By way of introduction for my previous list of the best baseball movies ever, I wrote with some level of petulance: “I remember drawing a clear parallel between the seemingly disparate topics of baseball and movie fandom, in order to justify my argument that baseball movies are not only more common than movies in just about any other sport, but also very often of better quality. At the time, I remember reasoning that there’s a narrative thrust to a baseball game that seems to work well for movies. Plus, it’s a game filled with close-ups. Unlike hockey, soccer, football or basketball, usually baseball is all about focusing in on one or two people at a time, and each at-bat is ripe with the possibility of a sudden twist.”
OK, so maybe I overstated the primacy of baseball movies compared to other sports. And maybe I undervalued the quality of the classic films from those other sports. Take football, for instance. With preseason games in full effect, I thought it would be worth taking a look at some of the best the genre has to offer and was shocked (shocked!) to find so many candidates out there. I whittled from a list of roughly two dozen legitimate contenders the following 10.
I may not know much about football. And if you ask roughly half of the people who have ever read one of my reviews, I may not know much about movies. But let’s pretend I do and take a look at the best football movies of all time:
- Jerry Maguire (1996)
Lowest on the list here mainly because its connection with football is somewhat tangential, not only because it’s more about the business machine behind the spectacle but because it’s also, at the end of the day, a Cameron Crowe rom-com. (Did you know the human head weighs 8 pounds?) Still, beyond its instantly-stale punchlines and the cutesy grace notes, this slick best picture Oscar nominee has a lot of heart.
- Heaven Can Wait (1978)
The only other best picture nominee on this list, and a pretty sizeable hit in its day, perfectly square-jawed matinee idol Warren Beatty’s first trip to the directors’ chair earned him no less than four Oscar nominations (directing, acting, producing, and writing). Sure he lost them all, but you gotta admit, that’s one heck of a Hail Mary pass. An remake not of Ernst Lubitsch’s same-titled 1943 film but, rather, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, this screwball throwback is a little bit a product of its time, but still frequently sharp.
- The Longest Yard (1974)
Back when Burt Reynolds was gracing Playgirl centerfolds, he also played football players. Again, and again, and again. Of all his cinematic trips to the gridiron, director Robert Aldrich’s prison-set grudge match is the one that’s endured. And that ending all but screams ’70s.
- Knute Rockne All American (1940)
Is it a great movie? Meh. Is Ronald Reagan a great actor? Ummm. Is the famous “win one for the Gipper” speech among the most iconic moments in all sports movie history? You bet your Knute it is.
- Any Given Sunday (1999)
Football fans might say Oliver Stone knows about as much about football as historians would say he does the Warren Commission. Accuracy be damned, though. What matters is that classic, over-the-top, Oliver Stoney je ne sans quoi that no other director can offer. The cast is huge. Stone’s style is huge. The topic is huge. If you ask me, this is the Super Bowl of football movies. Maybe not the best game, per se, but unquestionably the biggest.
- Remember the Titans (2000)
Man there were a lot of football movies right around Y2K. (Among those left off the list: Friday Night Lights, Radio, The Replacements, The Waterboy, and Varsity Blues.) If Any Given Sunday had a cast of hundreds (with pro football cameos galore), then Remember the Titans has it beat by emphasizing its true ensemble cast. They all get their chance to shine — Kip Pardue’s California boy “Sunshine” and Donald Faison’s running back Petey Jones are hard to forget — but it’s Ryan Gosling (here playing defensive back Alan Bosley) who’s had the longest career.
- Horse Feathers (1932)
The Marx Brothers are controlled chaos, which makes them a perfect match for the subject at hand. It’s not usually cited among the screwball technicians’ greatest achievements. (That title belongs to either A Night at the Opera or Duck Soup.) But it’s certainly their most athletic effort.
- Brian’s Song (1971)
There may not be crying in baseball. But Brian’s Song provided indisputable proof that there’s plenty of crying in football. Grab a slice of pizza and a tissue.
- The Freshman (1925)
I’m not exactly sure how many football fans are also silent movie connoisseurs, but if they’re not, then The Freshman is certainly a perfect gateway item for them to test the waters. Harold Lloyd plays the titular college boy Speedy, an eager geek aiming to make a great impression. (He has a well-tested soft shoe-handshake number he unveils to everyone he meets.) Football plays a big part of that plan, and even though his stuntwork here is nowhere near as jaw-dropping as when he hung off a clock face in Safety Last, you can’t help but love the clueless lug.
- Rudy (1993)
Do you remember the moment you wanted something so much that all the rules meant zilch to you? As Sally Struthers used to say, “Sure, we all do.” Rudy is that moment encapsulated. Diminutive Sean Astin knows he’s supposed to be a member of the Fighting Irish, but that pretty much just makes one person out there who thinks so. So what if the scenario is hackneyed? Astin’s winsome likability, Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring musical score, and the cast and crew’s utter dedication to the power of sports movie myths … it all adds up to one magnificent slow clap.