2010 gave us David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, a resurgent, refocused Mad Men, as well as other top-shelf home entertainment like Breaking Bad, Louie, and lest we forget, Andy Samberg’s Mark Wahlberg skit. Cue the “television is the new cinema” meme. And yet the most cinematic achievement on television this year — ESPN’s groundbreaking 30 for 30 series — was, in fact, actual cinema: 30 feature-length films featuring 30 of the most spine-tingling, soul-crushing stories about slippery truths; half-forgotten icons; larger-than-life Man Love; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat only to have it snatched back; the price of too much success, too soon; and unwanted martyrdom, to name just a few. That the role of sports seems so certain in all this yet so elusive at the same time speaks to the fundamental paradox that greets anyone who’s ever been a fan: We think we know. But we have no idea. Here are the five films in the series that kept us asking all the right questions:
1. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Directed by Steve James)
Many have argued that Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) fails by not trying to set the record straight about Allen Iverson, one of this generation’s most polarizing, mercurial hoop stars. They would be missing the point. No Crossover is first and foremost about the the discussion of race when it revolves around faces without identities, words without meaning, circumstances without context. As for AI himself, he remains an enigmatic symbol — is he a tragic hero felled by society’s hypocritical, parasitic ways, or an insensitive, immoral thug? If you answered neither one, then this is precisely the film for you.
2. The Two Escobars (Directed by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist)
No documentary in the series takes wider aim at the mark than Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars — and with good reason. A multilayered narrative connecting drug-ravaged Columbia in the early ’90s (The Kosovo next door: reads one titillating NYT headline) to the rise and fall of drug lord Pablo Escobar, along with his spiritual better half, Columbian soccer hero-turned-goat Andres Escobar, Two Escobars doesn’t take too many bold stylistic risks — but when the stakes are this high, it only takes the lightest of touches to tip the scale toward cinematic gold. It’s easy to take umbrage with the notion that sports can be the panacea for an ailing society, but in the case of The Two Escobars, it’s more than that — for a country hoping to find ways to forgive and forget, soccer is the only way out. Try telling that to the family of Andres Escobar, though.
3. Once Brothers (Directed by NBA Entertainment)
I’ve already waxed plenty poetic about this Vlade Divac-narrated documentary, so I won’t do so here, except to say: fellas, love is always having to say you’re sorry.
4. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks (Directed by Dan Klores)
For those of us who were raised on the NBA on NBC (every Sunday!), we know that it wasn’t exactly an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball played by the Knicks and Pacers during their storied rivalry. That said, Patrick Ewing choking, Reggie Miller stroking, John Starks emoting, and Spike Lee, well, being Spike Lee adds up to freeze frame heaven, as well as the perfect reminder that, no matter what all the stat gurus tell you, professional basketball today is undoubtedly the better for it.
5. Guru of Go (Directed by Bill Couterie)
The tragic, untimely passing of Hank Gathers hangs like a spectre throughout Guru of Go, but ultimately, it’s a film about taking unconventionality to its very limits. Paul Westhead and his runnin, gunnin Loyola Marymount teams provides a fascinating look at what happens when sports transcends structure and chaos rules — the fans win. Besides, it has the ultimate cornerstone image — a right-handed Bo Kimble offering a salute to his fallen teammate in the form of a left-handed free throw. If that’s not cinematic, I don’t know what is.