Punt, pass and flicks: Ranking the best football movies of all time

Clockwise from Upper Left: Rudy (Screenshot: TriStar Pictures), Any Given Sunday (Screenshot: Warner Bros.), Knute Rockne-All American (Screenshot: Warner Bros.), The Waterboy (Screenshot: Disney), All the Right Moves (Screenshot: Disney)
Clockwise from Upper Left: Rudy (Screenshot: TriStar Pictures), Any Given Sunday (Screenshot: Warner Bros.), Knute Rockne-All American (Screenshot: Warner Bros.), The Waterboy (Screenshot: Disney), All the Right Moves (Screenshot: Disney)

Sure, you can prep for Super Bowl Sunday like everybody else, by stocking up on seven-layer dip, nachos, wings, and overpriced microbrews. Or you can ready yourself the way film fans have been doing it for decades—by digging into Hollywood’s extensive catalog of football movies. Which is where The A.V. Club comes in, by providing you with a handy playbook to guide you through Hollywood’s greatest gridiron offerings. Our list of football films you need to know (and to watch, if you haven’t seen them) includes two titles starring Tom Cruise, a hilarious Adam Sandler comedy (no, really), a silent movie classic, and a ’7os TV movie that still makes grown men weep. So before you settle in to watch the actual game—and all those heavily hyped, high-priced commercials—spend some time with these cinematic trips to the end zone.

21. All the Right Moves (1983)

All the Right Moves | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX

All the Right Moves, a key early stepping stone in Tom Cruise’s path to stardom, finds the future Top Gun hero in the role of Stefan—the star player on his high school football team in small-town Pennsylvania. When an argument with his coach (Craig T. Nelson) derails his chances of using his football career to get out of this dying town, Stefan must figure out a way to get back in the spotlight. It’s interesting to watch Cruise’s mega-wattage charisma in its nascent stages, as the actor adds real depth to his two-dimensional role. Michael Chapman’s solid direction, and a compelling ensemble led by Nelson, help round out a formative film on Cruise’s CV.

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20. Black Sunday (1977)

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) Trailer Remastered HD

Director John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday is arguably the closest sports movie fans will get to seeing “Die Hard at a football game.” Based on the Thomas Harris (The Silence Of The Lambs) novel of the same name, Bruce Dern stars as the psychotic Michael Lander, a Goodyear blimp pilot who plots with a terrorist group for an attack over a Super Bowl stadium that, if successful, will result in the deaths of thousands—including the president of the United States. Jaws’ Robert Shaw plays the hard-boiled Israeli operative struggling to stop Lander and save his would-be victims from disaster. The late Frankenheimer effortlessly milks this somewhat hard-to-swallow premise for all the nail-biting tension it’s worth, and then some. Black Sunday and Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout would make for a great pre-game double-feature.

19. Invincible (2006)

INVINCIBLE Movie Trailer

Football movies don’t get much more “feel good” than Invincible, an underrated 2006 entry starring Mark Wahlberg as (what else?) an underdog football prospect whose perseverance and resilience rivals that of his hometown, Philadelphia. Set in 1976, Wahlberg plays Vince Papale—a former college football player who gets a second chance at the pros with the Eagles and coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear). Wahlberg’s likable portrayal of Papale is full of unflappable determination and bursts of relatable vulnerability. Older than the other rookies, Papale has to fight twice as hard to earn his spot—but he has triple the heart of his competition. The once-and-future Dirk Diggler’s earnest commitment to the material is worth seeing.

18. The Blind Side (2009)

The Blind Side (2009) Official Trailer - Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw Movie HD

Based on the 2006 book of the same name and starring Sandra Bullock in her Oscar-winning role, The Blind Side is a tearjerker about real-life football star Michael Oher and his heart-tugging relationship with his adoptive mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), as Michael overcomes his impoverished trappings on his way to the NFL. The film took some justifiable heat for being a “White Savior” drama, but it remains a deep character drama and contains a stirring lead performance by Bullock, who channels every square inch of her considerable talent into one of the greatest performances of her career.

17. Knute Rockne-All American (1940)

Knute Rockne - All American (1940) Official Trailer - Ronald Reagan Sports Biography Movie HD

The story of Notre Dame’s most famous football hero (sorry, Rudy), Knute Rockne-All American captures Rockne’s inspiring rise from Norwegian immigrant to the player and coach who put Notre Dame’s football team on the map. Pat O’Brien stars as Rockne, and future President Ronald Reagan plays freshman halfback George “The Gipper” Gipp. All American is the quintessential football movie; the genre arguably wouldn’t exist the way it is today without it.

16. Heaven Can Wait (1978)

1978 Heaven Can Wait Official Trailer 1 Paramount Pictures

While not a straightforward football movie, Heaven Can Wait certainly has a lot of football in it. The romantic comedy starring Warren Beatty tells the story of Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a quarterback primed to lead his team to Super Bowl stardom when he’s almost killed in an accident. An overeager angel sends Pendleton to heaven anyway. Not ready to die, Pendleton’s soul searches for a new body and a second chance. The film is notable among Beatty’s varied career not just for showcasing his exceptional comedic range, but for filming its ending during halftime of a Los Angeles Rams game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1977. Several real-life NFL players also appear in the movie, including Rams stars Deacon Jones, Les Josephson, and Charlie Cowan.

15. Paper Lion (1968)

Paper Lion 1968 HD 20 sec TV spot Trailer 16mm Alan Alda Lauren Hutton Sports Film Comedy

Paper Lion proves, once again, that football and comedy can be an entertaining combination. This 1968 film, based on writer George Plimpton’s 1966 non-fiction book of the same name, casts a pre-M*A*S*H Alan Alda as Plimpton and depicts the author’s tryout for a spot on the Detroit Lions. To paraphrase Roger Ebert in his three-star review: Paper Lion is not a timeless film about the sport, but it is a very funny piece of wish-fulfillment thanks in large part to Lawrence Roman’s witty, crackerjack script and Alda’s unparalleled comedic chops.

14. The Waterboy (1998)

The Waterboy 1998 Trailer | Adam Sandler | Kathy Bates

One of Adam Sandler’s biggest and earliest hits, The Waterboy finds the Saturday Night Live alum playing a water boy for a college football team who eventually gets his chance to leave the sidelines and play on the field. The movie is a predictable and dated affair, and Sandler’s Cajun shtick as the main character is very “YMMV” in terms of tolerance, but The Waterboy is a nostalgic favorite among both ’90s kids and football fanatics.

13. Horse Feathers (1932)

Horse Feathers (1/9) Movie CLIP - I’m Against It (1932) HD

More than 90 years after its release, the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers still (mostly) holds up. This pre-Code comedy is a sharp send-up of higher education and the premium it places on football. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and, yes, even Zeppo established a template that future sports comedies would use for decades: The football team is in a rut, and it’s up to a pair of outside-the-box newcomers—in this case, bootleggers—to turn things around. Fans of Old Hollywood should definitely add this classic to their watchlist.

12. Concussion (2015)

CONCUSSION - Official Trailer (HD)

Concussion, from writer-director Peter Landseman, is an underrated football drama that takes an unflinching look at the physical and mental consequences of playing in the NFL, something the league seems to largely ignore in real life. Will Smith stars as neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, the gifted doctor who discovered that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative disease that affects athletes—especially those in the NFL. Smith’s Omalu is soft-spoken but fiercely persistent as he battles NFL spin doctors and legal complications to force the league to acknowledge the health crisis it actively enables by trying to sweep it under the rug. Concussion takes some dramatic liberties with real-life events, but it’s all in service of providing a riveting chronicle of Dr. Omalu’s work to expose what happens when billionaires care more about their bottom line than the health of their players.

11. Undefeated (2011)

Undefeated Official Trailer #1 - Academy Award Nominated Documentary (2011) HD

One of the most engaging and in-depth football documentaries ever, the Academy Award-nominated Undefeated profiles an inner-city high school team’s inspiring pledge to reach their first-ever playoff game. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin are given carte blanche access to this likable team of underdogs, and their unobtrusive chronicle of their many ups and downs makes it impossible not to root for these players to see their dream made real. Undefeated emphasizes that it’s the little things—or, rather, the things that may seem of small value to outsiders—that mean the most to those willing to do what it takes to achieve success.

10. The Longest Yard (1974)

The Longest Yard (1974) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Skip the 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler and go right to the original comedy classic. Headlined by the late, great Burt Reynolds as an ex-football star serving an 18-month stint in a Florida slammer, The Longest Yard follows the inmates’ efforts to win a game against the corrupt warden’s cherry-picked lineup of prison guards. The plot plays it fast and loose but the performances and exceptional, ground-level execution of the game is why The Longest Yard still ranks high on the list of must-see football movies.

9. Remember The Titans (2000)

REMEMBER THE TITANS Trailer (2000) Denzel Washington Movie

Remember The Titans, one of Denzel Washington and producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s biggest winners, is a load-bearing column of sports moviedom. Based on a true story, one centered on the timely topic of racism, director Boaz Yakin’s four-quadrant hit follows a Virginia high school football coach, Herman Boone (Washington), as he works to integrate his team in 1971. Written by the late Gregory Allen Howard (who also co-wrote Michael Mann’s Ali), the screenplay not only provides the foundation for an exceptional sports movie, it builds upon it with the message that no matter the color of your skin, the most worthwhile path to success is one where we all work together.

8. North Dallas Forty (1979)

North Dallas Forty (3/10) Movie CLIP - Breakfast of Champions (1979) HD

Very loosely based on the real exploits of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys, North Dallas Forty is a harsh satire of the game and a football movie classic. It centers on jaded wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) and his inability to accept, or even work with, the whole “there’s no I in ‘team’” thing. Director Ted Kotcheff doesn’t shy away from the influence that sex, painkillers, and alcohol have on Elliot and his teammates on and off the field, which is part of North Dallas Forty’s unvarnished charm. Once a world-weary Elliot realizes that both the party and his career may be careening to an end simultaneously, the movie finds ways to make this sobering realization all the more endearing. Unevenly paced but brutally perceptive, North Dallas Forty offers a fascinating (and funny) look at the hard truths and painful realities of being a pro football player.

7. Jerry Maguire (1996)

JERRY MAGUIRE [1996] - Official Trailer (HD)

Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s biggest box office success, Jerry Maguire is equal parts sports movie and Billy Wilder dramedy. Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire is a slick sports agent struggling with his rediscovered conscience in an industry devoid of one. His romance with his big-hearted secretary, Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger, breaking through in a big way), and his relationship with Dorothy’s son, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki), helped make the movie a crowd-pleasing hit. While Cruise delivers an all-timer performance, the movie’s real MVP is Cuba Gooding, Jr., who won a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell. With a chip on his shoulder almost as big as the deficit in his bank account, Rod is the only client Jerry has left—and Gooding invests this relationship with endless charisma and energy. The way Rod goes from “Show Me the Money!” greed to his tearful, humbling mastery of “the Qwan” by the end of the movie is arguably the film’s greatest achievement.

6. The Freshman (1925)

Harold Lloyd The Freshman 1925

Silent cinema star Harold Lloyd plays the titular character in The Freshman, a football comedy that boasts Criterion Collection status. Lloyd plays an eccentric student who, in a storyline that feels like a precursor to The Waterboy, serves as the water boy for his college football team. Our beleaguered hero finds happiness once he accepts who he really is and moves past caring about what his fellow students think.

5. Brian’s Song (1971)

BRIAN’S SONG [1972] - Official Trailer

Brian’s Song tells the true story of the friendship between Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), two rookie running backs for the Chicago Bears who are forever changed by Piccolo’s cancer diagnosis. Williams’ Sayers isn’t afraid to be emotional with his teammates about the loss of his friend, making this hit TV movie one of the iconic portrayals of male friendship and the bond it forges. The fact that, in the film and in real life, Piccolo and Sayers were the first interracial roommates in the entire NFL (don’t forget, we’re talking the ‘60s here) only adds to the importance of this classic tearjerker.

4. Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday (1999) Official Trailer - Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx Movie HD

Oliver Stone’s intensity served him well as director and co-writer of this gritty, hard-R, warts-and-all drama about a fictional professional football league. Any Given Sunday takes on some of the uglier aspects of gridiron life, so it’s not a surprise that the NFL wouldn’t allow Stone to use any actual team logos or stadiums. The film features an impressive ensemble headlined by Al Pacino, who plays a respected veteran coach on the downslope of his career and needs a Hail Mary to get his team back on track. With a past-his-prime QB (Dennis Quaid) trying for a comeback that his body can’t handle, Pacino’s Coach D’Amato is forced to turn to hot-shot quarterback Willie Beaman (an exceptional Jamie Foxx). Team owner Cameron Diaz adds considerable spark to the team’s conflict-rich journey and Stone approaches it all with a cynical, kinetic lens. The bone-crunching violence of the football sequences are unlike any we’ve seen before, as Stone takes a “war is hell” approach to one of America’s most popular (and, he argues, morally corrupt) sports.

3. Friday Night Lights (2004)

Friday Night Lights Official Trailer #1 - Billy Bob Thornton Movie (2004) HD

The inspiration behind Peter Berg and Jason Katims’ fan-favorite NBC show, Friday Night Lights the movie (directed by Berg) brings a similar blue-collar aesthetic to the big emotional stakes at play in a small Texas town obsessed with high school football. When Permian High School running back James “Boobie” Miles (Derek Luke) suffers a life-altering injury, the inspiring Coach Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) must find his replacement while struggling with the importance that the town of Odessa, Texas, places on every Friday night matchup. For too many Odessa residents, football is either all they have or all they think they deserve. It’s up to Gaines to show them, and his players, that there’s more to life than a perfect spiral and Berg captures the small-town drama therein with an unflinching and, at times, heartwarming, verisimilitude. Future FNL TV cast member Connie Britton also stars.

2. We Are Marshall (2006)

We Are Marshall - Original Theatrical Trailer

Based on a true story, We Are Marshall is, refreshingly, less about classic football movie tropes and more focused on how a tragedy impacts both the players and the small community of loyal friends and family that supported them. When a plane crash claims the lives of members of the Marshall University football team and some of its fans, the team’s new coach (Matthew McConaughey) and his surviving players try to keep the football program alive and rebuild the team. Directed with a surprising amount of restraint from the usually flashy McG, Marshall is equal parts rousing and heartbreaking—with a grounded, moving performance from McConaughey and a splendid supporting cast that includes Marvel’s Anthony Mackie and Mad Men’s January Jones.

1. Rudy (1993)

Rudy (1993) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Rudy is the ultimate underdog story and a quintessential football movie. Based on a true story, the film features a career-best performance from Sean Astin in the title role, and early performances from Vince Vaughn and future Iron Man director Jon Favreau. Rudy grew up in a small town where most people ended up working at the local steel mill, but he wanted to play football at Notre Dame. There were only a couple of problems. His grades were a little low, his athletic skills were poor, and he was only half the size of the other players. But Rudy refused to give up and his drive and can-do spirit won the hearts of moviegoers, whether they loved football or not. The result is one of the all-time great feel-good sports movies.

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