13 more sports documentaries to watch after ESPN's "The Last Dance"
The horn has unfortunately gone off, and the clock sadly reads all zeroes for ESPN's "The Last Dance." And while it had its share of flaws, the ten-part Michael Jordan doc was also exactly what we needed during this time, managing to gather us together around sports when we have neither gathering spaces nor sports.
(*Puts on "30 for 30" narrator voice*) But what if I told you ... there were other sports documentaries out there for you to watch? And that many of them are even better than "The Last Dance"?
Indeed, sports may be cancelled and "The Last Dance" may be over, but there's plenty of other terrific and thrilling true sports stories – both on and off the court – to be found on streaming services to provide your game day fix while real live game days are still far off in the distance. Here are 13 Hall of Fame-worthy documentary winners to take a swing at during social distancing.
"The Battered Bastards of Baseball"
Available to stream on: Netflix
So you spent ten hours on watching some of the biggest names and best players to ever play their respective sport; now how about the complete opposite of that? This Netflix Original documentary follows the polar opposite of the Chicago Bulls: the Portland Mavericks, a small-time ragtag independent baseball team from the '70s, started by Kurt Russell's character actor dad and comprised of a bunch of unkempt lumberjack-looking unknowns just looking to play baseball and have fun. The rousing and entertaining result may not be a tribute to athletic greatness, but it's maybe something even better: a tribute to the greatness and love of the game itself – no polish necessary. Plus, it's just the thing to tide you over until baseball ever returns.
"The Crash Reel"
Available to stream on: HBO GO, HBO NOW and Amazon with HBO NOW
For another trip into the borderline psychotic mind of an incredible athlete, there's Lucy Walker's terrific documentary "The Crash Reel." An alum from the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, this incredible true story tracks pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce as his hopes of making the Olympics come to a staggering and scary halt when he suffers a brutal fall on a hard, icy halfpipe that leaves him with a massive brain trauma. This is where you expect the story to become some inspirational story of recovery, hard work and stubborn human will – but instead "The Crash Reel" becomes a painfully intimate, tense and heartfelt family drama about Pearce and his family debating whether if he should ever snowboard again considering one more merely flukey fall could turn him into a shadow of himself for the rest of his life – or simply end his life right there on the snow. It's a powerful and poignant real look at an athlete's unlimited passion and love for a sport cruelly running into the limits of the human body.
"Dogtown and Z-Boys"
Available to stream on: Crackle (with ads)
I hate the idea of recommending a stream with commercial breaks – and I'm not even sure what Crackle supposedly is and it's my job to know these things. So the fact that I still put "Dogtown & Z-Boys" on this list should tell you how good this documentary is, telling the story of how a group of surfer kids in Southern California became pioneers in the world of the fledgling hobby of skateboarding and transformed sports and culture in the process, all starting merely from sidewalks and empty swimming pools. In addition to cool vintage footage from their original heyday, the doc – directed by one of them, Stacy Peralta – lets many of the young trailblazers tell their own story, one that'll turn even the grumpiest pearl-clutching sports fuddy-duddy into a fan.
(For a bonus recommendation, check out its gorgeous spiritual sequel, "Riding Giants," about the world of big wave surfing. It's unfortunately unavailable to stream anywhere, but you can rent it on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.)
Available to stream on: Disney+ and Hulu
Afraid of heights? Then maybe skip this outstanding but definitely vertigo-inducing documentary, following famed free climber Alex Honnold as he attempts the once-impossible: climbing the extremely difficult El Capitan cliff face. Oh, and all without ropes, so one false move and a legendary climb will turn into Honnold's last.
As a pure work of filmmaking, it's no wonder "Free Solo" won Best Documentary at the Oscars in 2019; co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do mesmerizing work, getting heeby-jeeby-inducing angles of Honnold's gravity-defying feats and putting the audience seemingly on the mountain with its leading daredevil. But "Free Solo" almost just as compelling safely on the ground as its creators try to wrap their minds around its star's borderline-sociopathic behaviors – and wrap their minds around their own place in capturing an event that could kill him.
It's one of the best movies of its respective year – as long as you have the stomach for it.
Available to stream on: HBO NOW, HBO GO, Kanopy and Fandor
You can't recommend sports documentaries – and especially basketball docs – without mentioning "Hoop Dreams," one of the most iconic works in the entirety of the documentary approach. It sounds hyperbolic, but beloved documentarian Steve James' film – about two high school basketball players from Chicago struggling and succeeding as they try to pursue a future in the game they love – was a favorite of the late great critic Roger Ebert, an Oscar nominee (somehow not for documentary, though) and an inductee into the National Film Registry, which archives and preserves culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.
But enough about its accomplished resume: "Hoop Dreams" is just a great sports movie, period, with all the thrills and heart of the genre with none of the fiction – plus it even comes with a Milwaukee connection since co-subject William Gates (spoiler alert for a movie that's over 25 years old) would go on to play basketball at Marquette University.
Available to stream on: Netflix
Even if you don't like sports, you might get absorbed into this Oscar-winning sports documentary from Netflix. After all, while the world of doping in sports – especially cycling – may service as the entry point for Bryan Fogel's doc, "Icarus" evolves into something even more diabolical and dangerous: an almost true-crime thriller putting him in the middle of the recent Russian Olympic doping scandal and political games that threaten to become life or death. Whether you're a sports fanatic who knows every stat or somebody who the closest you get to sports is channel-surfing, "Icarus" has something to thrill you to the point of sweating. Can we call it a workout? I say we can. Look at that: good entertainment and good exercise!
Available to stream on: Netflix
No, not the recent Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron of the same name – though it may seem just as out of place on this list. "Long Shot" is only tangentially about sports, focusing on a spectator's story rather than an athlete or anything going on out on the field, and it's not barely even long enough to fill a hour-long primetime TV slot, much less a feature-film length. This Netflix short doc, however, tells a story too bizarre to not recommend whenever I have an excuse.
When Juan Catalan is arrested and accused of murder, he tries to explain that he was at a recent Dodgers game – but he has no alibi and no evidence that he couldn't have committed the crime. That is, until ... you know what, I'll let you find out for yourself. In fact, I've even declined to attach a trailer because it gives away too much. But know this: "Long Shot" is short, stirring and stranger than fiction while also finding the bigger societal truths in the story – all in less than an hour!
"More Than a Game"
Available to stream on: Amazon with Starz
Tired of comparing Michael Jordan to LeBron James? Why not compare their documentaries instead?! Released in 2008, this sports doc not only focuses on the NBA all-timer but also the four other guys he played with in high school on that famous Akron basketball team – all coming from different walks of life, aspirations and attitudes but coming together to have fun, excel at the game and become a family on the hardwood floor. Much like "The Last Dance," "More Than a Game" comes stamped behind-the-scenes by Lebron James and super-agent Maverick Carter, so don't expect any dirt or profoundly deep insights – but do expect a real-life feel-good sports story that goes beyond just one superstar.
Available to stream on: Amazon Prime Video
"Murderball" may sound like some "Mad Max"-like apocalyptic sport of clashing metal ... and that's because it kind of is. You see, "murderball" is the nickname for wheelchair rugby, possibly an even more intense version of the outdoor sport featuring players colliding their chairs into one another at aggressive speed, driving into one's opponent and muscling one's team to victory. It's a scrappy, thrilling and energetic sport given fittingly scrappy, thrilling and energetic treatment in this Academy Award nominee, following the intense action and rivalries on the court while also traveling off the court to learn more about these unflappable athletes, playing this pulse-pounding grind of a game without limits and refusing to live their lives outside "murderball" any differently.
Available to stream on: Netflix and Amazon with Starz
Do you feel the need? The need ... for a documentary about a famous Formula One racer? Well, perfect; we just happen to have a great one in "Senna," speeding through the breathtaking highs and tragic lows in the career of Ayrton Senna. His story, the intense footage from across his all-too-short moment in the motor-racing spotlight and his complex character would provide a rush all on their own – which is exactly why director Asif Kapadia lets them do exactly that, staying out of the story's way and smartly piecing together archival footage and interviews to paint a thrilling and full portrait of a unique sporting icon. It's an approach that would win Kapadia an Oscar several years later with the music doc "Amy" – and one that works just as brilliantly in "Senna."
Available to stream on: Netflix
Oh, look at that: another sports story that won Best Documentary at the Oscars! (And it's not even the last one to do so on this list.) We've had one dangling off a cliff, one pedal its way into politics and now, with this lauded doc, we head onto the football field as an inner city high school football team in Memphis tries to turn the tide on its reputation and become a champion – all while the players take even harder hits off the field as they deal with dead family members, getting their grades up, growing up in tough underprivileged neighborhoods and merely being angry and angsty teenagers trying to find their place in a difficult world. If you enjoy Netflix's "Late Chance U" series, you'll love this inspirational precursor.
"When We Were Kings"
Available to stream on: Cinemax Go, Amazon with HBO NOW and Amazon with Cinemax
Another sports documentary classic to put alongside "Hoop Dreams," the Oscar-winning doc "When We Were Kings" recaptures the excitement and personalities surrounding one of the most iconic boxing matches in the history of the sport: 1974's Rumble in the Jungle between the aging Muhammad Ali and the then-Heavyweight champion of the world George Foreman. From the backstage dealings that brought this one-of-a-kind spectacle (Ali vs. Foreman! A giant festival! James Brown!) together in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to the fight itself, it's a mesmerizing and compelling portrait of a moment in sports history that'll never be duplicated.
Available to stream on: ESPN+
Fine, I'll say it: I think "Winning Time" is better than "The Last Dance." It's short, tells a tighter story and has just as big of personalities without the feeling some behind-the-scenes branding is controlling the story. But make your own opinion by checking out this compulsively watchable saga about Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers' wild and rowdy playoff battles against the New York Knicks. They weren't even playing for the NBA title, but you'll feel as tense and excited as if they were.
And if you like "Winning Time," it's just one of the outstanding installments you can find on ESPN+ from the channel's lauded "30 for 30" documentary series – including fellow excellent installments like "The Two Escobars," "Without Bias," "Jordan Rides the Bus," "The U," "This Was the XFL," "Small Potatoes" and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the monolithic masterpiece "OJ: Made in America." You may not have sports, and now you don't even have "The Last Dance," but with "Winning Time" and the "30 for 30" collection, you won't even miss them.
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