Summer is winding to a close, which means fewer weekends spent outside and more weekends spent on your couch binge-watching Netflix. But all this TV-watching doesn't have to destroy your brain. Make your 14-hour couch sesh an educational experience with one of these brilliant documentaries.
Regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time (and certainly one of the most commercially successful), Hoop Dreams follows the story of two high school basketball players in Chicago who want to go pro (hey, who doesn’t?). Director Steve James shows the immense sacrifices these two poor black students must make to attempt a pro career. It’s a movie about basketball, but importantly, it’s a movie about racial, economic, and class divides in America. Hoop Dreams was voted the all-time best documentary by the International Documentary Association in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, watch it right now.
Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian Formula One racer who died on Sunday, May 1, 1994 during the San Marino Grand Prix. Asif Kapadia’s Senna follows his racing career from his debut in 1984 to his final race. The documentary is composed of archival footage of races (including plenty of footage from the camera mounted on Senna’s car) and home video provided by the Senna family, and unlike most documentaries about historical events, there’s no narrator tying everything together. All the commentary comes from Senna’s family, news reporters from the time, and occasionally Senna himself. The film follows Senna’s increasingly competitive attitude and his falling out with former friend and teammate Alain Prost. It’s fast-paced and human enough to keep anyone enthralled, from die-hard gearheads to people who think Formula One is organic baby food.
Ken Burns is a documentarian renowned for making super long documentaries. Baseball is a sport renowned for lasting a really long time. It makes sense, then that these two forces would join together for an 18 ½ hour documentary. Could anything less truly capture the essence of America’s pastime? Divided into nine “innings,” the documentary follows baseball from the early days through 1993 (it originally premiered in 1994) and features Burns’ signature slow zooms on archival images, actors reading letters from historical figures, and celebrity narration (in this case John Chancellor, NBC Nightly News anchor for twelve years). There is no better way to learn about the history of baseball, and it’s one of the few documentaries on this list that you can spend hours binge-watching to fill the Breaking Bad-shaped hole in your heart.
Being a professional athlete means you’re also a celebrity. Part of the allure of going pro is the promise of fame and fortune. They’re always in the news, they date celebrities, and they can buy whatever they want. That’s all great, right? Maybe not. Run Ricky Run tells the story of Ricky Williams, who left professional football to escape the limelight. Following his third failed drug test, Williams left the sport and went to Australia to find himself. Director Sean Pamphilon says, “During my career as a sports broadcasting journalist I was always fascinated and drawn to the introspective, deep thinking athletes who had strained relationships with the media.” His film does a beautiful job showcasing exactly where that tension with the public comes from. (And don’t worry, there’s a happy ending – the tail-end of the film focuses on Williams’ return to the NFL and late-career success).
Everyone knows Arnold Schwarzenegger as the former governor of California. Oh… and I guess also for a couple movies. But the movie that launched The Governator to fame was this 1977 documentary about bodybuilding. The story centers on Schwarzenegger’s journey to the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, and when the documentarians ran out of money to complete the film, the athletes stepped up with their own funds. Arnold even put himself on display at The Whitney to raise finishing funds for the film.. Pumping Iron is basically responsible for all of modern gym culture, so if you’ve ever said “Bro do you even lift?” because you can’t think of an original joke to tell, you can thank this movie.
What Hoop Dreams did for basketball, Ballplayer: Pelotero does for baseball. The story of two Dominican baseball prospects struggling to make it in the MLB, Ballplayer: Pelotero calls into question the ethics of farming players out of the Dominican Republic and gives interesting insight into a farming system few Americans know about. A Dominican boy’s journey to the major leagues begins at age 12, when he leaves school and starts playing baseball full time. Embarking on this journey, however, is no guarantee of success. While the film is ultimately pro-baseball, it does reveal the ways that this farming system needs to improve and how MLB can better benefit the Dominican people.
The ultimate skate documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys chronicles the Zephyr team during skateboarding’s formative years. The film’s director, Stacy Peralta, was one of the Z-Boys and the creative voice behind the film (the literal voice in the film is another story – it’s narrated by Sean Penn). Some of the notable skaters featured are Tony Alva, Tom Sims (founder of Sims Snowboards), Steve Caballero (the namesake of the Caballerial – or cab – tricks), Henry Rollins, and Tony Hawk. Dogtown and Z-Boys won the Directing and Audience Awards at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s worth watching for the retro soundtrack alone.
If you like Toddlers In Tiaras but want a documentary that’s less… extremely creepy, look no further than The Short Game, the story of eight grade-school golf phenoms on the way to the Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst. The Short Game is not only a more wholesome alternative to the morally-bereft world of docu-programming featuring children, it’s also just as (if not more) exciting than televised golf tournaments, thanks to its slow motion and special effects. The documentary won the audience award for Best Documentary Feature at the South by Southwest film festival. If it’s good enough for those hipsters, it’s good enough for you.
The knuckleball pitcher is a dying breed. It’s a tough pitch to throw – the aim is to put as little spin on the ball as possible so that the air travelling over the ball makes it behave in a wild, unpredictable way. It’s tough to hit, but it’s just as tough to throw, and that combined with an increased running game makes pitchers shy away from it. Knuckleball! follows the only two knuckleball pitchers from the 2011 season, Tim Wakefield and R. A. Dickey, whose careers were both saved by this erratic pitch. Yes, it’s a documentary about sports, but it really shows how pitching the perfect knuckleball is like making a work of art.
The 1980s in Miami were a time of racial unrest and changing demographics. Rather than resist the change, University of Miami football coach Howard Schnellenberger steered into the skid, recruiting a team of almost all black athletes from some of the poorest ghettos in Florida. After years of being a pretty-good-but-not-great team, this change in personnel made Miami something to care about again. The team ended up winning four national titles between 1983 and 1991, and Billy Corben’s film suggests that this was due largely to the recruitment of these new athletes and the adoption of Miami’s hip-hop culture. It’s a must-watch for anyone who cares about music and sports. And if you’re already a fan, there’s good news: Corben is making a sequel set to come out this winter.
This documentary came out in 2013 and was based on “The Cartel,” an article by Taylor Branch that came out in 2011, but in the wake of the O’Bannon trial this year, it’s more relevant than ever. The NCAA has faced plenty of criticism about compensation for its student athletes. This film expands the debate to cover questions about whether athletes are actually receiving a quality education, why athletes aren’t allowed to profit off their own name off the field, and whether the artificially high rate of graduation among student athlete helps or hurts them. The NCAA has been the center of so much criticism that at this point, you don’t need a documentary to tell you they’re the bad guy. But this one is worth watching do you can intelligently discuss all the ways that they’re the bad guy.
Netflix has been impressing everyone with their original programming lately, but the most interesting thing they’ve put out isn’t House of Cards or Orange is the New Black; it’s a documentary about a defunct Minor League Baseball team. The Portland Mavericks were the quintessential underdog team. Found at open tryouts, the team was full of players that no other team wanted. Weird, unconventional, and often drunk, the Mavericks’ roster has just as many compelling characters as the US government or a women’s prison. And if you want celebrities, fear not: Hollywood actor Bing Russell is the guy who kickstarted The Mavericks, and he put his son, Kurt Russell, on the team (ever heard of him?). The Mavericks would have been the perfect response to everyone who complains that baseball is stuffy and boring, had they lasted longer than their short four seasons.
Now that the World Cup is over, it’s worth taking a look back in time at Colombia’s World Cup run in 1994 and the story of Andrés Escobar, the unfortunate Colombian captain who was murdered after the World Cup, widely suspected to be retribution for accidentally scoring a goal against his own team. Andrés was not related to the other famous escobar – drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, but in this documentary, their two stories become inexorably intertwined. Pablo was a huge supporter of the Colombian national team, both emotionally and financially. If he had been alive after the World Cup, would the other Escobar still be alive, as well?