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Re-wind: The 10 best sporting documentaries of all-time

From films in which we live with Lions to those where we feel every punch in the jungle, here’s some of our favourites.

WITH SENNA RELEASED IN Irish cinemas this week – to hugh critical acclaim –  why not dig out the taps on some more of sports best documentaries?

10. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait


One of the greatest footballers of all-time has his every move during a game tracked in what is a groundbreaking insight into Zizou’s playing style. Though the artsy tone and Mogwai music may put off some sports fans, Zidane still stands as one of the most unique and fascinating insights into the enigmatic Frenchman.

What the critics said: ”This 17-camera portrait of the artist as an ageing star still captures the magnetism and balletic genius of a player whose reputation will surely survive the naysaying of holier-than-thou commentators following his World Cup 2006 dismissal” – Patrick Peters, Empire Magazine.

9. An Impossible Job


A fly-on-the-wall documentary following Graham Taylor, as his England side flop spectacularly when attempting to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Taylor can be seen intermittently swearing at players, referees and anyone unfortunate enough to provoke his ire. At turns hilarious and sad (Taylor appears genuinely hurt as a result of some of the criticism he receives following this debacle), An Impossible Job should be mandatory viewing for anyone crazy enough to want to manage England (I’m looking at you, Harry Redknapp).

What the critics said: “A landmark documentary” – Kate McMahon, Broadcast Now.

8. Dogtown and Z Boys


To some, skateboarding will forever be associated with annoying, unsociable emo kids with far too much time on their hands, but to a small group of people, it represents an obsession. Dogtown and Z Boys follows the Z Boys of the 1970s, who persisted with the sport, long after it ceased being a fad and subsequently acquired international fame as a result of their endeavours. The movie is worth seeing for the terrific 70s rock’n'roll soundtrack alone, which features T-Rex and Black Sabbath amongst others.

What the critics said: “The film has an infectious enthusiasm and we’re touched by the film’s conviction that all life centered on that place, that time and that sport” – Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun Times.

7. Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows


While some may question the validity of wrestling (of the WWE variety) as a sport, this documentary will ensure you never dismiss it as ‘fake’ ever again. Bret Hart’s life is recounted, from his brutal upbringing in which his father trained him to become a wrestler in a dungeon, to his modern-day struggles with the politics of wrestling, Hitman Hart debunks some of the myths associated with the sport. What’s more, Hart emerges as a thoughtful, intelligent character, in contrast with the stereotype associated with most professional wrestlers.

What the critics said: “Few films take such a backstage look at the business of professional wrestling or how a predetermined event can have real consequences for those involved” – KC Mynk, Bleacher Report.

6. Senna


The one question, which emerges following a viewing of Senna is why it took so long to make a documentary about the endlessly fascinating Brazilian. One of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time, Senna was adored in his country and adopted as a national treasure, while being loathed by some fellow competitors for his dangerous driving. Senna will be loved by F1 afficiandos and non-believers alike.

What the critics said: “A viscerally exciting and intellectually stimulating documentary” – Philip French, The Observer.

5. British & Irish Lions tour 1997: Living with Lions


A documentary chronicling the Lions’ triumphant 1997 tour of South Africa, starring the likes of Keith Wood, Martin Johnson and Jeremy Guscott, who deserved Oscars for the inspirational roles they played in helping the Lions to a 2-1 series win against their hosts. The emotive dressing-room scenes in particular are likely to give viewers goosebumps.

What the critics said: “Living with Lions remains fascinating today not just because it reveals the special bonding process all successful tours must go through but because it captures the transition that rugby was making at the time” – Nick Greensdale, The Sunday Times.

4. A Year Til Sunday


A riveting look at Galway’s 1998 All-Ireland triumph shot through the eyes of reserve team goalkeeper Pat Comer. It goes behind-the-scenes to capture the journey that ended with their successful acquisition of the Sam Maguire for the first time in 32 years. For Galway fans, GAA supporters and anyone who has ever experienced the passion of sport, this documentary is a must-see.

What the critics said: “The first great GAA film” – The Irish Times.

3. Touching the Void


This exceptional sports documentary could easily also be classified in the thriller or horror movie genres – such is the level of intensity onscreen that viewers are likely to emerge from the experience a nervous wreck. The documentary details the experiences of two climbers who attempt to reach the summit of Siula Grande in Peru, a feat that has never been achieved before. Prepare for 106 minutes more nail-biting than any sporting event you’ve ever witnessed.

What the critics said: “As a meditation on extreme human endeavour, character, friendship and the mysteries revealed by facing death, it provides much food for thought” – Wally Hammond, Time Out.

2. When We Were Kings


Arguably the greatest sports documentary of all-time focusing on unquestionably the greatest sportsman and possibly even the greatest sporting occasion – the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, in which Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Title. So good, it’ll make you forget the dire Michael Mann biography, Ali, ever existed.

What the critics said: “No comedian was ever funnier, no fighter ever faster than Muhammad Ali, who is caught at the top of his game in Leon Gast’s valentine, When We Were Kings” – Rita Kempley, The Washington Post.

1. Hoop Dreams


Like the best sports documentaries, Hoop Dreams is as much about life as it is about sport. Ten years in the making, Steve James’ documentary follows two aspiring basketball stars as they progress from underage to college-level basketball, while their entire hopes of escaping their impoverished lives seems entirely dependant on them securing an NBA contract. Not just the greatest sports documentary ever, but one of the greatest films ever. It topped legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s list of the best films of the 90s.

What the critics said: “It’s about three hours long. But it moves like Isiah, fast and smooth, and it’s over in a heartbreak” – Richard Corliss, Time Magazine.

What have we missed?

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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