Kick off the season with these timeless football movies.
The best football movies offer everything we love about the sport. They’re hard-hitting films full of underdogs, action, suspense, twists, defeats and triumphs, just like a good football game.
These are 10 of my favorites, keeping in mind there are dozens (if not hundreds) of football movies in existence, which means I’m leaving off tons of films, including — I’m sure — your all-time favorites. I’m also probably including one or two movies you don’t care for. So blitz me with comments! Who knows? You just might introduce me to my next favorite football flick.
10. LEATHERHEADS (2008)
This charming football movie, a throwback to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, was directed by George Clooney, who also played the lead (and claims to have cowritten the screenplay). The film is set in 1925 during the early days of professional football, when there were fewer rules and when players wore simple leather helmets (hence the movie’s title). With a script that feels like it came straight out of the ’20s and a pitch-perfect soundtrack by Randy Newman (who makes a hilarious barroom cameo), Leatherheads is a trip down memory lane on a vintage V-twin motorcycle.
9. BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
More of a disaster movie than a football movie, Black Sunday takes a while to get to the football action, but it’s worth the wait. The climactic sequence, which takes place during the Super Bowl, was actually filmed at Super Bowl X with the real Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburg Steelers. Though Black Sunday is not a typical football movie, there is much to recommend it. The film is based on a novel by Thomas Harris, written before the Dr. Hannibal Lecter series, and it’s influenced by several true ’70s events: the end of the Vietnam War, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and (most directly) the Munich massacre during the 1972 summer Olympics. The movie features great performances from Bruce Dern as an unhinged Vietnam vet and Robert Shaw as an Israeli Mossad agent desperate to stop the planned terrorist attack. If that weren’t enough to recommend the film, the soundtrack is composed by John Williams, who also scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 — a big year for John Williams! (On a side note, the split-screen trailer inspired a certain scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.)
8. HORSE FEATHERS (1932)
This musical comedy starring the Marx Brothers is short on football action (most of its runtime is song-and-dance numbers, wordplay and physical comedy bits), but the big game at the end of the movie is such a blast that ESPN declared it the single best scene in football movie history. If you like the madcap action of Horse Feathers (which is an outdated term for “nonsense”), then you will probably also enjoy the silent Harold Lloyd football movie The Freshman (1925).
7. HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)
This unconventional football movie, cowritten, codirected and starring Warren Beatty, is a surreal, funny, mystical journey of a film. Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. Poised to lead them to the Super Bowl, he dies unexpectedly instead, but due to an error by his overeager guardian angel, it’s determined that Pendleton is to be returned to his body on Earth. There’s only one problem: His body has been cremated. So he is sent back into the body of a billionaire industrialist, and hilarious scenes ensue. Heaven Can Wait is the second film adaptation (of three) of Harry Segall’s play of the same name; the first was Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), and the third was Down to Earth (2001).
6. RUDY (1993)
Rudy is the ultimate (true) underdog story. The movie follows the life of a runty “spaz” named Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger who dreams of playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish because, as his best friend says in the movie, “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” It’s impossible not to root for Rudy (played by Sean Astin of Goonies and The Lord of the Rings) as he struggles against all odds to make his dream a reality. This irresistible football movie was one of my favorites as a kid. Is it schmaltzy? Yes. Does it blatantly attempt to manipulate your emotions, especially the tear-jerking score by the great Jerry Goldsmith? Yes. Does it work? Hell, yes!
5. NECESSARY ROUGHNESS (1991)
Starring Scott Bakula (of Quantum Leap fame), this comedy is about a winning college football team called the Armadillos at the fictional Texas State University. Following a scandal, which is inspired by a true story, all but one of the players and coaches are banned, and new head coach Ed Gennero is tasked with putting the team back together. Necessary Roughness succeeds despite its football movie clichés because of a fun cast of characters, including a 34-year-old college freshman, a cuddly Samoan, a female kicker and a martial arts expert. There’s also a fun scene involving a football team comprised of convicts, played by recognizable football legends.
4. NORTH DALLAS Forty (1979)
This movie is not messing around. Based on a novel by ex–NFL player Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty tackles the realities of being a pro player in the ’70s. It’s about two aspects of football that are often glossed over: fear and pain. Nick Nolte plays beat-up and self-medicating football player Phillip Elliot, who struggles with his injuries from the game. The movie is extremely ’70s, from its music and wardrobe to its non-PC dialogue and ending. And the opening scene is a classic!
3. UNDEFEATED (2011)
This moving, Oscar-winning documentary is about a group of kids from inner city Memphis and their volunteer football coach. The Manassas Tigers are a losing team and always have been. To give you an idea of how tough these students have it, after they beat a rival school in a big game, the police won’t let the teams shake hands for fear of violence erupting. The Tigers are told to head immediately back to their bus and not take off their helmets. But Coach Bill Courtney is a true inspiration, and he really cares about these kids. The fact that the team is all Black and Coach Courtney is white is just one of the many complexities that Undefeated explores.
2. JERRY MAGUIRE (1996)
Jerry Maguire is a football movie with a lot of heart (literally — the film was scored by Nancy Wilson of the band Heart). Directed by Cameron Crowe, who called upon his Rolling Stone roots to compile an excellent soundtrack for the movie, Jerry Maguire is a heartwarming film about taking chances and following your passion in life. It’s also one of the best romantic comedies of all time, with unbelievable chemistry between Tom Cruise and Renée Zellweger, and it provided the ’90s with a host of memorable catchphrases: “You complete me,” “You had me at hello,” and “Show me the money!” Jerry Maguire doesn’t spend a lot of time on the football field, choosing instead to focus on the behind-the-scenes world of cutthroat sports agents and multimillion-dollar drafts. The title character is one of Tom Cruise’s best roles (you gotta love the “flip out” scene), and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance won him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
1. ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (1999)
Any Given Sunday is a football movie of epic proportions (case in point: the heated discussion between Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx intercut with scenes from the classic movie Ben-Hur). At 162 minutes, the film rarely lags, and it still clocks in shorter than a typical NFL game broadcast. As with most Oliver Stone movies, the action is often intense, and there’s a lot of cinematic trickery afoot. Some might call it style over substance, but I call it style with substance. There’s hardly a single aspect of professional football that isn’t represented by this fascinating movie’s ensemble cast, and Al Pacino’s Coach Tony D’Amato has mastered the fine art of the locker room speech.
Each football movie on this list is a touchdown in its own way. To take your football movies into overtime, watch these honorable mentions. Great dramas include Remember the Titans (2000), Draft Day (2014), We Are Marshall (2006) and Friday Night Lights (2004). And if you prefer comedies, consider Little Giants (1994), Semi-Tough (1977), The Waterboy (1998) and Johnny Be Good (1988).
When you’ve had your fill of football movies, check out the 15 best baseball movies!