We recently recommended 12 sports films to watch during lockdown, and asked readers for their favourite documentaries. Here are some of your selections:
The latest hit documentary series off the Netflix conveyor belt is The Last Dance, a deep dive into Michael Jordan’s glittering Chicago Bulls career. Its success has raised the profile of this 1994 cult classic, set in Chicago but a world away from the glamour of the NBA. Following two teenagers from deprived inner-city areas trying to make it in the big leagues, Hoop Dreams paints a gritty picture of a divided America. Originally planning to make a short film, director Steve James ended up with 250 hours of footage filmed over five years, condensed into one film that many of you nominated as one of the best ever made.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
This Netflix documentary recently launched its second series, following the stricken club into League One after the first instalment covered their disastrous Championship campaign. As you might expect, it is rich in tragicomedy, with former club director Charlie Methven repeatedly channeling David Brent. There’s an authenticity here that readers warmed to, something lacking in glossier behind-the-scenes productions. As YorkieBrummy wrote, it is “representative of what running and supporting a football club is actually like in the real world”.
Dogtown and Z-Boys
Stacy Peralta’s 2001 film takes a wild ride through LA’s nascent skateboarding culture in the 70s, helped by acres of archive footage and a killer soundtrack. Charting the growth of the Zephyr team from empty backyard swimming pools to the big time, it is loved by skaters – “It blew my mind. I went to see it three times,” said froose. But Lollipop called it “an outstanding film, even for someone with zero interest in skateboarding”. Also recommended by Howlinpete is Peralta’s “uplifting” 2004 surfing documentary Riding Giants, “with stunning cinematography and candid interviews with surfers who try to explain why they risk their lives.”
Next Goal Wins
In 2001, American Samoa lost 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifier. This popular pick from 2014 finds the team still tormented by that humiliating defeat. Enter Thomas Rongen, an eccentric, magnetic coach who brings the team together through force of will. For a film about losing, this is heartwarming, life-affirming stuff, not least the story of defender Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player in a World Cup qualifier. A feature film is in the works, starring Michael Fassbender as Rongen. If you liked this, The Other Final – about Bhutan v Montserrat in 2002 – is also worth a look.
Last Chance U
This Netflix series covers four seasons (so far) with the Independence Pirates of Kansas and the East Mississippi Lions, two lowly college football programs that offer a final opportunity to players whose hopes of reaching the NFL have been derailed by off-field problems. “Some of the players’ backgrounds are pretty eye-opening” says Icke9498. “Even at a young age, those players put their bodies on the line and unfortunately very few make it to the NFL.”
Zidane: a 21st-Century Portrait
Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film does not cover any of Zinedine Zidane’s many career highlights. Instead, it tracks one of the most gifted footballers of all time across one live match, using 17 different camera angles and pitchside microphones that pick up the great man’s grunts and mutterings. “If this was intended to intensify the impact of Zidane’s impassivity, it works,” wrote Richard Williams back in 2006. Soundtracked by Mogwai, this unconventional work offers a singular focus that would normally only be available to those inside the stadium.
Fire in Babylon
Another popular pick among readers, this 2010 documentary explores the West Indies’ rise from downtrodden underdogs to the best cricket team on earth. The team became a symbol of resistance against racism – as reggae legend Bunny Wailer puts it, “slaves whipping the arses of masters”. Stevan Riley’s film moves with the speed and swagger that made the Windies so loved and feared, showcasing the brutal brilliance of Malcolm Marshall, Viv Richards and many more. Essential viewing.
Over the Limit
Marta Prus’s documentary about Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun preparing for the 2016 Olympics was suggested by alexito. “They had one showing where I live, and hundreds of chattering smartphone-wielding teenage gymnasts turned up. This astonishing film absolutely captivated them, bringing gasps of shock at the cruelty of a perfect villain.” Mamun’s caustic coach steals the show, but the mental and physical toll placed on her protege makes for compelling viewing.
TT3D: Closer to the Edge
First-time director Richard de Aragues goes behind the scenes at the Isle of Man TT, a deceptively dangerous motorcycle race around quaint, winding country lanes. Nominated by FrustratedCentre Half, this is “a documentary about ordinary people, their passion for sport and it’s inexplicable hold over them – and the sound quality is truly astonishing”. Also recommended is Road, a film about the tragic, talented Dunlop racing clan. “An extraordinary hour of film making,” wrote BlackPhelan.
The Two Escobars
World Cup USA ‘94. Against the hosts, Colombian defender Andrés Escobar swings a fateful boot at a cross, and deflects the ball into his own net. Five days after Colombia return home, Escobar is shot and killed. This grim tale is familiar to most football fans, but the murky subtext is not. Escobar was a star at Atlético Nacional, a team dogged by links to notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. This jaw-dropping film explores the insidious influence of cartels in Colombian football, and the violence and chaos that followed.
This Netflix film was suggested by Splutterer “as it explains why fights break out in ice hockey … I always thought it was purely for entertainment”. The truth is much more complex, revealed in sit-down interviews with several old-school NHL enforcers, many of whom were unexpectedly thrown into an unforgiving role that is now dying out. “Interesting, thoughtful and moving” was our reader verdict.
One of sport’s most famous images was captured off the track. During the 1968 200m Olympic medal ceremony, black US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a gloved fist in protest. But what about the other athlete on the podium? Australia’s Peter Norman had been forgotten, but this film by his nephew, Matt, brought his story to life. A supreme sprinter, Norman was ostracised for backing Smith and Carlos’s protest – it was even his idea for them to wear one glove each. Reader Richard Johns says “it’s brilliant: the best sports film I’ve ever seen”.
… and the best of the rest
Starting with football nostalgia, from I Believe in Miracles, which covers Nottingham Forest’s extraordinary success under Brian Clough, to Howard’s Way, a look back at Everton’s glory years in the 80s with Howard Kendall. More legendary managers can be found in Bobby Robson: More than a Manager and Shankly: Nature’s Fire – “a great insight into what made him such a formidable manager,” says WimpyLad.
The BBC recently replayed All By Himself, their documentary about the legendary George Best, and it’s still available on iPlayer. Football fans from Northern Ireland might also enjoy Heroes: “Northern Ireland v England in 2005, David (Healy) v Goliath. A must watch,” says gafferchapel. For something completely different, Four Year Plan, focuses on the big-spending era at QPR: “a fascinating look into the minds of crazy, delusional billionaires,” writes rafab.
Cycling is a sport with a rich back catalogue, not least A Sunday in Hell, Jørgen Leth’s film about the brutal Paris–Roubaix race. Accidental Death of a Cyclist covers the sad, drug-fuelled demise of Marco Pantani, while The Flying Scotsman focuses on track cyclist Graeme Obree and his groundbreaking home-made contraptions.
If it’s extreme challenges you’re after, then Netflix’s documentary The Race That Eats Its Young, chronicling the unforgiving Barkley marathons in Tennessee, might be for you. Free Solo, the story of a climber’s death-defying quest to conquer a sheer rock face, guarantees sweaty palms. As for extreme athletes, TheNatural81 nominates HBO’s Andre the Giant – “a sad tale of what it’s like to be so huge”.
Veering into true crime territory, Inside the Mind of Aaron Hernandez is a three-part documentary on the former NFL star who ended up in prison for murder. Another film about on off-field issues is Once Brothers, about Yugoslavian basketball stars Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac in a time of civil war. “One Serbian, one Croatian, both superstars. Fascinating and highly recommended,” says youdmakeagreatcop.
Finally, we have suggestions from the world of cricket (Death of a Gentleman), minor-league ball clubs (Battered Bastards of Baseball), boxing (Tyson, and the peerless Muhammad Ali film When We Were Kings), rugby union (the day Llanelli beat the All Blacks). If you still can’t pick one sport, there’s always Losers – a Netflix series on everything from lower-league football to ice-skating mavericks. Happy watching!