There have been twenty-nine ‘Football’ themed motion pictures released since 1976. The average film has grossed $53,973,338 million. The top grossing film in the genre is ‘The Blindside’ with $255 million dollars, the lowest grossing is ‘The Best of Times’ with $7.5 million dollars. No film in the genera has ever won the OSCAR for Best Picture. Inevitably some of your favorites may be missing from the list. Leave us a comment on the bottom of the page with your thoughts on our picks.
10. The Best of Times (1986) – The sports comedy is almost a sub-genre unto its own. However this one is…um, leagues above other football folly films. ‘Best of Times‘ is the story of a middle-aged banker obsessed with his mistake during a key play in a High School Championship game. So, 20yrs later he orchestrates a second clash between the rival squads. This time though the players are almost 40 and comically past their primes. The pairing of Robin Williams and Kurt Russell is great casting, they work well off of each other as friends who relieve their glory days one last time. The concept is relatable to any former athlete who’s best years are far behind them. The script written by a then unknown Ron Shelton, who would go on to glory as writer/director of ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘White Man Can’t Jump’, offers genuine laughs (sorry, ‘Water boy’ & ‘The Replacements’), and some decent game sequences (listening, ‘Necessary Roughness’?). The best football comedy by a yard.
9. We Are Marshall (2006) – A somewhat overlooked drama that deals with the true story of Marshall University’s struggle to rebuild a football program, in the aftermath of a tragedy that shook the nation. Any film that kills off major characters in the first 15 minutes catches my attention. Veteran actor Robert Patrick plays head coach Rick Tolley who is returning with his team from a close loss against a rival school. The plane would ultimately clip a set of trees on its descent and crash. There were no survivors. In all, 75 people lost their lives. The dead included the 37 players; Coach Rick Tolley and five members of his coaching staff. Matthew Mcconaughey is the man hired by the school’s president to head up a new squad. Mcconaughey is offbeat with his ‘choices’ in the portrayal of legendary figure Jack Lengyel. It’s a tricky role, but he makes you believe that this man is both physically and emotionally invested in restoring a sense of pride back into the wounded community. Is it corny? Absolutely. It’s also very realistic in its depiction of the grieving process and small town racism (unlike, ‘Remember the Titans‘). Lush cinematography by Shane Hurlburt give the picture a warm sun drenched glow. A criminally underrated film that deserves another view.
8. The Rickey Bell Story (1991) – This was a made for TV movie from the early 1990’s. I know, I know that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Every male has one sports film that hits them right in the gut. For my dad’s generation it was ‘Brian’s Song’. For me it’s this ridiculous manipulative tearjerker that had me crying like a sick baby. The true story of running back Rickey Bell and his relationship with a father-less handicapped boy, and his efforts to be a big brother to him. The boy ends up being an inspiration for Bell when his disease makes the athlete more afflicted than the boy. Mario Van Peebles portrays Bell effectively, particularly during the days leading up to his death in 1984 of heart failure caused by dermatomyositis. An extremely rare and hard to find film, no official DVD or VHS exists to my knowledge. Although, there are bootlegs available online. This may not stand up when viewed by today’s glossy standards, but when I was a kid this made me and my old man shed a tear, whether he’d admit or not.
7. The Program (1993) – The spring/summer of 1993 was littered with college sports films like ‘Blue Chips‘, ‘Rudy‘, and ‘The Program‘. This tale about a losing season at a fictional university is the first to really touch on the aspects of student/athlete life, steroid abuse, and the dangers of playing for free when it could put a professional career at risk. James Caan makes for one helluva head coach. The catch-22 he’s caught in is an absolute nightmare, realistic situations like these are what college coaches are battling to this very day. The film earned some notoriety at the time of its release, for a scene in which the Heisman nominated QB, played by Craig Sheffer lays in the center-divide of a major highway to demonstrate his cool under pressure. Apparently some high school squad saw the pic and tried the stunt to a tragic fault. In the ensuing media-storm, parents boycotted the film which was released through Buena Vista films, owned by DISNEY PICTURES. The scene was cut from all prints and rumor has it every last negative was destroyed. To this day that scene, which was featured prominently in the trailer, has never resurfaced on any subsequent releases. Look for a young Halle Berry as the tutor/girlfriend of the hot new recruit played by Omar Epps. David Ward’s script lapses into cliches often (injured player cheering on his team from hospital bed), but has enough convincing moments (effects of steroids on young athletes) that it justifies as solid entertainment.
6. Gridiron Gang (2006) – A minor hit upon its release, this tough and unbelievable true story is filled with excellent performances (particularly Dwayne Johnson) and some crisp well shot football action. Based on a documentary of the same name chronicling the remarkable Sean Porter’s commitment to build and shepherd a group of juvenile delinquents into a football team. Not an easy task when the newly formed teammates have existing gang rivalries and Porter’s pleas for federal funding aren’t meet with enthusiasm. This is the rare sports film to avoid cliches, one of the first that ends with the team losing the big game. An unsentimental tone and sharp direction from once heralded Spielberg protegee Phil Joanou help push the message that building the team was the goal, football was just a tool. Johnson’s speech to his team after the final game, (taken almost line for line for the doc.) is worth the price of admission alone. One of the best films of 2006.
5. All the Right Moves (1983) – Tom Cruise headlined two films in 1983, one was a massive hit ‘Risky Business’ and the other was this wrongfully ignored box office bomb. It’s a predecessor to films like ‘Varsity Blues’ and other high school football films. Shot on location in Johnston, PA., the story revolves around star athlete Stephen and his quest for a college scholarship. He sees football as his ticket out of a life spent working in the mills. The economically depressed town lives and dies with its team’s success. Years prior to his iconic portrayal in NBC’s long-running series ‘Coach’, Craig T. Nelsen is playing another head coach, he is excellent as ‘Nickerson’. Stephen is reluctantly involved with a rivalry week prank that quickly gets out of control. In retaliation Nickerson kicks Stephen off the squad and begins blacklisting him amongst college recruiters, effectively killing any chance of escaping the dying steel-town. An outstanding ‘High School’ sports film that defined the sub-genre until 2004’s ‘Friday Night Lights’.
4. North Dallas Forty (1979) -Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, a Cowboys wide receiver in the late 1960s. The film is a thinly veiled jab at the Dallas Cowboy’s organization and the Nation Football League in general. Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as an aging wide receiver that feels the effects of years of chemical and physical abuse. Yet is forced to stay competitive with the young talent on the way up. Their coach is willfully oblivious to the drugs and sexual escapades of his players as long as they preform on Sunday afternoon. Equally parts satire and serious drama this is a reportedly accurate description of the outlaw days of a 1970’s NFL team. The most scathing examination of professional athletes until Oliver Stone’s ‘Any Given Sunday’.
3. Invincible (2006) -The third football film from 2006 to make the list. Mark Wahlberg is excellent in this ‘Rocky’-esque tale of a working class guy from the neighborhood who got a million to one shot at playing in the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles and the City of Philadelphia itself, were taking a beating during the Mid-1970’s. Record unemployment, union battles, and the scars of Vietnam caused economic and emotional uncertainty in the city of brotherly love. A sense of disenchantment was prevalent until an unknown 30yr old bartender became 1976’s most unlikely rookie. This unabashedly sentimental film was released by Disney, however it never comes off corny like so many other films in the genre including ‘Glory Road’ and ‘Remember the Titans’. Wahlberg is ideally cast as the everyman with the amazing opportunity. His real life trajectory from street hood to teen idol onto movie stardom helps lend a level of authenticity to his performance. A feel-good film and one of the best football stories ever told.
2. Friday Night Lights (2004) – Based on the seminal book by H.S. Bissinger chronicling one season in the life of selected players on a state ranked high school football team in Texas during the late 1980’s. Director Peter Berg’s documentary influenced shooting style, complete with pop zooms and shaky camerawork, add to an overwhelming sense of realism. Billy Bob Thornton is the new coach, who’s career and well being are constantly being threatened by the townspeople that expect a winning record year after year. Derek Luke gives a career best performance as the loud, brash running back seemingly destined for a future financial windfall. Texas indie rock band ‘Explosions in the Sky’ punctuate the film with their haunting, melancholy score. Reportedly used as a temp track by longtime fan Peter Berg, when everyone agreed the music matched the mood of the picture perfectly, Universal acquired the rights. Later turned into a TV Show that has won critical acclaim in its own right. A strikingly photographed and edited film that beautifully realizes a time in a young man’s life when all roads and options still seemed possible.
1. Any Given Sunday (1999) - Controversial director Oliver Stone’s glossy, hard hitting unglamorous look at the win-at-all costs business of modern pro football. Jamie Foxx’s coming out party as an ‘A’ -level actor is arguably just as good as his OSCAR winning performance in ‘RAY’. Here, he fully embodies the role of self centered QB Willie Beamen. After a star making performance on the field turns Beamen into a media sensation, he begins to rebel against any notion of team unity. Al Pacino makes for an outstanding head coach (it’s unbelievable this is his first time in the role), a man whose time may have passed in the new age mentality of a league constantly looking for the next big thing. Covering all angles of the game from the veteran lineman playing for bonuses against the advice from doctors, to the pressure of an aging QB struggling to reestablish his relevance after a major injury. Stone’s distinct style is the film’s greatest asset, it injects an unparalleled amount of energy into the game sequences and makes the 160 minute running time breeze bye. A rough inciting look at the game and our national obsession with it, filled with the anger and soul one would expect from an auteur like Oliver Stone. Pacino’s ‘Game of Inches’ speech is one for the all-time list.