

Brian Formo’s Pick: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

In cinema, the films that involve running that I find the most interesting use running as rebellion. I was tempted to choose The 400 Blows for the ending—running away from home—but that’d be a cop out as it wasn’t the act of running that was important, it was the reasons why the boy would want to run away that really mattered. Three years after that film helped kick off the French New Wave, Tony Richardson made a spiritual cousin to Blows and devoted an entire film to an athletic youth who is running against the current of parental and school hopes with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay, great—in his first film role) has been sent to a reformatory school after breaking into a bakery. At the school he’s given word association psychological tests and a short leash—but the schoolmasters are only really concerned with their athletics, and Smith could win them a running title. Richardson’s film uses flashbacks to show how Smith ended up at the school by taking easy steps off the accepted path: breaking and entering, faking his age to get a hotel room to stay with his girlfriend, etc. But the biggest use of foreshadowing the film’s intentions doesn’t come from showing us Smith’s schoolboy shortcomings—it’s showing the difference of how Smith runs when he’s in a race versus how he runs on his own time. In a race, he is composed and he wins. On his own he runs wild, limbs flailing—and he makes his own path.
 
The film closes with a race, but Richardson stages Smith’s choice within the race—to stop a few feet away from winning a race he’s led the entire way—as the ultimate act of teenage rebellion. He knows that he beat every participant, but also that he beat the school who tried to use him for trophies.

Witney Seibold’s Pick: 16 Days of Glory (1986)

16 Days of Glory

I don’t follow too many organized sports, but every other year, for 16 days at a time, I become a rather rabid Olympics junkie. In the abstract, I appreciate games like baseball and basketball, but I rarely elect to watch a game of my own free will. But in the even-numbered years, I find myself wrapped up in the minutiae of events like the triple jump, the luge, swimming, downhill skiing, judo, and rhythmic gymnastics. My obsession with the Olympics probably started in 1984 (where I was a mere child of 6), when the Summer Games were hosted in my hometown of Los Angeles. Two years afterward, Olympic documentarian Bud Greenspan released a 145-minute film called 16 Days of Glory, which is perhaps the definitive look at the 1984 Summer Games. 

Relatively obscure in many circles, 16 Days of Glory is a mainstay in my head as one of the best sport documentaries of all time. It traces the career of runner Carl Lewis, of course, who, at the time, was the fastest man alive. The story that will always stick with me, however, is the tragedy of British runner David Moorcroft. Moorcroft was a champion runner who has competed in three Olympic games. He holds speed records to this day, and is currently, at age 62, heading up an English athletics club. In 1984, however, Moorcroft suffered a pelvic injury, and finished 14th in the 5000 meter run. He wasn’t just behind. He was lapped. Triumph is inspiring, but Moorcroft’s pain – and his tenacity – hurts to witness. A talented athlete with the bad luck of an injury. It can – and has – happened to so many aspiring sportsmen over the years, and we get to see it, in real time, in 16 Days of Glory

16 Days of Glory is wonderful and, for me, nostalgic. I saw it several times as a child. And I realized even at the time that the title was at least partially ironic. The glory, though, may not come from the thrill of winning. It can come from the hard work and difficulty that comes from merely competing. Getting to the Olympics is a hard enough feat, and coming in 14th is a triumph that I will likely never experience. We should admire every one of the people involved.  

William Bibbiani’s Pick: Run Lola Run (1999)

file_181493_6_Run_Lola_Run

Some people run for the sake of running. Others only run when they’re being chased. Lola runs because her boyfriend lost a ton of gangland money and is going to knock off a grocery store if she doesn’t arrive by his side in 20 minutes with 100,000 Deutsche Marks. Money which she doesn’t have, and will need to acquire en route. If you had only 20 minutes make and deliver the equivalent of $56,000… what the hell would YOU do?

You’d probably screw up, which is exactly what Lola does in Tom Tykwer’s breathless Run Lola Run. Lola (Franka Potente) barrels out of her apartment and races to her father, who is of no help whatsoever, and fails to save the day. She dies helping her boyfriend rob the stupid store. But she doesn’t want the story to end that way, so it doesn’t, and Lola barrels out of her apartment once again, the timeline (mostly) reset, and she try, tries again.

The playful approach to time should probably rob Run Lola Run of its energy, since it seems like she could keep going forever until she gets it right, but the short time limit and the various obstacles Tykwer throws in her path – which change slightly every time as she adjusts her route, or moves slower or more quickly – keep his film intense throughout. Mostly it’s all the damned run. Lola doesn’t have the build of a professional runner but she’s highly motivated to sprint for 20 straight minutes (three times), knowing a loved one’s life is on the line, and desperately thinking all the way. You’ll get caught in her exhaust every time, intoxicated by the adrenaline, and inspired by the pulsing, powerful “running” music that accompanies her to get off of your couch and make a dash yourself, wherever the heck you need to go.