Playlist: the 12 best sports movies and documentaries on Netflix

You don't have to be a champion Olympics nerd to enjoy these podium-worthy flicks and docs...

Best sports films and documentaries on Netflix

It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the LA Lollipops have to hit a home run if they want to send the game into triple mega ultra time.

Okay, so some of our sports knowledge is lacking, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate all forms of athletic endeavours for what they are - a test of our physical and mental strength, and a way of showing the world what we’re truly made of.

Philosophy aside, it’s nice to get away from guns, explosions, and superhero one-liners every once in a while, so we've rounded up some of our favourite sports offerings on Netflix.

Do some stretches, vault onto your sofa, and enjoy:

Pantani (2014)

A combination of excess lycra and drug scandals might have reduced cycling's cred to a kind of WWE-on-wheels during the 90s, but this portrait of Italian legend Marco Pantani is anything but cheap pantomime.

Potently mixing race footage, compelling commentary and interviews with the likes of Bradley Wiggins, it’s a moving study of one of the most tragic downfalls in sporting history.

Team Foxcatcher (2016)

If you’ve seen the Foxcatcher film starring Steve Carell, you might be surprised by how much it differs to this documentary of the same, sad events. For a start, Mark Schultz, played brilliantly by Channing Tatum in the Hollywood retelling, isn’t in this non-fiction acount at all because he wasn’t even at “the farm” at the same time as his brother, Dave.

If you’ve seen neither film, this is a story about an apparently benevolent benefactor who set out to enable the US wrestling team’s quest for dominance of the sport by housing and training the athletes in purpose built facilities on his grand, 200-acre estate. Only, this benevolent benefactor, John du Pont, turned out to be extremely strange and increasingly paranoid.

Told through touching interviews with ex-Foxcatcher wrestlers, archive footage of du Pont and charming home recordings from the time, the Team Foxcatcher documentary is an excellent, tragic companion to the also superb film.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

It might be over 20 years old, but Hoop Dreams remains the classic, sports documentary equivalent of The Wire.

Like the gritty crime drama, it throws a street-level spotlight on urban America, in this case through the lives of two 14-year-old NBA hopefuls from the Chicago ghetto. What follows over an absorbing three hours is a touching portrait of how society can stack the odds against sporting talent. 

Red Army (2014)

Soviet Russia was a world leader in three main fields: being massive, furry hats and ice hockey. We’re not aware of any documentaries on the first two but Red Army lifts the iron curtain on the third, telling the team’s story through the eyes of its greatest player, Slava Fetisov.

Not that there’s space for individual stars in communist Russia. With an on-ice equivalent of the Dutch ‘Total Football’ team of the 1970s – the collective effort outweighing the individual – the USSR swept all before them, ‘proving’ to the United States that the Russian way was best. Red Army is the story of East v West told through its hockey teams, a fascinating glimpse inside a very literal cold war.

Moneyball (2011)

Maths is good for more than just sending men to the moon or working out change from a 99p Flake. Take the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team for example. Head coach Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in this film adaptation) uses all sorts of numerical wizardry and stat shuffling to sign on the best possible players he can with a limited budget.

Don't worry - you won't need to be a baseball fan to appreciate the on-field action and superb performances by Pitt and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Fighter (2010)

From Raging Bull to Rocky, Hollywood is hardly short on classic boxing movies. The Fighter is a little bit different to those filmic thoroughbreds. A tale of two half-brothers, played by Mark Wahlberg and the Oscar-winning Christian Bale, it contrasts one man’s bloody ring-bound glory with the vicious pitfalls of his family life.

True strength, you see, is not confined to clenched fists and twisted sinews. So can Micky Ward fight off his many demons and earn a final shot at the big time? Either way, you can guarantee he’ll go down swinging.

Town of Runners (2012)

The long-mooted adaptation of classic running book Born to Run might still be stuck in Hollywood's blocks, but in the meantime this documentary about an Ethiopian village’s extraordinary ability to produce Olympic champions is a fine alternative.

Rather than try to unravel how Bekoji has managed to produce 16 Olympic medallists in the last 20 years, it focuses on the darker side of a state-sponsored running obsession through two girls who dream of emulating their idols. Like the NBA hopefuls in Hoop Dreams (see above), their struggles expose the knife-edge precariousness of sporting dreams in places of real economic hardship.

The two girls' incredible work ethic, though, ultimately shines through and makes this an inspiring watch, particularly for anyone who's sacked off another running session to watch it.

Pumping Iron (1977)

This testosterone-fueled documentary covers the 100 sweaty, grunt-filled days leading up to the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competitions.

The heated rivalry between five-time winner Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno is one of the sport's greatest feuds, and the insight we get into the contrasting gym-rats' psyches and what motivates them is almost enough to make you want to go out and start lifting heavy things. Then again, its much easier to carry on with your Netflix binge...

The Summit (2012)

Everest may be the most famous mountain in the world, and it’s by no means easy to climb, but compared to the harsh mistress that is K2 - the second highest peak on Earth - it’s a veritable stroll in the park. The Summit is a documentary surrounding one fateful day in 2008, when K2 robbed 11 climbers of their lives.

Mixed with real footage taken by climbers, along with realistic reenactments, it’s a fascinating, yet chilling look into the thrills and dangers of high altitude climbing - a sport which pushes the human body and mind to its absolute limits.

Valley Uprising (2014)

An all-American ascent of the country’s rock climbing history, centered around the iconic cliffs in Yosemite National Park – ‘El Capitan’ will be a name familiar to Mac fans. There’s no twist in Valley Uprising, no real surprise in learning that the Land of the Free is actually the Land of the Bureaucrats and that contemporary daredevils are in a constant struggle with park authorities to enjoy gnarly developments of climbing such as base jumping and wingsuit flying.

That said, the film-makers have done a great job plastering together historical footage with vertiginous HD shots and some memorable psychadelic animations – speaking of which, the soundtrack is excellent.

The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015)

Yes, we know, wrestling is fake, but that doesn’t mean that the athletes putting their bodies at risk day after day both on and off the mat don’t have stories worth telling. Veteran fans will remember Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts as the dark, burly bloke who brought a python with him into the ring, but this documentary instead focuses on his battle with injury and addiction, helped along by fellow wrestler Diamond Dallas Page.

Fans of Oscar-nominated flick The Wrestler should definitely give this one a watch, even if they have no idea what a suplex or DDT is. And no, we won’t judge you if you get a little teary-eyed. 

Lords of Dogtown (2005)

The glossy, dramatised cousin of the excellent documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (which you can buy from iTunes), Lords takes you to the invention of modern day skateboarding in the Dogtown district of 1970s L.A.

Sure, it's a tad superficial and lacks some of the documentary's insight into the birth of a sporting subculture. But the cinematography (director Catherine Hardwicke grew up in the area) and turns by the likes of Heath Ledger help bring to life a time when the empty swimming pools of drought-hit California were the unlikely launchpad for a sport that's now being considered for the next Olympics (even if that's slightly at odds with its anti-establishment roots).

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