"The Last Dance" has been a godsend for sports fans crushed by the absence of live sports during the coronavirus crisis. The epic docuseries about NBA superstar Michael Jordan and his final championship season with the Chicago Bulls has also been one of the TV highlights of the year, transcending its core subject while also taking on hot topics such as the culture of celebrity, race and economics.
But the curtain falls on "The Last Dance" Sunday with the broadcast of the final two installments. If the excitement of the ESPN/Netflix project has whetted your appetite for more sports documentaries, here are some candidates that should be at the top of your list.
"O.J.: Made in America"
Available on: VOD
It wouldn't be too off-base to call this 10-part film "The Godfather" of sports documentaries. Like "The Last Dance," this Oscar-winning 2016 series from director Ezra Edelman goes far beyond its sports foundation to sharply probe issues of even greater resonance. The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the trial of former football great O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Chronicling Simpson's rise and fall with a propulsive narrative, the film utilizes Simpson as a pivot to probe the racial tensions, obsession with celebrity and other societal issues that shadowed America during that period. If you haven't seen it, you need to remedy that. If you have seen it, you will likely find aspects you missed their first time around.
"Kobe Bryant's Muse"
Available on: Showtime
It still may be too heartbreaking for fans to watch this 2015 documentary about Bryant, who was killed along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in January. But this film may be the closest thing there is to "The Last Dance," since Bryant and Jordan were so united in their spirit and competitive drives that they could have been brothers. (In fact, Jordan referred to Bryant as his little brother in a tearful eulogy at Bryant's memorial.) "Muse" shows Bryant vibrantly alive, cocky and candid as he goes over his career and the forces that influenced him throughout his life. The film features a wealth of rarely seen footage that reaches back to Bryant's early childhood in Italy. There is also footage of him enjoying his post-basketball life with his wife, Vanessa, and his daughters, which now has an added poignancy.
Available on: HBO
This fascinating landmark documentary is a revealing portrait of two promising young basketball players from Chicago. Filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert shot 250 hours of the pair over a five-year period, documenting their lives before high school and what happened after they graduated. Although the 1994 film is close to three hours long, it's so engrossing that you won't notice. And like "O.J.: Made In America," it proves some harsh observations about society and race. The Times' national basketball writer Dan Woike calls it "the best basketball movie ever."
Available on: Netflix
Woike is also a huge fan of this 2010 documentary about a sport that is way off his beat — Formula One racing. He joins many critics and film festival audiences who wave the checkered flag for "Senna," the 2010 film about Ayrton Senna da Silva, a Brazilian Formula One driver who rose to prominence in the 1980s and has been called the top race car driver of all time. The film, which focuses on the driver's rivalry with French competitor Alain Prost, and is told entirely through archival footage, was also a huge hit with audiences. Times film critic Kenneth Turan called the film "a documentary with the pace of a thriller, a story of motors and machines that is beyond compelling because of the intensely human story it tells."
Available on: Hulu, Disney+
Viewers of this Oscar-winning 2018 film about "free climber" Alex Honnold who don't catch their breath or find their pulse racing should get checked out by their doctor. Honnold made headlines when he became the first person ever to climb the sheer 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park completely without ropes, anchors or other support safety gear. Honnold tempts death constantly with his quest to climb treacherous mountains without anything to save him if he makes even one small move or miscalculation. Filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin also put themselves in harms way as they chronicle Honnold's journey. Locate the largest screen possible to watch this harrowing adventure.