You can't move for sports documentaries these days. So if you were looking to watch some athletic-themed cinema but wanted to separate the champions of the genre from the mid-table fare, look no further…
Football – Next Goal Wins
(Source: Agile Films)
The perfect antidote if you’re ever feeling disillusioned about football’s dodgy governing bodies, petro-dollar purchased players and economic inequality. Next Goal Wins is about the worst team in the world, American Samoa, who at the beginning of the film are taking the positives from a 8-0 loss (it wasn't nine!). But it’s more than just a story of plucky underdogs fighting against the odds. Through the team’s Dutch coach Thomas Rongen we see the redemptive power of football, through transgender player Jaiyah Saelua we feel its unifying potential and through the team itself we’re shown how it can be the ultimate expression of regional identity.
How can I watch it? Amazon.
See also: Where to start? There are perhaps more good football documentaries than any other sport — making up for its dearth of good narrative films. The Four Year Plan, an access-all-areas documentary on Flavio Briatore’s chaotic spell as owner of QPR, stands out as a rare look behind the scenes with unprecedented access at the men in the boardroom. Also on Amazon.
American Football – O.J.: Made in America
(Source: M. Osterreicher/ESPN Films)
This eight-hour opus of O.J. Simpson’s life starts off as standard sports biopic but by the end has taken in race, inequality, police brutality, the justice system and the cult of celebrity. Through the prism of Simpson’s turbulent life — his trial for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown and his subsequent acquittal form the film’s fulcrum — and his personal metamorphoses, Made in America charts the distance between the American dream and the American reality like few other films before it.
How can I watch it? Buy the DVD. With a run time of 449 minutes across three discs, £7.99 really isn’t so steep.
See also:Undefeated is more in keeping with the schmaltz usually associated with stories about America’s favourite game. But in this account of a season in the life of a poor inner-city Memphis high school American football team, the sentimentality is well and truly earned.
Boxing – When We Were Kings
Just like one of the best books ever written about Muhammad Ali — King of the World by David Remnick — When We Were Kings does not recount the fighter’s career from beginning to end but instead focuses in on a single chapter in his life. Filmmaker Leon Gast took decades to put together the reams of footage captured tailing Ali as he prepared for the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. The Greatest is at his magnetic best and at the peak of his political engagement. Good luck not spontaneously chanting “Ali, Bomaye!” for days on end after watching this.
How can I watch it? Seek it out on DVD. It’s worth it.
See also:I Am Ali, available on Netflix, doesn’t quite possess the same artistic flair but is an intimate portrait of Ali thanks to homemade recordings from the man himself.
Basketball – Hoop Dreams
(Source: Kartemquin Films)
Without Hoop Dreams, it’s a fair bet that many of the other documentaries on this list may never have been made. The three-hour epic tells the story of two promising young basketball players from a Chicago housing project that begins with scholarships and the NBA and ends with fatherhood and financial pressures. It was the first documentary ever seen in the cinema by O.J.: Made in America director Ezra Edelman, whose film is just one of many to be influenced not only by Hoop Dreams’ scope but also its unfashionable subjects and willingness to grapple with the wider social forces that influence and are influenced by sports.
How can I watch it? Netflix.
See also: As far as brand-boosting hagiographies go, More than a Game on Amazon is more interesting than most. The story focuses on NBA superstar LeBron James and his friends' rise from inner-city poverty to high school champions.
Rugby – The Ground We Won
If you’ve ever watched the All Blacks rack up yet another win and wondered why rugby holds such a prominent place in New Zealand’s collective consciousness, The Ground We Won might be the best place to start. It doesn’t seek to answer the question explicitly, but this fly-on-the wall account of a rural village team’s season cuts to the root of the sport’s place in the country. The intense intimacy of the game is contrasted with meditative, monochrome shots of the players’ — mostly farmers — isolating work in the rolling countryside. But it’s not all “Old Land of My Fathers” either. The camera never flinches from the aggression and angst of its subjects, on stark display in the peer-pressured drinking that reduces a young player to tears.
How can I watch it? It’s available to rent on Vimeo here.
See also: Sky Sports'sBeneath the Black is a thorough look at New Zealand rugby on a more macro level and includes interviews with Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and other luminaries. You can find it in full on YouTube. Living with Lions, an account of the Lions’ 1997 tour of South Africa, follows a similar format to The Ground We Won but with a team at the opposite end of the rugby food chain.
Extreme sports – Senna
(Source: Mongrel Media)
There are countless sports biographies put to film. None as good as Senna, Asif Kapadia’s film about the Grand Prix driver. Both petrolheads and those who have never watched an F1 race will be drawn into the tragic story of the brilliant Brazilian who died after a crash in 1994. Told entirely with through footage from the man’s life, some of it personal home movie recordings. Such is the high-stakes nature of Senna’s central pursuit, not to mention his sheer force of personality, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a documentary and not a dramatic biopic.
How can I watch it? Amazon (although it has been known to lurk on YouTube too).
See also: Ernest Hemingway once said that there were only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games. With motor racing crossed off, make mountaineering youre next stop with Touching the Void — a scarcely believable survival story.
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