Best of the Fest

A Gotham gathering puts the spotlight on sports documentaries
May 08, 2011

Few things lend themselves more naturally to documentary film making than sports, and for the fifth straight year the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival honored this inextricable link. The event, which wrapped on May 1, featured seven indie docs, each seeking a distributor and a spot in the box office big leagues. SI reviewed the four most likely to get called up.

SI'S FAVORITE

If you end up seeing Like Water, chances are you already know that Anderson Silva defeated Chael Sonnen to retain his UFC middleweight crown last August. But this film by Pablo Croce (winner of the Best New Documentary Director award), which covers the two months leading up to that scrap, offers more than just workouts and pep talks—it's a surprising glimpse into the psyche of a champ who regards himself as more martial arts student than Ultimate Fighter. Silva's irreverence for UFC's big-market aspirations and his refusal to engage in promotional mudslinging draws the ire of UFC prez Dana White. But, by the time the fight comes around, it's apparent: That unique approach to life is what makes Silva a force in the octagon.

[4 stars]

WICKEDEST GOOGLY

Fire in Babylon is quick to toss aside the notion of cricket as a sissy gentlemen's sport: It opens with batsmen getting nailed in the face by fastballs. But who knew how much the game has meant to Caribbean nations, or to their music? The bowlers in the opening are all members of the West Indies test team, an outfit that fueled its rise to prominence in the 1970s and '80s with resentment over the colonial injustices that delivered the sport to the islands in the first place. (One ex-player refers to a win over England as "slaves whipping the asses of masters.") The confidence that came with dominance, the film shows, influenced a Caribbean renaissance, including the rise of reggae music from the likes of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Athletes and reggae artists get equal screen time in Babylon, and it makes for sweet music.

[4 stars]

MOST SCHOLARLY

It would be easy for any discussion about Steve Bartman—such as Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's doc, Catching Hell, on the villain of the Cubs' 2003 NLCS—to feel more like an exhumation than an examination, especially for Chicago faithful. But Gibney, a Red Sox fan who endured the 1986 Bill Buckner flub, takes a fresh perspective, investigating the psychology of sports fanaticism and scapegoating. Gibney throws everything but the kitchen sink—that being Bartman himself, who hasn't spoken to the media since his gaffe—into his study, interviewing everyone from Buckner to a Unitarian minister who offers a Biblical history of the scapegoat. Gibney's is a logical look at an event that rarely gets that respect.

[3½ stars]

BEST IN SURF

In Splinters, Adam Pesce follows four Papau New Guinea villagers as they prep for their country's first national surfing competition. Set against a coastline of orange sunsets and pale green surf, the movie could have relied solely on a simple story with lush scenery. Instead, the director cleverly incorporates graphic-novel-style imagery to underline the sport's escapist aspects. At the heart of Splinters is a culture trying to move forward while upholding antiquated norms (in one scene a man beats his sister in public); but it also shows athletic success as a means to a better life.

[3 stars]

PHOTOLEE JAFFE (LIKE WATER)Like Water PHOTOBEN RADFORD /GETTY IMAGES (BABYLON)Fire in Babylon PHOTOGETTY IMAGES/COURTESY ESPN FILMS (CATCHING HELL)Catching Hell PHOTOMATT PESCE (SPLINTERS)Splinters

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)