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The 15 Most Critically Acclaimed Sports Documentaries

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, April 16, 2013

sports documentaries (critically acclaimed)

This past weekend the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 hit theaters, just in time for “Jackie Robinson Day.” And while it took the top spot at the box office and was generally well-received by critics and audiences, the one complaint people have had is that it makes the legendary ballplayer out to be just a little too perfect.

That of course is a legitimate complaint that people are entitled to have. I have not yet seen the film, but from the trailers I got the impression that I would probably feel the same way. Nevertheless, it’s not like the film is a documentary. It’s a work of fiction based on historical events, and obviously artistic license is taken to make a larger point about the man’s historical significance.

If you’re looking for a more realistic sports film, then maybe you should start here with this list of the top-rated sports documentaries on

In case you don’t know, Rotten Tomatoes basically provides users with the percentage of film critics who liked or did not like the movie. Thus, if a movie has a 99% rating, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily better than a movie that has a 91% rating. It just means that there is more consensus among critics. So the higher the number, the safer the bet that you’ll like the movie.

Ready to see which sports documentaries the critics love? Then let’s get started.


15. Up for Grabs (2003)

Tomatometer: 92%

IMDB Rating: 7.6

When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run in 2001 (with the help of Greg Anderson and all those brilliant scientists over at BALCO), it would have been cool if one lucky fan at AT&T Park had caught the ball and became a millionaire. Instead, one lucky fan caught the ball, an unruly mob of unlucky fans took it away, and a wild legal battle ensued. This satirical documentary tells that crazy story, from the stands, to the courtroom, and eventually to the auction house.


14. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Tomatometer: 92%

IMDB Rating: 7.5

Dogtown and Z-Boys tells the story of the pioneering 1970s Zephyr skating team and how they affected the course of skateboarding history and culture. It was directed by one former skater (Stacy Peralta) mostly using original footage shot by another former skater (Craig Stecyk), and it was produced by Vans, for whom Peralta was a spokesperson. Oh, and it was narrated by Sean Penn. So that’s fun.


13. Senna (2010)

Tomatometer: 92%

IMDB Rating: 8.5

This film tells the life story of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who won three F1 championships before he suffered a fatal impact at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the age of 34. It depicts him as a kind of spiritually awaked racing genius who was both ruthless and humble, private and generous—or in other words, it depicts him as the most interesting man in the world. Sounds like a winner to me.


12. Boxing Gym (2010)

Tomatometer: 93%

IMDB Rating: 6.9

This film profiles Lord’s Gym in Austin, Texas, which is owned by former pro boxer Richard Lord. Apparently the place is unique for it’s mix of regulars, who include casual boxers and serious contenders alike. While the average movie goer might find this one a bit boring, for serious boxing fans it’s probably pretty interesting.


11. Riding Giants (2004)

Tomatometer: 93%

IMDB Rating: 7.7

This one is from Stacy Peralta, the guy who directed Dogtown and the Z-Boys, and it’s also narrated by Sean Penn. However, whereas Peralta’s first film documented the history of skateboarding in America, Riding Giants takes a look at the history of surfing and features guys like Laird Hamilton, Greg Noll, and Jeff Clark. It premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and it was a big hit. (You’d have to figure Peralta is going to make a film about snowboarding at some point, too, wouldn’t you?)


10. Touching the Void (2003)

Tomatometer: 93%

IMDB Rating: 80

This film tells the story of mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their treacherous climb up the west face of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Unlike a lot of documentaries, this one makes extensive use of reenactments, which sounds kind of lame. However, apparently in this case they are very well done, as the trailer looks epic and the reviews for this film are stellar.


9. Watermarks (2004)

Tomatometer: 96

IMDB Rating: 7.0

Hey, what’s a list of great documentaries without at least one about Nazis and the Holocaust, right? This one is about a Jewish athletic club in Austria in the 1930s, during the lead-up to World War II and Hitler’s planned extermination of all European Jews. It focuses in particular on the women’s swim team, their forced separation brought about by the war, and their dramatic reunion decades later.

So yeah, it sounds kind of intense.


8. Pumping Iron (1976)

Tomatometer: 96%

IMDB Rating: 7.3

Yes, that’s right, this is the film in which Arnold Schwarzenegger gives a very interesting explanation of how lifting weights feels like sexual climax. It also features the Hulk himself, Lou Ferigno. So if the humorously dated trailer didn’t pique your interest, that certainly should.


7. Undefeated (2011)

Tomatometer: 96%

IMDB Rating: 7.3

Underdog tells the story of an inner-city Memphis high school football team that is trying to end its losing ways and win its first playoff game in the 110-year history of the program. If it sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because it won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2012, and because Sean “P. Diddy Dirty Money Daddy” Combes got on board as an executive producer. You should check it out before Harvey Weinstein does the Hollywood remake (which is in the works, apparently).


6. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999)

Tomatometer: 97%

IMDB Rating: 7.4

Why was Hank Greenberg special? Well, it wasn’t just because of his .313 lifetime batting average and 331 career home runs. It was because he was the first real Jewish superstar in American pro sports, and as you can see from the trailer, that was a pretty huge deal to a lot of Jewish Americans. All baseball fans (and Jewish people, I guess) should definitely have a look at this one.


5. When We Were Kings (1996)

Tomatometer: 98%

IMDB Rating: 7.8

Director Leon Gast shot the footage for this film in 1974, when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman travelled to politically unstable Zaire for their famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout. Interestingly, due to legal and financial problems, all the footage just sat on a shelf for 22 years, which actually worked out for the best. If Gast had made the film right after the fight, he wouldn’t have had the same historical perspective that he did in 1996.


4. Surfwise (2007)

Tomatometer: 98%

IMDB Rating: 7.2

This film takes a look at the fascinating life of Dorian Paskowitz, a former doctor who decided one day to quit the medical profession and hit the road with his new (third) wife and live like nomadic surfing hippies. They raised nine children in a camper while traveling from beach to beach, breeding both gratitude and resentment in their kids.


3. Hoop Dreams (1994)

Tomatometer: 98%

IMDB Rating: 8.1

Hoop Dreams is generally regarded as one of the best sports films of all-time in any genre. Of course, it’s not just about sports. As the late great Roger Ebert said, the film about basketball eventually “becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America.” So this one is a must watch for any sports fan.


2. Murderball (2005)

Tomatometer: 98%

IMDB Rating: 7.7

This film is about wheelchair rugby at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. Of course, “wheelchair rugby” doesn’t sound half as cool as “murderball,” which is what the players like to call their sport. In any case, this film might just make you think about so-called “disabled” athletes a little differently.


1. Racing Dreams (2009)

Tomatometer: 100%

IMDB Rating: 6.9

Is this film the best sports documentary of all-time? No, almost certainly not. Just look at the mediocre IMDB rating. However, of the 23 critics who reviewed Racing Dreams, 23 gave the film a thumbs up, so that makes it #1 on Rotten Tomatoes. And I suspect it is a very entertaining film. I mean, did you see the wreck at the 1:08 mark of the trailer? This is some serious stuff, here.