Commentary

The Watch List

The Top 10 best sports documentaries of all time

Updated: September 29, 2009, 8:33 AM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the October 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

For sports fans, these are the days of instant gratification: DVR in the living room, satellite radio on the dash, Twitter, Facebook and high-speed web access 24/7 on the desktop and mobile.

But for our money, there's one old-school, long-form medium that best highlights the human drama inherent in all competition: documentary film. "As fans, we sense that there are backstories and implications hovering around what's happening on the field," says Peter Berg, writer/director of Friday Night Lights. "But we can't get to them. With documentaries, there's an opportunity to take a more penetrating and satisfying look." Indeed, a great doc allows even the most familiar stories to unfold further, revealing layer upon unique layer. "Sports are about discovery," says Ron Shelton, writer/director of Bull Durham. "That's their very nature. You don't know what's going to happen. A good documentary digs deep. We find things that don't fit into the world of quick-turn storytelling."

In anticipation of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series (Oct. 6, 8 p.m. on ESPN) -- honoring the mothership's 30 years of cable excellence! -- The Magazine assembled a panel of filmmakers, industry mavens and Bristol bigwigs to choose the 10 Best Sports Docs of All Time. Here's our panel's must-see list, and why these films should be in your Netflix queue:

1. HOOP DREAMS

Directed by Steve James (1994)

Fine Line
On the surface, it's a debunk-the-myth story. The titular dreams of basketball glory turn out to be made of pipe. The kids who hold those dreams are no match for the ruthless machinery of college recruiting. And the circumstances of the kids -- like the circumstances of thousands of others just like them -- prove too much to overcome. But the heart of the film is the long-shot idea that dreams, even when they don't pan out, even when they're dried up or long deferred, are still enough to live on, are maybe just enough to keep you going, somehow.

2. WHEN WE WERE KINGS

Directed by Leon Gast (1996)

Gramercy Pictures
The prefight sequences are gripping: Ali running with the children of Kinshasa; Foreman, head to toe in denim, looking as if he might swallow a reporter whole. But the movie really sings when Norman Mailer breaks down the first round of the epic Rumble in the Jungle, beginning with Ali's wanna-be-starting-something righthand lead and ending with the moment when The Greatest stares, maybe for the first time, into the dark pit of fear. In those moments, and in the remarkable footage of the fight, we see sports as something highly technical, deeply existential and undeniably magical.

3. PUMPING IRON

Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore (1977)

White Mountain Films/Photofest
This is the film that shows us that the choice of sport doesn't matter. Big-time or small, established or cultish and emergent, it's competition that's the point. And all the hungry, sometimes nasty and often anxious impulses competition inspires are the same. Stripped down (literally) to its ambitious essence and made manifest in the scene-chewing, gap-toothed grin of the man who would be The Terminator, the oiled-up will to win has never been clearer, never quite so captivating -- or quite so disquieting.


4. MURDERBALL

Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro (2005)

MTV Films
How an athlete responds when the chips are down defines him and reveals the breadth and depth of his heart. It's a cliché that peppers the speeches of every high school coach. Then you see it come to life with these athletes in wheelchairs. You see it in their fearlessness, in their damn-the-torpedoes approach to grinding for every inch. You see a self-proclaimed "gimp" like Mark Zupan laugh in the face of adversity and embrace the fact that the chair makes him more -- not less -- than he would be without it. Then you know it's more than a cliché. And that athletes are at their best (and sometimes, worst) when challenged is a truth revealed every time they compete.

5. BASEBALL

Directed by Ken Burns (1994)

Florentine Films
It's a beast of a time commitment (nearly 18 hours start to finish), and the East Coast bias is alive and well (there are moments when Burns seems to forget that the Dodgers and Giants not only left New York but also actually landed elsewhere), but you can't resist the director's genuine affection for the game or take your eyes off the amazing archival footage he's compiled. When Burns dives into characters and stories -- the episode that features Jackie Robinson deserves special praise -- baseball is more than a diversion. It's an integral part of the country's history, a thread woven in and out of the moments that define us.

6. DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS

Directed by Stacy Peralta (2001)

Sony
Some huge part of what we love about sports is watching young athletes discover­­ -- and push beyond -- the limits of their ability. We know it can't last. We know at some point the body will give out, the desire will wane, the vagaries of life will intrude. And so we cherish these moments all the more as they're happening and cling to the moments all the more when they're gone. With Dogtown, we get to experience the joy of boundaries being pushed, watching the young skaters carve beautiful lines and reach what at the time were nonsensical heights, and to fall in love with sports as if for the first time.

7. THE KING OF KONG

Directed by Seth Gordon (2007)

Picturehouse Entertainment
The champion wears a serious mullet and unapologetically milks the last drops of glory from an accomplishment (all-time Donkey Kong high score) achieved half a lifetime ago. The challenger, a middle school science teacher, buries himself in his basement for hours on end, chasing the record the way Ahab tracked the whale. It's Rocky in Nerdland, but it captivates. Watching it, you don't see geeks and 32-bit barrel-wielding gorillas. You see a distillation of one of sports' basic truths: Elite performance is not a gift given by the gods. It's a thing hunted, obsessed over, guarded feverishly and longed for achingly. And it comes at a price.

8. BLACK MAGIC

Directed by Dan Klores (2008)

Shoot The Moon Productions
Wallace is the name of the white Alabama governor, George, who in 1963 declared his allegiance to "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Wallace is also the name of the basketball player, Perry, who in 1967 became the first black athlete to play varsity basketball in the SEC. In juxtaposing the two in this intertwining of civil rights and college hoops, the film reminds us that politics were once not a choice an athlete made but a fact he lived with, a force he had to withstand. In this world, one of prejudices and imposed limitations, Earl Monroe's innovative handle wasn't just a style, it was an implicit claim to freedom and equality.

9. HANDS ON A HARD BODY

Directed by S.R. Bindler (1997)

Ideal Enterprises
The production values are nonexistent. The key players are unassuming everymen from just up the highway. And the "sport" in question is, well, questionable. But like a hard-fought game between bitter rivals, the movie unfolds, from the first heady hours of this endurance contest to the wobbly legged end. And, like a Hitchcock film, the tension builds, moment by moment as we speculate on who might survive. We consider Greg the Marine, and J.D., the old man with the nicotine habit. We attach ourselves for a time to Kelli, who eats bananas. We choose a horse in the race, and the picture feeds (and rewards) our fascination.

10. THE ENDLESS SUMMER

Directed by Bruce Brown (1966)

Cinema V
There is an innocence, even a corniness, to the look and feel of the film. But if you have a heart in your chest, you lose yourself in the beauty of the surfing sequences and you get caught up, like the two kids in the movie, in the search for the perfect wave. It's this pursuit of some transcendent state that moves us most. Think Kobe taking over against Orlando in the NBA Finals or Federer vs. Nadal on that singular afternoon two summers ago in London. The trunks may be old-time short and the boards throwback wide, but the sun-kissed moments when the waves curl just so and a lifestyle is born are timeless.

Eric Neel is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Eric Neel | email

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Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.