10 Films That Will Make You See Sports in a Whole New Light

There's simply no getting around it: sports documentaries just have a unique ability to move us to tears. We figured it was time to have a look back at some of our favorites.

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The world of sports documentaries is filled with thrills, glory, and, of course, falls from grace. The latest doc from director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck, Knocked Up) deals in all three, with an emphasis on the latter. Doc & Darryl, a film Apatow co-directed with Michael Bonfiglio, looks back at the lives and careers of Dwight "Doc" Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, two of the most dynamic baseball stars of the 1980s.

Doc & Darryl, the latest in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary franchise, focuses on two '80s baseball legends whose careers were constantly clouded by off-the-field troubles, and was co-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio.
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With its moving portrayal of the duo's rise to fame—and subsequent downfall—the film tackles much more than just the American pastime. It shares that transcendent nature with its most compelling forebears in the genre: You don't need to be a sports fan to understand what's at stake. The world of sports simply serves as an epic backdrop against which very real and very high-stakes human dramas play out.

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Here, a look back at 10 of the most thrilling sports documentaries ever made.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010)

Sport: Basketball

Key Players: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird

What It's All About: How one of the greatest rivalries in sports history ended up yielding one of its most storied friendships. Larry Bird was a quiet, no-nonsense kid from rural Indiana (hence one of his nicknames, The Hick from French Lick) who would go on to become one of the greatest players ever to put on a Boston Celtics jersey. Magic Johnson was the smiling, gregarious face of the Los Angeles Lakers and their "Showtime" brand of basketball. On the surface, the two could not seem less alike—but their talents had no equal, except in each other. Watching these two athletes push each other to perform at levels rarely seen in professional sports is a sublime experience.

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Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Sport: Skateboarding

Key Players: Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta

What It's All About: A movie about the Los Angeles skateboarders of the '70s who changed the sport forever. It was directed by Stacey Peralta, one of the skaters right in the thick of it. "Dogtown" here refers to the L.A. neighborhoods of Santa Monica and Venice, where the members of the Zephyr skate team (aka the Z-Boys) found themselves deeply influenced by the surfers of the era, and integrated surf style into their skateboarding. The Z-Boys took an activity that was still being looked down on as a waste of time and planted the seeds for what would become a multibillion-dollar industry.

When We Were Kings (1996)

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Sport: Boxing

Key Players: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, James Brown, Norman Mailer

What It's All About: Winner of the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, When We Were Kings tells the story of the "Rumble in the Jungle," the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Knowing that he's about to face a notoriously hard-punching opponent, Ali prepares for his fight not just physically, but also by getting into Foreman's head months before the fight—and all of this in a manner that gets the entire population of Zaire, where the fight was held, behind him in the process. In addition to the fight, the film also has some outstanding footage of the Zaire 74 concert that was held in the stadium, which featured performances by luminaries of the era, such as James Brown, B.B. King, and the Spinners, among others.

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The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Sport: Ski Jumping

Key Players: Werner Herzog, Walter Steiner

What It's All About: This elegant work by director Werner Herzog examines the life of Swiss ski jumper Walter Steiner, who maintained a full-time career as a carpenter throughout his days as a competitive athlete. In one of the most poetic films ever made about sports, Herzog showcases Steiner's unique abilities through the use of one gorgeous slow-motion sequence after another. Steiner soars through the air for what seems like minutes on end, all to a beautiful, sweeping score by the seminal krautrock band, Popol Vuh.

Tyson (2008)

Sport: Boxing

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Key Players: Mike Tyson

What It's All About: Mike Tyson has spent the better part of the last 30 years befuddling both his critics and his fans. His life has always been one of extremes, and he's gone from spending years behind bars for a rape conviction to appearing as a lovable teddy bear-type in blockbuster comedies. He's been on the global stage ever since becoming the youngest ever heavyweight champion of the world at the spritely age of 20; with Tyson, director James Toback finally lets the boxer tell the tale of his own life, and its countless ups and downs, in his own words. The result is a uniquely gripping film about one of the most fascinating and enigmatic stars of the 20th century.

Senna (2010)

Sport: Formula One

Key Players: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost

What It's All About: Let's get this out of the way right now: Senna will break your heart. It centers on Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna, and his rivalry with the Frenchman Alain Prost. Senna took the racing world by storm, pushing the limits of motorsport as he strived to stay ahead of the field in one of the most dangerous professional situations you can put yourself in. This is a film so compelling that even scenes of administrators discussing possible rule changes may move you to tears. Be prepared.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Sport: Basketball

Key Players: Arthur Agee, William Gates

What It's All About: This 1994 film shows just what it's like to try to realize your dreams of making it to the pros. Two kids growing up in and around Chicago get recruited to attend St. Joseph High School, best known as the alma mater of NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. As with the very best films about sports, Hoop Dreams examines not only the game of basketball but also dives deeply into the myriad issues athletes face off the field. At its heart, though, this is a deeply touching tale of two boys trying their hardest to realize their dreams—and the inherent perils of being almost good enough to make it.

Endless Summer (1966)

Sport: Surfing

Key Players: Mike Hynson, Robert August

What It's All About: The Endless Summer inspired generations of surfers to hit the road in pursuit of the ever-elusive, perfect wave. The movie follows a group of surfers on a trip around the world. The title references the surfer's ideal brand of living: If you're successful enough at the sport, you can spend your whole life chasing summer (and waves). If there's a better metaphor to have at the heart of a film, we've yet to find it.

McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice (2011)

Sport: Tennis

Key Players: John McEnroe, Björn Borg

What It's All About: Another captivating tale of two athletes pushing each other to accomplish more than either might have alone. This time it's the rivalry of John McEnroe, the reigning bad boy of tennis in the late '70s and early '80s, and Björn Borg, the Swedish heartthrob who took over the sport nearly as quickly as he disappeared from it. Though they were certainly foes on the court, the pair also had an acute awareness of their ability to bring out the absolute best in each other; for that very reason, the two are equipped to understand things about each other that no one else can, and seem inextricably tied to each other to this day.

The Two Escobars (2010)

Sport: Soccer

Key Players: Andres Escobar, Pablo Escobar

What It's All About: At first glance, it would seem that all soccer great Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had in common was a last name. But a closer look reveals the ties between Pablo's criminal empire and the success of the Colombian national team, of which Andres was a key member. The Two Escobars investigates the overlap of crime, politics, and the world's most popular sport.

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