The 30 Best '30 for 30′ Films: The Fab Five, Reggie and 'The U' - Rolling Stone
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The 30 Best ’30 for 30′ Films

As ESPN’s groundbreaking series celebrates its fifth anniversary, we pick our favorite films: tales of triumph, tragedy and (of course) ‘The U’



In a 2009 interview with TV critic Alan Sepinwall, ESPN writer/producer/personality Bill Simmons laid out his plans for the (then) new documentary series 30 for 30: "We want to do stuff that people haven't seen," he said. "To tell stories that are different."

Five years later, 30 for 30 has stayed true to its mission. Mostly. The documentaries haven't always been that offbeat – and the series has long since outgrown its original "30 films about events from the last 30 years" premise – but 30 for 30 continues to connect top-notch filmmakers with subjects that they convey with passion and artistry. Along the way, the series has become a franchise, spawning web videos and spin-offs that have dealt with everything from Clyde Frazier's sartorial flair to the history of the high five.

On November 25, ESPN Films is releasing the 30 for 30 Fifth Anniversary Collection, a sprawling, 32-disc DVD (or 20-disc Blu-ray) set that contains 50 episodes from the 30 for 30 series, 11 "ESPN Films Presents" documentaries, two of the SEC Storied films, all nine of the Nine For IX episodes, all eight Soccer Stories, and selections from the 30 for 30 Shorts. That's a generous helping of some of the best sports journalism of the past half-decade. So to mark its release, we've chosen the best of the best: The Top 30 30 for 30s.




‘Judging Jewell’ (Dir. Adam Hootnick)

It's only 20 minutes long, and it's not about an athlete, but the short Judging Jewell is one of the best explications of a common 30 for 30 theme: Don't presume that the way the media initially frames a story is the only way to look at it. The rush to vilify and psychoanalyze security guard Richard Jewell in the wake of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing – a crime that Jewell was investigated for, but didn't commit – says a lot about how the demand for clean, comprehensible narratives unfairly turns real people into cartoon heroes and villains.


**ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MARCH 29-30 -- FILE -- ** Chicago Cubs left fielder Moises Alou reaches into the stands unsuccessfully for a foul ball tipped by fan Steve Bartman against the Florida Marlins in the eighth inning during Game 6 of the National League championship series in an Oct. 14, 2003, file photo at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Marlins won the series and went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)



‘Catching Hell’ (Dir. Alex Gibney)

The dream for players and spectators alike is to be in the right place at the right time. The nightmare is to be Steve Bartman, the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who, during the 2003 National League Championship Series, interfered with a foul ball that might've been caught by Moises Alou – and might've helped send the Cubs to their first World Series title in nearly a century. Alex Gibney's Catching Hell puts Bartman's infamous interference in context of everything else that went wrong in that game, wondering why it's so easy for fans to focus on one moment (and one person) when assigning blame for a devastating loss.




‘The Best That Never Was’ (Dir. Jonathan Hock)

Because most athletes' prime years are in their teens and 20s – and because people that young tend to be dopes – a lot of 30 for 30 episodes are about jocks making terrible, life-altering decisions. The Best That Never Was is the most poignant of these, looking back at Marcus Dupree, a Mississippi-born running back so touted in the early 1980s that he had a book written about him before he'd really accomplished anything. Injuries, money mismanagement and badly applied "tough love" coaching wrecked Dupree's career and thwarted his dreams, but as this episode makes clear, what befell Dupree could've happened to any kid forced to squeeze his talents through a football combine and a Southern culture designed to suppress, not nurture.


83PACK13.SP.021508.GPH -- NCSU's Jim Valvano, left, celebrates with Derek Whittenbug after the Pack beat Houston to win the NCAA Championship in Albequerque NM in March 1983, photo by Greg P. Hatem

Greg Hatem


‘Survive and Advance’ (Dir. Jonathan Hock)

Next to Into the Wind, no 30 for 30 is as much of an irresistible weepie as Survive and Advance, which covers the improbable 1983 ACC and NCAA basketball tournament runs of coach Jim Valvano's North Carolina State Wolfpack. Told in part by the players themselves, gathered for a reunion, Survive and Advance relies heavily on the alumni's feelings of wistful nostalgia – about what they accomplished, and about the relentlessly upbeat Valvano, who was later forced out of his job before dying of cancer. The result is both a thrilling underdog saga and a touching depiction of grown men who miss their mentor.




‘Muhammad and Larry’ (Dir. Albert Maysles)

Just as 30 for 30 is willing to paint scoundrels in a better light, it's also unafraid of showing heroes as more finely shaded than they may immediately appear. Muhammad Ali doesn't come off as "The Greatest" in cinema vérité pioneer Albert Maysles' Muhammad and Larry. Inadvisably dragging himself back into the ring for a 1980 heavyweight championship bout against his old sparring partner Larry Holmes, Ali embarrassed himself and made Holmes look like a villain, souring his friend's reputation. Maysles' film of the event (much of it shot back in 1980 and then shelved) is a melancholy, matter-of-fact portrait of what some athletes do to themselves and others in the name of money and fame.


‘The Two Escobars’ (Dir. Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist)

30 for 30's profile and prestige have been boosted from the beginning by the filmmakers' willingness to submit their documentaries to major festivals, to screen alongside the best in world cinema. The Two Escobars actually played at Cannes and Tribeca, and won acclaim from mainstream film critics for how adeptly directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist wove together the lives of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and murdered soccer star Andrés Escobar. By the end, The Two Escobars becomes about the dark side of sports fanaticism, which allowed Colombian soccer fans to root for a team funded by a criminal, and to turn on a player for making a mistake in a World Cup match.




‘This Is What They Want’ (Dir. Brian Koppelman and David Levien)

The longer athletes stick around, the more the public perception of them evolves. This Is What They Want looks back at how tennis fans rallied around prickly bad boy Jimmy Connors during the 1991 US Open, finding a weakened Connors more personally appealing than the cocky powerhouse he'd once been. But the great twist of This Is What They Want is that while fans may have softened, Connors never really did. Unexpectedly – and powerfully – this episode develops into a documentary about a fiercely competitive man who'd rather be a winner than a friend.


‘Elway to Marino’ (Dir. Ken Rodgers and NFL Films)

One of the simplest 30 for 30 episodes is also one of the most thoroughly absorbing. The 1983 NFL Draft saw six quarterbacks taken in the first round, four of whom – John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tony Eason – would go on to lead their teams to the Super Bowl. Elway to Marino goes through that draft pick-by-pick, talking to the players and the decision-makers, and digging into the various controversies and strategies that governed the outcome. Not even the savviest scouts can predict who's going to be an enduring star and who's going to be a washout. Elway to Marino brings back the tension and hope of that moment when a few NFL teams made choices that would determine their fates for the next decade.


‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’ (Dir. Steve James)

More often than not, when documentary filmmakers use first-person narration, it's an unnecessary intrusion, but the personal touch that Hoop Dreams/Life Itself director Steve James brings to No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson is essential. As James reflects on the 1993 assault charge that almost derailed Iverson's basketball career – and forever defined Iverson to many as a "thug" – he speaks honestly about growing up in a racially divided Hampton, Virginia, where the Iverson incident took place. A lot of 30 for 30 episodes deal with the uncomfortable realities of the racial conflicts and biases that run beneath organized sports, but No Crossover is the bluntest about how often the cheers for black athletes stop when they leave the court.




‘Hillsborough’ (Dir. Daniel Gordon)

In conjunction with this year's FIFA World Cup, ESPN extended the 30 for 30 brand to a series of soccer-themed documentaries. The first of these Soccer Stories is a stunner. Hillsborough uses first-hand recollections and old video footage to reconstruct what happened in Sheffield, England on April 15, 1989, when 96 people were trampled and crushed to death during a match at Hillsborough Stadium. Carefully and righteously, director Daniel Gordon picks apart the police and the press' initial attempts to blame the tragedy on hooliganism, instead of the inevitable result of bad stadium design and poor crowd-control. Hillsborough begins in horror, shifts into outrage and ends as an inspiring salute to the survivors' decades-long fight to control their own story. Put it this way: If Hillsborough had been released theatrically, it'd be a serious contender for 2014 Best Documentary lists – and maybe even Best Film.


‘June 17th, 1994’ (Dir. Brett Morgen)

When the 30 for 30 series was first announced, ESPN and producer Bill Simmons touted the combination of big-name directors and unusual subjects, promising something more like actual cinema than the typical sports documentary. But for the most part, even at their best, the 30 for 30 films have been fairly straightforward as pieces of filmmaking. One major exception is June 17th, 1994, which looks at everything that was happening in the world of sports on the same day O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on a chase in his infamous white Bronco. Jumping from event to event like a channel-surfer – flipping back and forth between the NBA Finals, a Stanley Cup parade, a historic home run, the end of Arnold Palmer's U.S. Open career and more – director Brett Morgen captures how viewers process television, and how the media struggles to make sense of events that have no clear outcome.

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