Our Favorites: Football Flicks.
Before the big game, why not get your jockstrap ready by catching up on these Gridiron greats?
The ultimate bread and circus of American culture is upon us: the big football game whose name you know, but which I am unable, legally, to use. That big game. Held in a bowl. A truly super one.
Since we talk about movies and TV, and not bowls of sport that are super, I have decided to pick from my favorite oblong sportsball flicks. From prison yard pigskin matches to the biggest arenas in the world, these celluloid gridiron contests are our picks for the best football on film.
Our Favorites: Football Flicks.
Most Valuable: Quarterback.
Nominees: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) The Best of Times; Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) The Longest Yard; Jimmie Dix (Damon Wayans) The Last Boy Scout; Paul Blake (Scott Bakula) Necessary Roughness; Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) The Replacements; Flash Gordon (Sam Watson) Flash Gordon.
The core of any great team is a great QB. Not surprisingly, the biggest celebrity in your movie is likely taking snaps from the shotgun formation. Makes sense, because most of these leading men are usually in movies involving regular old shotguns. Action heroes love slumming it up in football movies.
While the bench is deep, there’s one obvious MVP. Sure, Burt Reynolds overcame the viciousness of the American penal system. Kurt Russell managed to make Robbin Williams look like he belonged on a football field, mostly. But did either of them save the freaking universe?
Nope. Only one man was good enough to make it in the NFL AND save Earth from mad emperor Ming the Merciless. That man’s name is Flash.
Winner: Flash Gordon/Sam Watson.
Most Valuable: Coach.
Nominees: Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) Friday Night Lights; Coach Klein (Henry Winkler) The Waterboy; Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) Varsity Blues; Nate Scarborough (Burt Reynolds) The Longest Yard; Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) The Replacements; Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) Any Given Sunday.
If your football movie has two big names in it, its a solid bet that the other big name is playing the coach. It’s also a strange but true fact that he’s also probably an Academy Award winner. Apparently earning an Oscar paves the way for winning a Lombardi.
I really want to give the award to Gene Hackman. I mean, he’s Gene Hackman. Every role he’s in is golden. And here he’s coaching Keanu Reeves. That’s a “Bruce Campbell as running back” away from my perfect film team. But…
There’s just something viscerally memorable about Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. Oliver Stone directs this sports flick like its a war epic. The hits are brutal and bone-crunching, but somehow less menacing than Pacino’s pep talks. His team goes out there and leaves it all on the field less because they like winning and more because they’re terrified to hear coach in the locker room if they lose.
Winner: Tony D’Amato/Al Pacino.
Most Valuable: Football Documentary.
Nominees: Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon (1965); Gridiron Gang (1993); Jim Brown – All American (2002); League of Denial (2013); O.J. – Made in America (2016).
There are almost as many big documentaries about football as there are fictional dramas. For all of the sepia-toned glory in our nominees, only one really changed the game. League of Denial, a PBS documentary based on the book of the same name, actually shook up the football world. While many sources were starting to connect the dots between concussions and pro sports, League went in depth all the way down to the Pop Warner pee-wee leagues. As the bodies have started to pile up, the NFL has had to get serious about the issue.
Well, as serious as Roger Goodell will get about any issue in his league. Which is…less than reassuring.
Winner: League of Denial.
Most Valuable: Football Comedy.
Nominees: The Longest Yard (1974); The Best of Times (1986); Necessary Roughness (1991); The Waterboy (1998); The Comebacks (2007); Leatherheads (2008).
Football comedies were practically the gateway drug that got me into actually watching football. It certainly wasn’t how abysmally lousy the New England Patriots were during the entirety of my childhood (I’ve got the pictures of seven year-old me in Patriot’s pajamas, so don’t @ me about being a bandwagon fan!)
Most of these films are just good comedies on their own. Sure, Leatherheads is a bit rough around the edges, but George Clooney was really trying to catch a vibe from old film-reel sports nostalgia. I have a place in my heart for The Comebacks, which is a much, much funnier film than it deserved to be. For all that, it’s hard to think of a football comedy that stands out quite like The Waterboy.
The Waterboy is to football comedies what college football is to the NFL. Which is to say, a laughable parody where having one decently talented wide receiver and a QB who can take three drop-steps back and lob the ball turns your school’s highlight reel into essentially a blooper reel. You’re not going to learn anything about football from The Waterboy…but you will learn about hydration, and that once upon a time Adam Sandler was funny.
Winner: The Waterboy.
Most Valuable: Football Drama.
Nominees: The Blind Side (2009); Remember the Titans (2000); Friday Night Lights (2004); Rudy (1993); Any Given Sunday (1999); Jim Thorpe – All American (1951); Brian’s Song (1971)
Most football dramas suffer from “importance inflation.” We’ve all apparently decided that because we waste so much time and money on this particular game of sportsball, it must be very, very serious. I mean, why else would we pay somebody 300 times more to throw or catch a ball than to, say, teach generations of children how to read? Football must be quite the heroic endeavor, and deserves all of the gravitas the big screen can muster!
So, while lots of these movies are good, dramatic films, you’ve got to roll your eyes a little at all the pretensions of greatness they make. Our winner skirts all of those issues by actually having more at stake than winning the big game. Brian’s Song, starring Billy Dee William’s and James Caan back in their baby face days (although, Caan kind of always looked like a 50 year-old with a pack a day habit…), tells the tale of the strong friendship between George Sayer (Williams) and Brian Piccolo (Caan), a friendship tested by racial prejudice and by Piccolo’s diagnosis with terminal lung cancer.
Football winds up being the background to a very moving and human story, and Williams and Caan give fantastic performances in the leads. Originally a made for TV movie, it was popular enough to get a theatrical release. It’s still regarded as one of the best sports movies of all time.
Winner: Brian’s Song.
Personal Foul: Self Important Twaddle.
Nominees: All the Right Moves; Invincible; When the Game Stands Tall; My All-American; Facing the Giants.
Well, we saw one movie that managed to avoid all of the chest-beating and self-hype. Here’s the category for the film that drowned while drinking its own Gatorade.
When the Game Stands Tall should win this category outright for such a lousy, self-important title. It winds up spiking the ball in the end-zone by also being filled to the brim with meaningless, “inspirational” sports cliches, God bothering sermons, and an asinine plot. Oh, your high school football team won a ton of games? Excuse me, I thought we were talking about something that somebody, somewhere gave a shit about. Usually when a sports movie is about kid’s leagues, it’s a fucking comedy. This one is just a farce.
10 Yard Penalty: When the Game Stands Tall.
Personal Foul: Worst Football Movie.
Nominees: The Game Plan; Jerry Maguire; Draft Day; Radio; The Program.
Wow. So much to choose from. I eliminated some films out of hand. I know that Don Knotts/Tim Conway film about a field goal kicking mule was atrocious, but c’mon, did anyone, anywhere assume it wasn’t going to be bad? I’m sure Air Bud has a football edition. I’m kind of surprised Ernest doesn’t. Anyhow, I ruled out obviously bad movies.
That leaves the movies that actually thought they had some talent. The Game Plan, while a kiddie movie, should have had at least The Rock’s charisma and physical presence going for it. It did not. Draft Day is about draft day, so is essentially the second boring-est thing about football. The first boring-est being the Halftime Show now that Prince is dead. The Program tried to expose toxic masculinity and instead inspired a generation of dunder-heads to copy the reprobates in the movie. Radio polarized audiences: was Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of a mentally handicapped young man so bad it was good, or was it so bad that it remained bad? I opt for bad.
By process of elimination, you can guess which movie I consider the worst football film of all time: Jerry Maguire. This turgid film stars a fully engrammed up Tom Cruise as a scumbag sports agent who gets fucked over and has only Cuba Gooding Jr. as client…who then goes on to jerk Jerry around for kicks. Great. Our two male leads are assholes. Things are looking good!
Add on to the pile the smarmiest kid role since Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, and a passionless love story involving Renée Zellweger doing her scwunchiest face possible, and you get a truly terrible movie. You complete our list, Jerry, and I wish I had left the theater at “Hello.”