the best sports documentaries are usually made by us, the filmmakers, about us, sports and athletes, and the way life sometimes seems to connect with those hobbies in a deeper way than in other countries, even in the United Kingdom. Despite the best efforts of the BBC, BT Sport, and a couple of lone filmmakers, we’re catching up on this game.
“The best movies of this kind provide context,” says libby geist, vice president and executive producer of espn films, who in 2018 oversaw 30 for 30, a season of films to commemorate the media titan’s 30th anniversary sports. “People seem to think they know the stories, but a filmmaker can step back and show reasons why and how that are often lacking in the everyday narrative of sport.”
geist cites senna (2010) as one of his favorite films. Here, including that masterpiece, is our line of sports excellence in sports, including the 2017 BAFTA and Oscar winners Hillsborough and OJ: Made in America. These are three impeccable works that more than deserve their place in this, our roundup of the best sports documentaries ever made. check out the others below.
east: club for five (1995)
directed by jo treharne
this is the football equivalent of that photo of people fighting in the streets of manchester that accidentally looks like a renaissance masterpiece. This hour-long Channel 4 documentary almost immediately became a meme itself, with bits of Leyton Orient manager John Sitton’s ranting making its way into football parlance. Cameras flying on the wall capture Sitton’s attempt to maintain a rapidly disintegrating Oriente in the second division in the 1993/94 season, and his mental breakdown on the way to failure: furious, growling, offering to fight his own team, sacking the defenders at half time.
The first time you see it, it’s completely funny, but knowing that this was a turning point in Sitton’s life, it turns into something deeper and sadder. After he left the club for a fiver, he couldn’t get a job in football and ended up driving black cabs in London for 16 years.
“I sold a lot of personal belongings and some furniture to feed three young children,” she said in 2019. “The aftermath was like grief. Anger, denial and acceptance. You can add shame to the mix, like I know I’m better than it’s”.
is not officially broadcast anywhere, but does occasionally appear; be sure to check it out the next time you see it. or we will have a correct classification here. it’s okay? and you can pair up if you want. you can choose someone else to help you if you want, and you can bring your damn dinner. because by the time I’m done with you, you’ll need it.
fire in babylon (2010)
directed by stevan riley
There are not many sporting achievements that compare to the absolute dominance of the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. focused, ruthless and outrageously talented, they swept everything before them. They were not only skilled, they were charismatic; not just brutal, but lyrical in their destruction of every team in front of them.
Before Clive Lloyd became captain in 1974, the West Indies had a reputation for being a happy-go-lucky, but fundamentally underachieving kind of team. Inspired by fierce Australian bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson, Lloyd strove to find and develop his own tricks. Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Colin Croft terrified hitters all over the world.
But that’s only part of the story. cricket is always more powerful when you count on the fact that it was exported to the world by the English colonizers, who then discovered that the world, very unsportsmanlike, became much better than them. South African-born England captain Tony Greig’s infamous promise to make the West Indies team “creep” – which was extremely unpleasant even then – and anger over a rogue tour of apartheid-era South Africa they are the heart of it, which reached a crescendo with the 5-0 ‘blackwash’ series win in england in 1984.
next goal wins (2014)
directed by mike brett and steve jamison
It’s the ultimate underdog story: American Samoa, the worst soccer team in the world, is trying to qualify for the World Cup. To this point, Samoa has not been tainted by association with FIFA, and when we meet them they are still smarting from a 31-0 thrashing by Australia. (honestly, australia. why be a jerk about samoa?) and while they’re all absolutely lovely, to be fair, they’re absolutely rubbish. In a bid to boost soccer culture on the islands, Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen arrives to kick some butt and take some names. as samoan players, including jaiyah saelua, who is fa’afafine, the third gender in samoan culture, and became the first transgender player in a fifa world cup qualifier, adapt to the tactics of rongen, he and we learn more and more about the community. and Samoan culture. It is something stimulating and uplifting. wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
diego maradona (2019)
directed by asif kapadia
On November 25, 2020, news broke that Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, often regarded as the greatest player of all time, had passed away at the age of sixty. the world mourned and paid homage to a man immensely brilliant and indelibly flawed. His addictions to substances and subsequent health problems had manifested themselves in the public eye since his playing days, but his death still shocked the world; perhaps because he often felt larger than life. About five years earlier, Senna’s celebrated director Asif Kapadia had embarked on a mission to create a documentary that would encapsulate why she was such a magnetic force for fans around the world, and how she struggled to wield the power that fame had to offer. gave him. the filmmaker even managed to get an extremely rare and surprisingly revealing interview time with the man himself. The story begins with the Argentine’s transfer to Napoli in 1984, which ultimately proved to be the most defining (and self-destructive) period of the player’s career: he reached enormous heights and inspired the city, but was soon dragged to its seedy underbelly. Kapadia’s 2019 documentary is a celebration, melancholy, and an excellent portrait of Maradona’s many contradictions.
athlete a (2020)
directed by bonni cohen and jon shenk
for more than two decades, american gymnastics doctor larry nasser sexually abused young athletes and faced no punishment, despite the many complaints filed against him. In the wake of his 2016 prosecution, more than 260 girls and women accused him of sexual assault, and the Netflix athlete delves into the harrowing story of how an institutional protection ring allowed Nasser to continue his crimes (54 coaches had also had allegations made against them over ten years). The film’s directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, interview survivors and follow reporters from the Indianapolis Star newspaper as they discuss their experiences that shed light on the organizational cover-up as well as the dangers that exist within the American gymnastics system.
only free (2018)
directed by jimmy chin and elizabeth chai vasarhelyi
Free’s Oscar win might only have come as a surprise to some (he was up against the pound-for-pound rbg smash hit in the “best documentary” category), though probably not to its star, American rock climber Alex Honnold. , who has a habit of being successful in what he sets out to do. Of course, the price of failure in his profession is high: Honnold specializes in free soloing, rock-less rock-climbing, where a misplaced toe can mean plummeting to certain spectacular death. Filmmakers Chin and Vasarhelyi knew this all too well, and that’s part of what makes Free Solo, which documents Honnold’s attempt to be the first to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, so engrossing. The hesitations and fears of Chin and his team, who appear in the film, serve as a kind of Greek chorus, necessary given that Honnold himself is a very particular character (unsurprisingly, given his chosen profession) for whom to express emotions do not come naturally. To make his feat even more difficult, over the course of filming Honnold acquires a girlfriend, Sanni, whose sweet, inquisitive presence gives the film depth: If Honnold is not alone, can he ever be free?
c: made in america (2016)
directed by ezra edelman
There is no doubt that this epic retelling of the life and times of OJ Simpson is a landmark in documentary filmmaking. dozens of interviews with all the main actors (except the main star, who, spoiler alert, is out on parole this year), excellent work on the archives, and an admirable commitment to telling the story as unbiasedly as possible. But for those whose knowledge of OJ goes to: “Ex-NFL player acquitted of killing his wife and also at the naked gun,” the film is a revelation.
just some of the highlights: his relationship with the black power movement; his pioneering initiative to turn sports fame into a conventional high-earning celebrity; his amazing self-confidence; his murder trial went from oj vs. man to black vs. white in america; how the book if i did it, the “hypothetical” account of the murder of his wife nicole brown simpson and his friend ron goldman ended up being published by goldman’s father. And, in the outspoken, fearless, spirited defense attorney Carl Douglas, you have the most magnificent talking head in the entire documentary.
kick & screaming (1995)
directed by jean-claude bragard
The BBC’s six-part history of English football is hard to find in its entirety on YouTube and was last repeated in 1998. A classic of talking heads and clips, it draws a line from unregulated town ball games against town. , of those that survive today on holidays, until the birth of the first division. it has a lot of little-seen images and an understated sense of humor. Scotland’s Denis Law ends the episode about 1966 and all that: “I was playing golf in Manchester and unlike Manchester, it was raining. There were two of us on the course. The guy I was playing with was awful. And he beat me. … when we rounded the corner of the field, all the members were at the window [of the clubhouse]. England had won 4-2. I thought it was the end of the world.”
no no: a documentary documentary (2014)
directed by jeff radice
A “no no,” or no-hitter, is a baseball pitcher’s perfect game, where neither batter hits the ball. it’s rare, with only 295 in American professional baseball out of some 213,000 games. In 1970, Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates says he threw a no-no against the San Diego Padres while he was high on LSD. (He used to party a lot and confused his player days). this attractive film reveals more than a mere debunking (or not) of the myth.
an impossible job (1994)
directed by ken mcgill
When Graham Taylor died in January, tributes said the former coach and pundit was one of the real good guys in football. the doc’s crew that nearly ruined him would have remembered his good nature. In 1993, after filming Taylor’s England World Cup qualifying campaign, the Dutch FA banned them from filming the penultimate qualifier in the Netherlands. Taylor helped smuggle them pitchside in England tracksuits and with his kit in kit bags. (If only his team had been so adept at rounding up the Dutch defences). Taylor’s shots on the touchline as England miss their chance to qualify are comically poignant. the film is full of those moments. Taylor’s bluntness made him a laughing stock, his “I don’t like that” and “We can’t beat him up” became catchphrases. this movie pretty much eliminated the fly sports documentary and is all the more valuable for it.
A Sunday in Hell (1977)
directed by jørgen leth
Before cycling became a thing and documentaries about it became commonplace, this was the one. it achieved almost mythical status among fans who had to share it on vhs. beloved and half-remembered movies can lose their shine over time, but Sunday in Hell exceeds expectations. danish director and poet leth achieved his goal of distilling heroism in the paris-roubaix, the toughest one-day cycle race, in 1976. the real pain comes from the bloodied and grimacing cyclists: the opposite effect produced by cyclists from route similar to machines of this day. The greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, is here, exuding Euro cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo on a bike. a subtle synth and symphony score is 40 years ahead of his time. the rivalries and team bonds, which are only briefly mentioned in the voiceover, are shown to be genuine. one of the few films that conveys how tough and noble professional sports can be.
directed by james toback
There is only one talking head punctuating clips in this movie. he has a tattoo resembling a Maori warrior on his left side and the words that come out of his mouth are measured and softly spoken. It is, of course, Mike Tyson, who makes a thoughtful and honest commentary on his rise, tenure, and fall from world heavyweight champion. toback does a great job of extracting news archives and fight footage. Watching Tyson in action can still bring on a gasp, thanks to his unsurpassed power, speed, and skill. Toback had been friends with Iron Mike for 20 years when they did this, so he may ask about Tyson’s rape conviction or “colorful” ex-manager Don King.
the player (2000)
directed by paul wilmshurst
“hi my name is jonathan rendall and channel 4 has given me £12k to play with. looking forward to it.” thus begins three quietly brilliant hours in the company of the great misguided talent of british sports writing, a man described as keith floyd crossed paths with hunter s thompson and a well-known gambling enthusiast (he was financed by c4 following his book, twelve of the big, about kicking the headline amount). understated worn English charm is the stock of him in the trade, all second-hand coats and silk cut. Bet from your local bookmaker in East Anglia to boxing at casinos in Peterborough and London, then Australia, Macau, Hong Kong and Las Vegas, shedding valuable light on gambling. Rendall, who died in 2013, absolutely epitomizes the misplaced romance that makes a winning bet so beautiful and a losing one so horrible. The ups and downs of the game’s life are unadorned and seem very real, even though our hero uses the best kind of money at stake: someone else’s.
the fury of freedom (2006)
directed by colin keith gray and megan raney
Quentin Tarantino received the idea for this film and immediately signed on as an investor and executive producer. he told the creators that they had one of the best stories ever told. The 1956 men’s olympic water polo match between hungary and the ussr, which was actually a semi-final, took place a few days after the hungarian people’s rebellion against the soviet-controlled regime was put down. revenge, pride and passion are only half, and when the surviving players meet again half a century later, you know exactly what Tarantino meant.
hoop dreams (1994)
directed by steve james
the citizen kane of sports documentaries. Almost everyone who has done one since then lists it among his influences. he was really innovative in format and content. A film crew spent five years in Chicago with two young basketball prospects and their families to create a nearly three-hour film with a scope and depth of insight simply never seen before. Since then, of course, the story of the kid caught on the wrong side of the tracks with sport as his means of escape has been told many, many times, but there hasn’t been a movie that takes the viewer into that world so completely. hoop dreams retains all of its emotional and dramatic power, and may even have gained something over time. Watching it now, you realize that no one is presenting the version of themselves that they feel they need to be in front of the camera, something impossible with the rise of reality TV in the last 10 years.
directed by steve winter, murray wais, david zieff, scott gaffney and rob bruce
The subgenre of ski and snowboard movies is primarily noted for its wild landscapes and outlandish stunts. this film, while sharing a bit of that DNA, is unusual in that it has genuine emotional force and goes beyond extreme sport to something much deeper about human endeavor and the pursuit of happiness, wherever you look for it. Shane McConkey was a skier who graduated from base jumping and pioneered a combination of the two, skiing down mountains and deploying his parachute at the last second. he was also a husband and father; reconciling family and work is just one conflict in his unique life. the home video of his younger years immediately brings you closer to the subject. McConkey is very likeable, not the brah high five you might have suspected him to be. therefore, the last act of the film is much more moving than you expected.
directed by daniel gordon
This 30 by 30 film (first screened in the US in 2014) won the 2017 BAFTA for Best Single Television Documentary. very hard to watch at times, it goes into great detail about the disaster and the institutional cover-up that followed. It became a forum through which many associated with the events, including Esquire contributing editor Dan Davies, who was there, to speak publicly for the first time about what they experienced. these include police officers, many of whom, on a human level, could be considered victims of their bosses’ misdeeds. this could only be proven in the uk after the verdict of the second coroner’s inquest in may 2016; Director Gordon used the same footage from the day that was shown to jurors. the 2016 UK version adds the unlawful manslaughter verdict, for the definitive chronicle of British sport’s darkest hour.
deep water (2006)
directed by louise osmond and jerry rothwell
the 1968-69 sunday times golden globe race was notable for many things, not the least of which was that it was the first round-the-world yacht race. out of nine starters, only one finished. another, likely winner, decided that the competition was not for him and sailed on a new course, for a total of 10 months at sea and another two-thirds of a circumnavigation. Then there was Donald Crowhurst. If the name doesn’t sound familiar to you, don’t google it and search deepwater. Crowhurst’s story deserves to be called “amazing” (a biopic, The Mercy, starring Colin Firth, is due out in the fall), and this film tells it superbly: part biography, part mystery, part underdog history. a brilliant example of the parallel world where reality trumps fiction in the movie.
When We Were Kings (1996)
directed by lion gast
Last night, I turned off the light in my room, flipped the switch, and was in bed before the room was dark.” “Last week, I killed a rock, bruised a stone, hospitalized a brick! i’m so bad i make medicine sick!” listening to muhammad ali when his mind and body were at their peak is just as special as seeing them in action in the ring. when we were kings was the first time the two were seen together in detail, in a film that showcases the best of the lead up to and during the jungle fight against george foreman in what is now the democratic republic of congo in 1974. the highlights of the fight are extensive and there is music by a festival, zaire 74. ali talks about freedom and the black condition, while winning 5 million dollars for a fight in a country ruled by a murderous dictator.the best film so far about the greatest athlete of all time.
directed by asif kapadia
Kapadia raised the bar for all documentary biographical films, not just sports films, with his account of the life of Ayrton Senna. By using only stock footage and not adding subtitles or talking heads, he connected the audience directly to the race car driver’s private and public moments, rather than keeping them a step away as spectators. It helped that Senna’s life was special and tragic, but without pausing for further analysis or context, the film is totally riveting from start to finish. Kapadia then made Amy, about singer Amy Winehouse, in 2015 and is currently in production on the life of Diego Maradona, with full support and access to the man himself and his home movies. An exciting prospect, but he’ll have to go some way to match the searing brilliance of the sen.
the two broomsticks (2010)
directed by jeff and michael zimbalist
Arguably the featured episode of espn’s landmark series 30 for 30, it tells the story of two unrelated men who share a last name and an inability to escape Colombia’s drug culture. Pablo Escobar created a huge cocaine empire. Andres Escobar was an elegant midfielder for Atletico Nacional and Colombia’s national team, who was shot dead on the orders of a drug lord, not Pablo, after Colombia was knocked out of the 1994 World Cup. Using startling footage from the archive of Pablo and solid investigative work, the directors argue that Andrés and Colombia were only in that World Cup due to Pablo’s investment in Atlético and Colombian soccer in general. In the late 1980s, Pablo and two rival barons owned the three biggest clubs in the country. fan complaints about clubs owned by Indian chicken processors and Chinese holding companies can only pale in comparison.
premiere passions (1998)
directed by john alexander
twenty years ago, a bbc film crew camped out in sunderland to record a year in the life of the club, then, as now, in and out of the first division. they got full access: board room, locker room, treatment room, terraces, team coach, fan coach. the five-part series had to be shown after the 9 p.m. turning point. football wasn’t fun for the whole family back then anyway. Another feature of modern football, the idea of the “soccer family”, is central to the film’s success. the feeling that everyone connected to a football club is connected to everyone else, something fans in particular appreciate, is palpable. there are other football club fly-on-walls (city!, on manchester city in 1980-’81; club for a fiver, on leyton orient, in 1994-’95) but none as complete or illuminating as this one.
black horse (2015)
directed by louise osmond
Sports is full of underdog stories, but here’s a great one. a waitress and supermarket worker in an old Welsh mining town convinces two dozen friends and neighbors to join her in a racehorse syndicate. They raise £300 to buy a Thoroughbred mare, hire a stallion to do his thing, and Dream Alliance is born, bred on allotment, trained, and then wins the Welsh Grand National. Dark Horse is not a rags-to-riches story in the strictest sense, because despite the success of the race, Jan Vokes and her syndicate receive no material gain. however, they are greatly modified by the realization that life doesn’t have to be boring and that being a part of something bigger than oneself is its own reward. rocky meets full monty in real life: who wouldn’t want to see that?
directed by daniel lindsay and tj martin
As fans of TV’s Friday night lights know, high school football is where the good stuff is found, where dreams are made and broken, where you talk to God and listen to God. coach are the only locker room rules. this is the irl version of that drama, which won an oscar for best documentary feature film. “Football doesn’t build character,” says Manassas Tigers coach Bill Courtney, “it reveals character.” This film does the same thing, through youngsters in a forgotten Tennessee and Courtney town, who could be the answer to a pregame prayer. at one point, the team’s wildest wild card, who had missed the previous season because he was in juvie, gives an impromptu speech praising a teammate he had punched a few weeks earlier. he shows that it is the most difficult thing he has ever done, and that playing for the team has changed him for the better. if your eyes are still dry, something is wrong with you.
touching the void (2003)
directed by kevin macdonald
A once-in-a-lifetime story that became a major non-fiction film, Touching the Void was, however, controversial for its many re-enacted scenes, and thus, to some, not a true documentary. but how can you show something that actually happened if there was no camera there? It’s the “photos or it didn’t happen” argument, long before instagram, and the solution is: take the photos and be true to the story. the movie also asks each viewer a question they can’t ignore, “what would you do in this situation?” And that only makes it more compelling. the situation is of two climbers, one with a broken leg, hanging from a rope on a mountain in peru, without water, without fuel to melt snow for water and with bad weather closing. both will die unless the injured man is freed, giving the uninjured man a chance to get help. you are the unharmed man, knife in hand. what would you do?
Tokyo Olympics (1965)
directed by kon ichikawa
A better-known documentary of an Olympics is Olympia, the controversial record of the 1936 Berlin Games directed by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. More impressive and revealing is this film of the 1964 Tokyo Games, commissioned by the Japanese government who gave permission to film anywhere, rather than the COI, which would not. so this is a loose, almost expressionistic version of sport and sportsmen, devoid of easy heroism and official pomp. you get the broken athletes at the back of the marathon as well as the leaders. there are close-ups of kit and body parts. there’s no story, just bits of competition and some organizational stuff. the lack of sponsor names makes it look 100 years old, never mind 50. to see sport given the art treatment is rare and splendid.
the last dance (2020)
directed by jason hehir
If the timeline-hopping Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance looks like hagiography, it’s because it’s some kind of hagiography. Michael Jordan, a man who understands the power of good marketing better than anyone else, supposedly got the final thumbs up on what he did. , his country, and popular culture in general during his 1990s heyday.
The Last Dance focuses on Michael Jordan’s final season in the Bulls and his attempt to win an unprecedented sixth title in eight years. However, director Jason Hehir regularly travels back in time to cover all the trials, tribulations, and celebrations of previous campaigns. All of his teammates have fascinating and moving stories to tell (especially, needless to say, Dennis Rodman), but the focus never strays too far from Jordan; of his prodigious talent, of his dogmatic determination, of his fire and anguish. All in all, we are left with an impressive portrait of a truly complicated man who took advantage of his flaws to achieve perfection, as unidentifiable as it is downright unpleasant at points. we also see how one man becomes a global money-spinning brand, with blockbuster movies and best-selling sneakers to his name, forming a new celebrity industrial complex in his swift wake.
Do you like this article? sign up for our newsletter to get more delivered straight to your inbox
need some positivity right now? subscribe to esquire now to get a hit on style, fitness, culture and tips from the experts