I’m nothing if not a man of my word. Last month we ended this section announcing and promising a little guide to sports documentaries to try and make it through these days of August as well as possible. The idea was clear and doesn’t need much explanation: to try to get through such a disastrous month—I’m referring to the lack of important sports events until a couple of weeks from now, a pure drought—I have taken the liberty of making up a short list of recommendations around this sub-genre that will surely act as methadone to keep your fix for sports in check. In view of the shortage of TV broadcasts, this is a replacement, so that you don’t have to leave the sofa (which is the point here). If you’re someone who downloads, you’ll have no trouble finding these suggestions, and probably with subtitles (if you need them) for most. If you like to be good citizens and pay and accumulate clutter at home, you’ll find everything that interests you at online shops like Amazon and you can brag about your select sports DVD library when you have people over for dinner. Here you have twenty documentaries, some of them very emotional, and all of them exciting, must-sees for any sports addict, which manage to take sports to the realm of creative excellence in filmmaking. Download, purchase, or borrow them, whatever, but make sure that you do your homework. We’ll be back in September with the Basketball World Championship underway, the winner of the US Open tennis tournament, the first games of the main European football leagues going on, the map a little clearer in the motorcycle and Formula 1 racing championships, and with the latest news in the world of sports. Until then, sofa and air-conditioning. We don’t need anything else.
1. “Tokyo Olympiad” (Kon Ichikawa)
Reducing this to the sole, strict category of the documentary would be unfair, as the film qualities of “Tokyo Olympiad” go far beyond the simple fact of acting as a testimony to the Olympic Games held in the Japanese capital in 1964. Because when you put together the epic proposal of the Olympics, the background landscape of the Japanese city, the immense talent of filmmaker Kon Ichikawa with his camera, and historical images such as those of Abebe Bikila doing stretching exercises right after finishing the marathon, as if the 42 km had only been a warm-up, it would be hard not to get a total masterpiece that can transcend the area of sports and enter the Hall of Fame of the most beautiful films of all time. Those who like to see it all and addicts absolutely must get the edition put out by Criterion a few years ago. It’s out of print, so if you want the item, you’ll have to come up with a tidy sum of cash.2. “Hoop Dreams” (Steve James)
We already talked about this magnum opus a few months ago in this same section, when we talked about the top 5 basketball films, and in theory it seemed repetitive to me to mention it again in this new selection of titles. But if we’re talking about sports documentaries, it’s impossible to skip over or overlook this monument of hyperrealism, clinical objectivity and documentary rigor. It is probably the most solid, precise, consistent reference of the twenty—always after “Tokyo Olympiad”, of course. It’s a diligent, profound, exciting work following two high-school basketball players and their existential, emotional, and sports journey before reaching, if they have the chance, their golden dream of playing in the NBA. As raw as life itself.3. “Baseball” (Ken Burns)
Almost twenty hours of historical fresco dedicated to setting out the genealogy and timeline of this great sport, unfortunately little known or unknown in Europe. Each episode covers a certain period and is filled with testimonies from ex-players, journalists, trainers, or fundamental figures of baseball, reviewing each decade and every key moment in its history. The collection of guests is endless and overwhelming, and the movie is topped off with a monumental archive of images that cover a century and a half of activity and passion. If you are new to the material, you dare to watch the documentary, and after watching it you are still unmoved by this sport, then you need to pay an urgent visit to the psychologist. For compulsive buyers, the box-set of ten DVDs released by PBS in 2004 is indispensable
4. “Dogtown and Z-Boys” (Stacy Peralta)
With the financial support of Vans, and with more ingenuity and passion than means and budget, skater legend Stacy Peralta rendered homage to the urban sport that he himself helped to popularise in the 70’s all up and down the California coast with this documentary that years later would become the inspiration for the film “Lords of Dogtown”. Undoubtedly, second parts, or in this case, fictional adaptations, have never been good if we compare the two titles. Peralta, who would return to his facet as a director years later with the splendid “Riding Giants”, focused on surf culture, did this documentary with Sean Penn as narrator and an exciting, but rigorous story about the birth of skateboarding as we know it now.
5. “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno)
I don’t know whether Spike Lee was inspired by this documentary to film his portrait of Kobe Bryant, but the parameters are identical: tens of cameras fixed solely and exclusively on a player, background sound to increase the closeness, the spectator’s feeling of being a direct witness, an ultra-technical, purist-to-the-max concept of the sports documentary, and the opportunity to follow a star second by second. Accompanied by an excellent Mogwai soundtrack, and led by a football genius with few words to say off the field, “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” will end up becoming the best football documentary in history, if it isn’t already.6. “Murderball” (Henry Alex Rubin y Dana Adam Shapiro)
Hell. The ultimate contact sport, hard, exhausting, one hundred percent unknown to the larger public, rugby on wheels gets the treatment it deserves, fair and appropriate, in “Murderball”. A document that steers clear of the pity and sentimentalism associated by inertia with the Paralympic games, it offers a strong dose of humour and acidity and, along the way, x-rays the spirit of overcoming adversity and the courage (the two main focuses of the film) of these athletes with a praiseworthy, exemplary attitude.
7. “More than a Game” (Kristopher Bellman)
It’s impossible to overlook this documentary, because of the media and economic impact of Lebron James’ decision to move to Miami. An extraordinary look at the source of the whole Lebron movement in the NBA, the documentary ends up becoming, in reality, a serious, rigorous manual about effort, discipline, and teamwork, as well as an unvarnished look at the ties of friendship and father-child relations.
8. “The Lost Son of Havana” (Jonathan Hock)
This appears to be a melancholy, moving documentary about the figure of the Cuban Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, one of the best pitchers of all time, and his return to La Habana after 46 years in exile in the United States. Once inside the material, beyond the strictly baseball aspect, what we find is a captivating, lovely x-ray of Cuban society and the unbridgeable distance created by resentment and the political and personal differences between those who stayed and those who escaped.9. “Bicycle Dreams” (Stephen Auerbach)
Crossing the United States from coast to coast by bicycle. Almost five thousand kilometres in 10 days. Non-stop. One of the hardest, most demanding and extreme challenges in sports, only suitable for iron men with calf muscles and quadriceps that are harder than reinforced concrete. How is it possible to approach this event and those supermen without falling into the trap of glorification and cheap epic? The answer is “Bicycle Dreams,” an award-winning, splendidly-made documentary that moves almost at the pace of a thriller and that ends up obtaining high-voltage film results.10. “The Last Game” (Alexander H. Weinress)
Probably the best documentary about American football you could ever see. Focused on the season of a high school team, “The Last Game” seems to have been thought up and written by a skilful scriptwriter with a penchant for drama and epics, but with the primary difference that everything we see belongs to the reality of youth sports in the United States. The story is about a charismatic, incomparable coach, who faces his own son, family tensions, exacerbated rivalries, and a final match. Like “Friday Night Lights”, but real, and without the pretty girls of that series.
11. “Once in a Lifetime. The History of New York Cosmos” (John Dower and Paul Crowder)
It’s a stereotype, but also a classic: when we’re talking about documentaries focused on the world of football, there is no other referent more fun and entertaining than this one. A fascinating, curious trip to the birth of the United States football league, the documentary focuses on the New York Cosmos, the spearhead of the first, failed attempt to popularise this sport on the other side of the Atlantic. A priceless testimony that is current again, thanks to the rebirth of interest in the sport due to the American selection’s role in South Africa.12. “Kobe Doin’ Work” (Spike Lee)
A clinical, very precise work by the New York filmmaker for ESPN, focused exclusively on Kobe Bryant’s playing throughout a game. The premise is so simple and purist that any basketball lover should bow down before this documentary: thirty cameras following the Lakers player throughout the game, with the real audio on the court, as well as the star’s brilliant, impassioned, thoughtful comments.13. “Beyond the Mat” (Barry Blaustein)
Wrestling, behind the scenes. Long before Darren Aronofsky turned his eye to the shadows and miseries of the life of a wrestler, this documentary had already focused on the decadence and shadier aspects of a show that has more in common with bread and circuses than sports. Implacable, somewhat alarmist, but absolutely revealing, “Beyond the Mat” deals a blow of hilarity and radical sadness within the context of a show aimed mainly at a youthful audience. Halfway between hysterical laughter and tears.
14. “Hell on Wheels” (Pepe Danquart and Werner Schweizer)
This selection couldn’t do without a documentary about the Tour de France. There are a few DVD’s that capture the best moments of the French cycling race, but “Hell on Wheels” is the one that shows the true meaning of the Tour with the greatest depth and ambition. The action takes place in 2003, and taking into account the presence of Lance Armstrong in it as the big star, the easiest, safest option would have been to focus the documentary’s attention on the American athlete. But the film prefers to focus on the German participants, to establish a precise description of the sacrifice and physical and mental ups and downs that the cyclists experience in such a demanding competition.15. “Run For Your Life” (Judd Ehrlich)This is not only an intimate, honest documentary about the figure of Fred Lebow, the creator of the New York Marathon and one of the driving forces behind the popular and commercial boom of running in the United States—it’s also a moving document about the birth and later massive growth of the most famous, renowned marathon in the whole world. Only for the flood of archival material of some of the most exciting and memorable races, as well as the story of those first home-grown runners who risked their lives running around the outskirts of the Big Apple, watching this film is a gift, and a must-see for those who love running.
16. “Mash SF DVD” (Michael Martin and Gabe Morford)The spearhead of the fixed scene of San Francisco and, by extension, the United States, the Mash group left to posterity the modus vivendi of a whole group of people—messengers, hipsters, lovers of urban cycling, and other street fauna– who can’t stop pedalling on the cement crests of the American city.
17. “Spirit of the Marathon” (Jon Durham)
By way of the stories of six runners, a mix of professional and amateur athletes, who are preparing to run the prestigious Chicago marathon, the director creates a vibrant, highly contagious document about the physical and mental epic and drama hidden behind the most fascinating, iconic, and seductive sporting event on the planet. And to boot, it also holds great powers of motivation: when you finish watching it, all you can think of is hitting the asphalt for some furious racing.
18. “Tyson” (James Toback)
It wouldn’t be hard to find better documentaries about boxing on the market, you need look no further than “When We Were Kings” or “Facing Ali”, but none of them starred Mike Tyson. The fighter’s turbulent, overpowering personality is perfectly shown in this film, which has the nerve and the bravery to leave its value in the hands (or shall we say, in the words) of the star himself, who portrays himself extremely faithfully.
19. “The Two Escobars” (Jeff and Michael Zimbalist)
A tense, sordid, daring documentary that is almost a thriller, it seeks out the connections between the two most famous Escobars in the modern history of Colombia: Pablo Escobar, the most popular drug dealer in South America, and Andrés Escobar, the football player murdered in his country twelve days after having scored a goal on his own side in a key game in the World Cup in the United States.
20. “Unstrung” (Rob Klug)
In the face of the lack of great documentaries about the world of tennis, the appearance of “Unstrung”, produced by Jim Courier, was a breath of fresh air three years ago, especially because it proposed a different view of this sport. Instead of focusing on the big stars, an idea that had already been done with grace and style in “The Journeymen”,another documentary that is also highly recommendable, this film focused on following a select group of promising adolescent players. Emotional ups and downs, the pressure of triumph, broken dreams, demanding work, a difficult age … all of the aspects of this elite sport at this age are set out perfectly, in an impeccable document.