Football movies are problematic because they are largely as predictable as Tom Brady is on Super Bowl Sunday. (Well, except for this year.) In the end, the long shot squad of misfits almost always tops the team of super-jocks and the washed-up quarterback always seems to be able – against all odds – to muster up that one final drive to win the big game and the heart of the female lead. With that in mind, we surveyed some of the best and worst (and just OK) football films and ran some options for you.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Based on the timeless book of the same name by Buzz Bissinger, high school football reigns supreme over all in the depressed heartland. Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines is the MVP of the film version, and the intensity of small-town football has never been captured so accurately on the big screen.
What makes Rudy work is that his story isn’t quite as tampered with as others. It depicts the long, grueling process of actually making it onto the field as a walk-on (non-scholarship player) who’s five-foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and has barely a speck of athletic ability for one of the most storied college football teams ever.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
North Dallas Forty encapsulates the excesses and fast times of pro football in the 1970s. Part drama and part comedy — and all Nick Nolte — it’s way ahead of its time for tackling the complex relationship between athletes and prescription drugs, as well as the individualism of athletes in the face of old-school coaching.
Little Giants (1994)
Rick Moranis vs. Ed O’Neill – the polar-opposite O’Shea brothers – in a peewee football showdown was a hell of a premise in its day. While that on-screen rivalry works and the cameos of John Madden, Emmitt Smith and Bruce Smith are cool, the kid actors carry this feel-good flick and might be more entertaining than most New York Jets games, who never can figure out how to run the annexation of Puerto Rico.
The Hail Marys
Any Given Sunday (1999)
It’s a given that former NFL bad boy Lawrence Taylor will never win an Oscar and, while Any Given Sunday does have its moments, filmgoers expected more from the legendary Oliver Stone in a movie he wrote, directed and produced. Al Pacino is a bright spot in the role of the head coach balancing his relationship with his quarterbacks, owner, and shady team physician, but the plot drags well over two and a half hours and feels uneven. In fairness, Stone knew the film lagged on in places and released a director’s cut, but it doesn’t do much for the pace of the film.
As, arguably, the most popular sport in North America, pro football’s early days is certainly a valid premise for a film. George Clooney, who directs and stars in this period piece, takes movie-watchers back to 1925, a charmingly simpler era for the game. But the urge to convert the whole thing into a romantic comedy was way too much for the filmmakers to resist.
Necessary Roughness (1991)
At the time of its release, the Los Angeles Times called Necessary Roughness “a genial, slight, entirely predictable football comedy,” and that’s largely true. Its saving grace is the unbeatable roster of early 1990’s all-stars including Sinbad, Kathy Ireland and Scott Bakula. You can almost imagine Hector Elizondo thinking he wouldn’t be receiving any Oscar nods in the end zone of this flick, but that didn’t stop him from giving a spirited performance as the Texas State Armadillos’ underdog head coach. While it’s totally pathetically predictable, it’s more amusing than other films with the premise of a big-time football team needing to field replacement players.
The Waterboy (1998)
This is a “pick’em” for many fans of football movies. One view is that it has some funny moments (thank you, Adam Sandler); the other is that, from the cartoonish characters and the downright dumb accents (no thank you, Adam Sandler), there may be just too much plain ol’ stupid flowing throughout this entire flick.
The Replacements (2000)
The biggest problem here is that the true story of replacement players in the NFL could be a fantastic plot for a film. If the focus had been on the quarterback who, freed temporarily from a prison sentence for cocaine trafficking, led the Washington Commanders to an improbable upset over the Dallas Cowboys, maybe we’d have had something there. Keanu Reeves, a hockey player growing up, looks mostly out of place in the huddle and while leading the charge on the football field as Shane Falco, the washed-up star of a pack of replacement players.
Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998)
The premise of this film is straight out of a pooper scooper of clichéd cinema. (We’ll spare you any video footage of it.) In this sequel to the story of the basketball-playing canine, Air Bud switches to football. There is a kidnapping of the dog by an imitation Boris and Natasha duo, but overall this film about a dog saving the junior high school football season is just too ridiculous. Finally, animal cruelty is absolutely nothing to joke about, but we can’t imagine that any of the dogs who played the protagonist in the 14 films this series has spawned enjoyed the work.
The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All (1999)
Almost every element of this movie, right down to the name of the fictitious Eastern Atlantic University where it is set, is vapid. Treat Williams tracks and kills a higher-ed gridiron gang high on ‘roid rage, who abuses his buddy’s daughter on a college campus – The End! According to IMDB, this movie was shot in 16 days and we’re shocked that production took that long.
Pro Football Pottstown, Pa. (1972)
In truth, this documentary is one of the greatest sports films most people have not seen. It was one of the very first projects of NFL Films, following the lives of the Pottstown Firebirds, an unofficial, semi-pro affiliate of the Philadelphia Eagles in their brief existence from 1968 to 1970. Entering the world of the flamboyant minor league quarterback King Corcoran, a sometimes crooner and fraudster, he was known as the “poor man’s Joe Namath,” so most certainly worth the watch.