ESPN Films vice president and executive producer Libby Geist, who oversaw the 30 for 30 seasons of documentaries celebrating ESPN’s 30th anniversary in 2018, adds, “The finest films of this sort provide context.” When it comes to sports, “people appear to believe they know the story,” but a filmmaker may provide context by explaining why and how things happened.
One of Geist’s favorite movies is Senna (2010). The 2017 Bafta and Academy Award winners Hillsborough and OJ: Made in America are included in our lineup of outstanding sports documentaries, which also include that masterpiece. These three works are so well done that they have earned their spot among the best sports documentaries ever created. Check out the rest of them down here.
1. Orient: Club for a Fiver (1995)
Created under Jo Treharne’s direction
This video was taken from YouTube and imported. If you visit their website, you might be able to discover the same material presented in a different style, or you could even find more detailed information.
Like that photograph of a street brawl in Manchester that somehow ended up looking like a Renaissance masterpiece, this is the equivalent of football. Pieces of Leyton Orient manager John Sitton’s ravings made their way into football jargon, and the entire hour-long Channel 4 documentary quickly became a meme.
In the 1993–1994 season, fly-on-the-wall cameras caught Sitton as he tried to maintain a fast dissolving Orient in the Second Division, and as he mentally collapsed on the route to failure—raging, snarling, proposing to fight his own players, and firing defenders at halftime.
It’s humorous at first, but when you learn that it was a turning moment in Sitton’s life, it takes on a more serious and melancholy tone. No football jobs were available to him after the publication of Club for a Fiver, so he took a job as a black taxi driver in London.
He said in 2019 that he had to sell “a lot of personal stuff and even furniture to feed three young kids.” This aftermath seemed like a death in the family. The three stages of human emotion are anger, denial, and acceptance. Throw shame into the mix; I’m better than that.
It’s not available anyplace in an official capacity to stream, but you should definitely check it out if you come across it. If not, this place is going to blow up. Alright? And feel free to pair off if you so like. You can bring your own food and choose who you’d like to help you. Since you’re going to need it badly by the time I’m done with you.
2. Fire in Babylon (2010)
Created under Stevan Riley’s direction
In terms of sheer domination, the West Indian cricket squad of the 1970s and 1980s is hard to top. They were dedicated, ruthless, and incredibly gifted, and they left nothing in their wake. They were more than just talented; their annihilation of other teams was both savage and poetic.
The West Indies had a reputation for being a carefree and joyful but essentially underachieving sort of team before Clive Lloyd became a captain in 1974. Lloyd was motivated to identify and nurture his own quicks after seeing the success of fiery Australian fast bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. Batsmen the world over trembled at the names Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, and Colin Croft.
However, that isn’t the full tale. When considering that cricket was brought to the world by English colonizers, who then discovered that the world had become extremely unsportingly much better at it than them, cricket reaches its full potential. The 5-0 ‘blackwash’ series victory in England in 1984 is the climax of this story, which centers on the South African-born England captain Tony Greig’s infamous threat to make the West Indian squad “grovel,” which was exceedingly yikes-y even then.
3. Next Goal Wins (2014)
Produced by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, with direction by the two.
Documentaries on sports
The weakest football team in the world, American Samoa, tries to make it to the World Cup. When we first encounter Samoa, they are still smarting from a 31-0 shellacking at the hands of Australia, and their affiliation with Fifa has not yet stained them. In all candor, Australia. As one example:
(Why be jerks to Samoa?) And while they’re all gorgeous, they’re also all complete garbage. Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-American coach, arrives on the islands to kick some arse and take some names in an effort to revitalize the local football scene. As Rongen’s methods are adopted by the Samoan players, he and we learn more and more about Samoa’s society and culture.
This is especially true of Jaiyah Saelua, who is a fa’afafine, the third gender in Samoan tradition, and the first transgender player in a Fifa World Cup qualifier. These pieces are inspiring and moving. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.
4. Diego Maradona (2019)
With Asif Kapadia at the helm
On November 25, 2020, the world learned that Diego Maradona, an Argentine football star widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, had died at the age of 60. The world mourned and honored a guy who was both incredibly talented and deeply flawed. His struggles with drug abuse and the resulting health issues had been documented by the media ever since his playing days, yet his untimely passing nevertheless caught the world off guard; possibly because he had a tendency to view himself as bigger than life.
Around five years before, renowned director Asif Kapadia set out to make a documentary on Senna that would capture why he was such a magnetic force for people all around the world and how he struggled to handle the power that popularity offered him. The filmmaker even scored an exclusive and startling interview with the subject.
The Argentine’s move to Napoli in 1984 marks the beginning of what would be the most formative (and devastating) time of his career, during which he would soar to great heights and inspire the city before being sucked into the city’s sordid underbelly. The 2019 documentary by Kapadia is a joyous and sorrowful look at Maradona’s complex personality.
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5. Athlete A (2020)
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk are the directors.
USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser assaulted young female athletes for more than two decades without consequence, despite numerous allegations. Over 260 children and women have come forward to accuse Nasser of sexual assault since his trial in 2016, and the Netflix documentary Athlete A explores the terrible narrative of how a ring of institutionalized protection allowed Nasser to continue his atrocities (54 coaches had also had allegations made against them across ten years).
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the film’s directors, spoke with survivors and reporters from the Indianapolis Star to shed light on the organizational cover-up and the risks present in the American gymnastics system.
6. Free Solo (2018)
Featuring Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi as directors.
Although American climber Alex Honnold may have been taken aback by Free Solo’s Oscar victory (the film was up against the pound-for-pound heavyweight RBG in the “best documentary” category), he has a history of doing anything he puts his mind to. A misstep when free soloing (the art of climbing vertical rock walls without the use of ropes or other protection) might result in a dramatic and fatal fall for Honnold.
In part because of this, the documentary Free Solo, which follows Honnold as he attempts to become the first person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, is so riveting. The film was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
Considering that Honnold himself is a very unique individual (as one might imagine, given his chosen career) who does not normally exhibit emotion, the hesitancies, and worries of Chin and his staff, who appear in the film, function as a type of Greek chorus. During filming, Honnold meets and begins dating Sanni, whose presence adds nuance and complexity to the picture by raising the issue, “If Honnold isn’t single, can he ever be free?”
7. OJ: Made in America (2016)
In charge of direction was Ezra Edelman.
This monumental account of O.J. Simpson’s life is undeniably a watershed moment in the history of the documentary film. Dozens of interviews with all relevant parties (except for the headlining star, who – spoiler warning — is up for parole this year), excellent research, and a commendable dedication to objectivity characterize this account. The film is enlightening to anyone who knows nothing about O.J. other than “former NFL player acquitted of killing his wife and featured in The Naked Gun.”
Some highlights include his involvement with the Black Power movement, his groundbreaking efforts to convert his sports stardom into a mainstream, high-earning celebrity, his astounding self-belief, and the way that the focus of his murder trial shifted from OJ versus The Man to Black versus White in America.
He also describes how his “hypothetical” account of the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman ended up being published by Goldman’s father. You also got the most wonderful talking head in all of the documentaries in the form of Carl Douglas, an open, courageous, and lively defense attorney.
8. Kicking & Screaming (1995)
Jean-Claude Bragard is the director.
The BBC’s six-part series on the history of English football has not been broadcast since 1998, making it difficult to access in its entirety on YouTube. It’s a classic of talking heads and footage, tracing the history of football from uncontrolled village-versus-village games, like the ones played on bank holidays today, all the way to the creation of the Premier League.
It’s funny in a subtle way and packed with never-before-seen videos. Denis Law of Scotland wraps up the whole 1966 debacle by saying, “I was playing golf in Manchester, and, unlike Manchester, it was pouring.” We were a pair on the trail.
The other person I was playing with was terrible. He also defeated me. Around the bend in the course, everyone in the club gathered at the window. The final score was England 4, Italy 2. I really did fear that the world was about to end.
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9. No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
Written and directed by Jeff Radice
The perfect game for a baseball pitcher is called a “no no,” or no-hitter, because not a single batter managed to make contact with the ball. Only 295 times out of more than 213,000 games have this happened in the major leagues of American baseball. Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, claims he threw a perfect game against the San Diego Padres in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. (He’d been out late the night before and confused his playing days.) This fascinating documentary offers more than just the debunking (or not) of myths.
10. An Impossible Job (1994)
In Ken McGill’s direction
After his passing in January, former manager and pundit Graham Taylor was remembered as one of football’s genuine kind gentlemen. The nearly destroyed doctor’s staff would have remembered his kindness. Filming for England’s last World Cup qualifier in Holland was banned in 1993 after they had already filmed Taylor’s whole qualification campaign.
Taylor assisted in sneaking them onto the field in their England uniforms and equipment bags. (If only he and his squad had been as good at penetrating Dutch defenses.) Taylor’s on-the-touchline appearances as England’s hopes of qualifying are dashed are both amusing and tragic. Such scenes may be seen throughout the film.
Taylor’s candor made him a punchline; his catchphrases “Do I not like it” and “Can we not knock it” went viral. The fly-on-the-wall sports documentary genre was all but extinguished by this film, and it’s all the better for it.
11. A Sunday In Hell (1977)
Jrgen Leth is the director.
For a long time, before cycling became popular, this was the only documentary dedicated to the sport. It became so popular that fans started trading VHS copies like hotcakes. Even the most cherished and dimly remembered movies sometimes lose their luster with the passage of time, but A Sunday in Hell more than holds its own. Leth, a Danish filmmaker, and poet were able to achieve his objective of distilling heroism at the 1976 Paris-Roubaix, cycling’s toughest one-day race.
Bicyclists who are visibly hurt (from grimacing and bleeding) give off a different vibe than the robotic road racers of today. Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, rides in, radiating Euro cool like a cycling Jean-Paul Belmondo. The composition, which combines synth and orchestral elements, is 40 years ahead of its time.
Brief mentions of rivalries and team bonding in the voiceover turn out to be accurate depictions of the relationships between the players. This is one of the few movies to show how challenging and honorable professional sports can be.
12. Tyson (2008)
James Toback helms.
This film features only one talking head intercut with footage. It speaks in measured tones and sports a tattoo reminiscent of a Maori warrior on its left side. It’s Mike Tyson, of course, offering insightful and frank reflections on his journey to, reign, and eventual loss of the heavyweight title. Toback does an excellent job digging out old news clips and fights to use in his work.
Tyson’s unparalleled strength, quickness, and ability ensure that his bouts still elicit gasps from the audience. Toback has known Iron Mike for 20 years and may ask him about Tyson’s rape conviction or “colorful” ex-manager, Don King, because of their long friendship.
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13. The Gambler (2000)
Paul Wilmshurst directs.
“Hello, my name is Jonathan Rendall, and Channel 4 has provided me with £12,000 to put on the line. The anticipation is killing me. So starts three hours of quiet brilliance with Britain’s greatest roving talent in sports writing, a guy variously characterized as “Keith Floyd crossed with Hunter S. Thompson” and “a renowned betting aficionado” (C4 funded him in the wake of his book, Twelve Grand, about punting the titular amount).
Everything he wears, from secondhand jackets to Silk Cut, exudes an understated shabby English charm. Beginning with a bookie in East Anglia, he travels around the world to bet on boxing in casinos in Peterborough, London, Australia, Macau, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas.
Rendall, who passed away in 2013, is the embodiment of the misguided romanticism that can make a successful wager seem wonderful or a disastrous one feel devastating. Despite our hero employing the greatest type of stake money – someone else’s — the ups and downs of the gambling life are viewed unfiltered and appear quite genuine.
14. Freedom’s Fury (2006)
Collaboratively directed by Colin Keith Gray and Megan Raney
When Quentin Tarantino heard about the film’s concept, he jumped at the chance to become an investor and executive producer. He informed the producers that they were sitting on one of the greatest untold stories.
A few days after the Hungarian people’s insurrection against the Soviet-controlled rule was repressed, Hungary and the USSR played in a knockout match, essentially a semi-final, in the 1956 Olympic men’s water polo competition. When the remaining actors are reunited half a century later, you understand exactly what Tarantino meant when he said that revenge, pride, and passion are only half of it.
15. Hoop Dreams (1994)
The Steve James-directed
It’s like Citizen Kane, except for sports. A vast majority of subsequent creators credit it as an inspiration. Format-wise and subject-wise, it was a true innovation. After spending five years in Chicago with two high school basketball prospects and their families, a film team produced a nearly three-hour documentary that offered unprecedented scope and depth.
The narrative of the youngster from the wrong side of the tracks who uses sports as an escape has been repeated many times since then, but never before has there been a film that so totally immerses the audience in that environment. Hoop Dreams hasn’t lost any of the impacts it had on audiences back then, and may have even grown stronger. The emergence of reality television over the past decade has made it very clear to viewers that no one is presenting the version of themselves they believe they need to be on camera.
16. McConkey (2013)
In charge of direction were Steve Winter, Murray Wais, David Zieff, Scott Gaffney, and Rob Bruce.
In the subgenre of action films known as “ski and snowboard,” the focus is typically on breathtaking natural settings and spectacular extreme sports feats. Although it shares some of that genre’s DNA, this film stands out because it has true emotional pull and delves considerably deeper into themes of human endeavor and the pursuit of pleasure wherever one may find it than the typical extreme sports movie.
Skier-turned-base-jumper Shane McConkey was a trailblazer in combining the two sports by skiing down mountains and opening his parachute at the last second. He also had a family; balancing his job and home life was one source of tension in his extraordinary existence.
Personal videos from his youth provide an immediate connection to the subject. Not the high-fiving brah you would have imagined, McConkey is quite likable. Since this is the case, the film’s climax will hit far closer to home than you expect.
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17. Hillsborough (2016)
Filmed under Daniel Gordon’s direction
In 2017, these 30 for 30 films (which premiered in the United States in 2014) were awarded the Bafta for Best Single TV Documentary. This documentary is quite distressing at times since it describes the accident and the subsequent institutional cover-up in great detail.
It provided a platform for several people connected to the events, such as Esquire contributing editor Dan Davies, who was present at the time, to speak out publicly for the first time about what they had witnessed. Among them are police officers, many of whom, on a human level, may be considered victims of the misconduct of their superiors.
Director Gordon made use of the same material from that day that was presented to the inquest jury, therefore the film wasn’t released in the UK until after the inquest’s conclusion was announced in May 2016. The illegal killing verdict was included in the 2016 UK edition, making it the authoritative account of a terrible period in British athletics.
18. Deep Water (2006)
It was directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell.
Not only was the 1968–1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race the first ever around-the-world yacht race, but it also included some of the world’s most famous sailors. Only one of the nine that started made it to the end. Another, a potential victor, decided competition was not for him and continued sailing on a new track, spending another 10 months at sea and completing another two-thirds of a circumnavigation.
Donald Crowhurst came next. Don’t look it up on Google if you don’t know the name; instead, go look for Deep Water. This film is an excellent telling of Crowhurst’s narrative, which is equal parts history, mystery, and underdog story. A biopic starring Colin Firth, The Mercy, is set to be released in the fall. A superb illustration of the cinematic mirror universe in which reality triumphs over fantasy.
19. When We Were Kings (1996)
Leon Gast is the director.
The other night I went to bed as soon as I turned out the light and the room was completely dark. “Just last week, I killed a rock, hurt a stone, and admitted a brick to the hospital! I’m so cruel, even medicine can’t stand me! It’s almost as impressive to hear Muhammad Ali speak as it is to see him fight when he was at his intellectual and physical best.
For the first time, audiences got to witness both of them in the same film when they saw When We Were Kings, which depicted The Greatest’s preparation for and performance in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, versus George Foreman. Extensive fight highlights and music from the concurrent Zaire 74 festival.
Ali earns $5 million for a fight in a country ruled by a ruthless tyrant while speaking out about freedom and the African-American predicament. This is the best movie yet on the greatest athlete of all time.
20. Senna (2010)
With Asif Kapadia at the helm
Kapadia’s depiction of Ayrton Senna’s life set a new standard for not just sports biopics but all biopics in general. Rather than keeping viewers at a distance as observers, he connected them to the racing driver’s private and public moments by using solely archival video with no subtitles or talking heads. The unique and terrible circumstances of Senna’s life certainly helped, but the film itself is captivating from start to finish, with hardly a second spent on analysis or retrospective reflection.
Kapadia then directed Amy (2015), a biopic on singer Amy Winehouse, and is presently working on a film about Diego Maradona, for which he has received complete cooperation and access to the man himself, including his own home movies. Interesting, but it will have to go a long way to equal the blazing brilliance of Senna.
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21. The Two Escobars (2010)
It was directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist.
The story of two unconnected guys who shared a surname and an inability to escape Colombia’s drug society, this episode is arguably the best of ESPN’s amazing 30 for 30 series. The cocaine business that Pablo Escobar founded was enormous. After Colombia was eliminated from the 1994 World Cup, a drug baron (not Pablo) ordered the assassination of Andrés Escobar, an exquisite center-back for Atlético Nacional and the Colombian national team.
The directors argue that Pablo’s interest in Atlético and Colombian football, in general, is what got Andrés and his team to that World Cup by using incredible archival video from Pablo’s collection and solid investigative work.
The three major clubs in the nation were virtually owned by Pablo and two competing barons in the late 1980s. In comparison to complaints from fans about the ownership of their team by an Indian chicken processor or a Chinese holding company, this one is little potatoes.
22. Premier Passions (1998)
In John Alexander’s direction.
A BBC team traveled to Sunderland 20 years ago to document a year in the club’s history, which was marked by a similar yo-yoing in and out of the Premier League as it is now. They were given complete access to everything from the boardroom to the locker rooms, the medical facilities to the terraces, and the team coach to the fan coach.
Because removing the fucks would have made the soundtrack sound like an Aphex Twin album, the five-part series had to air after the 9 o’clock curfew. But, back then, football wasn’t a sport that the whole family could enjoy together. Another aspect of modern football, the notion of the “football family”, is important to the film’s success.
Fans, in particular, place a high value on the idea that everyone associated with a football team is inextricably linked to one another. There have been previous fly-on-the-wall football club documentaries (City!, about Manchester City in 1980–1981, and Club for a Fiver, about Leyton Orient in 1994–1995), but none that are as thorough or informative as this one.
23. Dark Horse (2015)
Louise Osmond directs.
It’s not uncommon for sports to include underdog tales, but this one stands out. An employee at a supermarket and bar in a former mining town in Wales gathers twenty-four of her friends and neighbors to invest in a horse racing syndicate.
Through their fundraising efforts, they are able to purchase a thoroughbred mare and a stallion for a total of £300; the resulting foal, Dream Alliance, is nurtured on an allotment, trained, and ultimately go on to win the Welsh Grand National. Because Jan Vokes and her syndicate do not get wealthy as a result of the horse’s racing performance, Dark Horse cannot be considered a classic “rags-to-riches” tale.
Nonetheless, they change profoundly after learning that life need not be dull and that contributing to something greater than oneself is gratifying in and of itself. Who wouldn’t want to see Rocky meet The Full Monty in the flesh?
24. Undefeated (2011)
TJ Martin and Daniel Lindsay serve as directors.
High school football, as viewers of the TV show Friday Night Lights know all too well, is where it’s at; it’s where dreams are realized and broken, where prayer and respect for the coach are mandatory. That drama, which took home an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has a real-life counterpart.
Bill Courtney, head coach of the Manassas Tigers, has said that the sport of football does not cultivate moral fiber but rather shows who a person truly is. This movie performs the same thing by following some young guys from a little, forgotten town in Tennessee and a girl named Courtney, who may or may not be the answer to their prayers before a big game.
The team’s craziest outlier, who spent all of last year in jail and missed the start of the season, offers a spontaneous speech in which he praises a teammate he punched a few weeks earlier. You can see how much playing for the squad has impacted his life for the better and how it is the most challenging thing he has ever done. There’s something wrong with you if you can’t stop your eyes from becoming dry.
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25. Touching the Void (2003)
Kevin MacDonald serves as the film’s director.
Although the once-in-a-lifetime narrative that was turned into the genuinely amazing non-fiction film Touching the Void was met with controversy due to the fact that many of the film’s scenes were re-enacted, leading some to believe that it was not a documentary at all. But if there wasn’t a camera there, how could you possibly depict what actually occurred?
We’ve been having the “pics or it didn’t happen” debate since long before Instagram, and the answer has always been the same: take pictures and be honest about what happened. What would you do if you were in this situation? This is a question that haunts every spectator and adds to the film’s fascinating nature.
Two injured mountaineers are dangling from a rope on a Peruvian peak, without food, water, or the means to melt snow for drinking water as the weather worsens. Unless the wounded guy is freed, the healthy one cannot obtain aid in time, and they will both perish. You’re the one who’s unharmed and holding the blade. Can you imagine doing this?
26. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
The Kon Ichikawa Direction
Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is a more well-known documentary of the Olympics. This film of the 1964 Tokyo Games is more spectacular and illuminating since it was commissioned by the Japanese government, not the IOC.
Therefore, it’s a relaxed, almost expressionistic view of sports and athletes, with no overt displays of heroics or official glitz. In a marathon, there are both the front-runners and the injured runners towards the very end.
Equipment and human bodily components are seen up close. There is no overarching plot, only brief scenes of athletic competition and administrative nonsense. There aren’t even any current-sounding sponsor names, so it might as well be 50 years old. Watching a sporting event that has been given an artistic twist is a rare and wonderful sight.
27. The Last Dance (2020)
The Jason Hehir-directed
The Last Dance, a Netflix documentary about the Chicago Bulls that jumps around in time, often serves as a hagiography. Reportedly, Michael Jordan, who perhaps knows better than anybody else the importance of effective marketing, had the ultimate say over what was included. Even yet, it falls short of fully capturing the famous NBA player’s significance to the Nineties NBA, American society, and the country as a whole.
Michael Jordan’s last year with the Bulls is the focus of The Last Dance, which chronicles the team’s bid to win an NBA record sixth championship in eight years. However, director Jason Hehir frequently travels back in time to explore the triumphs and tragedies of prior campaigns.
Many of his colleagues (Dennis Rodman in particular) have interesting and moving tales to share, but Michael Jordan’s immense skill, dogged persistence, passion, and sorrow remain the film’s focal point throughout. In the end, we are left with a depiction that is as unrelatable as it is profoundly unlikeable:
that of a really complex guy who took use of his weaknesses to accomplish perfection. We also see how one individual creates a new celebrity industrial complex in his wake by turning himself into a worldwide, money-spinning brand with box office hits and best-selling footwear.
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