Top 10 MUST-SEE thrilling sports documentaries

11 September 2018 - Blog by The sports-mad team at Gull

1. When We Were Kings (1996), directed by Leon Gast

Widely rated as one of the best boxing documentaries ever, When We Were Kings chronicles the legendary 1974 heavyweight bout between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali.

The "Rumble in the Jungle" took place in place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and many people thought Ali, 32 at the time, was past his prime. Big-hitting Foreman was 10 years younger and seemingly unstoppable.

The fight became famous for Ali’s brilliant, unconventional victory and whilst much of the documentary focuses on the bout, it also tells the story of how it came to be fought in Zaire, with the help of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and have an accompanying music festival.

Director Leon Gast took 22 years to make the film and it won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

2. The Summit (2012), directed by Nick Ryan

In August 2008, 11 climbers mysteriously died over the course of 48 hours on the upper slopes of K2, known as the “Savage Mountain”, located on the border of China and Pakistan. It was the worst accident in the history of mountaineering on the world’s second-highest peak.

The Summit uses a combination of the climbers' own footage, dramatised recreations, and interviews to show just how dangerous K2 is, as one by one, people begin falling or are swept away in avalanches.

The narrative focuses on the story of Irishman Gerard McDonnell, who made it to the summit but disappeared on the descent after valiantly stopping to help 3 other climbers who were tangled in their ropes. Had he not stopped for so long in the death zone above 8,000 metres, he may well have made it to safety.

3. Sunshine Superman (2014), directed by Marah Strauch

Carl Boenish is considered the father of BASE jumping. A fearless skydiver and cinematographer in the 1960s, Boenish began filming his groundbreaking jumps off the famous El Capitan peak in Yosemite National Park in the 70s. After a few seconds of freefall, he would pull his parachute and land safely. The clips started what would become a risky, extreme sport practiced by thrill-seekers the world over.

Sunshine Superman follows Boenish’s amazing life right up until his death in the mountains of Norway and is filled with spectacular footage of his many jumps. The film also explores the relationship between Boenish and his wife, Jean, who was a BASE jumper too. The pair made the Guinness Book of Records in 1984 for a double jump they completed just days before Carl died.

4. Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014), directed by Alex Holmes

There aren’t many cyclists whose fame circulates worldwide, but Lance Armstrong is probably the most iconic one of all. After miraculously beating cancer, Armstrong came to dominate the Tour de France, winning seven consecutive titles between 1998 and 2005.

However, it was all too good the be true. Armstrong's feats were superhuman, enhanced by illegal drugs and covered up by a web of sophisticated cheating. Stop at Nothing tells how Armstrong was obsessed by money and success, and how he went to extraordinary lengths to fool the world that he was clean. It follows his triumphs and comebacks, the suspicions that dogged him, and the scandal that revealed him as one of the greatest sporting frauds.

5. TT: Closer to the Edge (2011), directed by Richard De Aragues

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) is the greatest motorcycle road race in the world, as dangerous as it is thrilling. Riders have been coming to the small island off the British coast since 1907, and more than 200 have left their lives on the demanding course.

Shot in 3D and narrated by Jared Leto, Closer to the Edge follows the leading riders in the 2010 race, examining their motivation in risking so much to become King of the Mountain. The documentary also focuses on one of the two riders killed during the meeting, New Zealander Paul Dobbs.

Exhilarating and visually stunning, Closer to the Edge is ultimately a story about freedom, commitment, and the strength of human spirit.

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6. Team Foxcatcher (2016), directed by Jon Greenhalgh

Team Foxcatcher recounts the downward spiral of multi-millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont (heir to the du Pont family fortune), who opened a wrestling training camp at his sprawling Pennsylvania estate. Olympic champion Dave Schultz lived at Foxcatcher Farm for more than 5 years, coaching and wrestling in du Pont’s team, before being killed by his increasingly-paranoid benefactor.

The documentary mixes home videos, interviews, and news clips to look at the years leading up to Schultz's death and create a portrait of du Pont as a deeply-troubled man whose obsessions ended in tragedy.

A fictional version of the story, Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell, was released in 2014 and received several Oscar nominations.

7. Senna (2010), directed by Asif Kapadia

Brazilian Ayrton Senna da Silva is regarded by many as the greatest Formula One driver ever. Before his death at age 34, Senna won the F1 world championship three times.

The movie documents da Silva's racing career, from his F1 debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro, to the accident that claimed his life at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The film examines his intense rivalry with Frenchman Alain Prost, the drama that characterized his years as world champion, and his battle to improve the sport's safety.

Produced with the full cooperation of the Senna family and Formula One, Senna is filled with impressive race footage and home videos that build a complete portrait of the man and his years at the top.

8. Pacific Warriors (2015), directed by James Marquand

The national rugby teams of Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa are some of the greatest underdogs in professional sport. They play like warriors - fast, exciting, and brutally physical - and produce some of the greatest supply of raw rugby talent in the world. Yet, despite all the on-field entertainment they provide, these small island nations must overcome incredible odds just to field a team.

Pacific Warriors takes us behind the scenes and explores the stories of Pacific Island rugby, documenting some of the famous victories and backgrounding a wide variety of players, past and present.

With contributions from some of the greats of modern rugby, Pacific Warriors is both a celebration of island spirit and an examination of the two contrasting worlds that exist within the sport.

9. Last Paradise (2016), directed by Clive Neeson

New Zealand is world-famous for being a leader in adventure sports. With the combination of our rugged landscape and innovative DIY approach, Kiwis have created a whole culture of extreme sports and adventure activities.

Last Paradise takes us back where it all started - the 60s and 70s, when a bunch of daredevil kids set out to create new ways of living and having fun. This group, including A.J. Hackett, Allan Byrne, and Ton Deken, travelled the world seeking out adventure and in the process invented the modern cultural movement of extreme sports and adventure travel.

Last Paradise tells the story using stunning original footage, giving us the opportunity to witness all the excitement, discovery, and innovation first-hand. The film states it was “45 years in the making” and it too has travelled the globe, winning a host of awards along the way.

10. The Hurt Business (2016), directed by Vlad Yudin

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the world and The Hurt Business takes us inside the ring, showing cage fighting’s rise from cult event to global mainstream sport.

Narrated by Kevin Costner, the film details the sport’s history and explores the lives of various martial artists, including superstars Georges St-Pierre, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones.

For all the fame and fanfare, The Hurt Business reveals that a career in MMA is built on long hours of training and overcoming setbacks, injuries and all the challenges that life outside the ring presents.

The question at the heart of this gripping and expansive documentary is whether sacrificing body and mind is worth it to be crowned champion of the Octagon?

Honorable Mention: Fire in Babylon (2011), directed by Stevan Riley

Fire in Babylon is the breathtaking story of how West Indies cricket triumphed over its colonial masters, through the feats of one of the most gifted teams in sporting history.

The 70s and 80s was a turbulent era, with Apartheid in South Africa, race riots in England, and civil unrest in the Caribbean. The West Indian cricketers, led by the enigmatic Viv Richards, rose to dominate the genteel game at the highest level, combining immense skill with fearless spirit, and struck a defiant blow at the forces of white prejudice worldwide.

This is their story, told in their own words.

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