With the NFL regular season nearly upon us and the college football season starting today, I felt like it would be a good time to make a list of my 10 favorite football films. Yes, I know in the title it says American Football, but that’s only so we don’t confuse our lovely international readers.
What’s notable about football films is that there are only maybe a handful or so that are great. Much like all sports movies, they tend to have the classic theme of triumph of an individual or team who prevail despite the difficulties. Most follow the same formulas to varying degrees of success.
In The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films of All Time by authors Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow, 15 football films make their Top 100, which is a decent amount but nonetheless is outnumbered by other kind of sports movies. According to Wikipedia’s List of sports films page, there have been 127 films since 1925 (including documentary and tv) that can be considered football films or have something to do with football.
Let’s take a look at our Top 10 Football Films:
10. The Program (1993) d: David S. Ward
Sure, this college football movie is just a tad too cliched, but it also has positive qualities about it that separate itself from the run of the mill football movie. There are two fantastic subplots: one involving a steroid using defensive end (played by Andrew Bryniarski who was also in Any Given Sunday), and the other involving an intense middle linebacker named Alvin Mack (video above, played by Duane Davis), whose life is football until a devastating injury leaves him unable to play again. One of the most touching scenes in all of sports movie history (that I can’t find online of course) takes place when James Caan’s grizzled head coach visits Mack in the hospital after his injury.
Despite the mostly negative reviews, the doping subplot was met with universal acclaim, with most critics hailing the performance of Bryniarski as the steroid-riddled behemoth defensive end Steve Lattimer.
9. Necessary Roughness (1991) d. Stan Dragoti
I’ll admit this is my guilty pleasure selection of the list. One of those films that for one reason or another I just saw a lot while I was growing up. That being said I think it’s very funny, with some good gags and one liners. The underrated Scott Bakula gives a good, realistic performance as a middle aged former high school star getting a chance to finally play college football. Colorful characters and I liked that while there still is a “big game” at the end of the film, it’s not for the championship. As a matter of fact they lose all of their games except the one before where they tie which is hilarious because they celebrate the tie.
8. The Junction Boys (2002) d. Mike Robe
ESPN has had mixed success in its television and movie projects but The Junction Boys is one of the best. Featuring a great performance by the always underrated Tom Berenger as Paul “Bear” Bryant, this is about the brutal and tough camp that Bryant ran in 1954 as his first year of the Texas A&M program. Nowadays with more cautious awareness towards players health and hydration I don’t know if anyone could have endured what these players went through in sweltering 100 degree heat.
7. The Freshman (1925) d. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
One of Harold Lloyd’s funniest comedies has the silent star playing a wimpy college freshman who joins the school’s football team in order to impress a girl. 90 years and counting, the laughs and thrills still hold up.
6. All the Right Moves (1983) d. Michael Chapman
Much like Friday Night Lights, this is also about a small town and its team but this setting is in a steel town in Western Pennsylvania where if you don’t make it out through athletic achievement you’ll face a hard life in the mill. The main drama of the film is Tom Cruise wanting to play well enough to be able to get out and experience the world. Also giving solid performances are Craig T. Nelson, who makes his coach character multi dimensional and indeed he too is hoping for bigger and better things, and Chris Penn as a star linebacker who has a ride to USC but can’t take control of the other aspects of his life.
5. Brian’s Song (1971) d. Buzz Kulik
Yes I know this is the film that makes all men cry and it should be higher on the list but this isn’t as revered by me as others. Don’t get me wrong it’s well made and features a great performance by James Caan.
4. Friday Night Lights (2004) d. Peter Berg
A film that makes us feel and experience a certain time and place, in this case the pressure cooked world of high school football in West Texas. Although it plays loose with facts and the book it’s based off of, it is still a compelling, realistic look at a small town and its team. The tremendous amount of pressure these kids faced is both fascinating and pretty disturbing. The film also inspired the critically acclaimed television series that ran on NBC.
3. The Longest Yard (1974) d. Robert Aldrich
Burt Reynolds gives one of his best performances as Paul “Wrecking” Crew, a playboy professional quarterback who gets drunk then tries to evade police and is arrested. You know the rest as he ends up forming his own team of fellow inmates to take on the sadistic Warden team of guards. Just a classic set up that is perfect for good comedy bits as well as some drama about prison life. Reynolds was a former football player at Florida State so his athletic performance is very convincing.
2. North Dallas Forty (1979) d. Ted Kotcheff
This film in a way can be seen as the original Any Given Sunday. The first football movie to really give us a sense of the hardships and lifestyle of a professional football player back in a time where the game was played by real men who were tough and not divas. It also features a remarkably funny and heartfelt performance by Nick Nolte. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent a Cowboys wide receiver in the late 1960s, the film’s characters closely resemble real-life team members of that era.
1. Any Given Sunday (1999) d. Oliver Stone
To me this is the last great Oliver Stone film, and by that I mean it feels and looks like an Oliver Stone film. Sure the film is big, bloated, and overlong but then again so is the NFL! Stone brings us into the action and makes us feel the hits and bone crunches, so much so that we actually get to see what it may be like to play professional football. There’s a reason why this film is a favorite amongst professional football players. Every performance is great, including a star making turn from Jamie Foxx who proved that he can carry a film.
More than anything, Oliver Stone’s film holds up because many of the issues dealt with in the film are still being dealt with today on a larger level by the NFL. Stone shows the rise of corporatism and big business in a time where we weren’t nearly as saturated with as we are today. It also features one of the greatest sports scenes in movie history — the famous “inches speech” by Al Pacino (video above) — in full Al Pacino.
Any Given Sunday is still relevant over 15 years later — it revealed everything that’s currently wrong with the NFL culture.