Until recently I merely consumed sport, without ever really thinking about what it takes to be the best in the world at something. My rubric was, crudely, natural talent + luck = success. I never thought about the endless work, the sacrifices, the focus, the mental resilience. Growing up, it was hard enough to be the best in my house at anything, let alone the best in the street, the school, the county, the country, THE WORLD.
When I watched When We Were Kings about Muhammad Ali’s comeback fight against George Foreman in Africa, and later Hoop Dreams and then OJ: Made in America—each compelling films mining the complexity of sport and athletes—my fascination took a new turn. But it wasn’t until I was invited to make a tennis documentary called Strokes of Genius in 2018 about the remarkable 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, which John McEnroe called “the best game ever,” and then again two years later, while working with my brother Stuart on Ronaldhinho: The Happiest Man in the World, that I really looked at the phenomenon of elite high-level competition and what it truly means to be the best in the world at something. I came to realize that sport is as profound and revealing of the human condition as any scripted film ever would be.
Below are my five favorite sports documentaries.
ZIDANE: A 21ST CENTURY PORTRAIT (2006) BY DOUGLAS GORDON AND PHILIPE PARRENO
The great French footballer Zinedine Zidane’s career crashed prematurely after he headbutted an Italian international player in the 2006 World Cup Final. But as interesting as that is, this film is not biographical. Sixteen synchronized cameras followed him forensically throughout a Real Madrid game, even if the action was elsewhere. Real ambient sound drops out to leave the sound of his boots scuffing the grass or his breath rasping in his chest. A film both beguiling and mysterious, which shows just as well on TV as at The Guggenheim Museum.
DIEGO MARADONA BY ASIF KAPADIA (2019)
This could also easily have been Asif Kapadia’s previous film Senna, about Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna. With these films, it feels like Kapadia changed the rules. It suddenly wasn’t about explaining or delivering insights, but about action. His collage style, eschewing talking heads, lets the action dictate the story.
OVER THE LIMIT BY MARTA PRUS (2017)
This Polish film is about Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun and the physical and psychological pressure on her applied by her ruthless coach. Like Kapadia’s work, the film tells its story with no narration and no commentary. The viewer is invited to witness and to speculate.
UNTOLD: MALICE AT THE PALACE BY FLOYD RUSS (2021)
Another gem. This film, part of the Untold anthology on Netflix, explores the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl from 18 years ago where a vicious and bloody fight broke out between fans and players. It adopts the more conventional tools of interview and archive to try and find an understanding of what happened that night and how nobody came out unscathed.
ICARUS BY BRYAN FOGEL (2017)
Sets out to uncover a doping story in sports, but mutates, in real time, into a geopolitical thriller. Icarus is a great example of a filmmaker hanging onto a fast-moving story with no idea of where it’s going to stop.
- Dawn Wall
- 30×30 series
- Free Solo
- One Day in September
- Hard Knocks series
- All or Nothing series