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100 yards. 22 players. 4 quarters. Simple math shows a game of numbers and statistics, but a further look beyond the paper and box score tells a unique and complex story. A story that excites, frustrates, and sometimes even confuses. American football is just as engaging as it is divisive, and whether you think going for it on fourth and short is analytically advantageous to punting, we can find common ground in the belief that football is just as dramatic as the movies.
The following list features my personal choices for the top football movies of all time. The NFL is currently in week 16 of its season with playoffs a mere week or two away, and the Super Bowl right around the corner. If the lead up to this point was cinematic, you could say we’re gearing up for a final and exciting third act.
Sports and film haven’t always had a cohesive relationship, but the following selections should, if anything, prove that there is beauty both visually and physically to a game that is both graceful yet barbaric. My dad always said being a sports fan was more miserable than not, and these films are indicative of that sentiment. Encapsulating a sport is impossible to do in an entire feature film runtime, but to quote legendary coach Vince Lombardi, “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
The Waterboy (1998)
No list or conversation about football in various media is complete without mention of the irreverent comedy that is The Waterboy. In a sport and sub-genre of films which is often taken very seriously (almost to a fault), the Sandman himself plays to his strengths of crafting a downtrodden yet kind and likable character who overcomes and exceeds expectations. Billy Madison chose school as a backdrop. Happy Gilmore chose golf. But The Waterboy sets its story in the Louisiana Bayou and the game of college football.
Lovable loser Bobby Boucher lives at home with his mother (played by Kathy Bates) and is forbidden from doing just about anything outside of the home (because that would be for the Devil!). A water boy at a local University, Bobby goes on a journey of rejection, denial, and success to become the hardest hitting linebacker in the entire country. Cameos, including ESPN’s Dan Patrick and NFL legend Lawrence Taylor, are everywhere, and Sandler’s usage of multiple running gags abound. The Waterboy’s game sequences, while not inventive in any way, are still some of the better ones put to screen thanks to a sound design emphasizing Sandler’s ridiculous accent as he sprints headfirst to sack the quarterback. The final pop of the tackle is sure to put a smile on your face once or twice.
ce Lombardi, “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”
Varsity Blues (1999)
Texas football reigns supreme (a theme that will continue throughout this list), in director Brian Robbins’ teenage coming-of-age dramedy about a small town football team faced with the tropes of most sports movies: injuries, pressure, failure, and success. Varsity Blues steers away from the typical, sometimes formulaic story of other films on this list by incorporating the drama on the field with the humor and lightheartedness of simply being a teenager. As much of a teen comedy as it is a football movie, Varsity Blues once again proves that football at any level is full throttle entertainment.
Centered around a small Texas high school football team, the film tells the story of the rise of backup quarterback Jonathan Moxon (also known as “Mox”), played by James Van Der Beek, who was at the height of his acting fame. Mox is thrust into the spotlight after an injury to starting quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker). Lance is set to play college football at Florida State University, and Mox is prepped to continue his education on an academic scholarship to Brown University. Mox’s success brings about the fame and treatment that starting QB’s routinely possess, but Mox lives and plays by a different set of rules. Using his brains and intuition, Mox is able to circumvent the traditional path of stardom to become a luminary figure to his team and community.
Contrary to every other film on this list, Varsity Blues creates a villainous and antagonistic character arc centered around the team’s head coach. Coach Kilmer’s (Jon Voight) lack of pragmatism and understanding of his own roster’s vulnerability guides us to rally behind Mox, Lance, and the rest of team. Sure, Varsity Blues contains the always melodramatic pregame and halftime speeches, but this time the players take the reins, a vast contrast to what has become the expected. Comical, earnest, and all around delightful, Varsity Blues reminds us that the game of life is always the most important one we play.
Remember the Titans (2000)
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t mention Remember the Titans when asked about their favorite sports movies. I’ll likely be chastised for not ranking this higher, but nonetheless, third place still gets you on the podium.
I first saw the film with my dad while in middle school for a school-wide movie night. My attention was diverted to friends in the room and, more importantly, the free snacks. It wasn’t until years later when I saw it once again that the central themes of the story crystallized in my mind. Race, reluctance and acceptance of change, and adversity ring loudly in Yakin’s inspiring offering that should be required viewing for just about everyone.
A magnetic-as-always Denzel Washington portrays Herman Boone, a recently appointed head football coach in Alexandria, Virginia, a position that was once held by a white coach. Players boycott, and a portion of townspeople are outraged, all before the first snap of his tenure of coaching the Titans. The real battle here is fought off the field. A successful, undefeated season for Coach Boone and the Titans is not enough to deter those of opposing ideology, thus instilling the fact that some things are bigger than a game.
Remember the Titans is just as important as it heartfelt. The film is shown through a lens of tolerance while also acknowledging the many vitriolic attitudes and approaches to humankind in this country. At times, Titans presents itself as an after school special regarding the presentation of its message (this is a Disney production after all), but the thematic elements are serious, real, and worthy of visual display for all to see. One of the most important football movies ever made, Remember the Titans is more than worthy of making this list.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
You couldn’t ask for a better ensemble cast for a movie at the tail end of the 20th century. Academy Award winner Al Pacino, future Best Actor winner Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J, and Dennis Quad all work together as players and staff for the fictional Miami Sharks (not too far off from the real Miami Dolphins team name), a franchise once covered in glory and sustained success, now on the decline scratching for a playoff spot to keep their jobs and franchise afloat. Helmed by the legendary Oliver Stone, Any Given Sunday is long, loud, frantic, and over the top, but you’d be hard pressed to find a movie that captures what it’s like to work in a ruthless industry like professional football while also diving deep into the true X’s and O’s of the game itself (sorry, Draft Day). It also features one of the best quotes in a sports movie I have ever heard: “I don’t get strokes […] I give them!”
Any Given Sunday draws parallels to situations we’ve seen in recent National Football League scenarios. A former league owner’s child taking over the team, the dangling carrot of additional performance-based incentives for players, and the threat of the young backup usurping the tenured and decorated starter are all headlines you can see when you turn on the TV for football Sunday. Everything combined proves at least one thing: football as a game plays out as a movie from the pee-wee level all the way up to the highest stage. There are heroes, there are villains, but it’s up for you to decide who is whom.
Despite the film oftentimes playing like one extended montage or even a music video, Any Given Sunday still provides the gritty realism, emotion, and passion that makes football the most watched sport in the entire country and for good reason. Another hit in Oliver Stone’s storied filmography, Any Given Sunday may just make you want to suit up, put three on the ground, and rocket off the line of scrimmage to glory.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
The term itself, “Friday Night Lights,” drives home a feeling in the stomach of anticipation, pride, and most importantly, community. Despite your feelings about the sport itself, the imagery alone and sense of camaraderie when the lights kick on is electrifying. 2004’s Friday Night Lights, based on the book of the same name and which also spawned an excellent TV series, is based on the true events of the 1988 football season at Permian High School, located in Odessa, Texas. If you know anything about the sport, you know that Texans love football. As arguably the greatest film to put the game to screen, Friday Night Lights succeeds even more in its commitment to genuine characters and their subsequent varied journeys, making it my number one pick for the greatest football film of all time.
The story of Permian High School in 1988 is chock-full of drama and storylines that are synonymous with sports films, but the authenticity and heartfelt approach to the telling of this true story are nearly unmatched in the genre.
Permian High was a state powerhouse in the ’80s and early ’90s. A state championship wasn’t just the goal; it was the expectation. Their 1988 squad was initially led by star running back Boobie Miles, almost as exciting off the field as he was on it. A devastating injury derailed Miles’s career, throwing a wrench into the plans of the team and the hope of the city. The Panthers, however, rallied and made an inspiring run to the state championship.
Berg’s film is shot in a documentarian style with an emphasis on handheld camera work and strong usage of medium to close-up framing, particularly for the individual players. The game sequences are fast, tight, and focused. If your blood pressure doesn’t rise, you must not have a pulse. But what grounds the film is the oftentimes tragic personal tales woven throughout its entirety. They’re treated with compassion and a subtle grace that strikes the audience members’ pathos. Friday Night Lights doesn’t just excel as a great football film, it shines as a great film in the greater spectrum of the medium.