6. Murderball (2005)
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, Murderball is a documentary about Wheelchair Rugby, which primarily focuses on the intense rivalry between the American and Canadian teams, leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Murderball is a documentary that works on two levels. First and foremost, it’s a sports documentary, which brought to the spotlight the world of Wheelchair Rugby (aka Murderball), a sport which many viewers probably had never heard of before the release of this film. But it also works as a study of the men playing it, many of whom are still struggling with their physical limitations, often caused by serious injuries through accidents.
Whilst the documentary highlights various of these players, it focuses primarily on two of them: Joe Soares, who was dropped from the American team and as a result decided to go coach the Canadian one, thereby causing a bitter rivalry between the two and a lot of resentment from the American side, and Mark Zupan, a fiercely competitive player on the American team, who is still coming to terms with his handicap and the relationships it has altered, amongst them his girlfriend and best friend who caused his injury in a car accident.
Murderball’s biggest strength might simply be the sport it depicts as the fact that these men are confined to wheelchairs doesn’t change that their sport is extremely brutal and aggressive. But on top of that, the film also doesn’t try to create sympathy for its players simply because they are quadriplegics. It clearly tries to depict them for who they are, unafraid to show them in a less than flattering light, and digs deep into what drives these athletes, including all their frustrations and fortitude.
Murderball was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, won both the Audience and Jury Awards for Best Documentary at Sundance, in addition to many other prizes at various international film festivals and award ceremonies.
5. Dogtown & Z-Boys (2001)
A mix of vintage 1970s footage shot by the Zephyr skateboard team and contemporary interviews of its members and other notable skaters, Dogtown and Z-Boys was the feature film documentary debut of former team member Stacy Peralta, chronicling the history of the Zephyr team and the evolution of skateboarding in the 1970s.
Just when skateboarding was seen as a fad that had ran its course since the 1960s, a group of young Californian skaters came together around the Zephyr Productions Surf Shop and started working on their skating skills, imitating many of the surf styles they had grown up with on the Californian beaches.
Jeff Ho, the owner of the Zephyr Productions Surf Shop, organized the bunch into a team that started competing at local events and the sport became rejuvenated, turning into a nationwide sensation again. With the exposure they gained from competing, the Zephyr team was at the forefront of what would later turn into the whole extreme sports phenomenon and many of the team members found themselves with lucrative skating and merchandising deals.
Narrated by Sean Penn, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a fantastic documentary on the birth of modern skating and one certainly doesn’t need to be into skating to enjoy this one. The film is basically a love letter to the early days of the sport and features some great editing set to an infectious soundtrack.
Stacy Peralta proved himself a very capable director on this one and would continue to make more successful documentaries on both surfing and skateboarding. The film won many Best Documentary Awards at various film festivals and managed to win the Audience and Directing Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
4. When We Were Kings (1996)
When We Were Kings is a fantastic documentary about the 1974 legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
Director Leon Gast shot his footage back in 1974 but due to legal hick-ups it remained shelved for 22 years. Finally being able to release his documentary in 1996, When We Were Kings seems to have only benefited from the wait. Ali and the fight had become truly legendary at this stage, whilst Don King, for whom this fight was his first major boxing promotion, had become infamous.
It also didn’t hurt that a large concert featuring James Brown and B.B. King also took place at the same time, making this time capsule and real treat by the time it hit the screens in 1996. And if the time-capsule element in itself isn’t enough to make this one a winner, there’s the fact that this boxing match was an amazing event, even back in 1974.
Not only was the staging in Zaire unique, the match was highly anticipated as it was Ali’s first attempt in years to regain the heavyweight boxing championship from a man who was seven years his junior and considered to be at the top of his game and virtually unbeatable.
If that weren’t enough, there was the amazing contrast between the formidable, very talkative and showman-like Ali, who is constantly engaged in pre-match psychological warfare, versus the far less articulate and down to earth George Foreman, making this an epic showdown on many levels.
The film also benefits greatly from interviews with notable boxing fans like Spike Lee, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton and features a great soundtrack, which includes the final recording by The Fugees “Rumble in the Jungle” alongside Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature as well as awards from the New York, the Los Angeles, the Broadcast Film and the National Societies of Film Critics. Leon Gast also picked up Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards in addition to a Special Recognition Award at Sundance.
3. Touching The Void (2003)
Based on the book of the same name by Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is a documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald about Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ climb of Siula Grande, which despite being successful, almost cost them their lives.
In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates decided to climb the previously unclimbed West face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Both men were experienced climbers and after a tough climb they reached the mountain’s peak on the third day of their climb. But disaster struck as they made their way down when Joe Simpson fell and broke his leg. As a severe snow storm hits them, Simon Yates has to lower Simpson down a slope but ends up sliding off a cliff and being suspended in mid-air.
Due to the severity of the storm, Yates is eventually forced to make the horrendous decision to cut the rope that connects him to Simpson as he himself is slowly being dragged over the edge, causing Simpson to supposedly plummet to his death. Yates makes his way down to base camp alone, unable to find his partner but as it turns out, Simpson has miraculously survived the fall and is now forced to make his way down the mountain alone without food, water, a broken leg and other injuries as a result of the fall.
Based on Joe Simpson’s own book about the climb and its amazing story of survival, Touching The Void uses two actors to recreate and re-enact the tale whilst intercutting the footage with interviews of the the real Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Doing so with great success, the documentary turns into a real-biting adventure as Simpson makes his way down the mountain bit by bit.
Touching The Void won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the BAFTA Awards, Best British Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards as well as Best Documentary at the International Cinephile Society Awards and Seattle Film Critics Awards.
2. Senna (2010)
After having directed a few not so memorable fiction films, Asif Kapadia burst onto the scene with this documentary about the life and death of Brazilian Formula One champion, Ayrton Senna, in a film which is primarily made up of archival footage and private home videos from the Senna family.
After touching upon Senna’s humble beginnings as a go-kart driver in 1978, of which he speaks with a certain melancholy, the documentary starts off with his debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix, quickly covering his time with Toleman and Lotus before joining the McLaren team. It is with McLaren that Senna would rise to international super stardom by becoming world champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991.
During this time Senna would be involved in a bitter rivalry with French Formula One legend Alain Prost, initially his team mate at McLaren but later his rival at Williams when he switched teams in 1990 and refused to be on the same team as Senna.
The film then looks at the events leading up to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, after Prost retired and Senna joined the Williams team. The San Marino Grand Prix proves to exceptionally dangerous that year and despite Senna’s continued efforts to make the sport safer, he suffered a fatal crash on Sunday May 1st 1994, one day after fellow F1 driver Roland Ratzenberger died on the same track.
A stunning tribute to a true legend of Formula One racing, Senna is solely constructed from vintage footage and whilst some friends and colleagues were interviewed for the documentary, only their voices are heard.
Not seeing contemporary interviews and the lack of any commentary track, allows the film to be completely engrossing. It doesn’t hurt that Senna himself is a captivating character and the documentary does a fantastic job balancing between a portrait of the man and an giving insight into the sport he made his own.
Senna won Best Documentary at the BAFTA Awards, the British Independent Film Awards, the Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals as well as the Austin and Utah Film Critics Associations. If you’re into Formula One racing you have already seen this and everybody else should follow suit. Senna is a triumph of documentary filmmaking.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Initially intended as a 30-minute short, Hoop Dreams ended up being a giant undertaking, following two African-American boys throughout their entire high-school career as they attempt to leave their life of poverty behind and get selected for the NBA. The film was the first feature length documentary directed by Steve James, who would go on to have a highly successful and critically acclaimed career in documentary filmmaking.
The film follows Arthur Agee and William Gates, two African-American teenagers from poor socio-economic backgrounds, as they are scouted from their high-school in one of Chicago’s suburbs. For five years the film crew follows them as they try to follow their dreams to become professional basketball players and receive college scholarships.
By doing so, the film isn’t just a coming-of-age story or a sports documentary but also a clear indictment of several issues regarding race-relations, class and economic divisions in the United States. As these boys try to overcome the odds laid out against them, they have to deal with inner-city violence, parental drug addiction, racism, poverty, injuries, hard training, lengthy commutes from their homes to their school on top of all the regular problems teenagers encounter as they make their transition from child to young adult.
Hoop Dreams isn’t just the best sports documentary ever made, it ranks amongst the very best documentaries of all time, regardless of subject matter. At once a very intimate and personal look at the lives of two boys and their families and an in-depth examination of the African-American experience in the United States, Hoop Dreams is a monumental achievement.
Even though the film is nearly three hours long, its running time flies by as it is impossible not to get swept up in the lives of its characters. When Hoop Dreams failed to garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, it caused such a public outrage that the nomination process of the Academy was altered as a result.
The film did win Best Documentary at Sundance, the Texas, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Kansas City and National Critics Association Awards and held the top spot on the International Documentary Association’s Top 25 Documentaries in 2007. A truly monumental achievement, which transcends its subject matter and simply should be seen by all, Hoop Dreams is about as good as documentary filmmaking gets.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.