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Documentaries

The best sports documentaries on DVD --''Murderball'' and ''Hoop Dreams'' are only some of our choices

The best sports documentaries on DVD

DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS
PG-13, 91 mins., 2001 (Sony)

In the mid-'70s, a group of long-haired misfits with nothing but wiry agility and a drive to challenge gravity took staid, upright skateboarding low to the ground and over the edge, paving the way for extreme sports. Director Stacy Peralta, an original member of the Venice Beach-born Zephyr Skate Team, looks at the crew with fluid, sun-soaked Super 8 footage, interviews, and plenty of '70s rock. They fly from strangers' swimming pools (which they brazenly empty) to a radical debut at the 1975 Del Mar championships. FINAL SCORE Fearless sports outlaws fueled by Jimi's ax — a gnarly high! — Erin Richter

BASEBALL
Unrated, 23 hrs., 1994 (Paramount)

Director Ken Burns' extra-inning exegesis obsesses over each blade of grass, teeming with rare clips and rich character portraits. For the first time, seminal figures like Negro League base stealer James ''Cool Papa'' Bell are recalled in vivid detail. (Bell was so fast, Satchel Paige said, ''he could snap off the light, get into bed, and pull the covers up before the room was dark.'') The set is divided into nine ''innings,'' the best of which, the ninth, covers 1970-94. The highlight: a virtuosic sequence on Bill Buckner's booted ground ball in the '86 World Series. More than America's pastime, baseball, says sportswriter Thomas Boswell, ''is America's family heirloom.'' FINAL SCORE It dazzles the crowd with inside fastballs. — Dade Hayes

THE ENDLESS SUMMER
Unrated, 92 mins., 1966 (Image)

Before big-wave competitions, endorsement deals, and Blue Crush made surfing, like, totally extreme, there was this simple story of two friends traveling the world in search of the perfect wave. Shot with a single 16mm camera, it may not be high-tech, but Bruce Brown's '60s doc nails the pure joy of waxing up your stick, paddling out to a break, and catching a ride. Fascinatingly naive details (wipeout is defined early in the film for your convenience) only add to the retro charm. FINAL SCORE Half the schmancy cinematography of last summer's Riding Giants with twice the heart. — Whitney Pastorek

MURDERBALL
R, 86 mins., 2005 (THINKFilm)

Rugby's never been more intense than in this inspiring — and profanely funny — take on quadriplegic athletes gunning for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. Wheelchairs collide and grunts abound as players scramble for the ball. Equally powerful are the off-court scenes, like a return to the canal where breakout star Mark Zupan struggled for almost 14 hours after being thrown from his pal's pickup truck. (''He crashed and I went flying,'' Zupan recalls. ''He was drunk and that was that.'') FINAL SCORE As gritty and heroic as any rugby scrum. — Tim Stack

PUMPING IRON
PG, 1977, 85 mins. (Paramount)

When documentary buffs insist filmic truth is better than fiction, they'll cite this absorbing look at bodybuilding. But maybe it is fiction? Arnold would like you to think so. In a 14-minute monologue in the extras, he contends that much of the seemingly vérité plotting — including his ''psyching out'' of Lou Ferrigno — was invented by the filmmakers and cast. In a separate featurette, though, his fellow musclemen say Arnold wasn't faking that lovably Machiavellian persona. Either way, he was never again quite as great on screen as he was portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger. FINAL SCORE Arnold conquers all comers, your heart, and the world! If only California unions were so easily bested. — Chris Willman

OLYMPIA
Unrated, 205 mins., 1938 (JEF Films)

We're so used to snappy sports coverage on TV, it's easy to forget that Leni Riefenstahl did it first, with her dazzling doc of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. With an army of cinematographers — including a scuba diver for underwater shots — and such innovative techniques as cameras floated on balloons, Riefenstahl used startling angles, slo-mo, and rhythmic editing to fracture the events with a cubist exuberance that's never been duplicated. FINAL SCORE A straight-up 10. — Tim Purtell

HOOP DREAMS
PG-13, 171 mins., 1994 (Criterion)

In a time when players and management duke it out over the appropriate off-court clothing and culture of the NBA, Steve James' inspired study of pro ball as escape from inner-city struggle has never felt more relevant. Over five years, James and his crew followed Chicago teens Arthur Agee and William Gates as they strived to get into college and the NBA. Though they never made it to the pros, the two heroically transcended a bleak realm of violence, drug use, and poverty through the dogged support of their families and, of course, their undying love of the game. FINAL SCORE An astringent yet heartrending ode to hoops. — Timothy Gunatilaka

RING OF FIRE: THE EMILE GRIFFITH STORY
Unrated, 88 mins., 2005 (Anchor Bay)

On March 24, 1962, America watched boxer Emile Griffith batter opponent Benny Paret into a coma. Paret died 10 days later, and with him went televised boxing's innocence — the sport was banned from the tube for years — and possibly Griffith's soul. Brooklyn buddies-turned-documentarians Dan Klores and Ron Berger (The Boys of 2nd Street Park) do a terrific job evoking New York at the turn of the '60s, but Ring is a wider inquiry into self-knowledge, forgiveness, and the nature of sport itself. At its center is a mystery: a possibly gay man who may have beaten someone to death for suggesting as much. Seen today, Griffith is a gentle shell. ''Nobody's to blame,'' says codirector Berger in the commentary with sad irony. ''Show must go on.'' FINAL SCORE A knockout portrait of a fighter fighting himself. — Ty Burr

UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS: THE RISE AND FALL OF JACK JOHNSON
Unrated, 220 mins., 2005 (Paramount)

In 1908, the equally strong and headstrong Johnson broke boxing's color line, becoming the sport's first black heavyweight champion. But, as Ken Burns shows, Johnson faced more opponents outside the ring: Americans resentful of a black champ who flaunted his wealth and married a parade of white women. Deleted scenes take enlightening side trips, such as the growing movement to ban the entire sport in the wake of Johnson's victory over James Jeffries. FINAL SCORE A compelling take on a proud man who pulled no punches. — Dalton Ross

WHEN WE WERE KINGS
PG, 94 mins., 1997 (PolyGram)

It's almost absurd to think of Muhammad Ali as an underdog. It's equally absurd to think of the smiling, gregarious George Foreman as a sullen, surly champion. But that was the situation in 1974 when Ali traveled to Zaire to challenge the younger, stronger Foreman for the heavyweight championship of the world in the Rumble in the Jungle. Kings documents how Ali not only won the fight (thanks to his psychological warfare and ingenious rope-a-dope strategy) but, with his electric personality and ambassadorial skills, also won the hearts of two countries, America and Zaire. FINAL SCORE Easily the greatest look at the Greatest. — DR

Originally posted Mar 15, 2004 Published in issue #851 Nov 25, 2005 Order article reprints