It’s said that among American sports, baseball is the official national pastime, but let's face it, pigskin is truly the sport that commands the country's attention. Because of this probably over-simplistic dichotomy, football yields the toughest, most unique films, but also some of the most downbeat. Going nice and friendly is for the pee-wee leagues: down and dirty is how they do it in football movies, which eschew the legacies and honor of baseball pictures and the good-vibes camaraderie of basketball pictures, while featuring a greater scope and intensity than movies about hockey and golf. Other sports give you honor and glory. Football gives you grit and dirt, and often the only battles won are the moral kind.
Regardless, the sport also allows for diverse viewpoints and sensibilities from a number of filmmakers, even if the sub-genre truly has yet to produce its masterpiece. The all-American nature of these stories suggest an increasingly globalized marketplace will keep some of these films in the development stages (the upcoming, low-key “Draft Day” has already been dropped by its studio before being resurrected by another), but the memories that remain cannot be challenged, even buried underneath heavy shoulder pads and helmets. The start of every NFL season, like this current one, is constantly packed with storylines. The best movies can’t even compete, so multi-dimensional is this game: can you imagine a Tim Tebow movie? How far-fetched would “The Peyton Manning Story” even be? Dare anyone have the guts to dramatize the chaos of the lives of Aaron Hernandez or Michael Vick?
With the season about to kick off, we took a look at the ten best football movies ever made,
heading back from the early days of cinema to contemporary times, and found
there was a lot to like, and a lot to debate. If we’ve left out your favorites
(we see you, “Wildcats” fans), leave it in the comments section.
"Any Given Sunday" (1999)
Al Pacino is absolutely volcanic in this intense, overheated Oliver Stone orgy of excess, which stands out years later as something of a major milestone—possibly the very last big-budget sports film ever made, given that these pictures rarely do overseas business. And “Any Given Sunday” is nothing but huge, detailing Pacino as a burnt-out coach forced to take a team in massive turmoil into the playoffs, with a number of subplots that feel as if Stone and co-writer John Logan intensely knew their subject matter. Stone loads the cast with ringers, like Dennis Quaid in “Everybody’s All-American” form as the aged, injured quarterback, and a buffed-out Jamie Foxx as his flashy, controversial replacement, the latter clashing with a steroidal clubhouse that includes LL Cool J and real-life ex-pro Lawrence Taylor (who gets to absolutely murder a late-film monologue, exhibiting revealing depth). Cameron Diaz is also on hand as the team’s under-qualified owner, who unleashes one tirade that inspires an amazing moment when a cameo-ing Charlton Heston to hiss, “I honestly believe that woman would eat her own young.” Even in the smallest part, John C. McGinley shines as an obnoxious reporter clearly modeled after Jim Rome, evidence of the extensive world-building on display: this is a movie packed with ugly violence, foul language and rampant nudity of the male and female variety. Frankly, no league would want to be associated with the insanity of a break in one game where Stone’s camera zooms in on the eye plucked from a player’s head, lying in the turf, waiting to be removed.
"Friday Night Lights" (2004)
The show based on this film has certainly earned its plaudits, running five soapy seasons and garnering critical praise and Emmy nominations. But it can never replicate what the movie had; an air of doomed finality and borderline apocalyptic despair. Based on the Buzz Bizzinger novel of the same name, this downbeat story of high school football life in a small town has more of a relationship to Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” than the program which shared broadcast space with “Parenthood”—ultimately, it’s about a town that serves as sort of a time capsule for youth, trapping entire generations in its sway. It’s the sort of picture that gives truth to the fatalistic phrase, “these are the best days of your life,” zeroing in on the gridiron group that goes to war for tiny Odessa, Texas, led by an exhausted general (Billy Bob Thornton) who feels powerless to the system that chews up promising kids and spits them out as dim, prospect-less drunks like the grunt played by a surprisingly great Tim McGraw. Peter Berg directs the game scenes as frenetic, action-packed sequences where bodies go flying everywhere, and the damaged get shuffled to the side. But he brings an immediate gravity to the quieter segments as well, finding brief moments that are like seeing a daisy grow in the desert, revealing the humanity that exists between the cracks. Berg’s made his name as a go-to guy for loud, dumb blockbusters, but this stands out as something of a masterpiece, reason enough for cinephiles to not give up on the man who once steered a “Battleship.”
"Heaven Can Wait" (1978)
The second of three adaptations of the play “Heaven Can Wait,” sandwiched between “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” and “Down To Earth,” this gaudy comedy carried some heavy firepower, emerging from a script from Warren Beatty, Elaine May, Robert Towne and Buck Henry. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the story follows Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a second-string quarterback who loses his life in a freak accident and must return to Earth in the body of a bumbling old man. Amusingly, he finds himself stuck in the middle of a power grab where his new millionaire body has been resurrected right after his betrayal by the millionaire’s wife (Dyan Cannon) and her new lover (Charles Grodin). Nonetheless, in spite of his new identity as Leo Farnsworth, he can’t shake the itch of potentially being a star player, as “Heaven Can Wait” is ultimately about second chances, and athletic has-beens who use their second opportunity to right the wrongs of sports, and life, the unwinnable game. Wish fulfillment at its most grandiose, Pendleton uses Farnsworth’s wealth to purchase his old team, the St. Louis Rams, placing Farnsworth’s body in a position to finally become the star quarterback that Pendleton couldn’t. “Heaven Can Wait” successfully blends maudlin sentimentality, black comedy and conventional sports thrills as something of a grab-bag of pleasures, with enough cynical self-awareness to help the spoonful of sugar go down. Highlighted by a surprisingly nuanced romance between Beatty and an activist played by his luminous “McCabe And Mrs. Miller” co-star (and off-screen lover) Julie Christie, the film mixes a considerable amount of heart with its conventional last-reel sports heroics.