Monday, August 22, 2011

Top 10 Sports Documentaries of all Time

There’s always a market for sports documentaries, from season-ender puff pieces to stories about the seedy side of sports. But every now and then a film comes along that rises above the genre and uses sports to examine the real human condition in all its complexity, and it’s that devotion to grander themes that sets these sports documentaries apart. They cover major athletes and forgotten heroes, popular sports and niche pursuits, but they’ve all got one thing in common: They totally redefine their subjects in the eyes of the viewer.

  1. Hoop Dreams

    For every wide-eyed athlete who makes it to the pros, there are hundreds — thousands — who never get that far. Steve James’ riveting 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams is all about the divide between those groups. Shot over the course of five years, the film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates, two gifted young black basketball players who attend an all-white school with a killer program in hopes of finding professional glory. What makes the film work so well is its ability to use the boys’ story as a springboard for examinations of race, class, and modern society. It’s a bittersweet, perfectly rendered piece of Americana.

  2. When We Were Kings

    Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, 1996′s When We Were Kings revolves around 1974′s Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali that saw Ali defeat Foreman in the eighth round. Leon Gast’s film digs into the lives of Ali and Foreman as well as that of promoter Don King, who outsourced the fight to Zaire in order to drum up the payroll he’d promised his boxers. The film succeeds because it’s about one of the biggest and most colorful brawls in boxing history, and it’s also a look at a time when boxing was much bigger than it is today. The sport hasn’t produced stars like Ali and Foreman in a long time.

  3. Baseball

    No one does documentaries quite like Ken Burns, whose The Civil War redefined the style and scope of made-for-TV projects. Four years later, he released Baseball, a staggering series that spanned more than 18 hours and covered the history of the sport and its role in American culture and commerce. Adhering to a rigid structure — each chapter was titled an "inning" that then delved deeper into a particular era — the sprawling film mixes biography with commentary to examine the flaws and joys of the American pastime. It’s definitely a test of will to finish the whole thing (spread it out over a few nights, or weeks), but for sheer breadth, there’s no better resource for the sport’s fans than this. Burns followed up the documentary years later with Baseball: The Tenth Inning, covering the sports turbulent steroid problems throughout the 1990s.

  4. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

    Dare to Dream was produced and distributed by HBO Sports, which makes it a little slicker than other game documentaries, but it’s no less captivating for being so. Released in 2005 to piggyback on the women’s soccer team’s gold medal success at the 2004 Olympics, the film follows the team’s development and guidance under marquee names like Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm. It also highlights the pop culture significance the team earned in 1999 when they defeated China in the World Cup in a penalties shootout, with Chastain bringing home the victory and promptly celebrating by ripping off her jersey in an image that made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

  5. Murderball

    Murderball‘s great for many reasons — it’s a tight story full of great characters that proves just how much movie you can get for a shoestring budget — but the biggest is the way it breaks down the walls of misunderstanding people have about quadriplegic citizens and athletes. The film follows a group of men who play wheelchair rugby for the U.S. in the Paralympic Games, alternating between personal stories about their accidents and lives and the work they put in as they train to beat their rival Canada. Marc Zupan becomes a breakout character whose antics and energy carry the film, but it’s really about the team and the ways they bond through tragedy. A great look at a sport most people don’t know about.

  6. Beyond the Mat

    Turns out Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a lot more realistic than you might have imagined. The 1999 doc Beyond the Mat is a jaw-dropping look at what actually goes on in the lives of pro wrestlers, from the constant injuries and money problems to the threat of obsolescence, poverty, and drug addiction. Branded as "the movie Vince McMahon didn’t want you to see" (McMahon had granted filmmaker Barry Blaustein access to WWF wrestlers but went understandably bananas when the movie turned into a brutal look at the dark side of the life), the documentary is a warts-and-all approach to the business of pro wrestling. The sport is undeniably fake, but that doesn’t mean people don’t get hurt. Even in a scripted performance, things can go very wrong. Recommended viewing for anyone who grew up in the 1980s.

  7. The Endless Summer

    When it comes to surf movies, there’s The Endless Summer and then there’s everything else. The 1966 documentary changed the format by loosening up the formal rules of the genre — it’s basically a point-and-shoot adventure — but it also came at a time when surf music and culture were at a peak. The film charts the escapades of Robert August and Mike Hynson, a pair of California surfers who travel the world looking for the best waves and experiences. It’s a perfect snapshot of a time and place, rooted in the wishful thinking that it just might be possible to keep traveling and chase a summer that never stops. Bonus: catchy soundtrack.

  8. Dogtown and Z-Boys

    In the 1970s, a group of boys with a love for surfing expanded that passion into skateboarding. The Z-Boys — the Zephyr Competition Team, named for their surf shop in Santa Monica — skated as a hobby but soon began to push the limits of what people thought was possible with skateboards, inventing aerial tricks that blended the skill and spectacle of surfing with the still unexplored regions of extreme land sports. Dogtown and Z-Boys was directed by Stacy Peralta, who started riding with the Z-Boys at age 15 and is able to speak with authority about the life. It’s an intriguing film because it traces the origins of something everyone knows about — skateboarding — to places they never expected, and it offers a fun mix of vintage footage and new interviews. It also inspired a feature film version of the story, 2005′s Lords of Dogtown.

  9. Senna

    Ayrton Senna’s story is a powerful but tragic one: The Formula One racer was only 34 when he died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but by then he’d rocked the sporting world and affected racing forever thanks to his skill and personality. The 2010 documentary Senna is easily one of the best racing stories ever told, relying on copious amounts of real footage to put viewers back in the action as director Asif Kapadia works his way through Senna’s victories and defeats. It’s an eye-opening look at a sporting culture many Americans don’t know much about (the U.S. loves NASCAR a lot more than Formula One), but it’s made with such skill that it appeals to non-fans, as well.

  10. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

    Ken Burns makes the list twice (he’s good at what he does, after all) with Unforgivable Blackness, a gorgeous documentary about the legendary boxer who became the first black man to hold the title of world heavyweight champ, and who did so at a time when the U.S. was still choking its citizens with Jim Crow laws. Born in 1878, Johnson was boxing before the turn of the century, and in 1910 he won the "fight of the century" against retired but undefeated heavyweight champ James Jeffries, playing to a crowd of 20,000 in Reno and winning $65,000. His fame became a template for the way celebrity athletes would be revered and feared at the same time. Burns’ film is a wonderful and often harrowing document of a time that feels foreign to modern Americans but that’s a whole lot closer than we’d care to remember.

Taken From There’s always a market for sports documentaries, from season-ender puff pieces to stories about the seedy side of sports. But every now and then a film comes along that rises above the genre and uses sports to examine the real human condition in all its complexity, and it’s that devotion to grander themes that sets these sports documentaries apart. They cover major athletes and forgotten heroes, popular sports and niche pursuits, but they’ve all got one thing in common: They totally redefine their subjects in the eyes of the viewer.

  1. Hoop Dreams

    For every wide-eyed athlete who makes it to the pros, there are hundreds — thousands — who never get that far. Steve James’ riveting 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams is all about the divide between those groups. Shot over the course of five years, the film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates, two gifted young black basketball players who attend an all-white school with a killer program in hopes of finding professional glory. What makes the film work so well is its ability to use the boys’ story as a springboard for examinations of race, class, and modern society. It’s a bittersweet, perfectly rendered piece of Americana.

  2. When We Were Kings

    Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, 1996′s When We Were Kings revolves around 1974′s Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali that saw Ali defeat Foreman in the eighth round. Leon Gast’s film digs into the lives of Ali and Foreman as well as that of promoter Don King, who outsourced the fight to Zaire in order to drum up the payroll he’d promised his boxers. The film succeeds because it’s about one of the biggest and most colorful brawls in boxing history, and it’s also a look at a time when boxing was much bigger than it is today. The sport hasn’t produced stars like Ali and Foreman in a long time.

  3. Baseball

    No one does documentaries quite like Ken Burns, whose The Civil War redefined the style and scope of made-for-TV projects. Four years later, he released Baseball, a staggering series that spanned more than 18 hours and covered the history of the sport and its role in American culture and commerce. Adhering to a rigid structure — each chapter was titled an "inning" that then delved deeper into a particular era — the sprawling film mixes biography with commentary to examine the flaws and joys of the American pastime. It’s definitely a test of will to finish the whole thing (spread it out over a few nights, or weeks), but for sheer breadth, there’s no better resource for the sport’s fans than this. Burns followed up the documentary years later with Baseball: The Tenth Inning, covering the sports turbulent steroid problems throughout the 1990s.

  4. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

    Dare to Dream was produced and distributed by HBO Sports, which makes it a little slicker than other game documentaries, but it’s no less captivating for being so. Released in 2005 to piggyback on the women’s soccer team’s gold medal success at the 2004 Olympics, the film follows the team’s development and guidance under marquee names like Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm. It also highlights the pop culture significance the team earned in 1999 when they defeated China in the World Cup in a penalties shootout, with Chastain bringing home the victory and promptly celebrating by ripping off her jersey in an image that made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

  5. Murderball

    Murderball‘s great for many reasons — it’s a tight story full of great characters that proves just how much movie you can get for a shoestring budget — but the biggest is the way it breaks down the walls of misunderstanding people have about quadriplegic citizens and athletes. The film follows a group of men who play wheelchair rugby for the U.S. in the Paralympic Games, alternating between personal stories about their accidents and lives and the work they put in as they train to beat their rival Canada. Marc Zupan becomes a breakout character whose antics and energy carry the film, but it’s really about the team and the ways they bond through tragedy. A great look at a sport most people don’t know about.

  6. Beyond the Mat

    Turns out Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a lot more realistic than you might have imagined. The 1999 doc Beyond the Mat is a jaw-dropping look at what actually goes on in the lives of pro wrestlers, from the constant injuries and money problems to the threat of obsolescence, poverty, and drug addiction. Branded as "the movie Vince McMahon didn’t want you to see" (McMahon had granted filmmaker Barry Blaustein access to WWF wrestlers but went understandably bananas when the movie turned into a brutal look at the dark side of the life), the documentary is a warts-and-all approach to the business of pro wrestling. The sport is undeniably fake, but that doesn’t mean people don’t get hurt. Even in a scripted performance, things can go very wrong. Recommended viewing for anyone who grew up in the 1980s.

  7. The Endless Summer

    When it comes to surf movies, there’s The Endless Summer and then there’s everything else. The 1966 documentary changed the format by loosening up the formal rules of the genre — it’s basically a point-and-shoot adventure — but it also came at a time when surf music and culture were at a peak. The film charts the escapades of Robert August and Mike Hynson, a pair of California surfers who travel the world looking for the best waves and experiences. It’s a perfect snapshot of a time and place, rooted in the wishful thinking that it just might be possible to keep traveling and chase a summer that never stops. Bonus: catchy soundtrack.

  8. Dogtown and Z-Boys

    In the 1970s, a group of boys with a love for surfing expanded that passion into skateboarding. The Z-Boys — the Zephyr Competition Team, named for their surf shop in Santa Monica — skated as a hobby but soon began to push the limits of what people thought was possible with skateboards, inventing aerial tricks that blended the skill and spectacle of surfing with the still unexplored regions of extreme land sports. Dogtown and Z-Boys was directed by Stacy Peralta, who started riding with the Z-Boys at age 15 and is able to speak with authority about the life. It’s an intriguing film because it traces the origins of something everyone knows about — skateboarding — to places they never expected, and it offers a fun mix of vintage footage and new interviews. It also inspired a feature film version of the story, 2005′s Lords of Dogtown.

  9. Senna

    Ayrton Senna’s story is a powerful but tragic one: The Formula One racer was only 34 when he died in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but by then he’d rocked the sporting world and affected racing forever thanks to his skill and personality. The 2010 documentary Senna is easily one of the best racing stories ever told, relying on copious amounts of real footage to put viewers back in the action as director Asif Kapadia works his way through Senna’s victories and defeats. It’s an eye-opening look at a sporting culture many Americans don’t know much about (the U.S. loves NASCAR a lot more than Formula One), but it’s made with such skill that it appeals to non-fans, as well.

  10. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

    Ken Burns makes the list twice (he’s good at what he does, after all) with Unforgivable Blackness, a gorgeous documentary about the legendary boxer who became the first black man to hold the title of world heavyweight champ, and who did so at a time when the U.S. was still choking its citizens with Jim Crow laws. Born in 1878, Johnson was boxing before the turn of the century, and in 1910 he won the "fight of the century" against retired but undefeated heavyweight champ James Jeffries, playing to a crowd of 20,000 in Reno and winning $65,000. His fame became a template for the way celebrity athletes would be revered and feared at the same time. Burns’ film is a wonderful and often harrowing document of a time that feels foreign to modern Americans but that’s a whole lot closer than we’d care to remember.

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