Movies and Football — both got their start at roughly the same time and, after a slow rise, both rose to become multibillion dollar industries. Combining two of America’s most prized forms of entertainment, football movies pack a double punch, giving us everything we want in a worthwhile pastime: guts, sweat, determination, and defeat — not to mention pummeling action and bruising impacts.
Here are twenty of the best football movies around. You’ll find dramas about small town high school teams. Comedies about ragtag prison games. Underdog stories. Tales of triumphs. Tragedies. Torn ligaments. Texas. With big stars and huge games these movies look at football from every angle — the glory right alongside the grit. They’ll probably make you cheer, possibly get you a little choked up, and if nothing else, these twenty football films will give you something good to watch while you wait for August and September to roll back around.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Before the hit show came this movie, and before this movie came the book. Both the movie and book take Odessa, Texas as the setting (with the show moving things to fictional Dillon) and tells the story of an economically suffering town, that has one shining beacon for the lives of its residents — the success of the local football team. The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as head coach Gary Gaines who tries to lead the team to the victory at the state championships in 1988.
Triumph over the odds. Chase the impossible dream. Never give up. These are what movies have been telling to do since the beginning, but few do it better than this feel good football film. Based on a true story of a guy who has neither the grades nor the athletic ability to make it onto the Notre Dame football team, Rudy is dogged determination epitomized. Even the toughest among us has shed a tear for this one.
Remember the Titans (2000)
Tackling the subject of racial integration on a Virginia high school football team in the 70s, Remember the Titans is another based-on-a-true-story football biopic. Denzel Washington plays the demanding, harsh, but nonetheless inspirational new head coach that leads the team to the state championships. Full of the inspirational moments, rousing speeches, and trust-building arcs that we love in sports movies, this is one of the genuine football classics.
It’s a story many a football fan would like to see come true. About a bartender in Philly who takes a shot at public tryouts for the Eagles, then actually makes it on the team, Invincible is based on the real life story of Vince Papale. Mark Wahlberg plays Papale and Greg Kinnear takes on the role of NFL coach Dick Vermeil. If you haven’t seen it but the plot sounds familiar, you might be remembering an episode of Always Sunny, in which the Gang Gets Invincible.
Varsity Blues (1999)
James Van Der Beek stars as the backup quarterback to Paul Walker’s QB on a small-town Texas high school football team. When the tactics of the team’s overly ambitious coach puts the starter out of the game, the rebellious backup is moved into his spot. With a soundtrack that reads like a late 90s radio playlist (Green Day, Foo Fighters, Offspring, Collective Soul) Varsity Blues is an end of millenium teen movie with more than a few fervent fans.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Burt Reynolds plays former pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, serving time in a state prison. When the football-obsessed warden insists Crewe put together a team of inmates to play against the prison guards, the Mean Machine prison team is born. As he builds and coaches the team, Reynolds is all swagger and the jokes are dark but funny. Plus about half the actors on the team were former NFL pros.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
This is what Oliver Stone brings to the sports film genre. Al Pacino plays the coach, Dennis Quaid the starting quarterback, Jamie Foxx plays third string, and Cameron Diaz the team’s owner, who has something to say about the head coach’s methods. Taking a hard look at the human drama side of the sport, Any Given Sunday offers bone-crunching plays on the field and life altering plays off it.
We Are Marshall (2006)
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more depressing opening premise than We Are Marshall, but somehow it comes around to rousing uplift. Based on the true story of a West Virginia collegiate football team who tragically die in a plane crash, this Matthew McConaughey-helmed film is the story of a new coach and the inexperienced athletes and freshmen who work to form a winning team, one worthy of the players they lost.
Gridiron Gang (2006)
Like The Longest Yard, Gridiron Gang is the story of incarcerated football, but this time the players are in a juvenile detention center, and the guy bringing them together (Dwayne Johnson) is looking to turn their lives around through the training, discipline and achievement the sport can bring. Based on the documentary about the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention camp and its team, the Kilpatrick Mustangs, the movie achieves its goal of proving second chances are possible through sportsmanship.
The Longest Yard (2005)
First time around you got the sly smirk of Burt Reynolds in the lead. In the remake three decades later, Adam Sandler plays the newly imprisoned ex-football star forced to field a team of inmates to go against the prison guards (while Reynolds takes on the role of a retired player who helps mold the team). Slightly slicker than the original, it still maintains the quick pace, zinging humor, and brute force full-contact of the original.
The Express (2008)
Telling the story of the first black player to win the Heisman trophy, The Express earned positive reviews from the critics, but didn’t achieve much in the way of box office glory. Take a look now and you’ll see Dennis Quaid (in his second role from our list) playing the head coach at Syracuse University with Rob Brown (star of Treme) playing football hero Ernie Davis, who would go on to sign with the Cleveland Browns.
Necessary Roughness (1991)
Texas college team, the Armadillos is gutted after a NCAA corruption scandal results in the firing of the coaches and banning of most of the players. Trying to cobble together a replacement team, the new coach goes after a former high school football star and gets him to enrol in the university. With Scott Bakula as the aging freshman and Sinbad as a wisecracking graduate student also recruited to the team, it’s a bit like Major League, but with football.
Undefeated (Documentary, 2011)
Winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Undefeated follows a North Memphis high school football team suffering from severe underfunding and a hundred year losing streak. A former high school coach decided to volunteer his time to turn the tides on the Manassas Tigers’ fortunes. A narrative remake has been in the works since its release, though nothing has been announced. Until then, see a powerful and real-world example of a team overcoming the odds.
When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Most sports movies follow the underdog-to-glory trajectory. When the Game Stands Tall deals instead with a team starting at the top. After the De La Salle Spartans, a California high school football team with a 151-game winning streak, meet with two tragedies, they lose their winning streak. Based on a true story, the film deals with a team not just chasing wins on the field but in life as well.
Take a trip back to a time when professional football wasn’t the biggest deal around, when the rules were non-existent, and the helmets were made of the same stuff as the ball. This screwball comedy about the early days of America’s sport stars George Clooney and John Krasinski as two players with the Duluth Bulldogs. They fight over a girl, work to legitimize their sport, and play some very muddy matches.
Draft Day (2014)
While there’s some on-the-field footage, the majority of Draft Day revolves around, as the title suggests, the day NFL teams pick newly eligible players. Injecting drama into a (big) day in the life of a fictional Cleveland Browns team manager played by an always charismatic Kevin Costner, the story follows the behind the scenes maneuvers and deals that build winning teams. Any fan of ESPN’s draft coverage, or anyone who just likes to watch some tense negotiations go down, will be happy with this winning drama.
The Waterboy (1998)
A football (or, if you prefer, “foosball”) movie about a sheltered, awkward guy who’s happy to just provide quality H2O for the team. When the release of his pent up rage turns him into a formidable linebacker, obstacles to staying on the team just keep mounting. With Adam Sandler in full insano mode, complete with a ridiculous accent and top-form crushing slapstick, The Waterboy makes the game of football endearing and very funny.
Brian’s Song (1971)
A made-for-TV movie that garnered such success they screened it in theaters, Brian’s Song is about two football players who start out as rivaling rookies with the Chicago Bears (played by James Caan and Billy Dee Williams). The teammates become roommates and eventually friends, until one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A classic football movie about the bonds formed among teammates.
Big Fan (2009)
He calls himself the world’s biggest Giant’s fan and then goes on to prove it. Played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt, “Paul from Staten Island” works as a parking garage attendant and spends the rest of his time watching or talking about his team. When a chance encounter gets him beaten up by his favorite player, the consequences are a little dark, a little sad, and a little funny, but mostly the movie is filled with the unconditional love so many fans feel for the team they consider theirs.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Here’s a guy who wants to play football so bad he doesn’t care whose body he plays it in. Heaven Can Wait puts Warren Beatty in the role of a Los Angeles Rams quarterback who accidentally gets swooped up by an angel before he’s actually supposed to die. With his soul stuck in a replacement body, he returns to the team and leads them to the Super Bowl. It’s a light take on the sports genre with big actors (and a few NFL stars) from the 70s.