I’m not a big fan of American football. I am, however, a big fan of movies about football, or movies that happen to feature football as a major plot point. Is that pretentious? There isn’t an issue on my end with people who watch the sport. It just isn’t something that ever grabbed my attention. Not even growing up in a football town in rural Virginia could get me into it. I managed to go my entire high school career without attending a single game.
But movies about football? The inherent drama of the game, or of what goes on beyond these expensive, well-kept fields? I can get behind that.
Several titles come to mind for this list of the best football movies. Football, like many sports, lends itself well to exploring larger themes and motivations. Of course, there are also documentaries about the game, which also take advantage of the natural potential football has for high drama with a plethora of intense emotions. It’s impressive for a sport that really just comes down to running around screaming with a tiny ball.
Regardless of how you feel about football, or the recent Super Bowl LIV, I think you’ll find a movie worth your time for this month’s Make the Case. As long as the sport itself is a significant part of the movie’s DNA, it qualified for inclusion on this chronological list.
Just 12 years after the formation of the NFL, and before the Hollywood Code, Horse Feathers was the second-to-last Marx Brothers feature to include all four brothers. It is also one of their funniest comedies, even if you don’t give a damn about football.
Set during a highly-anticipated football game between two fictional colleges, Horse Feathers offers brilliant comedic performances from all four brothers (yes, even poor Zeppo), along with a number of classic musical comedy numbers (“Everyone Says I Love You” remains my personal favorite). The presence of Thelma Todd, who worked well with the troupe, is also worth keeping in mind.
At just 68 minutes for its running time, Horse Feathers flies past you. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get all of the references and lingo of the period. Prohibition is a major plot point, and even the title of the movie, a way of describing something nonsensical, is out of date. The important components of the movie, however, remain as hysterical as ever. The big game itself between the two schools is still one of the best “big games” in the history of football in the movies.
2. The Longest Yard (1974)
Director: Robert Aldrich
A washed-up quarterback (Burt Reynolds, at the top of his comedic and dramatic talents as an actor) from the pro leagues is sent to a state prison for eighteen months. His glory days as a football player forces him to become the captain of a team consisting of his fellow inmates. They have to play against the guards, who are as violent as they are corrupt.
Not surprisingly, the prison in general is not a great place to be.
The Longest Yard is quite simply a satisfying underdog story from start to finish. That theme is popular among the best football movies ever made. It works here particularly well because of Reynolds, who was still an actor who could seemingly make anything work on screen. Longest Yard works well by having enough drama in its running time to keep things from getting a little too ridiculous. A strong supporting cast, which includes Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter, and the legendary Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke, also helps ground things.
The final game is expertly shot and edited, with an ending that makes sense. Avoid the 2005 Adam Sandler remake, unless you really want to see Burt Reynolds as the coach (he’s fun).
3. North Dallas Forty (1979)
Director: Ted Kotcheff
One of the best things about the wild, downright vicious satire North Dallas Forty? The NFL refused to participate or cooperate in any form or fashion. Some argue that’s because the film, based on a novel by former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent, hit a tone with its humor that reminded the NFL a little too keenly of the realities of their industry. The degree of celebrity afforded NFL players, even the relatively obscure ones, has certainly lent itself well to a long list of wholly unpleasant scandals.
North Dallas Forty presents such chaos and bad behavior in a sharp, but ultimately over-the-top light. Supported by a career-defining performance by Nick Nolte, the film is more than just one sharp jab at the pro football industry after another. It is also a compelling character study, particularly with Nolte’s veteran wide receiver, and his refusal to treat football as anything but an extended opportunity to get loaded and laid.
Some football movies deal in the strategy and dramatics of a game that makes intense demands of the human condition. Others prefer to savage the uglier aspects of the sport, with special attention played to the massive, arguably poisonous National Football League. North Dallas Forty is still a prime example of the second category.
4. Any Given Sunday (1999)
Director: Oliver Stone
I’m willing to make the argument that Any Given Sunday was the last time Oliver Stone was tolerable as a filmmaker. An extremely ambitious movie, even for a man who has moved through life like a living embodiment of cocaine, Any Given Sunday remains not just one of the best movies about football ever made. It is also one of the best movies about sports ever made, period.
The monstrosity that is professional football is covered on a variety of levels here. There are stories concerning the players, including the Next Big Thing (Jamie Foxx, who was just starting to pick up serious momentum as a film actor), the weary veteran quarterback (Dennis Quaid, in one of his best), and a player whose long career has been punctuated by numerous concussions (an effective performance from NFL legend Lawrence Taylor). There is also a progressing story about a legendary coach on the brink of becoming a punchline (Al Pacino, who wouldn’t be as good as he is here for a few years afterwards), which also touches on the machinations of team doctors, trainers, managers, owners, journalists, and all the rest.
Any Given Sunday throws a number of threads in the air. Stone impressively brings it all together for a final game with a post-script that is more grounded in reality than almost anything else he did in his most creatively decadent decade. It’s another movie that understands and uses football effectively, but not the point where the movie can’t be interesting to everyone else. Stone hasn’t made a movie this good since.
5. Friday Night Lights (2004)
Director: Peter Berg
The TV version of Friday Night Lights is probably better than the film. Nonetheless, in what is probably Peter Berg’s strongest effort as a director, it is easy to see why this story of a Texas high school football team was later appreciated for its serialized potential. The culture of high school football is unfortunately relatable to virtually all of us who went to public school in the United States. I say unfortunately because it exists and dominates the atmosphere, whether it’s your thing or not.
If you live in a town that doesn’t have a lot going on, football is popular at the local high school. Really, football is popular all over the country, but the small-town component seems to be the most fascinating to writers and directors. If football didn’t exist in the world in which Friday Night Lights is set, there is a good enough chance that the town wouldn’t exist at all.
You should also keep in mind that as far as most of Texas is concerned, few things are more important than football in virtually any form. Friday Night Lights captures that excitement, a relentless fervor that swallows lives and attention spans, but the film also offers memorable performances (Billy Bob Thornton plays to type as the coach, but he plays that type particularly well here) and a crucial attention to good pacing.
Friday Night Lights is a bit more romantic than some of the other entries on this list. However, it also presents its story with a unique combination of honesty with its more cinematic portions. The end result is a movie that at least makes it easy to understand why this game fascinates and obsesses so many.
Football is part of the landscape, even in countries where football refers to a different sport entirely. Movies have done as good a job of discussing its glories, history, cultural importance, impact, and failings as the game itself.
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