With the addition of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries to Netflix Instant, the streaming service has transformed into a sports entertainment provider giant. Prior to that acquisition, the offerings were a bit paltry, and there’s still a lot of work left to do in landing the sports dramas we all know and love. But now, we can at least get our sports movie fix without slumming it, and that’s a huge step in the right direction. With that in mind, here are the 20 best sports movies (narrative and documentary) on Netflix Instant as of April 2015:
20. Varsity Blues
Director: Brian Robbins
“I DON’T WANT YOUR LIFE!” screams James Van Der Beek, in what has become an iconic (or is it ironic?) line of American cinema. Look, Varsity Blues may not be an American classic, but for anyone who has ever played high school football, or just enjoys high school drama in general, this is about as good as guilty pleasures come. In a way, you can even see it as a pre-cursor to Friday Night Lights, though it’s got about 90 percent less nuance. Even so, you won’t regret throwing this one on the TV on a rainy Saturday.
19. Days of Thunder
Director: Tony Scott
“Hey Shane,” you might be saying, “I love the movie Top Gun, but I hate that it takes place primarily in the air.” Well guess what, honcho? Days of Thunder is the film for you, because it has TOM CRUISE DRIVING A CAR. FAST. Also, his name is “Cole Trickle.” If you watch this movie and don’t have fun, you might be a communist.
18. Survive and Advance
Director: Jonathan Hock
He’s our first 30-for-30 offering, a documentary about the great Jim Valvano, the former coach of N.C. State who later succumbed to cancer. Every year, ESPN replays his epic speech about resilience (“don’t give up, don’t ever give up”) made just days before his death, and it never stops being moving. But there was much more to Valvano than this fight, as this documentary about State’s epic 1983 title run proves. A great watch.
17. Silly Little Game
Director: Lucas Jansen, Adam Kurland
If you don’t play fantasy sports, you probably know someone annoying who does (it might even be me!). This fad has become so widespread that it’s taken over sports culture, to the point that some pundits even worry that it will kill fan affiliation forever—why root for the local team when you can root for your own team? This documentary is a fascinating look at how it came to exist, starting with a group of sports writers in a rotisserie barbecue joint—hence the name ‘rotisserie,’ which has lived on to describe baseball fantasy leagues to this day.
Director: Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern
Okay, I’m a guy who loves weird pitches, so I am essentially the core of the target audience for a documentary about the knuckleball. Nevertheless, I think this will be interesting to people without my very specific set of tastes, if only for the act that it showcases how weird pitchers can be, and how intricate and tenuous is their art. I know that sounds pretentious, but seriously: Pitching is fascinating stuff, and the few and the proud who throw the knuckleball are the outlying weirdos of an already-weird group. You need to see this.
15. June 17, 1994
Director: Brett Morgen
My stepfather sat on the couch and watched the O.J. Simpson trial for a full year, no joke, so even though I was too young to really care, I am well-versed in the details of everything from the Bronco chase to the final verdict. Even knowing what I know, I have to admit that Brett Morgen did a fantastic job condensing the details of the whole ordeal—as well as the emotions from the larger country—into a tight, riveting documentary. You could make a good argument that the OJ trial was one of the five most significant legal battles in U.S. history, and I can’t imagine anyone doing a better depicting exactly what this meant to a torn country.
14. The Fab Five
Director: Jason Hehir
I’m a Duke fan, and the Fab Five hate Duke, so it’s in my blood to hate the Fab Five. For years and years, especially in the early ‘90s, I detested all that Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, and the talented group of Michigan undergrads stood for. Then I grew up, stopped wearing my Duke blinders, and began to appreciate their style and swagger. Watching this documentary sealed the deal for me—it’s a hilarious, heartbreaking story of two of the most exciting years in college hoops history, and you won’t be able to look away. The real star of the show is Jalen Rose, the trash-talking, brash, occasionally brilliant voice behind the Fab Five’s reign. He’s a comic delight, and the soul of this film.
13. You Don’t Know Bo
Director: Michael Bonfiglio
If you’re like me, you’re probably too young to know Bo Jackson as anything but the legend behind a sweet hand-held video game, or a really, really good running back on Tecmo Bowl. In his day, though, Bo Jackson was like a combination of Tom Brady and Derek Jeter—a two-sport athlete who was pretty amazing at both. Needless to say, he captured the country’s attention at his best, and Bonfiglio’s look back at his time in the spotlight (with Jackson’s participation) is a worthwhile study of the man who started the athlete-as-mega-celebrity phenomenon.
12. Jerry Maguire
Director: Cameron Crowe
“SHOW ME THE MONEY” has become so ubiquitous that we almost forget there was a whole movie surrounding it. Tom Cruise is the hard-charging agent, Cuba Gooding Jr. is the quiet football star who suddenly turns on his own inner self-promoting mechanism to become a millionaire, and there’s also that kid who spouts facts about the human head. Snark aside, this is a really good sports movie, and even if I now know that Cruise’s depiction of a sports agent is far less bloodthirsty and arrogant than real life, I still find the story of this maverick and his unlikely star irresistible.
11. Pony Excess
Director: Thaddeus D. Matula
College football is disgusting and dirty, and I’m just talking about the locker rooms. The whole system is insanely corrupt, and I get the feeling that if you dug deep enough at every big time program, you’d find something horrifying. The NCAA won’t pay its players, and it creates a seedy underbelly of boosters and benefits and double-dealing that make the whole enterprise into a sort of sports mafia. SMU was the prototype for the new era of corruption, and this documentary traces the program’s rise and fall, ending with the drastic “death penalty” that tanked the program for good.