Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance is behind us, while Tom Brady’s upcoming movie, Man in the Arena, is months away. In this golden age of sports features though, there’s still plenty out there. So, we’ve rounded up the 12 best sports documentaries of 2021 so far.
You may have heard of a few of these films, one or two you might have even seen. Many, however, are hidden gems to hold us over between the big-name flicks. Afterall, sometimes the halftime show is better than the game.
The most famous sports documentary of 2021 so far, Tiger is what filmmakers call a “write-around.” Woods himself doesn’t actually participate in it. Still, it’s really candid.
Even for those who’ve followed his career, the presentation of old footage sheds new light on his story. A video of Tiger’s father shows him talking about how his son will “transcend the game” as Tiger listens on, seemingly stressed. Immediately after, we’re given images of his tougher years. Interviews with his ex-girlfriends are coupled with home videos, like one of young Tiger playing air-saxophone with his high school sweetheart.
And of course, there’s golf. Fellow sportsmen, Nick Faldo and Rocco Mediate, and Tiger’s former caddie all weigh in on the golf giant’s game.
Bruno v Tyson
Any good sports documentary covering a well-remembered story adds a layer we’ve never thought about before. Bruno v Tyson recollects the hero-vs-villain narrative surrounding this historical 1989 match. However, it also explores the theme of raw talent vs. working hard. Also: Cool fight shots.
Directed by Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald and Benjamin Hirsch, Bruno v Tyson is one of the most rock ‘n roll sports documentaries out there. It’s entertaining for boxing fans and film buffs alike, since both characters are so larger-than-life.
We also see the vulnerable sides of Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno. Tyson mentions that it’s fear that makes him so ferocious, and we get to meet Bruno’s family. Depth aside, Bruno v Tyson is a fun spectacle that reminds us why sports and entertainment rivalries are so fascinating.
Undrafted is a perfect sports docuseries. It’s relatable yet aspirational (even for non-sports fans), it dispels myths in sports (lacrosse is hard and athletes are intellectual), and it’s bite-sized (48 minutes total).
It follows NFL veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion, Chris Hogan’s journey into the Premier Lacrosse League. For anyone who’s ever experienced a second act, a mid-career change for example, Undrafted is a cool story. It’s fun to see Hogan balance being a Yoda and a Luke at the same time. “…What the kids are calling it these days,” he says to the camera regarding some lacrosse terminology. Hogan trains with 20-somethings who are more experienced in the PLL, but are rookies in professional sports—and in life.
While clearly an impressive and confident athlete, Hogan is refreshingly candid about being an underdog. Watch him compare football and lacrosse releases, and tell me the man isn’t an artiste. Undrafted effectively universalizes sports and encourages people to achieve within their own craft, whether you’re the underdog or the superstar.
Country Outdoor Turkey Tour
This charming docuseries follows outdoorsman Zach Phillips on a three-month turkey hunt. The cast includes his wife and hunting partner Mary, his dog Forrest Gump, and his embattled truck. “I call her Old Faithful… My friends have meaner names,” Phillips says.
They travel throughout the heartland and meet people along the way. In Florida, a local shows them how to pick the perfect fruit from a tomato field. In Georgia, a country musician feeds them his grandmother’s hubcap lasagna, which is literally just lasagna made in a hubcap because his grandmother used to work for the factory.
Watching Country Outdoor Turkey Tour feels like you’re just hanging out with good folk and friends from the south, while learning a thing or two about turkey hunting.
The Inside Story
The Inside Story explores how Inside the NBA became one of the greatest sports studio shows ever. There’s obviously excellent chemistry between the hosts. Yet, ever-analytic Ernie Johnson mentions that even he can’t pinpoint a formula for this success. They simply get on air with the good fortune of zero tinkering from their producers. So how does one explain lightning in a bottle?
Each 70-something minute episode is dedicated to one of the hosts. Johnson, “The Traffic Cop,” Kenny Smith “The Role Player,” Charles Barkley “The Entertainer,” and Shaq “The Little Brother.”
Whether discussing Lebron’s rebounding or dishing out yo mama jokes, Inside the NBA is a certified moment-generator. This documentary is full of behind-the-scenes deep-dives and celebrity commentary on all of that.
Wicked Tuna Season 10
The latest season of this Nat Geo documentary series follows a bluefin tuna industry ravaged by pandemic. As a result, competitor fishermen decide to work together, creating an interesting dynamic unique from past seasons. From introducing the latest industry technologies, strategizing the best bait, to discerning when to reel in and let go, Wicked Tuna depicts bluefin fishing as exciting as any extreme sport.
It also takes place in America’s oldest seaport in Gloucester, Massachusetts. We learn about bluefin fishing as a generations-old tradition, so history buffs will love this series too.
The Playbook technically came out in late 2020, but a rare take, shining a spotlight on the coaches, is a format usually reserved for fictional feel-good sports movies. Here, we meet championship coaches Doc Rivers, Jose Mourinho, Jill Ellis, Dawn Staley, and Patrick Mouratoglou.
All the classic proverbs are delivered, including “take uncomfortable steps” and “one can make a difference.” It just hits differently when it’s coming from the guy who taught Cristiano Ronaldo how to score though. Who wouldn’t want to know Serena Williams’ secret to success?
A&E Biography Stone Cold Steve Austin
Before The Rock and after Hulk Hogan, there was Stone Cold Steve Austin. This biographical documentary explores how the WWE’s Royal Rumble antihero changed the wrestling entertainment game, became an icon, then suffered a paralyzing neck injury that set him up for a dramatic comeback.
One of the most interesting moments in the documentary is when he’s asked what the difference is between Steve Austin, the man, and Stone Cold, the entertainer. Not only is he unable to answer, but he talks in third person throughout the feature.
There’s also a lot of fun nostalgic footage from the ‘90s including his WWE overlap with a pre-Hollywood Dwayne Johnson.
The Day Sports Stood Still
Definitely a heavier film than the other entries here, The Day Sports Stood Still documents major events in 2020, framed by the sudden pro sports shutdown that happened in March.
Emmy-winning director, Antoine Fuqua, follows several stories. One includes the journey of an NFL Super Bowl champion who starts volunteering in the ER, another is about a WNBA player who becomes an activist during the sports shutdown. The Day Sports Stood Still is definitely a controversial feature, but one that shows what a big part of society pro sports really is.
Army Buck Hunters
For all you outdoors sportsmen out there, Army Buck Hunters follows US soldiers competing in a deer hunting competition. There’s a lot of action and enough technical and strategic discussion, in the form of ESPN-like interviews, to satisfy any riflery nerd.
Whether Army, Air Force, or Navy, we also get to see noble guys participate in a fellowship of sorts. They’re all hyper competitive, but will also support and tease each other as brothers do. At one point, one of the contestants playfully taunts his senior friend about how his age might affect his shot accuracy.
And all their fun is for a great cause. The meat is donated to a Texas non-profit that provides food to needy families.
Quest For The Stanley Cup 2021
The highly-acclaimed Quest For The Stanley Cup returns with the 2021 season. At this point in, we’ve all already placed our Stanley Cup bets, but any hockey fan will seriously enjoy watching the road to get here. The seven-part series documents the Bruins, Hurricanes, Islanders, Lightning, Avalanche, Canadiens, Jets, and Golden Knights.
The action on the ice is exciting, but it’s the conversations on the bench, in the locker rooms, and even in the homes of the players that really tell the story. Did you know that Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is really superstitious? Quest for the Stanley Cup is actually the first docuseries to give this level of access to pro sports teams’ postseason, so it’s a real treat.
Also, Corey Stoll from House of Cards does an excellent job narrating.
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In
Not only does Alex Ferguson’s story need to be told because he’s arguably Manchester United’s best manager ever, but also because it’s a Hollywood-worthy tale with plenty of twists, turns, and glory.
In a nutshell, Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is a documentary about a working-class Scotsman who becomes soccer’s most-awarded manager after a wobbly start. Despite a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, he carries on. There’s even a dash of old-fashioned star-crossed love, when his mixed Protestant-Catholic marriage becomes an issue at one of the clubs he played for.
The film is well-made and told in flashbacks, giving it a genuinely heartfelt and inspirational vibe that even Disney couldn’t match.
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