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’

ESPN

ESPN

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.

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‘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.

ESPN

ESPN

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‘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.

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‘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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