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The 10 Greatest Football Movies Of All Time

by Gabe Toro
September 12, 2013 3:02 PM
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Knute Rockne, All-American

"Knute Rockne, All-American" (1940)
You wouldn’t expect much verisimilitude from a football film dating back a good seventy-plus years. But that’s exactly what comes across through the otherwise stately biopic of the revolutionary Rockne. The film boasted an in-depth insight into the world of Notre Dame football through the eyes of the player-turned-coach who helped bring the school the sort of nationwide fame by pioneering several contemporary play strategies and ideas before his untimely death in the early '30s. Rockne wasn’t just an innovator and a master strategist, but thanks to Pat O’Brien’s kindly performance, also a charismatic salesman and deal-maker, helping spread the world about collegiate football through the media and effectively becoming one of sport's earliest hype men. The picture takes great pains to emphasize the relationship between Rockne and player George Gipp, played by none other than Ronald Reagan. The moment that lives in movie history, and the one that got “Knute Rockne, All-American” entered into the National Film Registry, is probably the recreation of the speech where Rockne proposes to his team, in regards to their sick teammate, to “win one for the Gipper.” But lost within that moment is the fact that directors Lloyd Bacon and (an uncredited) William K. Howard helped capture some of the most exciting, in-your-face football footage at that point, some of which still holds up today.

The Last Boy Scout

"The Last Boy Scout" (1991)
In the opening moments of Tony Scott’s breakneck action comedy, a running back played by Billy Blanks sweats, curses, and prepares for the play of his life. Once on the field, he takes the ball and removes a revolver from his shoe, charging to the end zone while firing on opposing players, determined to end his life with one last touchdown and a bullet to the head. Ending this scene with the upbeat opening credits set to the intro to a fictional “Friday Night Football” showcase is an audacious punctuation to the suggestion that glory is all there is, that on-field immortality is the same as off-field immortality. Shane Black’s hysterical murder mystery gives Bruce Willis one of the best roles of his career as private investigator Joe Hallenbeck, a down-and-out schmuck who finds himself teamed with disgraced pro Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) pitted against a memorably poncy villain played by Taylor Negron. Hallenbeck’s burnt-out patter with Dix has the edge of noir with a post-modern sensibility, and the picture’s subversive violence and inventive action suggests Willis could have become one of our great leading men, and not just a multi-purpose toy for middling action directors. The film’s close features some of the most amusing on-field action you’re likely never see again, including a literal horse race that appears years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s similar chase tactics in “True Lies.”

The Longest Yard

"The Longest Yard" (1974)
There’s no actor more suited to playing a footballer than Burt Reynolds, classically masculine but with a bullish physicality and brusque manner more suited to the gridiron than the silver screen. He was enough of a talent, fortunately, that meatheaded action pictures weren’t the only projects he took up, and his natural charisma was able to carry a large ensemble in the case of this comedy. Reynolds gives off the appropriate devil-may-care attitude that not only allows him to capture a rapscallion’s wit as a portrait of an over-entitled era of athletes, but also as a protagonist that can believably go on a bender in an opening scene and beat his girlfriend, and somehow eventually win the audience’s trust. Reynolds’ Paul Crewe is eventually locked away in prison, where the power dynamics have shifted completely, and Reynolds plays both the sudden impotence of a pampered celebrity and the emboldened daredevil attitude of a man with plans. Superior to the tone-deaf, pro-bully remake, this hard-fought variation of slobs versus snobs pits the inmates against the guards in a winner-take-all football game, and the climatic match is funny because it trusts the irreverence of its concept, not because of an over-reliance on jokes like the Adam Sandler version.

North Dallas Forty

"North Dallas Forty" (1979)
The origins of Nick Nolte’s glass-cutting growl can be found here, in this bruising, battered true-life story of a wildly colorful Dallas Cowboys team (here called the North Dallas Bulls). The games are long and brutal, sure, but the nights are longer and wilder, and in the mornings, the hangovers are as powerful as the knees and shoulders are sore. “North Dallas Forty” is purposely slack, coming in 1979 at the tail-end of brutal ensemble pictures where men behave badly with no apologies and protagonists are never quite likable. Which makes it the ideal vehicle for Nick Nolte: here as a womanizing wide receiver named Phil Elliot, whose real problem is drugs, both the recreational narcotic kind but also the painkillers that keep him on his feet, punch-drunk, and a slave to the franchise. The picture is funny for its bracing honesty. This from an era where football heroes may have been rebellious and uncouth, but also an era when we rarely caught a peek behind the curtain, where the locker room was the stuff of inspirational rah-rah speeches, not apathetic fist-fights between teammates. Ted Kotcheff’s film is essentially a workplace comedy, but the employees are braindead and wealthy, and the benefits are glory and groupies in equal amounts. Only in the '70s could you end a sports film not with a big game, but with a free-frame of a quitting hero shrugging.

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  • egghead | October 10, 2013 2:26 PMReply

    What about the Little Giants!?!?!?!?!!?

  • Weeellllllll | October 4, 2013 4:04 AMReply

    Remember "Remember the Titans". Great football movie. Great movie. Definitely better than a few on here. I understand its a top 10, but, dude, your list is suspect. Look to it.

  • stevenstevo | September 30, 2013 4:03 AMReply

    How Undefeated is not on this list boggles me mind. And Varsity Blues certainly deserves a spot as well.

    Any Given Sunday is a decent film, but only if you view it as a satire of sorts. There are some scenes that are beyond ridiculous--laughable at times. And it is one of those films just does not age well because it tries too hard to be reflective the "modern times" of the era in which it was produced.

  • Joan | September 23, 2013 7:59 PMReply

    "Any Given Sunday" but not "Undefeated"? I know it's a documentary, but it's also probably the best movie about football I've ever seen. Too bad the Weinsteins buried it deep underground once they won their Oscar.

  • MishuPishu | September 20, 2013 7:13 PMReply

    Can't believe you left off "The Best Of Times" with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. That was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid and it has one of the greatest final football moments to be displayed on the silver screen.

  • Fred | September 13, 2013 11:07 AMReply

    Hats off to double Burt! Semi-Tough was the most underrated performance of his career.

  • Leigh Richert | September 13, 2013 1:18 AMReply

    Finally, a good list. North Dallas Forty is not just a good football movie, but one of the greatest every. Right, Poo?

  • Joe Football | September 12, 2013 5:50 PMReply

    I'm taking this site off my bookmarks because you've DARED to blaspheme both the great artist James Van Der Beek and his seminal work, VARSITY BLUES. When he tells his father, "I don't want your life"--chills.

    No joke though, that movie is ahead of its time with its handling of concussions, injuries, and coaches who don't really know/care enough about either of them. Also, the Science Teacher moonlights as a stripper.

  • G-Man | September 12, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    Nice list. I am with others - Remember The Titans is one of my favorite movies of all-time.

    Will have to check out some of the others I haven't seen though!

  • jack | September 12, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    The lack of Remember the Titans somewhere invalidates this, and no mention of The Replacements? Ugh.

  • Rebecca | September 12, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    1. How dare you create comparison by having Michael Vick and Aaron Hernandez in the same sentence. That's just rude.
    2. I second Shane's comment, Remember the Titans is amazing.
    3. Thanks for the feature, football movies are great.

  • Christian | September 12, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    How is Remember the Titans not on this list anywhere? I'm mean even leatherheads got a mention.

  • Chris | September 12, 2013 3:35 PMReply

    Does "Horse Feathers" not count? Because that's a far better movie than anything on this list. ("Any Given Sunday" is, in particular, an awful, awful movie.)

  • Helluva | September 19, 2013 6:12 PM

    Yeah "AGS" is pretty bad, "Titans" is much better. I would even throw "The Program" in there over "Sunday." Reynold's in "Longest Yard" has to be number one though...

  • Shane | September 12, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    Umm..Remember The Titans? Love the list, but not sure how this was kept off!?

  • mpbstereo | September 12, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Also, Tom Cruise played a defensive back in All The Right Moves, not a "shot caller" (assuming you meant quarterback...)

  • mpbstereo | September 12, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Correction: Billy Blanks played a running back, not a linebacker.

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