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Classic Ten – Greatest Football Movies

classic_10_callout.jpgThe football season comes to an end this week with that most hyped and watched of American rituals: The Superbowl. So what better time to recount the best the movies have had to offer in the way of football yarns triumphant (Rudy), irreverent (North Dallas Forty), and silly (Horse Feathers)? The greatest football movies don’t just cover athletic feats, but those of off-field determination and spirit — otherwise they’d just be big budget game tapes. The top ten for each of those longest yards:

10. All the Right Moves (1983)
Tom Cruise has performed in more famous high school movies — Risky Business — and more famous football movies — Jerry Maguire — but certainly not a more famous high school football movie than All the Right Moves, his first serious leading role before superstardom. The movie still works after all these years, highlighting the real life incentives and pressures of high school football, with a hardheaded coach (Craig T. Nelson) blocking Cruise from a college scholarship and Lea Thompson as a major after-school distraction.

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9. Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Warren Beatty’s directorial debut has the football film going where sports movies rarely succeed — the supernatural comedy. Beatty himself (of course) plays a Los Angeles Rams player who dies and returns from a brief sojourn in the afterlife as a tycoon who then buys the team to lead them to an improbable Superbowl victory. Supported by a stellar cast including Buck Henry (who also co-directed the picture), James Mason, and Julie Christie, Heaven Can Wait proves that what’s beyond belief can be moving too.

Brian's Song.jpg8. Brian’s Song (1971)
Made-for-TV, yes, but this biopic of Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bears fullback who tragically died of cancer at 27, remains the premiere sports movie about off-field courage and the bonds of friendship during an incomprehensible ordeal. James Caan plays Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams his devoted teammate, star running back Gale Sayers, whose speech in support of his friend with the “heart of a giant” could make even the toughest guy weep.

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7. Knute Rockne All American (1940)
Sure, it gave the world “win one for the Gipper,” and a million future jokes when Ronald Reagan ran for president, but Knute Rockne All American
holds up for so many more reasons. Pat O’Brien plays the title role,
the most famous coach in Notre Dame’s storied history, and possesses
his same distinctive lilt, steely demeanor and human touch as he
revolutionizes the game and transforms both Reagan and the school into

Friday Night Lights.jpg6. Friday Night Lights (2004)
is a sports-obsessed nation, but among its pastimes, few evoke as much
near-religious fervor as high school football, where sleepy towns turn
into fierce rivals out on the gridiron. Many movies have captured that
intensity, All the Right Moves included, but none as convincingly as Friday Night Lights,
based on a state championship team from the heart of Texas. Coach Billy
Bob Thornton’s halftime speech during the movie’s all-or-nothing game
is the best of its kind, not bombastic but sobering and spiritual.


5. Horse Feathers (1932)
is a strange sport, one that requires not just complex strategic
organization but also brutality. No other genre of film captures that
disparity like the slapstick comedy, which can make a simple fumble a
ballet of flopping bodies and twisted limbs. The best of the bunch is
the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Horse Feathers, an anarchic
satire of college athletics that has Groucho (and his cigar) coming out
of the stands to tackle a player: “That’ll teach him to pass a lady
without tipping his hat.”

Jerry Maguire.jpg4. Jerry Maguire (1996)
no more hated figure in football than the greedy agent (followed
closely by the greedy team owner, and then the greedy athlete), but
somehow during the age of the overpaid superagent Cameron Crowe wrote
and directed a movie that made one a hero. A still-relatable Tom Cruise
plays the title character, fired for wanting  to bring humanity and a
conscience to the profession. Buoyed by energetic performances and a
wealth of catchphrases, Maguire maintains his principles while showing Cuba Gooding the money and having Renee Zellweger “at hello.”

North Dallas Forty.jpg3. North Dallas Forty (1979)
the era of 24-7 sports news coverage, the inside world of professional
sports could only be revealed by the players themselves. Former Yankee
Jim Bouton’s groundbreaking 1970 memoir Ball Four allowed the public to glimpse the strange day-to-day realities of baseball, while three years later Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty
provided unlimited access to football’s sex, drugs, and violence. The
1979 movie version fictionalizes Gent’s Dallas Cowboys days, with Nick
Nolte’s seen-it-all has-been downing painkillers and barely surviving
in a business that treats its players like pieces of meat.

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2. The Longest Yard (1974)
common problem for football movies is topping reality: Why should we
care about last-second touchdowns on screen when those in real life —
where nobody knows the outcome — are even more exciting (e.g., last
year’s Superbowl)? The answer is doing reality one better, as in 1974’s
farfetched but gritty The Longest Yard, starring Burt
Reynolds as a jailed former quarterback who leads his fellow inmates in
a brutal, supercharged game on the gridiron against the prison’s
guards. The XFL came close, but otherwise you’ll never see such a thing
on network television.

Rudy2.jpg1. Rudy (1993)
triumphant underdog story again, but this time one possessing the
modesty of its hero, and perhaps the greatest football movie moment
ever. Rather than have the 90-pound weakling score the winning
touchdown, Rudy shows that the true success of Daniel “Rudy”
Ruettiger is measured not on final results but on determination and
hard work. Fighting for his dream of a spot on Notre Dame’s elite
squad, the diminutive and overachieving Rudy (Sean Astin) only gets a
single season sack to show for it, but proves he’s got the mettle of a
team-worth of champions.

Have a top ten list you want to see? Suggest one in the comments section below. And click here to vote for your favorite football movie.

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