With Gleason, the story of former New Orleans Saints star Steve Gleason and his fight against ALS, hitting theaters in limited release Friday, Fox Sports went back through the archives to pick the 10 best sports documentaries of all time. Our list is an eclectic one - a group of films that focus on everything from frivolous video games to one of the most horrifying moments the sports world has ever seen. They include some of the biggest stars and others who remain complete unknowns. These movies have debuted in theaters, on public TV, pay TV or cable and really couldn't be more different, except for the tie that binds them. Here's our list of the 10 greatest sports docs (a star designates that a film won the Oscar for Best Documentary:
The Two Escobars (2010), The Endless Summer (1966), Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), Undefeated (2011), Murderball (2005), The U (2009), Beyond The Mat (1999)
The King of Kong (2007)
Are video games sports? That's what people keep trying to tell me. So, this documentary, an unexpectedly enjoyable look at the tight-knit, ultra-competitive world of Donkey Kong players and their never-ending quest to hit the game's "kill screen," is a natural choice. Our heel is Billy Mitchell, Video Game Player of the Century, who had the first perfect Pac-Man game and held the DK points record that went untouched for 25 years. Enter Steve Wiebe, the sympathetic protagonist who challenges, and then breaks Mitchell's mark, leading to more controversy, posturing and fireworks than you can possibly imagine from two grown men playing a 25-year-old arcade game.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Before he was The Terminator, the Governator, the Kindergarten Copper and the Kennedy in-lawer, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an Austrian bodybuilder who steals the show in this doc about bodybuilding in the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions. Never before has the titular "pump" of weightlifting sounded as satisfying as when Arnold describes it to the cameras.
When Ken Burns released his epic, 18-hour masterpiece about the history of America's pastime, it was a full-fledged television event. As he did in his award-winning doc The Civil War, Burns uses his signature flourishes in his comprehensive telling of the story of baseball. There's the deep-throated narrator (John Chancellor playing the David McCullough role), famous voiceovers (Ossie Davis and Gregory Peck were standouts), rare recordings and that patented pan/zoom technique to help 100-year-old photos come to life. Though slow at points, the film comes to life often and unexpectedly, much like the game whose story it captures.
Once Brothers (2010)
For sheer entertainment, give me The U. For "I remember when" nostalgia, June 17, 1994 is the one. If you want to put The Two Escobars on your top 10, I wouldn't argue. But the best overall film from ESPN's oft-excellent 30 for 30 series is the telling of the tale of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, best friends who were ripped apart by a Civil War but kept together by the sport they played. The final scene is as indelible as you'll see in any sports documentary.
Nine Innings From Ground Zero (2004)
On the surface, this is the standard HBO sports documentary - Liev Schreiber narrates a retelling of a moment, team or event, there are interviews with famous subjects, soaring orchestral music and such tight filmmaking and editing that it leaves you wanting more, as the 60-minute runtime actually feels like 30. But, of course, there is nothing standard about this documentary or its subject - the worst day of this American generation and how sports temporarily made the pain, fear and sadness go away.
MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRich Pilling
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Robbed of an Oscar (or even an Oscar nomination), Steve James' look at two inner-city kids navigating their way through sports, school and poverty is one of the great original stories ever captured on film. Even 20 years later, the unfolding tales of Arthur Agee and William Gates remain poignant and relevant. Hoop Dreams was ranked as the No. 1 documentary of all time by the International Documentary Association (back in 2007) and Roger Ebert called it one of the great film experiences of his life. Me? Obviously I think it's great (hence the ranking) if a bit overrated.
One Day In September (1999)
There's nothing inherently brilliant about this film, yet when you look back on it, you realize just how perfectly executed it is. Chronicling the horrific hostage situation at the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day In September uses interviews, archival footage and the long lens of time to take us back to those awful, confusing hours during what was supposed to be the most unifying event on the globe. And even though we all know how it ends, thefilmmakers somehow give the viewer hope that maybe, in this version, our worst fears won't be realized and Jim McKay won't tell us they're all gone.
Fairfax Media via Getty ImagesThe Sydney Morning Herald
O.J.: Made In America (2016)
Ezra Edelman's five-part documentary was every bit the masterpiece it was touted to be. After 22 years of endless coverage, dozens of books and scores of tales and conspiracy theories, not to mention a miniseries that had wrapped up just weeks earlier, how could anyone possibly add anything more to the O.J. Simpson saga? Edelman accomplished that, and then some, with an all-encompassing biography of Simpson and the most comprehensive look at his famous trial, all set against a backdrop of race in America and how it shaped it all - a topic that proved unfortunately timely given the events of this summer.
A great documentary does one of two things. It either takes a subject you know and enriches that knowledge or it takes a subject with which you're completely unfamiliar and makes it seem like the most fascinating thing in the world. Few who watch Senna will know anything about the central figure of the film (Brazilian Ayrton Senna), or even the sport in which he competed (F1 racing), but after two hours with the exquisitely edited, riveting, devastating documentary, you'll wonder how you didn't.
When We Were Kings (1996)
Don't think this is a post-Ali inflation. It was No. 1 before The Greatest passed and it's No. 1 after. This Oscar winner doesn't just take you back to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's Rumble in the Jungle, it puts you in the room for the months-long build-up. You see Ali in all his glory, a man in the prime of his life, having the time of his life, mixing it up with the unassuming Foreman and transforming from hero to idol in Zaire. The interviews are spectacular (not many sports documentaries have Norman Mailer and George Plimpton in the credits) but the access is better. And the fight? Oh, did they rumble.