Sports and those who play them confound our expectations: mastery is a matter of millimeters and moments, ego is a necessary but misunderstood trait, and the significance of achievement can stretch beyond the individual or team to encompass an entire country. In retrospect, the past two decades have been a golden age for sport documentaries – just look at 1994! – and this list of the 10 best is happily situated within those years, a time when some of the form’s finest directors examined how sporting endeavour can transcend, for better or worse, so many of life’s limitations.
10) Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2011)
Some sportspeople channel their entire life into each performance, while others only truly exist when they’re competing. Ayrton Senna, the three time Formula One world champion who was killed while racing in 1994, was the latter. Eschewing talking heads for archival footage, Asif Kapadia shows a driver who is most alive when he’s conversely strapped into a car and pushing the boundaries of endurance and acceptable risk. Like all the best sporting documentaries, you don’t need to care about Formula One racing to enjoy Senna, but the visceral race footage makes clear just what it entails.
9) Tyson (James Toback, 2008)
In the clip from the fight that made him the heavyweight boxing champion of the world at the age of 20, you can see the fear in the eyes of the opponent Mike Tyson vanquished within six minutes. As this documentary, full of dread and intimacy, makes clear, those feelings eventually overcame Tyson himself. In the 1990s he would be jailed for sexual assault and banned for biting an opponent’s ear, and in these extended monologues he breaks through the self-pity and loathing to hope that he’s capable of better in middle age.
8) Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno, 2006)
On 23 April 2005 filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno used 17 cameras to follow every movement on the football field of French genius Zinedine Zidane, then the world’s finest player, during a regular league game for his club Real Madrid. With a suitably moody soundtrack by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai, the hypnotic footage reveals the casual brilliance, intuitive movement and physical exertion of a master at work. It ends, unfortunately as the 2006 World Cup final did, with Zidane being sent off, but in focusing on him he becomes the artist silently regarding his canvas.
7) An Impossible Job (Ken McGill, 1994)
Managing the England football team is a thankless job at the best of times, and during a disastrous qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup it essentially broke the voluble Graham Taylor. Ken McGill’s patient, watchful documentary is a study of a man under immense pressure, and Taylor response is a running commentary on the touchline – his sarcastic “do I not like that” became a catchphrase in Britain – surreal debates at press conferences and an inability to understand what is happening. It’s an immensely revealing black comedy, framed by 80,000 voices in unison demanding he resign.
6) Dogtown & Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001)
Narrated by Sean Penn, a fellow rebellious Californian teen from the 1970s, Dogtown & Z-Boys vividly captures the long, dry summer when skateboarding entered the modern age as the renegade Zephyr team from Venice Beach brought swagger, heavy metal and a disdain for gravity into a previously innocuous pastime. Director Stacy Peralta was on the squad, giving him access to archival footage and aged champions in various states (including incarceration) and it’s fascinating to watch how a bunch of kids essentially created a multi-billion industry in their wake.
5) Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005)
This documentary about wheelchair rugby, a sport that combines the hardness of rugby league with the modified vehicles from Mad Max 2, make clear how it’s permeated by obsessiveness. The players are quadriplegic to varying degree – it depends how high up the neck their break was – but the last thing they want is sympathy. They pride themselves on their game’s toughness and the movie shows that the individual’s drive to compete cannot be easily extinguished; in defeat at events such as the 2004 Paralympics the losing team sits silently, despairing at the sense of salvation they’ve forfeited.
4) The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)
One of the most savage dissections of America’s contrary instincts ever put on screen, this story of a feud between two video game champions begins with eccentricity and progresses towards life-affirming stakes. Gordon uncovers the hermetic world of video game high scores, where Donkey Kong record holder Billy Mitchell, a mullet-boasting bundle of obnoxious arrogance, does everything in his power to deny the challenge of newcomer Steve Wiebe, a sweet if unfulfilled everyman. The hopes of childhood are revealed as the crucible of adulthood, with the phrase “Donkey Kong kill screen coming up” as the bizarre hook.
3) Baseball (Ken Burns, 1994)
Ken Burns’ stately model, suffused with gravitas and the slow pan across archival stills, made perfect sense in this history of America’s pastime, charting how the game of baseball had come to reflect, and in some cases, overcome the nation’s difficulties. First screening like a game, with each episode one of nine innings, it moved across almost 100 years, taking in figures such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the colour barrier in professional baseball when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
2) When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)
Sport, culture, business and politics – an unholy foursome – collided in 1974 when infamous promoter Don King and Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Soko combined to host boxing’s heavyweight title fight between ageing challenger Muhammad Ali and the daunting champion George Foreman. Anything seems possible, everything is up for grabs, and this entertaining but also incisive documentary captures a great deal of what went down, beginning with the African backdrop and progressing to a fight where Ali’s charisma was matched by tactics that blunted Foreman’s palpable force.
1) Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
It’s a simple premise: follow two promising high school basketball players from Chicago and see what transpires. But what began as a half hour piece escalated over five years of shooting into a riveting study of life in inner-city America. Teenagers essentially working to secure employment for themselves as professional players and financial safety for their nervously hopeful families, William Gates and Arthur Agee are talented high school players fed into a system that elevates a few young men and defeats many. The struggles of the individual to express themselves, to even just survive, against a demanding system has rarely been more eloquently expressed.
About this writer
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