Ah, the smell of grills in the parking lot on game day. The sound of inebriated fans as they’re carted off by stadium security, their painted faces and chests caught on the Jumbotron. The joy of the surgically repaired knees and the multi-million dollar contracts that depend upon them. And the simple pleasure of an athlete announcing that he has indeed sired another illegitimate child with his fourth baby mama.
Film Slate Magazine honors this special time of year with the top 10 football movies that you need for your collection.
“The Longest Yard” (1974) – No, not the formulaic remake starring Adam Sandler, but the original with the incomparable Burt Reynolds. It’s easy to forget that Reynolds was a very capable actor in the 1970s, because most people only remember him making bloated turkey after turkey in the following decade. But in “The Longest Yard,” Reynolds’ turn as Paul Crewe, a disgraced former pro quarterback serving time in a Georgia state penitentiary helped give rise to the sports movie anti-hero. Now a cliché, it was quite revolutionary then, and the movie flourishes with his every wink and trademark clipped laugh. Crewe is forced into leading a team of inmates who must play the polished semi-pro team made up of the guards—all under the watchful eye of the sadistic warden, played by Eddie Albert. Cast with several former NFL and college football greats, “The Longest Yard” combines a great script and some now iconic imagery and stands as one of the most original sports movies in cinematic history.
“The Last Boy Scout” (1991) – Okay, so it’s not truly a football movie in the classic sense. But it is set against the world of professional football, and features one of the all time great opening sequences, as Righteous Brother Bill Medley sings the “Friday Night Football” theme and Tae-Bo king Billy Blanks, playing a burned out running back, kills himself during a nationally televised game. Bruce Willis, at his snarky best, and Damon Wayans, playing a quarterback desperately trying to get back into the game, have great chemistry and elevate this Tony Scott project (with a script by Shane Black) into something that teeters between hyperbole and genuine entertainment.
“The Replacements” (2000) – There is a reason why this Keanu Reeves vehicle receives endless replays on basic cable. Sure, it’s a paint-by-numbers against all odds story, but it’s solidly enjoyable. Gene Hackman (yes, Gene Hackman) plays the crusty coach who must turn a rag tag bunch of scab football players (who are getting the chance of a lifetime during a players’ strike) into winners. Can he do it? Will Reeves, who plays has been quarterback Shane Falco (his second best character name, next to Johnny Utah from “Point Break”) get the girl, who just happens to be head cheerleader? Why not turn on TBS and find out? It’s probably on in fifteen minutes.
“North Dallas Forty” (1979) – The perfect bookend to the decade that gave us “Slapshot” and “The Bad News Bears,” sports movies populated by flawed human beings and unlikely but ultimately satisfying endings other than, “will the underdogs win the big game” scenarios. Based on former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent’s best-selling book, “North Dallas Forty” is a thinly veiled account of his time with America’s Team, starring Nick Nolte as the renegade wide receiver who chafes under the strict, hypocritical codes of conduct imposed by his team and the league. Stars are treated differently, injured players are injected with painkillers before games, and the team parties are alcohol and cocaine fueled orgies that quickly get out of control. And not one “win one for the Gipper” speech to be found.
“Wildcats” (1986) – Uneven, but mostly clever, “Wildcats” stars Goldie Hawn as a high school football coach in over her head (there is one thing about football movies—they don’t stray far from convention) that has inherited a group of perennially underachieving, over sexed players from a decaying inner city school. If the 1970s introduced audiences to the three dimensional flawed protagonist, plenty of filmmakers in the 1980s reveled in forgoing character development in favor of endless “Porky’s” rehashes, merely changing the setting. But “Wildcats” understands what it is, and doesn’t try to be more.
“The Program” (1993) – There are two sides to James Caan. There is the Caan that can produce nuanced, layered performances, such as in “The Godfather.” Then there is the James Caan in “The Program.” And this one is infinitely more entertaining. As the scene chewing head coach at ESU, a fictional college with a tradition of winning, Caan, as Coach Winters, knows what it takes to win, and believes that the administration should look the other way as long as he gets results. Throw in some spectacular eye candy in the form of Halle Berry and Kristy Swanson and various subplots involving every sports movie archetype known to man, and the result is a melodramatic romp, but one that’s never boring.
“All the Right Moves” (1983) – First of all, this movie scores huge points for being set in the kind of monolithic, dying steel town that defined Pennsylvania in the 1970s and ‘80s. There is a permanent grayness to this film; a mood that permeates almost every scene. It’s a very poignant look at a high school football player, played by Tom Cruise, and how the walls are closing in on him as his senior year winds down and he desperately tries to get a scholarship. “All the Right Moves” eloquently captures how very rational people turn irrational and define themselves through the games that their children play. Craig T. Nelson has the unenviable task as the head coach, which can easily turn into another stereotyped performance. But Nelson shows that he has chops, and his turn as Coach Nickerson is simultaneously hard ass and sympathetic. The football action is very well done, and the script, which includes all the major high school subplots, never veers into schlock.
“The Best of Times” (1986) – Kurt Russell and his super sweet head of 1980s hair star alongside Robin Williams as grown men dipping back into their past one last time for a shot at glory. Russell is Reno Hightower (what a great football movie name), a charismatic winner, who unfortunately played with Jack Dundee (Williams) who dropped the big pass that cost their high school team the championship. Several years later, they get a chance at redemption and a rematch to boot. Movies like “The Best of Times” don’t get made anymore. It’s not a singular cinematic achievement. It is, however, simply a funny, down to earth look at how the past can cast long shadows in small towns.
“Paper Lion” (1968) – Alan Alda plays George Plimpton, the erstwhile writer who wrote an article for “Sports Illustrated” about trying out for the Detroit Lions, the only team that would go for his stunt. It’s a charming and funny look at football in a different era, and other than Alda and Lauren Hutton, most of the acting is done by real Detroit Lions players and coaches.
“Brian’s Song” (1971) No football movie list is complete without this TV tearjerker which taught men that it was okay to cry—as long as your best friend is dying. With smooth soul cat Billy Dee Williams as legendary Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers and James Caan as fullback Brian Piccolo, “Brian’s Song” captures the camaraderie of football and how even the toughest men crumble as they face mortality.