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Best sports documentaries of all time

  • Best sports documentaries of all time
    1/ Dirty Robber

    Best sports documentaries of all time

    In the current, precarious film industry, in which the only safe bet is a superhero, Marvel films have become a shell in which to sneak in other stories. "Logan" was a Western; "Thor: Ragnarok" a comedy; "Black Panther" a place to investigate identity in diaspora. In the documentary space, sports has always been the most elaborate cloak in which to deliver a deeper story. As hard as the NFL owners have tried to make sport a citadel away from the concerns of politics and race, it’s a ridiculous notion—ever since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight belt at the height of Jim Crow, sport is a place where race, class, unions, geopolitics, and gender have been inescapable in the conversation.

    When Bill Simmons and ESPN’s Connor Schell dreamed up the idea for "30 for 30"—a series of 30 sports documentaries by well-known directors that took on the most interesting sports stories of the last 30 years—the sports documentary entered its Golden Era. Since the series began in 2009, ESPN alone has produced almost 100 sports docs. Simmons has since left ESPN and started The Ringer, and just last Tuesday produced "Andre the Giant" with one of the "30 for 30" directors for HBO.  

    Any historical documentary must lean upon archival footage, and the sports genre is unbelievably privileged in both access to and quality of its historical B-roll. The genre is also privileged in the quality of its subjects. Athletes are beautiful, often strange, and exceptionally confident—even the most ancillary players were at some point the best in their orbit. Every single person who laces up, from LeBron James to Boban Marjanović, has a life filled with realizations of their gifts, doubts, hangers-on, temptation, shame, and glory. And because sport is the arena where Americans and Soviets can face off near Lake Placid, where Serbs and Croats can meet in Portland, where loudmouths from Louisville can speak out against war, and where a Hungarian striker can become a Spanish legend, don’t expect sports documentaries to go anywhere anytime soon.

    What follows are stories of surfers and skiers, runners and running backs, and oh-so-many Muhammad Ali films. These are the 99 best sports docs according to their IMDb rankings.

  • #99. Step Into Liquid
    2/ New Visual Entertainment

    #99. Step Into Liquid

    IMDb rating: 7.5
    IMDb votes: 2,431
    Year released: 2003
    Director: Dana Brown

    After working with his father Bruce Brown on the sequel to the classic surfing documentary "Endless Summer," director Dana Brown made a surf doc of his own: "Step Into Liquid." The documentary is structured as a kind of survey of the surfing world, taking the audience to spots around the world and meeting fascinating surfing legends along the way. A year later, director Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants would take a slightly more focused look (at only big wave surfers) to even greater effect—but both films are fun for lovers of surfing.

  • #98. Tyson
    3/ Fyodor Productions

    #98. Tyson

    IMDb rating: 7.5
    IMDb votes: 11,299
    Year released: 2008
    Director: James Toback

    For a period of the 1980s, Mike Tyson was the most feared and most famous athlete on Earth. Fleet-footed, ferocious, and completely unpredictable, every Tyson fight was must-see entertainment—though many were so short you’d miss them if you blinked. For 2008’s "Tyson," director James Toback managed to get an older, retrospective Tyson to go deep on his life, mixing his insights with incredible archival footage.

  • #97. Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee
    4/ Delpire Productions

    #97. Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 578
    Year released: 1969
    Director: William Klein

    In 1969, during the years Muhammad Ali was kept from fighting for his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, director William Klein put out "Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee," a sometimes artsy but always enlightening look at the young, boisterous, incredibly magnetic heavyweight champ. Klein shot an extra section about his 1974 fight against George Foreman in Zaire, and released the updated film as "Muhammad Ali, The Greatest." Klein is best known for his fashion photography for Vogue—and it shows in how beautifully the film was shot.

  • #96. 30 for 30: 9.79*
    5/ ESPN Films

    #96. 30 for 30: 9.79*

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 626
    Year released: 2012
    Director: Daniel Gordon

    Sports at its best is cast like an epic—good versus evil on the grandest of scales. The 1988 Olympics’ 100-meter dash seemed too perfect to be real. American hero Carl Lewis, with a megawatt smile, faced off against gruff Canadian powerhouse Ben Johnson, with the title of Fastest Man on Earth on the line. When Johnson won, breaking the world record, questions about drug use arose—eventually Lewis was given the gold and Johnson was banished. And yet, in this great documentary, it’s clear 25 years later that the story is not so simple.

  • #95. 30 for 30: Elway to Marino
    6/ ESPN Films

    #95. 30 for 30: Elway to Marino

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 679
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Ken Rodgers

    The NBA and NFL drafts are powerful mainly for their potential energy. Every fanbase believes that the perfect pick— a Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan or Joe Montana—can change everything. In "Elway to Marino," director Ken Rodgers takes on the most important draft in NFL history and looks at the record-breaking six quarterbacks selected in the 1983 first round. John Elway, picked first, along with Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, forever altered their respective franchises, but just as important were the other three, who never quite reached the level that every fan dreams of on draft day. The framing allows for deep-dives into the minds of the executives and the men who would go on to quarterback for their respective teams.


     

  • #94. Vive le tour
    7/ The Criterion Collection

    #94. Vive le tour

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 708
    Year released: 1962
    Director: Louis Malle

    This 1962 French short film offers an amazing window into the Tour de France of the early 60s. Directed by the renowned French director Louis Malle, the film is awash in the bright glowing colors of 60s films, and the opening, with small town French fans and nuns waiting for the bikes to pass by is pure magic.

  • #93. Why We Ride
    8/ Walking West Entertainment

    #93. Why We Ride

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 710
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Bryan H. Carroll

    Director Bryan H. Carroll’s documentary is a love letter to the world of motorcycle racing. Far from a hard-hitting investigative piece, "Why We Ride" simply celebrates the history of putting motors on bikes and seeing how fast they can go, and is peppered with interviews of famous bikers explaining what draws them to the sport. If you love motorcycles, you will love this film.

  • #92. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
    9/ Ciesla Foundation

    #92. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 728
    Year released: 1998
    Director: Aviva Kempner

    This documentary leans heavily on beautiful black-and-white archival footage to tell the story of the greatest Jewish slugger to ever play in the Major Leagues. Director Aviva Kempner looks at the ways the Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg was able to overcome virulent anti-Semitism to become a Hall of Fame baseball player and a beloved star in Henry Ford’s 1930s Detroit.

  • #91. 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner
    10/ ESPN Films

    #91. 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 1,022
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Rory Karpf

    There was no NCAA basketball team more despised than the Duke Blue Devils—an incredibly expensive, high-performing private school that just kept winning basketball games “the right way”—and no player who more personified Duke than Christian Laettner. This documentary looks at the handsome, yet seemingly entitled and detestable Laettner, and reexamines his admitted flaws—but also what everyone got wrong while he was leading Duke to two National Championships and playing the heel for an entire nation’s college basketball fans.

     

  • #90. Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot
    11/ Perfect Shot Films

    #90. Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 1,529
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Sebastian Dehnhardt

    Michael Jordan was such an overwhelming figure that the entire next generation of players was viewed through the Next Jordan Lens. With that framing, it was easy to miss the genius of the 7-foot tall, soft-spoken, German scoring machine who was certainly not built in the mold of MJ. In "Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot," director Sebastian Dehnhardt puts the genius of Dirk Nowitzki in perspective—using interviews with coaches, teammates, contemporaries, and behind-the-scenes footage of Dirk with his legendary shooting coach—to paint a portrait of the greatest European player of all time. His reign continues: since the documentary came out, Dirk has entered the elite 30,000 point club.
     

  • #89. The Endless Summer 2
    12/ New Line Cinema

    #89. The Endless Summer 2

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 1,631
    Year released: 1994
    Director: Bruce Brown

    28 years after his groundbreaking surfing documentary, director Bruce Brown returned to find two new young surfers who were chasing summer around the globe. This time, it’s Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Patrick O’Connell who buoy the action, as Brown shoots gorgeous break after gorgeous break at the best surf spots on Earth. Bruce Brown’s son, Dana, who co-wrote "The Endless Summer 2," went onto direct "Dust to Glory," an incredible look at the strange world of offroad racing and the Baja 1000.

     

  • #88. Red Army
    13/ Gabriel Polsky Productions

    #88. Red Army

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 5,804
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Gabe Polsky

    In sports, it’s tempting to dehumanize the opponent, but in reality, they're still people—with stories, fears, and interior lives on both sides of every game. Gabe Polsky’s documentary looks at the Soviet Union’s "Red Army" hockey team, a fearsome, unbeatable force that would become the perfect foil for the "Miracle On Ice" American squad. But Polsky looks deeper at men behind the caricature and the glory they gained and cost they paid to be one of the Soviet Union’s greatest exports. 

  • #87. Beyond the Mat
    14/ Universal Family and Home Entertainment

    #87. Beyond the Mat

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 7,278
    Year released: 1999
    Director: Barry W. Blaustein

    Though it has the unfortunate uncinematic look of a late 90s documentary, "Beyond the Mat" offers an interesting window into the day-to-day lives of pro wrestlers. Director Barry W. Blaustein follows wrestlers at different stages of their careers—current star Mick Foley, recent retiree Terry Funk, and washed-up legend Jake “The Snake” Roberts—to show the highs and the costs of the lifestyle. Foley is the standout of the film, and it’s fascinating to see the intricacies and the toll that his brand of gross-out, extreme wrestling. The film did a lot to demonstrate that though the storylines are written, wrestling is not play-fighting—these are real athletes with real injuries and exceptional tolerances for pain.

  • #86. Bigger Stronger Faster*
    15/ Madman Films

    #86. Bigger Stronger Faster*

    IMDb rating: 7.6
    IMDb votes: 12,498
    Year released: 2008
    Director: Chris Bell

    Director Chris Bell’s fast-paced documentary takes on the history of performance-enhancing drugs in sports by zooming in on how his two brothers began to take steroids to chase their big-league dreams. Arriving in 2008, on the heels of Major League Baseball’s steroid controversy and congressional hearings/involvement in cleaning up sports, the documentary does a great job looking at the roots of the issue and the hypocrisy of how the controversy has been dealt with. The story of the Bell brothers is interesting, but the archival footage (featuring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, George W. Bush, and 1960s Olympians) is the real star.

  • #85. Clarkson: Thriller
    16/ 2 Entertain Video

    #85. Clarkson: Thriller

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 543
    Year released: 2008
    Director: Brian Klein

    Released straight to DVD, "Clarkson: Thriller" is basically a special "Top Gear" episode showing presenter Jeremy Clarkson racing some fast and fancy cars around the world. Top Gear was a behemoth of a show in the UK and throughout Europe, and Clarkson was the kind of megastar who could release DVD specials. But more recently, his history of offensive and unsavory behavior has begun to catch up with him. In 2015, Clarkson was finally dismissed from the show for hitting a producer and allegedly using a racial slur against him. 

     

  • #84. A Sunday in Hell
    17/ Steen Herdel Filmproduktion

    #84. A Sunday in Hell

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 551
    Year released: 1977
    Director: Jørgen Leth

    One of Danish director Jørgen Leth’s finest works, "A Sunday in Hell" follows the French Paris-Roubaix Classic, a brutal bike race over broken-down cobblestone roads. The film is shot beautifully, and puts the viewer aggressively into the race, starting with pre-race leg massages, continuing directly behind the racers on motorcycles, going behind the cameras of TV broadcasts, and finally ending in the showers after the event. As "Icarus," this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary proved, cycling looks incredible on film.
     

  • #83. Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman
    18/ Chassy Media

    #83. Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 581
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Adam Carolla

    The first thing you think of when you hear Adam Carolla is probably not racing—"The Man Show," "Loveline," and podcast host is more synonymous with dirty jokes and tough advice. But Carolla also has a passion for cars and racing, and his documentary "Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman" is a love letter to another entertainer who dove headfirst into the world of fast cars. Carolla leans on his many celebrity connections to get great interviews throughout, and of course, having Newman—one of the most magnetic stars in history—on screen makes the whole thing a joy to watch.

     

  • #82. 30 for 30: Pony Excess
    19/ ESPN Films

    #82. 30 for 30: Pony Excess

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 660
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Thaddeus D. Matula

    Part of the first season of "30 for 30," Thaddeus D. Matula’s "Pony Excess" tells story of the unethical rise and eventual fall of the Southern Methodist University’s early 1980s football juggernaut. During its peak, running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James made up the most feared backfield in college football, nicknamed “The Pony Express." But after an investigation uncovered a system of paying recruits, the program received the NCAA’s harshest punishment, the so-called “Death Penalty” which ends the program. The film ends with the program once again reaching a bowl game in 2009, but the team remains a shadow of its glory years.
     

  • #81. The Heart of the Game
    20/ Woody Creek Productions

    #81. The Heart of the Game

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 889
    Year released: 2005
    Director: Ward Serrill
     

    Director Ward Serrill’s documentary focuses upon an unlikely Seattle girls' high school basketball team’s run for a state championship and their run-in with the state’s bureaucracy. The film follows a University of Washington professor with no experience who volunteers to coach the high school team and implements a play hard, always-press mentality that works. It also focuses on the team’s standout star, Darnellia Russell, who drops out to have a child and must fight to get her eligibility back when she returns to school to graduate. In 2014, Russell was named head coach of Shoreline Community College after playing and coaching at North Seattle Community College.

  • #80. Where the Trail Ends
    21/ Freeride Entertainment

    #80. Where the Trail Ends

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 1,095
    Year released: 2012
    Director: Jeremy Grant


    "Where the Trail Ends" follows the lives and extreme pursuits of the world’s best freeride mountain bikers, including Darren Berrecloth, James Doerfling, and Kurt Sorge. Director Jeremy Grant shoots the off-road bikers taking on insanely dangerous terrain in the Gobi Desert, near the Fraser River in Canada, in Nepal, and all over the canyons and mountains of Utah. Some of the aerial imagery of the freeride bikers on the edge of a cliff is jaw-dropping—Grant’s documentary is not the deepest on this list, but it’s incredibly fun to watch. 
     

  • #79. 30 for 30: June 17th, 1994
    22/ ESPN Films

    #79. 30 for 30: June 17th, 1994

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 1,108
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Brett Morgen

    Part of the first season of "30 for 30," director Brett Morgen’s "June 17th, 1994" took on one of the most diversely consequential days in sports history. On that date, the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks were playing in the NBA Finals, the New York Rangers had their Stanley Cup parade, the first ever World Cup in the United States was kicking off, Arnold Palmer was playing in the U.S. Open, and Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 30th home run of the young season. But every sports event was overshadowed by a retired running back's drive through L.A.—June 17th was the day of O.J. Simpson’s nationally televised white Bronco car chase. Morgen tells the story of the day by cutting between events and behind-the-scenes conversations among producers, creating a sports/pop culture collage of sorts.

     

  • #78. Nice People
    23/ Mexico Media

    #78. Nice People

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 1,169
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Anders Helgeson

    Anders Helgeson’s documentary follows an unlikely bandy team (a sport similar to field hockey on ice), based in Sweden and made up of Somali refugees. The film follows the team as they learn the basics of the sport (starting with learning to skate) and then make a push to qualify for the 2014 World Championship in Siberia. The film is a wonderful mix of heartwarming and exciting, and offers a fascinating window into the world of Somali refugees in Sweden. 
     

  • #77. Williams
    24/ Artificial Eye Film Company

    #77. Williams

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 1,338
    Year released: 2017
    Director: Morgan Matthews

    Director Morgan Matthews’ "Williams" tells the story of Sir Frank Williams, a British businessman who started one of the longest-running and winningest Formula 1 teams of the last half-century. Williams’s story is filled with triumph and tragedy—a car accident left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair in 1986. The film follows Sir Frank and also his family, who fought to keep the team and keep their father a part of the sport. The world of Formula 1 may be foreign to the average American viewer, but the documentary's glamour and excitement make an incredible backdrop for a compelling story.

  • #76. Fire in Babylon
    25/ Cowboy Films

    #76. Fire in Babylon

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 1,447
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Stevan Riley

    Director Stevan Riley’s "Fire in Babylon" has all the ingredients of a great sports documentary. The film—which tells of the rise of the West Indies Cricket Team of the 1970s and 1980s—is awash with heroes, a few villains, origin stories (an embarrassing loss to Australia which taught the coach the value of fast bowling), and ultimately historic victories. It also uses sports as a way to address themes of race and discrimination. 

  • #75. 180° South
    26/ Woodshed Films Inc.

    #75. 180° South

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 2,604
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Chris Malloy

    In an era when it feels like everything has been discovered and any place can be made safe with the right gear/tech, it’s hard to imagine that there are still old-school adventurers. But "180° South" follows Jeff Johnson as he retraces the 1968 journey to Patagonia of his two idols: Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins. Director Chris Malloy is blessed with beautiful scenery throughout the film, but also does a great job in getting into the interior lives of his subjects and finding a way to end the beautiful story a bit tragically.

     

  • #74. More Than a Game
    27/ Harvey Mason Media

    #74. More Than a Game

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 4,667
    Year released: 2008
    Director: Kristopher Belman


    The shadow of The Next Michael Jordan is a suffocating one, but in hindsight, when we look back at LeBron James, it’ll be with absolute awe. James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior in high school—and despite the mammoth fame and expectations has lived up to the hype and never had a public scandal. More Than a Game tells the story of James and his AAU teammates as they rise from an unknown team from Akron, Ohio to the top of the youth sports world. Soon after this point, James will be vaulted into another stratosphere of fame, so it’s fascinating to watch “The Chosen One” before he was chosen.

     

  • #73. Meru
    28/ Little Monster Films

    #73. Meru

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 9,403
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Jimmy Chin

    This documentary is one of the best of the mountain-climbing doc genre (which is saying a lot). In Meru, we follow three elite climbers (with many Everest summits between them) taking on an absolutely deadly big wall climb in the Himalayas. The footage throughout Meru is mesmerizing and the climbers, overcome with fear and fatigue, speak eloquently and honestly about death and obsession and the cost of trying to conquer a mountain. Author Jon Krakauer, whose book Into Thin Air is the best mountain climbing story ever written, guides the narrative as a talking head throughout.

     

  • #72. Dogtown and Z-Boys
    29/ Agi Orsi Productions

    #72. Dogtown and Z-Boys

    IMDb rating: 7.7
    IMDb votes: 11,087
    Year released: 2001
    Director: Stacy Peralta

    In the same that 1960s and 1970s France makes any bike-racing documentary a dream to watch, 1970s Venice Beach, California has a similar effect. In Dogtown and Z-Boys, director Stacy Peralta (himself one of the Z-Boys) tells the story of Zephyr skateboarding team, and how surf culture influenced their groundbreaking skating style. The film, narrated by Sean Penn, is an incredibly fun watch, and Peralta does a pretty good job of taking on the grimmer details as they arrive for some of his fellow Z-Boys later in life. This is skating documentary, but feels a bit like a rock ‘n’ roll documentary as well—sex, drugs, and skating in empty pools.
     

  • #71. Muhammad and Larry
    30/ ESPN Films

    #71. Muhammad and Larry

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 626
    Year released: 1980
    Director: Albert Maysles

    This documentary short by director Albert Maysles follows Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes as Ali goes after his fourth reign as heavyweight champ. The much-younger Holmes was once Ali’s sparring partner, which makes the dynamic between the 38-year-old legend and the 35-0 belt holder really fascinating. The film was originally released in Germany in 2006, then expanded to closer to an hour and released as part of the first season of 30 for 30. There is almost no one more intriguing to watch on screen than Ali, so as expected, this film delivers.



     

  • #70. 30 for 30: The Fab Five
    31/ ESPN Films

    #70. 30 for 30: The Fab Five

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 891
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Jason Hehir

    Many consider "The Fab Five" as the best of the "30 for 30" series, but it was technically not part of the series' offerings (it was cast as ESPN Films Presents instead). The documentary tells the story of University of Michigan’s 1991 recruiting class—Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson—who arrived on campus and took the country by storm. The freshman all started and became household names, twice reaching the NCAA Championship game and twice losing before much of the team went pro. Jason Hehir’s documentary does a great job animating each character, while exploring the insanity of what was happening off the court as the young stars were becoming the biggest story in college hoops. Rose and Webber—both now national TV figures—continue to have issues off the court, and Webber refused to be a part of this documentary.


     

  • #69. I Believe in Miracles
    32/ Baby Cow Films

    #69. I Believe in Miracles

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 943
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Jonny Owen

    Based on the book by Guardian writer Daniel Taylor, Director Jonny Owen’s documentary tells the story of the Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back European Championships in 1979 and 1980. The film follows manager Brian Clough and assistant manager Peter Taylor’s run, taking over a lowly team in 1975 (Taylor arrived the next year) and completely reinventing the underdog squad over the course of four years. At the time they took over, Nottingham was a bad second division team—by 1979, they were the best squad in all of Europe. Interestingly, Clough arrives at Nottingham after a disastrous run with Leeds United, which was the basis for another best-selling book and another film, "The Damned United." 

     

  • #68. The Smashing Machine
    33/ Youtube

    #68. The Smashing Machine

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 1,545
    Year released: 2002
    Director: John Hyams

    These days, on the promotional strength of president Dana Gould, the UFC is covered by mainstream magazines and shown in bars across the country. But in 2002 and the decade before, when "The Smashing Machine" came out, the world had a very different feeling about mixed martial arts. John Hyams’s documentary follows early UFC great Mark Kerr, nicknamed The Smashing Machine, who burst onto the scene in a mid-90s tournament—gaining fame, then an addiction to painkillers, and finally a more balanced, healthy life. In the years after the documentary, Kerr has made a few short comebacks, but now seems retired from professional fighting for good.

  • #67. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner
    34/ Werner Herzog Filmproduktion

    #67. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 1,858
    Year released: 1974
    Director: Werner Herzog

    As one would expect, director Werner Herzog’s documentary about champion ski-jumper Walter Steiner is less about skiing and more about the interior life of the man. Steiner is a fascinating character—who ski-jumped while also working full-time as a carpenter—and Herzog, as usual, has a clear admiration/leering fascination to understand what makes a man like that tick. Herzog made the film for German television, so it’s slightly less out-there than his later work, but it’s just as wonderful. His camera captures all the beauty of ski jumps, and all the agony of Steiner’s falls.

     

  • #66. Fastest
    35/  Media X International

    #66. Fastest

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 1,960
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Mark Neale

    Director Mark Neale’s documentary follows legendary MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi as he attempts to return from a horrific leg injury to once again capture the World Championship. Neale does a great job capturing the obsessive drive that allowed Rossi to reach the top of the sport, and also gets into the question that hangs over most extreme sport documentaries: why continue to risk everything to win a race? Ewan McGregor narrates this documentary, which has some truly incredible motorcycle race scenes.

     

  • #65. Klitschko
    36/ Wikimedia Commons

    #65. Klitschko

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 2,402
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Sebastian Dehnhardt

    It’s fascinating to think of how we would understand the Klitschkos if they had held their heavyweight boxing belts at any moment but when they did. Once the most prestigious award in sports, the two gigantic brothers from Ukraine reached the top of the boxing world at a time when America was sick of the sport. Still, director Sebastian Dehnhardt’s film shows the genius, the drive, and the unlikelihood of two mammoth brothers raised in poverty in Ukraine grabbing the belts once held by Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson.
     

  • #64. Deep Water
    37/  Pathe Pictures International

    #64. Deep Water

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 2,599
    Year released: 2006
    Director: Louise Osmond

    In 1968, a round-the-world solo yacht race was held. Most of the sailors were the best in the world, but one was a novice who’d bet everything on the event. Louise Osmond’s film tells the story of that racer, Donald Crowhurst, who risked his life as he took an unfit boat (and skillset) into the most treacherous boat race in history, all to avoid financial ruin. The film is gorgeous and tragic, telling an overlooked story with archival footage and interviews with family members and participants.

     

  • #63. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
    38/ Gravitas

    #63. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 2,832
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Annika Iltis

    Director Annika Iltis’ documentary tells the story of an unlikely race that’s become a favorite among a special breed of masochistic ultrarunner. The tiny race, which accepts only 35 runners per year, sends competitors all over a rural Tennessee property looking for books on a largely unmarked path. The film follows a few of the competitors as they attempt to complete a course only 10 finished in the race’s first quarter-century, which takes runners up and down the equivalent of two Mount Everests. The cast of characters—quirky, driven, and obsessed with pain—make this documentary a must-watch.

  • #62. The Endless Summer
    39/  Bruce Brown Films

    #62. The Endless Summer

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 4,381
    Year released: 1966
    Director: Bruce Brown

    Director Bruce Brown’s "The Endless Summer" is one of the true classics of the sports documentary genre. The 1966 film follows young surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August around the world in search of the perfect wave. The film looks gorgeous, with that colorful 1960s feel to it, and the surf spots were wonderfully unmolested at the time. Everything about the film is legendary; the cover itself is recognizable in an instant.
     

  • #61. Undefeated
    40/ Youtube

    #61. Undefeated

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 6,265
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Daniel Lindsay

    "Undefeated" definitely fits nicely into the underdog sports film collection beside "Remember the Titans" and "Coach Carter." This documentary by director Daniel Lindsay follows a terribly underfunded high school football team from Memphis and the coach who arrives and changes everything. After premiering at South by Southwest, "Undefeated" went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary in February of 2012.

  • #60. Murderball
    41/  Paramount Pictures

    #60. Murderball

    IMDb rating: 7.8
    IMDb votes: 9,382
    Year released: 2005
    Director: Henry Alex Rubin

    Henry Alex Rubin’s "Murderball" follows the full-contact quadriplegic rugby teams as they go to compete in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. The sport itself is wonderfully extreme, and Rubin’s film does not shy away from any parts of the competitors lives: we see the physical and emotional pain of dealing with their injuries, the difficulty with their sex lives, the interpersonal issues of the team, and also their competitive drive. It’s a movie that works because it shows a world we rarely see, with all its greatness and its warts—it’s a powerful film and the sport itself is wild to watch on screen. 


     

  • #59. Tom Meets Zizou: Kein Sommermärchen
    42/ Mindjazz Pictures

    #59. Tom Meets Zizou: Kein Sommermärchen

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 526
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Aljoscha Pause

    In many ways, the most original and most interesting documentaries come down to access. The genius of German director Aljoscha Pause’s "Tom Meets Zizou" is all about access. Pause spent eight years and gathered more than 100 hours of raw footage of German soccer player Thomas Broiche—at one point believed to be the next great German star—before fading out. Over the course of the film, we learn what drove Broiche and what kept him from greatness, but also learn about so many other athletes’ day-to-day realities.

     

  • #58. Schooled: The Price of College Sports
    43/ Youtube

    #58. Schooled: The Price of College Sports

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 568
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Ross Finkel

    One of the most polarizing topics in college sports is whether or not student athletes should be paid. Ross Finkel’s documentary takes the topic head-on, showing how the billion-dollar industry is built on the free labor of college athletes. The film is convincing, and makes it hard to square the fact that the NCAA cleared $1 billion in revenue in 2017 without the players seeing a dime.



     

  • #57. 30 for 30: Fantastic Lies
    44/ ESPN Films

    #57. 30 for 30: Fantastic Lies

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 737
    Year released: 2016
    Director: Marina Zenovich

    Marina Zenovich’s documentary, which was part of "30 for 30"’s third season, takes on the infamous Duke Lacrosse rape allegations. The 2006 case made national headlines and began to stand in for other conversations—this was a mainly white team at an elite private school who had allegedly raped a black exotic dancer from the Durham area. However, the case became complicated as more details arose, showing holes in Crystal Gail Magnum’s story and some questionable practices by the District Attorney Mike Nifong. Zenovich does a great job setting the scene to explain how everyone got the story so horribly wrong, and how that led to such a disastrous debacle.

     

  • #56. Thrilla in Manila
    45/ Youtube

    #56. Thrilla in Manila

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 766
    Year released: 2008
    Director: John Dower

    No one was better at building excitement around a match than Muhammad Ali, and that same kinetic energy he brought to promotion is imbued into John Dower’s documentary about his championship fight against Joe Frazier. Frazier and Ali were both characters, but in many ways were polar opposites. Ali famously called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and the characterization stuck on Smokin’ Joe—who was thought of as the conservative champion to Ali’s radicalism. When he passed away in 2011, there was an effort to recast Frazier as a champ with a good heart who was unfairly maligned by Ali. The film is an interesting look at the two fascinating athletes.

     

  • #55. Road
    46/  Double-Band Films

    #55. Road

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 1,073
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Michael Hewitt

    Director Michael Hewitt’s documentary looks at the world of motorcycle road racing—in which competitors race at 200 mph down closed country roads—by focusing on two sets of Northern Irish brothers who have dominated the sport for three decades. The film, narrated by Liam Neeson, follows the history of the competitive family and the unlikely, incredibly dangerous sport that they excel at. "Road" takes you into a fascinating world—and lets you see some truly insane motorcycling.

     

  • #54. On Any Sunday
    47/ Solar Productions

    #54. On Any Sunday

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 1,100
    Year released: 1971
    Director: Bruce Brown

    Like "Road," Bruce Brown’s "On Any Sunday" follows the wild subculture of motorcycle racers. Much less specific than the film about the North Irish stars of road racing, Brown’s film follows many different racers—including the actor Steve McQueen—and tries to understand why they risk it all for the sport. Brown made this film five years after "Endless Summer," and it’s clear he feels a similar admirationfor these motorcyclists that he does for surfers. The film is much less beautiful than Endless Summer, but the look of the 1970 racers makes it absolutely great to watch.



     

  • #53. Catching Hell
    48/ ESPN films

    #53. Catching Hell

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 1,270
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Alex Gibney


    Alex Gibney is arguably the best working documentarian—his films "The Armstrong Lie" and "Going Clear" are two of the most interesting documentaries of the last decade. With "Catching Hell," Gibney dives into the story of Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who interfered with Moises Alou’s opportunity to catch a foul ball that would have ended an inning—that eventually resulted in (yet another) disaster for the cursed franchise. Gibney, as usual, gets deep into the story, dissecting the larger issues tucked beneath the surface of the Bartman affair: die-hard fandom, scapegoating, and the mob mentality that made an unwitting fan the most hated man in Chicago.
     

  • #52. 30 for 30: The U
    49/ ESPN Films

    #52. 30 for 30: The U

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 1,279
    Year released: 2009
    Director: Billy Corben

    One of the best "30 for 30"s takes on one of the most beloved and morally questionable college football teams in history. University of Miami, nicknamed The U, became a powerhouse in the 1980s under the guidance of head coach Howard Schnellenberger. The documentary follows how the predominantly white university became known for its tough, swaggering football juggernaut, and how the rest of the country felt about the far-from-clean-cut team dominating the sport. The footage of young Michael Irvin and Jimmy Johnson make the film a joy to watch—for awhile, it had the highest-rated premiere of any "30 for 30."


     

  • #51. Next Goal Wins
    50/  Archer's Mark

    #51. Next Goal Wins

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 1,968
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Mike Brett

    Director Mike Brett’s documentary follows American Samoa’s quixotic quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The action starts with a humiliating and record-breaking 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001. From there, we see Dutch-born and American-based coach Thomas Rongen arrive to a team he explains as “the lowest standard.” Throughout the film, the team learns under Rongen and finally has a chance to play for the right to go to Brazil. Brett’s film is somewhat about soccer, but just as much about the struggle to make it and what it means for a tiny island to find pride through sport. 

     

  • #50. The Resurrection of Jake the Snake
    51/ Slamdance Films

    #50. The Resurrection of Jake the Snake

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 2,230
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Steve Yu

    Director Steve Yu tells the story of troubled wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts attempting to return to his old life and win back his estranged family. The film leans heavily on old archival footage, which is fantastic, and Roberts himself is a tragic yet magnetic figure on screen. Roberts had very public struggles with drugs and alcohol throughout his career, so Yu’s film is an enlightening look behind the curtain of one of the legends of the sport. In 2014, Roberts was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

  • #49. Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty
    52/ Youtube

    #49. Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 2,855
    Year released: 1938
    Director: Leni Riefenstahl

    Created as a piece of Nazi propaganda, "Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty" showcases the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. Director Leni Riefenstahl is a difficult artist to understand—she was hugely talented and aesthetically gifted, but made her art in the service of Adolf Hitler, which is problematic to say the least. The film is an interesting study in myth-making—Riefenstahl certainly shoots the games as if they are one of the grandest events in history. But, again, this was when the Olympics was hosted by the Nazis.

     

  • #48. Riding Giants
    53/ StudioCanal

    #48. Riding Giants

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 4,055
    Year released: 2004
    Director: Stacy Peralta

    Director Stacy Peralta, who put out the legendary skate documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," tells the story of the big wave surfing world in the beautiful and epic "Riding Giants." Using archival footage to tell the sport's history and then spending time focusing on the founder of the Mavericks Surf Contest and standout star Laird Hamilton, Peralta gives a compelling survey of a strange and dangerous passion. Hearing about monster waves is one thing, but Peralta’s ability to capture the surfers on top of the 50-foot waves is jaw-dropping.

     

  • #47. One Day in September
    54/ Youtube

    #47. One Day in September

    IMDb rating: 7.9
    IMDb votes: 5,236
    Year released: 1999
    Director: Kevin Macdonald

    Director Kevin Macdonald’s film tells the terrifying story of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where a Palestinian terrorist organization took a group of Israeli athletes hostage. The documentary chronicles the botched response by the German police and supplements its incredible archival footage with an interview with the last surviving terrorist. Six years later, "Munich" would tell the same story as a feature film. "One Day in September" won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.  
     

  • #46. All.I.Can.
    55/ Sherpas Cinema

    #46. All.I.Can.

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 687
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Eric Crosland

    Funded by North Face, Eric Crosland’s "All.I.Can." follows a handful of big mountain skiers to peaks around the world as they take on some of the biggest runs on Earth. The film is, on its face, an adventure film, with beautiful cinematography and an exciting score, but also takes on the issues of global warming—and attempts to demonstrate what we lose when we change the climate. Skiing is a sport most people don’t follow outside of the Winter Olympics, but it looks absolutely mesmerizing on film.
     

  • #45. Kobe Bryant's Muse
    56/ Dirty Robber

    #45. Kobe Bryant's Muse

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 922
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Gotham Chopra

    Mercurial, cocky, obsessive, intelligent, and ultra-talented, there are few athletes as fascinating as Kobe Bryant. The Lakers star was either loved or hated by everyone throughout his career, and Gotham Chopra’s film takes a look at his early life and extended career. Bryant is smart about his image and won’t let anyone have access who is going to skewer him, but hopefully one day there will be an even-handed, fascinating portrayal of the of one of the greatest shooting guards to ever play the game. This isn’t it.

  • #44. Tokyo Olympiad
    57/  Organizing Committee for the Games of the XVIII Olympiad

    #44. Tokyo Olympiad

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 1,259
    Year released: 1965
    Director: Kon Ichikawa

    It’s a blessing to have a piece of history captured beautifully, which is exactly what "Tokyo Olympiad" is. Kon Ichikawa, one of the great Japanese directors in history, shot this wide-ranging look at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The film functions like a time capsule—it gains power with years and adds gravitas to the moment because it’s curated. It’s fascinating to see what life was like through Ichikawa’s gaze in 1960s Japan.

     

  • #43. 30 for 30: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
    58/ ESPN Films

    #43. 30 for 30: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 1,544
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Dan Klores


    If the shadow of Michael Jordan has hung over two generations of players, imagine what it did to his contemporaries. This "30 for 30" by director Dan Klores looks at two teams, the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers, who never reached the mountaintop (in the top-heavy NBA, most teams never win a championship), but meant a lot to their respective fan bases. Reggie Miller is incredible on camera—lanky, silky smooth, and always talking trash—and the 90s Knicks teams are overflowing with big personalities. The film follows the two teams run of playoff battles and the parallel paths of the seemingly opposite franchises. 


     

  • #42. 1
    59/ SpitFire Pictures

    #42. 1

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 3,099
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Paul Crowder

    Narrated by Michael Fassbender, Paul Crowder’s documentary tells the story of Formula 1’s deadly golden era— from 1966 to 1994—when Ayrton Senna died in a race. The film covers the heroes of the sport, and it’s hard not to get seduced by the beautiful archival footage. But Crowder’s film never loses sight of the danger of that era, and how important it was to finally make the sport less lethal. 
     

  • #41. Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations
    60/  Olympia Film GmbH

    #41. Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 3,690
    Year released: 1938
    Director: Leni Riefenstahl

    Again, there’s no way to argue that Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics is not a magnificent piece of cinema. However, it must be stated that this film was financed by, and made to glorify, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The documentary is instructive to watch, because it lets us understand what a dictator like Hitler wants to present to the world—Riefenstahl’s eye is at least in part the eye of the Third Reich; what she shows us is what they want us to see.


     

  • #40. TT3D: Closer to the Edge
    61/ Pinewood Pictures

    #40. TT3D: Closer to the Edge

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 5,692
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Richard De Aragues

    First-time director Richard De Aragues tells the story of the runup to 2010 Isle of Man motorcycle road race. The film, shot in 3D and narrated by Jared Leto, focuses on John McGuinness, Guy Martin, Ian Hutchinson, and other competitors as they take on one of the most dangerous and unique races on Earth. The film does a little dive into the racers interior lives, but it's mainly about the fun of watching motorcycle road racing in 3D. 



     

  • #39. When We Were Kings
    62/ Das Films

    #39. When We Were Kings

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 13,321
    Year released: 1996
    Director: Leon Gast

    Arguably the greatest Muhammad Ali documentary, director Leon Gast’s "When We Were Kings" focuses on “The Rumble in the Jungle”—the heavyweight title bout in Zaire between Ali and George Foreman. The archival footage in this documentary is jaw-dropping—Zaire is awash in color, Ali is beautifully handsome, Foreman is terrifyingly strong, and Don King is an absolute trip. The most memorable scenes are Foreman hitting the heavy bag and leaving a divot the size of a watermelon where his fist hits, and Ali running through Zaire, trailed by a group of children, screaming, “Ali bomaye! Ali bomaye! [Ali, kill him!]” The film has the most ridiculous cast of talking heads, including an exceptionally animated Norman Mailer. "When We Were Kings" won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards in 1997.


     

  • #38. Icarus
    63/ Alex Productions

    #38. Icarus

    IMDb rating: 8.0
    IMDb votes: 18,976
    Year released: 2017
    Director: Bryan Fogel

    This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Documentary is a great example of how sports can be the best way into to otherwise cloistered or untellable stories. In the film, director Bryan Fogel, an amateur biker, decides to try to dose himself with performance enhancing drugs to compete at the highest level. In the course of his search for a doctor, he is put in touch with the former director of Russia’s anti-doping agency, who helps Fogel uncover decades of corruption. The documentary, which begins as a sort of Gonzo Journalism venture, turns into an international spy caper with life-and-death stakes.
     

  • #37. 30 for 30: The '85 Bears
    64/ Youtube

    #37. 30 for 30: The '85 Bears

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 570
    Year released: 2016
    Director: Jason Hehir


    Director Jason Hehir followed up "Fab Five" with a "30 for 30" about the hugely entertaining, defensively stifling, Super Bowl-shuffling 1985 Chicago Bears. Hehir is a master at letting the larger-than-life personalities shine in his documentaries—the archival footage of quarterback Jim McMahon, running back Walter Payton, defensive lineman “Refrigerator” Perry, linebacker Mike Singletary, and, of course, Mike Ditka is a joy throughout. "Da Bears" are one of the most memorable teams in history, and Hehir’s documentary is a perfect window into what made them so dominant and so volatile.
     

  • #36. 30 for 30: Bad Boys
    65/ ESPN Films

    #36. 30 for 30: Bad Boys

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 1,056
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Zak Levitt

    Director Zak Levitt’s "30 for 30" on the Bad Boy Pistons of the late-1980s overflows with incredible moments, but the biggest revelation of all for younger viewers is that for a time Michael Jordan was a mere mortal who couldn’t beat the bullies from Detroit. Isaiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer are two of the most polarizing players in NBA history, and the team’s ability to turn toughness into a strategy that led to championships was incredible. The biggest takeaway from the film is that Thomas made the mistake of beefing with MJ and paid dearly for it—viewers will look more favorably on him after seeing his side of the story.

     

  • #35. 30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson
    66/ BotMultichillT // Wikimedia Commons

    #35. 30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 1,130
    Year released: 2012
    Director: Michael Bonfiglio

    When conceiving of the "30 for 30" series, it seems inevitable that one of the first stories proposed was Bo Jackson. The two-sport star whose career was tragically cut short by injury is something like Paul Bunyan mixed with the Road Runner to the generation who never got to see him play—chiseled from stone and so fast he’d leave defenders miles behind him. What’s incredible about this documentary is that after watching Jackson play, you realize the myths were true. Everyone who plays in the NFL or MLB was the best at some point in their lives, which is why true greatness is so mesmerizing; Jackson made elite athletes look slow and weak. It’s amazing to see him dominate, and then see him cope with having it all taken away. 



     

  • #34. The Referee
    67/ Freedom From Choice AB 

    #34. The Referee

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 1,627
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Mattias Löw

    This Swedish documentary short tells the story of Martin Hansson, a Swedish soccer ref, who was well on his way to getting a chance to work at the 2010 FIFA World Cup before a questionable call sent his life and career into flux. The call that the film focuses upon was during a World Cup qualifying match between France and Ireland—near the end of the game, French captain Thierry Henry clearly uses his hands to control the ball before setting up teammate William Gallas for the game-winning goal. The documentary is a wonderful close-up look at the difficult and thankless life of refereeing major sporting events.


     

  • #33. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
    68/ Seanbonner  // Wikimedia Commons

    #33. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 2,100
    Year released: 2012
    Director: Stacy Peralta

    Director Stacy Peralta dives back into his history in skateboarding with "Bones Brigade," which begins where "Dogtown and Z-Boys" ends. In this documentary, Peralta tells the story of the early 1980s formation of the Bones Brigade, a motley crew of ultra-talented outsider skaters (Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill and more), who vaulted the sport to the mainstream. Peralta is a central character in his documentary, so the story is a bit overly congratulatory, but seeing the ultra-talented young legends skate makes the film riotously fun to watch. 

     

  • #32. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
    69/ Netflix

    #32. The Battered Bastards of Baseball

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 2,131
    Year released: 2014
    Director: Chapman Way

    Brother directors Chapman and Maclain Way uncovered the wonderful true story of the Portland Mavericks—a 1970s independent baseball team dreamed up by actor Bing Russell that tried everything (open tryouts, the first female general manager, signing shunned reliever Jim Bouton and more) and turned into one of the most beloved, if short-lived, teams in history. Bing Russell is Kurt Russell’s dad, and Kurt played for the Mavericks during the 1970s—it’s incredible to watch the young man who would one day portray Jack Burton play a damn good second base. The Way brothers released the fantastic Netflix documentary mini-series "Wild Wild Country" earlier this year.
     

  • #31. Facing Ali
    70/  Network Entertainment 

    #31. Facing Ali

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 2,938
    Year released: 2009
    Director: Pete McCormack


    Director Pete McCormack’s documentary tells the story of legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali by interviewing the men who fought him. There have been countless Ali documentaries, but McCormack’s framing—deputizing incredibly entertaining fighters like Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and more as talking heads—makes this one feel special. Ali was legendary in the ring, but much more important outside of it—it’s fascinating to see how other fighters viewed him then and now.

  • #30. The Class of '92
    71/ Boundless

    #30. The Class of '92

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 6,842
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Benjamin Turner

    Director Benjamin Turner understood well that if you’re going to focus on a documentary on someone, they should be hard to take your eyes off when they are on screen. "The Class of 92" tells the story of a young, ultra-talented class of Manchester United soccer players who came to prominence together from 1992 to 1997. Five of those players (Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Phil and Gary Neville) are fascinating and fantastic talents—the sixth, a young David Beckham, makes the film a captivating watch. The story focuses on the exploits on the pitch, but also gets into the relationships between the young stars, which elevates it as a film.

     

  • #29. Touching the Void
    72/ FIlmFour

    #29. Touching the Void

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 29,746
    Year released: 2003
    Director: Kevin Macdonald

    Based on the book by climber Joe Simpson, "Touching the Void" tells the incredible, haunting story of Simpson and Simon Yates’ unprecedented ascent and unbelievable descent of Siula Grande in Peru. Simpson breaks his leg on the way down the west face; Yates works to get him back to basecamp by letting out 30 feet of slack and then climbing down to him. But when Simpson is let off a ledge and unable to climb his way back, Yates makes the decision to cut him loose. The documentary recounts the unbelievable story of how Simpson made it back, and wrestles with the way the men must deal with Yates’ decision.

     

  • #28. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
    73/ Youtube

    #28. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

    IMDb rating: 8.1
    IMDb votes: 32,475
    Year released: 2007
    Director: Seth Gordon

    This incredible documentary about the world of competitive arcade gaming has no business working as well as it does. But director Seth Gordon finds incredibly odd and magnetic characters and takes on the world with respect, even while allowing space for the viewer to laugh at the insanity of it all. The film focuses on the David vs. Goliath battle between soft-spoken/unassuming teacher Steve Wiebe and over-the-top powerhouse Billy Mitchell for the world record high score in "Donkey Kong." Just this week, Mitchell was found to have cheated in attaining his high score and had all of his marks stripped from the record books.


     

  • #27. Supervention
    74/ Youtube

    #27. Supervention

    IMDb rating: 8.2
    IMDb votes: 718
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Filip Christensen

    Director Filip Christensen’s documentary is one of the most jaw-dropping visually on this list. "Supervention" follows a group of skiers and snowboarders who take on abandoned towns, untouched mountainsides, and the wildest of wilderness to find the best, most heart-pounding rides. While many ski documentaries have footage of skiers taking on near-vertical mountains on the edge of avalanche, the best part of Christensen’s film is the footage of skiers and snowboarders riding across rooftops and jumping down staircases in an abandoned Nordic town. 
     

  • #26. Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story
    75/ Youtube

    #26. Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story

    IMDb rating: 8.2
    IMDb votes: 867
    Year released: 1996
    Director: Joseph Consentino

    As noted earlier, there are more Muhammad Ali documentaries than fish in the sea. This film by director Joseph Consentino arrived in 1996, soon after Ali’s last truly great public moment, when he lit the torch at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Ali is amazing in archival footage, and Consentino’s film does a great job painting the story of his incredible, fascinating life.

  • #25. Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows
    76/ High Road Productions

    #25. Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows

    IMDb rating: 8.2
    IMDb votes: 3,363
    Year released: 1998
    Director: Paul Jay

    Director Paul Jay got incredible access to Bret Hart, one of the greatest wrestlers of the modern era, during what turned out to be his final year in the WWF. Hart is fantastically captivating, and seeing his rise through the ranks with his brother Owen—and getting a glimpse behind the scenes of the gruff, nasty wrestling world—is hugely entertaining. But best of all, the film includes a section on the infamous Montreal Screwjob, in which Vince McMahon lies to Hart in order to take his belt before he departs to WCW. Tragically, a year after the film was released, Bret Hart’s brother Owen died during a pay-per-view event in one of the most terrible moments in wrestling history.

  • #24. The Crash Reel
    77/ Impact Partners

    #24. The Crash Reel

    IMDb rating: 8.2
    IMDb votes: 4,376
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Lucy Walker

    The world of competitive snowboarding is a relatively small one and this documentary takes us through 15 years of footage charting the rise of Shaun White and Kevin Pearce, two childhood best friends who became the best two snowboarders on the planet. The story builds toward the Vancouver Olympics—soon before the event, Pearce gets seriously injured in a half-pipe and is recovering as White wins the gold. The film is a beautifully intimate look (much of the archival footage is taken with handheld cameras) at a friendship—and what happens when a terrible injury makes paths diverge.  

  • #23. McConkey
    78/  MSP Films

    #23. McConkey

    IMDb rating: 8.3
    IMDb votes: 695
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Rob Bruce

    "McConkey" tells the life story of legendary skier and extreme athlete Shane McConkey. The film touches on McConkey’s father—himself a skiing legend who was absent from his son’s life—as well as the many risks that Shane took while changing the entire sport of extreme skiing and BASE jumping. We see McConkey reach the top of his sport, win awards, put out highly regarded extreme skiing films, and start a family, and then cringe as we approach the inevitable end—he died during a ski-BASE jump in Italy in 2009.  



     

  • #22. 30 for 30: Survive and Advance
    79/ ESPN Films

    #22. 30 for 30: Survive and Advance

    IMDb rating: 8.3
    IMDb votes: 756
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Jonathan Hock


    Director Jonathan Hock’s "30 for 30" tells the unlikeliest of Cinderella stories about the 1983 NC State basketball team, which won nine straight games in March Madness as a six-seed—beating Michael Jordan’s Tar Heels, Ralph Sampson’s Cavaliers, and eventually Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Phi Slamma Jamma University of Houston squad. NC State’s run including many last second comebacks, and the winning shot in the Championship game is one of the most replayed moments in basketball history. The coach, Jim Valvano, passed away in 1993 after giving a beautiful, heartbreaking speech at the ESPY Awards, and the V Foundation for Cancer Research has given out $200 million in research grants since 1993. 
     

  • #21. 30 for 30: The Best That Never Was
    80/ ESPN Films

    #21. 30 for 30: The Best That Never Was

    IMDb rating: 8.3
    IMDb votes: 903
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Jonathan Hock

    Director Jonathan Hock made this "30 for 30" about the crazed expectations and disappointing college career of a running back from Philadelphia who was supposed to be the best that ever was. Hock’s film tells the story of Marcus Dupree, starting with his record-breaking high school career, and especially focusing on the wild recruiting blitz that teams all around the country made for this Pennsylvania star. Sadly, Dupree never became great, but Hock’s film does a lot to explain how the kid with every gift on the football field could become a bust.


     

  • #20. The Art of Flight
    81/ Youtube

    #20. The Art of Flight

    IMDb rating: 8.3
    IMDb votes: 7,129
    Year released: 2011
    Director: Curt Morgan

    Director Curt Morgan’s film follows snowboarder Jim Rice and his friends as they take on some of the most remote, extreme peaks around the world. The film elevates itself slightly above an extended snowboard video because the cinematography is jaw-dropping, and Morgan spends some time on the logistics of finding and deploying upon the unridden mountainsides.
     

  • #19. Hoop Dreams
    82/ Kartemquin Films

    #19. Hoop Dreams

    IMDb rating: 8.3
    IMDb votes: 21,229
    Year released: 1994
    Director: Steve James

    One of the truly classics of the sports doc genre, Steve James’s "Hoop Dreams" follows William Gates and Arthur Agee, two Chicago teens trying to make it to the NBA. James spent years with Gates and Agee, telling their parallels stories of hype, disappointment, triumph, and survival—Roger Ebert ranked "Hoop Dreams" as the best film of the 1990s. Neither Gates nor Agee made it to the NBA (or even especially close), but the film offers a window into the world of amateur basketball and what it’s like to believe that basketball is one's way out of bad circumstances.


     

  • #18. 30 for 30: Of Miracles and Men
    83/ ESPN Films

    #18. 30 for 30: Of Miracles and Men

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 602
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Jonathan Hock

    Director Jonathan Hock’s third "30 for 30" film takes a look at the Miracle on Ice game (when the underdog American hockey team beat the unbeatable Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics) from the other side. Rather than retell the story of Mike Eruzione and his teammates, Hock looks at the fallout for the Soviet superteam. His film tells the stories of the players that gave their life to the sport, how they were miscast by Cold War coverage, and the price they paid for being on the wrong side of one of the most miraculous games in sports history.

  • #17. 30 for 30: The Four Falls of Buffalo
    84/ ESPN Films

    #17. 30 for 30: The Four Falls of Buffalo

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 606
    Year released: 2015
    Director: Ken Rodgers

    The Buffalo Bills of the early 90s are a phenomenon rarely seen in sports: a tragi-super team. Led by quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive end Bruce Smith, the Bills reached four straight Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993—and lost them all. Director Ken Rodgers’ film attempts to recast the team as one of the greatest (if most snakebitten) squads, who has become misremembered as the biggest losers in NFL history.

     

  • #16. That's It, That's All.
    85/ Brain Farm

    #16. That's It, That's All.

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 951
    Year released: 2008
    Director: Curt Morgan

    Before "The Art of Flight," director Curt Morgan followed Travis Rice and his team of snowboarders for this film. Both of Morgan’s snowboarding documentaries are co-productions of Red Bull and Quicksilver, so the look of them is really high quality. While "The Art of Flight" has a bit more introspection to it, "That’s It, That’s All" is much more a film about a band of bros setting out to take some risks and change the sport of snowboarding.

  • #15. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals
    86/ Youtube

    #15. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 1,101
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Ezra Edelman


    Before Ezra Edelman changed the entire face of documentary filmmaking with his meteoric "OJ: Made in America," he took on the greatest NBA players of the 1980s and their odd-couple friendship. Magic Johnson was the flashy star of the LA Lakers with a thousand-watt smile, while Larry Bird was the country bumpkin who was tougher than hell and a perfect fit on Red Auerbach's old-school Boston Celtics. But, unlikely as it was, the two stars who first faced off in the NCAA National Championship game and then again and again in the Finals, built a real friendship over the years. Johnson lights up for the camera, but the film is exceptional because Edelman was able to get the quiet and mercurial Bird to open up for an in-depth, revelatory interview.
     

  • #14. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
    87/ WETA

    #14. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 1,148
    Year released: 2004
    Director: Ken Burns

    It is almost unfathomable that 40 years before Jackie Robinson played in the MLB, during the Jim Crow era, Jack Johnson became the first black man to become boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. Created by Ken Burns (director of seminal PBS documentaries like "Civil War" and "Jazz"), the film tells the story of the unbearable prejudice and violence against the undeniably great Jack Johnson. This is another moment where sports showed the country how wrong it was about race—though in this case, America covered its eyes and pretended it didn’t see.  
     

  • #13. The Other Dream Team
    88/ The Basketball Future Foundation

    #13. The Other Dream Team

    IMDb rating: 8.4
    IMDb votes: 3,235
    Year released: 2012
    Director: Marius A. Markevicius


    Director Marius A. Markevicius brings the incredible, unlikely story of a team recently out from under the Iron Curtain, wearing tie-dyed jerseys and winning a bronze medal at the Barcelona games, into sharp focus. The film manages to be both meaningful and fun, and it’s endlessly entertaining to watch Lithuanian stars Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis. 

     

  • #12. Life Cycles
    89/ Stance Films

    #12. Life Cycles

    IMDb rating: 8.5
    IMDb votes: 1,096
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Derek Frankowski

    Directors Derek Frankowski and Ryan Gibb build this mountain biking documentary around the idea of the life cycle of a bike. The framing is a fascinating one, and the film is stunning to look at—the documentary is awash with action shots and rides through jaw-dropping nature, but there are also are moments of history on the building and transformation of the bike. It’s an interesting story, and the incredible cinematography makes it a lot of fun to watch.



     

  • #11. 30 for 30: Once Brothers
    90/ ESPN Films

    #11. 30 for 30: Once Brothers

    IMDb rating: 8.5
    IMDb votes: 2,616
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Michael Tolajian

    Director Michael Tolajian’s "30 for 30" entry tells the story of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, who grew up playing together in Yugoslavia. They carried their national team before becoming NBA stars, only to have their close bond severed when Yugoslavia was split in two after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Croatia and Serbia went to war, Divac and Petrovic stopped talking; before they had a chance to make peace, Petrovic died in a car accident in 1993. This is a film about basketball, but also about geopolitics, relationships, and the aftermath of tragedy. 




     

  • #10. 30 for 30: The Two Escobars
    91/ ESPN Films

    #10. 30 for 30: The Two Escobars

    IMDb rating: 8.5
    IMDb votes: 2,912
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Jeff Zimbalist

    Either Escobar in the title of director Jeff Zimbalist’s documentary is plenty fascinating enough to carry a feature film, but Zimbalist understands that the stories of the two men who were not related but shared a last name and a country were best told in tandem. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s love of soccer helped make Columbia’s National Team, of which Andres Escobar was the star, one of the favorites at the 1994 World Cup. But when Andres made a fateful error, scoring an own goal that eliminated his team, it cost him his life in Pablo Escobar’s ultra-violent Colombia. The film does a great job linking the stories, and gives texture to Andres Escobar’s life—rather than letting him be defined by his worst moment on a soccer pitch.

     

  • #9. The Other Sport: Leken som blev allvar
    92/ Anders Henrikson /// Wikimedia Commons

    #9. The Other Sport: Leken som blev allvar

    IMDb rating: 8.6
    IMDb votes: 591
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Mattias Löw

    Director Mattias Löw’s three-part series covers the underrepresented, underserved, and fascinating world of women’s soccer in Sweden. "Leken som blev allvar," dubbed "Play Seriously" in English, is the third episode of Löw’s series. It gives a chronological survey of the history of Swedish women’s soccer from when the first teams were created in the mid-1960s. The Swedish women’s national team has three European Championships, and has finished second and third at the World Cup since 2000. 
     

  • #8. The Other Sport: Vinnarskallar
    93/ Anders Henrikson // Flickr

    #8. The Other Sport: Vinnarskallar

    IMDb rating: 8.6
    IMDb votes: 611
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Mattias Löw

    "Vinnarskallar," named "Women Against the Tide" in the English version, is the first episode in director Mattias Löw’s series. In this episode, we are introduced to the current stars and leading figures of Swedish women’s soccer, with a special focus on the legendary Pia Sundhage, who played on the Swedish national team for 21 years and has coached the national team since 2012. Löw is a heavily decorated Swedish filmmaker, most recently winning many film festival awards for his 2016 feature documentary, "The Indian Priest." "The Other Sport" gives the gravitas and attention to women’s soccer that is far too often absent from the discourse.

     

  • #7. The Bret Hart Story: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, the Best There Ever Will Be
    94/  World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)

    #7. The Bret Hart Story: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, the Best There Ever Will Be

    IMDb rating: 8.6
    IMDb votes: 813
    Year released: 2005
    Director: Kevin Dunn

    Directed by Kevin Dunn, one of WWE’s in-house directors, "The Bret Hart Story" is an in-his-own-words look back at the career of Bret Hart. Because the documentary is a WWE production, there is nothing too revelatory in his film, but it’s always fun to see wrestlers being wrestlers. Since Hart ended badly with WWE boss Vince McMahon when he left the WWF for the WCW (McMahon later bought WCW and merged the two), so it’s interesting to see McMahon bankroll an extremely positive documentary about him. 


     

  • #6. The Rise & Fall of ECW
    95/  WWE Home Video

    #6. The Rise & Fall of ECW

    IMDb rating: 8.6
    IMDb votes: 1,215
    Year released: 2004
    Director: Kevin Dunn

    WWE’s in-house director Kevin Dunn tells the story of Extreme Championship Wrestling, a cult wrestling syndicate that existed from 1992 to 2001. Dunn’s documentary looks at how wrestling manager Paul Heyman took ECW and built it into a beloved brand that has only grown in stature as its fades into rose-colored memory. The film features interviews with many of the stars of ECW, and it’s a joy to watch Mick Foley and its nostalgic (if somewhat problematic) way to see Sabu. The film came about after Vince McMahon and WWF bought ECW and its video library, which means the film overflows with incredible archival footage.

  • #5. Senna
    96/ Universal Pictures

    #5. Senna

    IMDb rating: 8.6
    IMDb votes: 50,895
    Year released: 2010
    Director: Asif Kapadia

    Director Asif Kapadia, who won the Oscar for 2015’s "Amy," tells the beautiful, heartbreaking story of Brazilian Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna who died tragically at the age of 34. Senna was a handsome, magnetic character and the world of late 80s/early 90s Formula 1 racing is a fun one to get lost in for awhile. "Senna" is fast-paced, but never forgets to take into account the interior life of the driver—and what he leaves behind when his luck on the track runs out.

     

  • #4. 1968
    97/  AEK B.C

    #4. 1968

    IMDb rating: 8.7
    IMDb votes: 753
    Year released: 2018
    Director: Tassos Boulmetis

    Director Tassos Boulmetis’ film tells the story of AEK, a Greek basketball team founded in 1924 by refugees that defeated Czechoslovakia’s Praga Slavia (one of Europe’s most feared squads) in the 1964 European Championship Game. Boulmetis uses a bunch of incredible old footage throughout the film, and ties the story to modern times by focusing on Greece's search for pride—and finding it in an unexpected place.

     

  • #3. Puskás Hungary
    98/ Youtube

    #3. Puskás Hungary

    IMDb rating: 8.7
    IMDb votes: 922
    Year released: 2009
    Director: Tamás Almási

    This Hungarian documentary tells the story of Ferenc Puskás, the greatest Hungarian soccer player who went onto become one of the best goalscorers in Spanish league history. "Puskás Hungary" charts the soccer legend's entire life, from his early days (his first game for Kismet was at 16) to when he left Hungary after the 1968 Revolution and became a Spanish star, to the end of his life. The old soccer footage throughout the film is beautiful to watch, and it’s always a joy to watch a legend score gorgeous goal after gorgeous goal. In 2009, FIFA named an award after Puskás, which they give to the player who scored the best (and usually most beautiful) goal of the year.

     

  • #2. The Other Sport: Kärringar mot strömmen
    99/ Anders Henrikson // Flickr

    #2. The Other Sport: Kärringar mot strömmen

    IMDb rating: 8.8
    IMDb votes: 670
    Year released: 2013
    Director: Mattias Löw

    The highest rated episode of director Mattias Löw’s three-part series is the second: "Kärringar mot strömmen," which was named "Women Against the Tide" in its English version. This episode takes a look about the stars of the early years who legitimized women’s soccer in Sweden and made the sport a place where women could truly be respected, well-known, and paid like professionals. This episode spends some time on Pia Sundhage’s playing career, and shines a light on the sexism that the early female athletes faced. 

     

  • #1. Sachin
    100/ Bollywood Hungama // Wikimedia Commons

    #1. Sachin

    IMDb rating: 8.8
    IMDb votes: 6,531
    Year released: 2017
    Director: James Erskine

    James Erskine’s film, a mix of documentary footage and dramatic sequences, tells the story of Sachin Tendulkar, the Babe Ruth of the Indian cricket world. Tendulkar is a mythical figure deserving of a mythical portrayal, although at times the film refuses to scratch at the less savory parts of his legacy. Still, no biographical film can tell every moment of a lifetime, and "Sachin" lets the viewer celebrate one of the greatest batsmen of all time. After all, Tendulkar’s nickname is “The God of Cricket”—so it’s not surprising that the film tends toward exaltation.
     

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