This month, ESPN Films is releasing a Fifth Anniversary Blu-Ray Set of its popular 30 for 30 series. The series was created by Connor Schell and Grantland creator Bill Simmons (which means Simmons is responsible for unarguably the two best parts of the ESPN media machine) and features some of the best documentary film directors of the contemporary scene and exhibits some of the best documentary filmmaking of the past decade. The anniversary set is a bit pricy, listed in most markets for around $200, but for fans of film and those who enjoy sports as a cultural measuring stick, this series can make a nice addition to the collection.
As evidence, I’ve listed my five favorite 30 for 30 films below; films that rank among the best documentaries I’ve seen this century.
For Sports Fans: Long time NFL fans will remember the Ricky Williams saga as it played out in real time, the narrative authored by the judgmental and self-righteous talking heads of ESPN and its competitive networks– the narrative of the disgraceful new age hippie who loved marijuana more than fans, who lacked the self-discipline to make it in the leagues in spite of his unnatural talent. Overweight journalists, many of whom had never played a sport beyond a collegiate level, glistening with sweat as they called Ricky Williams a bum and, sadly, most of us bought into that. In that sense, Run Ricky Run is vital information for sports fans, a clear mirror of our reactionary flaws as product consumers and a dissection of the manipulative and malicious media machine that informs our understanding of the athletes whose jerseys we wear and lives we judge.
For Movie Fans: Run Ricky Run is a fascinating character study of a man fighting his own demons, a man imprisoned by his own trauma-scarred psyche. Here, the camera understands and forgives where the media of his time did not. Run Ricky Run is a film of great and necessary sympathy, that follows a troubled talent from the top to the bottom, and then sticks with him as begins to rise once again.
For Sports Fans: This is a bit of a tough sell. Admittedly, Vlade Divac is my favorite basketball player ever (I love point-centers and big men with a vision to run things from the backline), but neither he nor his late friend Dražen Petrović carry much starpower in their difficult-to-pronounce names and neither athlete enjoyed a long-term all-star stretch or championship (though, Vlade did play for the best team to not win a championship). There’s no real weight to the sports element of this story, but there is offered a unique perspective on the blossoming basketball culture of war-torn central Europe of the 1990s, an eye-opening introduction to what athletes from other nations must overcome to excel in an American professional organization.
For Movie Fans: Again, we have to start in the negative. NBA Entertainment applies some pretty hokey film techniques (complete with a score that is more suited for a stuck elevator), but it only stifles the sincerity and gravity of the story to a minor degree. Divac’s heartache serves as the proper tour guide to measure the damage of war outside of the boundaries of war. Think Wind that Shakes the Barley played out on a basketball court with maybe an even more tragic ending.
For Sports Fans: Though neither of the clubs won a championship in the focal era, the mid-90s playoff matchups between the Knicks and the Pacers might account for the most fascinating and exciting basketball games of the era that did not include Michael Jordan. Any honest sports fan will tell you: Reggie Miller is the epitome of what makes sports great. Whether you loved him or hated him (and I’m certain there were more in the second camp then), it is impossible not to admit the entertainment value of watching him play. A scrappy, wiry underdog whose mouth moved faster than his feet. One of the all-time greats of head games and trash talk. Miller played harder every minute than maybe all of his peers and his performance always reached new heights in two scenarios: the end of close games and against the Knicks. This movie documents both of those phenomena.
For Movie Fans: A little bit of Mystery, Alaska (the back country takes on the big city). A little bit of Fistful of Quarters: The King of Kong (a chronic overachiever fighting tooth and nail toget his). The heart of Rocky with the grit of Goon and the razor sharp tongue of Eddie Murphy in his prime. Winning Time is the kind of movie that earns applause and laughter in equal turns.
For Sports Fans: Plenty. Most have since forgotten, but on the day that O.J. Simpson’s fled under suspicion of murdering his wife and house guest, there were there concurrent sports stories unfolding in the same stretch of time: the Knicks/Rockets NBA Finals, Arnold Palmer’s last U.S. Open Round, the World Cup tournament, and the Stanley Cup celebration. All of those stories have been forgotten. For the sports fan, June 17, 1994 was a day of contextual measurement, a sobering forced perspective, a moment when sports became both bigger and smaller than we had ever seen sports be.
For Film Fans: A rare exercise in form brilliance. There are no talking heads here. No voiceover perspective, no narration, no narrative transitions. Just masterful editing. Just a chronological juxtaposition of news reports from four sporting events spliced into the unfolding drama that would go on to influence and define media culture. We often talk about how the Nicole Simpson murder and the O. J. trial shaped cable television, tumbled the structure of our news outlets, and irritated already tense racial tension. But never has it been so evident to witness and observe as it is in Brett Morgen’s hypnotic documentary.
For Sports Fans: An early life profile of one of the most prolific and talented athletes of all time, perhaps the pound-for-pound best athlete to ever live. Anyone who paid attention to his career knows that Allen Iverson carried a chip on one shoulder the weight of the world on the other. This film by Hoop Dreams director Steve James attempts to identify that weight. There is no understanding Iverson outside of his teenage felony conviction; the scar is too deep, it was too apparent every time the sports media forced him to speak toward his own character. No Crossover helps measure why he flew into a level of performance that was often unbelievable and why he was never able to escape the bars of his own prison.
For Film Fans: A tale of injustice every bit as infuriating as that found in My Brother’s Keeper, The Thin Blue Line, The Central Park Five, Fruitvale Station, and the Paradise Lost series. I said as much in my Netflix Gem writeup of the film and I’ll say it again: No Crossover is an imperative text on the unquestionable unevenness to the way legal structures in this country serve black and white citizens.