2016 has been an interesting year for baseball movies. Noah Buschel’s “The Phenom” largely focuses on the off-field exploits of a prized pitching prospect, but Richard Linklater’s ode to young college life makes baseball an essential offshoot of the freshman experience, rather than its all-consuming focus. It’s drinking, smoking and dressing in the early ’80s, all filtered through a tight-knit team, one that just happens to play baseball every once in a while.
Where to Watch: iTunes and VOD
With Ali’s passing earlier this year, much of the conversation centered on his legacy outside the ring. Bill Siegel’s documentary carefully captures the public atmosphere surrounding the champ’s conscienscious objection to being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. From the events leading up to his sentencing to his use as a PR pawn among rival factions within the Nation of Islam, “The Trails of Muhammad Ali” is a comprehensive look at an oft-ignored chapter of the boxer’s biography.
Where to Watch: Hulu
Yes, a good portion of this “30 for 30” takes place on a basketball court. But the way that director Dan Klores gives this ’90s basketball rivalry operatic importance only underlines the way that Reggie Miller’s feud with the Knicks (and New York City as a whole) went far outside Madison Square Garden. Candid interviews with Miller and Spike Lee (another central individual in the feud) solidify the drama and make this the greatest entry in ESPN’s landmark doc series.
Where to Watch: Netflix
This kind of documentary parody shouldn’t work this well, but in the hands of director Jake Szymanski and writer Murray Miller, this fake tennis doc becomes a blisteringly funny takedown of the sports media. Andy Samberg is ideal as the boisterous hotshot Aaron Williams and Kit Harington’s harmless, dim-witted Charles Poole is a perfect foil. Throw in a gem of a supporting turn from Michael Sheen and you’ve got a comedic ensemble that would shine, regardless of the subject.
Where to Watch: HBO GO
Most people familiar with the name Dock Ellis know that on a June day in 1970, the pitcher threw a no-hitter while high on LSD. Jeff Radice’s “Dockumentary” unpacks the mythology surrounding that fateful day, grounding Ellis’ achievement to the cultural influences of champion Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the 1970s. When the film shifts to Ellis’ post-career life, it becomes a fascinating look at one man’s efforts to transcend a defining anecdote and use that fame to help others.
Where to Watch: Netflix
A tribute to achievements made by people who didn’t concern themselves with making achievements, Stacy Peralta’s doc about the rise of ’70s skateboarding culture is crafted in the spirit of someone who was there to witness the start. Narrated by Sean Penn (in true renegade fashion, Peralta leaves in a cough from the actor’s recording session), it’s an interesting look at how LA and greater Southern California wrestle with their identities as they’re confronted with a movement. The blend of testimonial and archival gives a you-are-there perspective, while giving some of the Z-Boys a chance to reflect on how things have changed since.
Where to Watch: Crackle
If history is written by the victors, Gabe Polsky’s documentary of the 1980 Soviet national hockey team shows what it’s like to be those who history happens to. Their “Miracle on Ice” loss in Lake Placid would be iconic, but Polsky dives into what it’s like to be an athlete at the nexus of a geopolitical proxy war. There’s plenty of appreciation of the squad’s on-ice exploits, but the film never loses sight of their role in a global cultural battle at the height of Cold War anxiety.
Where to Watch: Starz On Demand
Not many films prominently featuring MMA fighters would start with a song from The National, but such is Gavin O’Connor’s film about two brothers and the father they’re trying to reconcile with. “Warrior” features sparring of all sorts (a little UFC cagefighting here, some jiu jitsu there), but Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, along with Nick Nolte as the estranged patriarch, make a formidable trio. And this movie about fighting also takes time to examine the way we treat military veterans, going beyond the simple family drama in the ring.
Where to Watch: Google Play, YouTube and other VOD services
For a sport that’s often adorned with fanfare and showmanship in the public eye, wrestling has given us some of the most contemplative dramas of the past decade. “Foxcatcher” and “The Wrestler” take a look at the private lives of very different talents, but it’s “Win Win” that transports that drama to high school. Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan star in a story that uses the sport as a means for exploring the special kind of fatherhood that comes from a coach-player relationship.
Where to Watch: MAX GO
“Meru” is one of the best encapsulations of climbing as a perpetual pursuit. There’s stunning photography of the view from high on the infamous Shark’s Fin, but directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin also focus on the drama that comes from not being satisfied until the peak is reached. It’s a testament to the idea that getting close to a dream can be as dangerous as the thrill that comes from finally reaching it.