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The 10 Greatest Football Movies Of All Time

The 10 Greatest Football Movies Of All Time

It’s said that among American sports, baseball is the official national pastime, but let’s face it, pigskin is truly the sport that commands the country’s attention. Because of this
probably over-simplistic dichotomy, football yields the toughest, most unique
films, but also some of the most downbeat. Going nice and friendly is for the
pee-wee leagues: down and dirty is how they do it in football movies, which
eschew the legacies and honor of baseball pictures and the good-vibes
camaraderie of basketball pictures, while featuring a greater scope and intensity
than movies about hockey and golf. Other sports give you honor and glory.
Football gives you grit and dirt, and often the only battles won are the moral

Regardless, the sport also allows for diverse viewpoints and
sensibilities from a number of filmmakers, even if the sub-genre truly has yet
to produce its masterpiece. The all-American nature of these stories suggest an
increasingly globalized marketplace will keep some of these films in the
development stages (the upcoming, low-key “Draft Day” has already been dropped
by its studio before being resurrected by another), but the memories that
remain cannot be challenged, even buried underneath heavy shoulder pads and
helmets. The start of every NFL season, like this current one, is constantly
packed with storylines. The best movies can’t even compete, so
multi-dimensional is this game: can you imagine a Tim Tebow movie? How
far-fetched would “The Peyton Manning Story” even be? Dare anyone have the guts
to dramatize the chaos of the lives of Aaron Hernandez or Michael Vick?

With the season about to kick off, we took a look at the ten best football movies ever made,
heading back from the early days of cinema to contemporary times, and found
there was a lot to like, and a lot to debate. If we’ve left out your favorites
(we see you, “Wildcats” fans), leave it in the comments section.

Any Given Sunday” (1999)
Al Pacino is absolutely volcanic in this intense, overheated
Oliver Stone orgy of excess, which stands out years later as something of a
major milestone—possibly the very last big-budget sports film ever made,
given that these pictures rarely do overseas business. And “Any Given Sunday
is nothing but huge, detailing Pacino as a burnt-out coach forced to take a
team in massive turmoil into the playoffs, with a number of subplots that
feel as if Stone and co-writer John Logan intensely knew their subject matter.
Stone loads the cast with ringers, like Dennis Quaid in “Everybody’s
” form as the aged, injured quarterback, and a buffed-out Jamie
as his flashy, controversial replacement, the latter clashing with a
steroidal clubhouse that includes LL Cool J and real-life ex-pro Lawrence Taylor
(who gets to absolutely murder a late-film monologue, exhibiting revealing
depth). Cameron Diaz is also on hand as the team’s under-qualified owner, who
unleashes one tirade that inspires an amazing moment when a cameo-ing Charlton
to hiss, “I honestly believe that woman would eat her own young.” Even in the smallest
part, John C. McGinley shines as an obnoxious reporter clearly modeled after
Jim Rome, evidence of the extensive world-building on display: this is a movie
packed with ugly violence, foul language and rampant nudity of the male and
female variety. Frankly, no league would want to be associated with the
insanity of a break in one game where Stone’s camera zooms in on the eye
plucked from a player’s head, lying in the turf, waiting to be removed.

Friday Night Lights” (2004)
The show based on this film has certainly earned its
plaudits, running five soapy seasons and garnering critical praise and Emmy
nominations. But it can never replicate what the movie had; an air of doomed
finality and borderline apocalyptic despair. Based on the Buzz Bizzinger novel
of the same name, this downbeat story of high school football life in a small
town has more of a relationship to Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show
than the program which shared broadcast space with “Parenthood”—ultimately, it’s
about a town that serves as sort of a time capsule for youth, trapping entire
generations in its sway. It’s the sort of picture that gives truth to the
fatalistic phrase, “these are the best days of your life,” zeroing in on the
gridiron group that goes to war for tiny Odessa, Texas, led by an exhausted
general (Billy Bob Thornton) who feels powerless to the system that chews up
promising kids and spits them out as dim, prospect-less drunks like the grunt
played by a surprisingly great Tim McGraw. Peter Berg directs the game scenes
as frenetic, action-packed sequences where bodies go flying everywhere, and the
damaged get shuffled to the side. But he brings an immediate gravity to the quieter segments as well, finding brief moments that are like seeing a daisy grow in the
desert, revealing the humanity that exists between the cracks. Berg’s made his
name as a go-to guy for loud, dumb blockbusters, but this stands out as
something of a masterpiece, reason enough for cinephiles to not give up on the
man who once steered a “Battleship.”

Heaven Can Wait” (1978)
The second of three adaptations of the play “Heaven Can
,” sandwiched between “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” and “Down To Earth,” this
gaudy comedy carried some heavy firepower, emerging from a script from Warren Beatty,
Elaine May, Robert Towne and Buck Henry. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the
story follows Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a second-string quarterback who loses his life in
a freak accident and must return to Earth in the body of a bumbling old man. Amusingly,
he finds himself stuck in the middle of a power grab where his new
millionaire body has been resurrected right after his betrayal by the millionaire’s
wife (Dyan Cannon) and her new lover (Charles Grodin). Nonetheless, in spite of
his new identity as Leo Farnsworth, he can’t shake the itch of potentially
being a star player, as “Heaven Can Wait” is ultimately about second chances, and athletic has-beens who use their second opportunity to right the wrongs
of sports, and life, the unwinnable game. Wish fulfillment at its
most grandiose, Pendleton uses Farnsworth’s wealth to purchase his old team,
the St. Louis Rams, placing Farnsworth’s body in a position to finally become
the star quarterback that Pendleton couldn’t. “Heaven Can Wait” successfully
blends maudlin sentimentality, black comedy and conventional sports thrills as
something of a grab-bag of pleasures, with enough cynical self-awareness to
help the spoonful of sugar go down. Highlighted by a surprisingly nuanced
romance between Beatty and an activist played by his luminous “McCabe And Mrs.
” co-star (and off-screen lover) Julie Christie, the film mixes a
considerable amount of heart with its conventional last-reel sports heroics.

Knute Rockne, All-American” (1940)
You wouldn’t expect much verisimilitude from a football film
dating back a good seventy-plus years. But that’s exactly what comes across
through the otherwise stately biopic of the revolutionary Rockne. The film
boasted an in-depth insight into the world of Notre Dame football through the
eyes of the player-turned-coach who helped bring the school the sort of
nationwide fame by pioneering several contemporary play strategies and ideas
before his untimely death in the early ’30s. Rockne wasn’t just an
innovator and a master strategist, but thanks to Pat O’Brien’s kindly
performance, also a charismatic salesman and deal-maker, helping spread the
world about collegiate football through the media and effectively becoming one
of sport’s earliest hype men. The picture takes great pains to emphasize the
relationship between Rockne and player George Gipp, played by none other than
Ronald Reagan. The moment that lives in movie history, and the one that got
Knute Rockne, All-American” entered into the National Film Registry, is
probably the recreation of the speech where Rockne proposes to his team, in
regards to their sick teammate, to “win one for the Gipper.” But lost within
that moment is the fact that directors Lloyd Bacon and (an uncredited) William
K. Howard
helped capture some of the most exciting, in-your-face football
footage at that point, some of which still holds up today.

The Last Boy Scout” (1991)
In the opening moments of Tony Scott’s breakneck action
comedy, a running back played by Billy Blanks sweats, curses, and prepares for
the play of his life. Once on the field, he takes the ball and removes a
revolver from his shoe, charging to the end zone while firing on opposing players,
determined to end his life with one last touchdown and a bullet to the head.
Ending this scene with the upbeat opening credits set to the intro to a fictional
“Friday Night Football” showcase is an audacious punctuation to the suggestion
that glory is all there is, that on-field immortality is the same as off-field
immortality. Shane Black’s hysterical murder mystery gives Bruce Willis one of the
best roles of his career as private investigator Joe Hallenbeck, a down-and-out
schmuck who finds himself teamed with disgraced pro Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) pitted
against a memorably poncy villain played by Taylor Negron. Hallenbeck’s
burnt-out patter with Dix has the edge of noir with a post-modern
sensibility, and the picture’s subversive violence and inventive action
suggests Willis could have become one of our great leading men, and not just a
multi-purpose toy for middling action directors. The film’s close features some
of the most amusing on-field action you’re likely never see again, including a
literal horse race that appears years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s similar
chase tactics in “True Lies.”

The Longest Yard” (1974)
There’s no actor more suited to playing a footballer than
Burt Reynolds, classically masculine but with a bullish physicality and brusque
manner more suited to the gridiron than the silver screen. He was enough of a
talent, fortunately, that meatheaded action pictures weren’t the only projects he
took up, and his natural charisma was able to carry a large ensemble in the
case of this comedy. Reynolds gives off the appropriate devil-may-care attitude
that not only allows him to capture a rapscallion’s wit as a portrait of an
over-entitled era of athletes, but also as a protagonist that can believably go
on a bender in an opening scene and beat his girlfriend, and somehow eventually
win the audience’s trust. Reynolds’ Paul Crewe is eventually locked away in
prison, where the power dynamics have shifted completely, and Reynolds plays
both the sudden impotence of a pampered celebrity and the emboldened daredevil
attitude of a man with plans. Superior to the tone-deaf, pro-bully remake, this
hard-fought variation of slobs versus snobs pits the inmates against the guards
in a winner-take-all football game, and the climatic match is funny because it
trusts the irreverence of its concept, not because of an over-reliance on jokes
like the Adam Sandler version.

North Dallas Forty” (1979)
The origins of Nick Nolte’s glass-cutting growl can be found
here, in this bruising, battered true-life story of a wildly colorful Dallas
Cowboys team (here called the North Dallas Bulls). The games are long and brutal, sure, but the nights are longer
and wilder, and in the mornings, the hangovers are as powerful as the knees and
shoulders are sore. “North Dallas Forty” is purposely slack, coming in 1979 at
the tail-end of brutal ensemble pictures where men behave badly with no
apologies and protagonists are never quite likable. Which makes it the ideal
vehicle for Nick Nolte: here as a womanizing wide receiver named Phil Elliot, whose real problem is drugs, both the recreational narcotic kind but also the
painkillers that keep him on his feet, punch-drunk, and a slave to the
franchise. The picture is funny for its bracing honesty. This from an era where
football heroes may have been rebellious and uncouth, but also an era when we
rarely caught a peek behind the curtain, where the locker room was the stuff of
inspirational rah-rah speeches, not apathetic fist-fights between teammates. Ted
’s film is essentially a workplace comedy, but the employees are
braindead and wealthy, and the benefits are glory and groupies in equal
amounts. Only in the ’70s could you end a sports film not with a big game,
but with a free-frame of a quitting hero shrugging.

Semi-Tough” (1977)
Burt Reynolds is to football films as Kevin Costner is to baseball ones: you’re surprised the ex-jock hasn’t spent his whole life playing athletes. That sort of deceptiveness serves Reynolds well as Billy Puckett, a pugnacious jock who isn’t comfortable anywhere off the football field, as if the ball was glued to the running back’s hand. His roommate Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) is low on confidence until he attends a new-age seminar service, developing an unforeseen skill level on the field and a new tension between Billy and love interest Barbara Jane (Jill Clayburgh), his two roommates. Not only does it create professional tension between Billy and Tiller, but it contaminates the engagement between Tiller and Barbara, with Barbara’s dubiousness and questioning the hippie policies, which include forced incontinence. Instead of making a move for Barbara by appealing to her rejection of the program, Billy instead enrolls. It leads to the sight of Reynolds, the portrait of a specific era of masculinity, forced to endure a series of emasculating activities that, in a way, made the aging star look like a man out of time. “Semi-Tough” effectively not only critiqued the era’s New Age movement (reportedly mocking real-life guru Werner Erhard and his “EST” training) but also the idea of the professional sports world embracing and emphasizing a rigid sense of sex roles; the picture sides with Reynolds’ Billy, but you get the sense director Michael Ritchie is also subtly suggesting football as eternally frozen in a very specific moment in history.

Paper Lion” (1968)
George Plimpton led a full life, publishing several books
and columns and becoming a pop culture superstar. He also lived to be a part of
what he chronicled, leading him to pitch against All-Star hitters in the major
leagues, and spar a couple of rounds with the best boxers in the world. But in
his book “Paper Lion,” Plimpton discussed one of his greatest honors, playing
backup quarterback in training camp for the Detroit Lions. Plimpton’s voice has
been captured across all mediums, but it must have been a thrill to have his
personality captured by Alan Alda at the peak of his career. The picture
follows Plimpton as a dreamer masquerading as a writer, seeing the experience
of being in uniform first as an amusing joke and an opportunity for a great
Sports Illustrated piece, and then an honest chance to thrive performing alongside
his heroes, despite being on the wrong side of 35. The charm of “Paper Lion”
comes from Alda’s interactions with the real-life pros, including star Alex
, who becomes fast friends with Plimpton as he protects the writer from
the razzing and mockery of fellow players. Ultimately, “Paper Lion” stretches
the truth to get Plimpton on the field for a few plays in a preseason game, but
ultimately it provides humanizing comic fodder to re-establish the divide
between Plimpton and the pros he documents.

In the modern era of sports films, there has been a movement
away from the depiction of superstar legends and towards true stories of minor
successes, like the few pitches tossed in John Lee Hancock’s “The Rookie” or
the handful of plays celebrated in Ericson Core’s “Invincible.” But the many
films in that genre owe their existence to Michael Anspaugh’s spirited ode to
never-say-die optimism. Short, portly, unassuming Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin)
is everybody’s idea of a long shot to be even a collegiate athlete, but it
can’t dull his enthusiasm for Notre Dame, and his dream of wearing the iconic blue and gold is defeated by a lack of good grades and a social awkwardness.
Rudy’s journey to become a member of the Fightin’ Irish hits several snags as
he’s defeated at every turn, but this straightforward, somewhat predictable
drama is a paean to blind determination as Rudy fights his way up the food
chain from the very bottom, if only for one glorified minute underneath the
iconic helmet. “Rudy” could be remade ten times, and it’s likely all ten
versions would be excessively obvious and unnecessary. This version, however,
benefits from a one-of-a-kind performance by Astin, who captures both the
sadsack persona of Rudy and his winning determination, as well as an
epic score from Jerry Goldsmith that captures that sensation of pigskin glory, turning the film from a standard underdog story into a minor sports classic.

Honorable Mention:
We’d be remiss in not mentioning the classic “Brian’s Song,”
though we tried to avoid including TV movies. And though it’s of an earlier era, the manic pleasures of Harold
’s “The Freshman” still crack us up. Taylor Hackford’s two efforts
Against All Odds” and “Everybody’s All-American” are worth mentioning for the
excellent superstar casting of Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid, respectively,
though the latter film is fairly dull, and the former is most remembered for
the classic Phil Collins theme. Football comedies usually feature the same dumb
pratfalls, but kudos to the playful “Necessary Roughness” and George Clooney’s
daffy, lightweight “Leatherheads” for finding new angles on that. Tom Cruise
makes a convincing defensive back in “All The Right Moves,” moreso than Robert
Downey Jr.
and Anthony Michael Hall in “Johnny Be Good,” and especially James
Van Der Beek
in the cheeseball millennial staple “Varsity Blues.” And our
favorite football character in cinema history has to be the ex-pro Harry Moseby, played by Gene Hackman, in Arthur Penn’s chilly noir “Night Moves.”

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