Football is sort of like smoking cigarettes; we know it’s bad for us, but we just can’t quit it. Between the amazing physical feats of strength and finesse, the team camaraderie, the personal storylines that inject theatrics into every matchup, and the ability for an underdog to unseat a favored rival any given Sunday, there’s something primal and inherently dramatic about America’s most-watched sport.
Perhaps that’s why the game makes a great basis for feature films. All of the heart, pain, and glory that can be found in football are also the same ingredients for a memorable movie. The gridiron has been the setting for a ton of Hollywood productions, but we’ve singled out the true MVPs of the genre that will give you the same adrenaline and release that you get when your favorite team scores the go-ahead touchdown. Check out out our favorite football films below and let us know which of your favorites we’re missing in the comments.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
With Jamie Foxx as the brash malcontent, Dennis Quad as the wily old vet and some dude named Al Pacino, Oliver Stone’s 1999 football ode to the gridiron has become a classic sports film. With jarring, well shot football action and plenty of appearances from NFL legends, Any Given Sunday handles the often murky behind-the-scenes of the locker room as well as any sports movie.
Varsity Blues (1999)
James Van Der Beek (that’s right, Dawson Leery) plays Jonathan Moxon, a football player just going through the motions. He’s been pressured by his fanatical football-loving father to stay on the field and he’s not living up to his promise because he’s buried behind star quarterback Lance Harbor (RIP Paul Walker). When Harbor gets injured, you know how the story goes. Mox steps up to lead the team to victory. It would be higher up on the list if: (A) Katie Holmes was in the movie to terrorize Mox’s love life and (B) Joshua Jackson was cast to be Mox’s sly best friend. Dawson’s Creek fans could dream, though!
Goldie Hawn plays Molly McGrath, an American football-obsessed high school track coach at a prestigious school, who dreams of being given the opportunity to coach a football team. When an opportunity to coach the team of an inner city high school comes up, she applies and gets the job. She faces challenges in getting the team together but turns their fortunes around and ends up taking them to the championship game where she faces the school where she used to teach. The film also stars Wesley Snipes, LL Cool J and Woody Harrelson. It’s predictable and cheesy (as a lot of sports movies are) but highly enjoyable.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
The source material was written by Peter Gent, a former wide receiver for the Cowboys and he’s played here by Nick Nolte. Well, the character’s called Philip Elliott, but it’s obvious who he’s supposed be. The Dallas Cowboys were reportedly none too pleased with either the book or film of North Dallas Forty, given the similarities between the legendary NFL team and the fictional North Dallas Bulls here, due to the fact that active encouragement of the use of pain killers features.
Remember The Titans (2000)
Loosely based on true events, Remember The Titans is a story about a group of young men overcoming racial boundaries and learning what it truly means to become a unit of one. The man to guide them there is the Denzel Washington, who portrays coach Herman Boone. We know whatever Denzel touches turns to gold, but this movie has to be up there as one of his most memorable and beloved performances. When this movie came out, I think using the phrase instant classic would have been an understatement.
As with many (and arguably the best) football movies, this is based on a true story. Rudy was dyslexic and physically unimpressive, but persisted to achieve his dream of playing for Notre Dame. Rudy gets his dream and plays in the final play of the season in which he sacks the opposing team’s quarterback. Sean Astin puts in one hell of a performance as Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger and the film features Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau in their earliest films credits.
The Longest Yard (1974)
This is the 1974, Oscar-nominated, Burt Reynolds version, not the 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler (that Burt Reynolds also stars in). This is not only one of the best American football movies, but one of the best prison movies ever made as well. We enjoy Adam Sandler’s turn as Paul Crewe just fine, but it’s almost bittersweet to watch that film knowing that the former “Water Boy” hasn’t made a good film since.
The Waterboy (1998)
While we’re on the topic of Sandler, he did hit it big with one of the funniest football films of all time. In The Waterboy, Adam Sandler’s backwater simpleton, Bobby Boucher, discovers that he’s able to tackle like a beast when he channels his rage. His new found talent helps him make the transition from waterboy to starting linebacker, helping his team reach the championship in the process. The usual suspects that hang around Sandler’s films make this one plenty of fun.
Brian’s Song (1971)
If this movie doesn’t make you cry, you’re dead inside. This was originally a made for TV movie but got a cinematic release due to its popularity. Again, this is another film that’s based on true events, focused on the life of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and his friendship with team mate Gale Sayers. James Caan plays Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams plays Sayers. The film was the subject of an unnecessary remake in 2001 that doesn’t match the quality of the original.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights follows the exploits of the Permian Panthers, from the blue collar town of Odessa, Texas during the 1988 season and their run for the state championship. Coach Gary Gaines (played by Billy Bob Thornton) faces constant scrutiny and the possibility of losing his job if the team doesn’t make the playoffs. When the team’s star running back is lost early in the season, the outlook is bleak, but they manage to remain competitive in their attempt to mount a title challenge. The film was followed by a TV series, which is widely viewed as one of the best sports series of all time.
This story originally ran in January 2014.