The organized competition, as a way to tell a non-fiction story, is as tried and true a formula as those well-worn Hollywood gems boy-meets-girl and fish-out-of-water. From pastry-making to crossword puzzles to Donkey Kong to every kind of dance competition under the sun, we’ve seen contestants compete, as we learn about who they are, and why they do what they do. I think some of the best documentaries of all time have used this elegant and efficient way to build narrative tension, while profiling powerful themes such as commitment, love and retribution. (Look for those masterpieces toward the top of my compilation of the top competition documentaries).
Tonight, POV adds another film to the genre, Ping Pong, which focuses on valiant ping pong players who compete in the over-80 category. It’s a fun and compelling documentary, well directed by Hugh and Anson Hartford, and filled with characters audiences will surely identify with — anyone with a grandparent is bound to. And the ping pong itself is great to watch, remarkably, considering we’re watching octogenarians.
What struck me most while thinking about the wide diversity of docs about organized competitions is the even greater diversity of ways that humans organize and entertain ourselves through competition. From frog hopping to thumb wrestling to spelling bees, we love to compete.
And, yes, in creating a list of my favorite competition docs, I am emulating that very same inclination. I guess that makes me a member of the human race.
10) Mad Hot Ballroom (2005) This story of grade-school ballroom dancing competitors in New York City has all the heart, quirk and heartbreak that the genre is best known for. It came out early in the renaissance of the form, so it was eye-opening at the time. It’s also about my hometown, so I was thrilled at seeing a window opened in my own backyard.
9) First Position (2011) This will not be the film that will change your life, but if you are a secret (or not so) fan of dance, as I am, then this inspiring and tension-filled chronicle of an international set of young ballet hopefuls is well worth watching. And it puts those reality TV show competitions to shame.
8) Gunnin’ for the #1 Spot (2008) Not exactly a competition doc, but it has a similar feel in that it tells the backstory of the participants of a single competitive event — playing basketball in Rucker Park in Harlem. The director, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, and the top young players he films aren’t so much interested in who wins as showing a love for the game. So this is more of an anti-competition doc.
7) Kings of Pastry (2010) The familiarity of Mad Hot Ballroom may have moved me, but the foreignness of Kings of Pastry is what hooked me. This documentary, directed by legends D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, no less, is about the prestigious award in France, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France. That is, the best pastry makers in France. I was riveted by the intricacy of the inventions, the intensity of the competition and the bizarrely out-of-whack importance of it all.
6) Racing Dreams (2009) Director Marshall Curry is the consummate documentary director. He knows how to tell a story and bring us into the lives of his subjects. In this case, he follows kids who are into go-kart racing (which, today, is more NASCAR than Little Rascals). The moments that resonate aren’t so much the racing ones, as cool as those are, but the snippets in the trailers and living rooms where the subjects’ childhoods’ are really being mapped out.
5) War / Dance (2007) This beautifully shot film about a dance and music competition in Africa, focuses on three child participants who have suffered immeasurably from the ravages of war. For these characters, the game is more than a game. It’s a way to live on.
4) Pumping Iron (1977) Although the film in my No. 1 slot has set the standard, this film came earlier and set the mold. This documentary launched the world of bodybuilding into the public mainstream and introduced us, for better or for worse, to the real Arnold Schwarzenegger.
3) Hands on a Hard Body (1997) The absurdity of Americana is on lucid display in this depiction of a contest in which 24 people compete to see who can keep their hand on a truck the longest — so they can win that darn truck. The film doesn’t quite follow the formula of most of the docs on this list, and that’s probably because it was before its time.
2) Murderball (2005) This doc about paraplegics who engage in full-contact rugby while in their wheelchairs might seem like it’s trying to tug at our heartstrings, but the film, like the game, is brutally honest, and it prompted me to shed many a tear. It gives us a new definition of what a sport hero should be.
1) Spellbound (2003) Jeff Blitz’s documentary about children who compete in the national spelling bee competition sets the present-day standard of what a competition doc should be: exciting, well-told, meaningful, funny and filled with unforgettable characters. This may be an obvious pick, but that’s because it’s the Citizen Kane of competition documentaries.