Gridiron Greats: 10 Tomatometer-Approved Football Classics
Just in time for Super Sunday, we present a parcel of pigskin flicks as rough and tumble as the Giants-Pats matchup promises to be.
How better to spend the days leading up to the Super Bowl than letting out your favorite pair of old sweatpants, heating up a tray of nachos, cracking a beer (or six), and experiencing all the glorious highs and lows of America's favorite sport? We've got some of the usual suspects (expect a double dose of Burt Reynolds), a few surprises (once upon a time, the phrase "Nick Nolte goes long" had an entirely different meaning), and maybe even a few movies you've never seen. So sit back, relax, and enjoy our Tomatometer-sorted stroll down the cinematic gridiron!
9 (tie). The Longest Yard (1974, 79 percent)
Yes, it served as the inspiration for 2005's Adam Sandler-led remake -- not to mention countless other inferior knockoffs -- but don't hold that against 1974's The Longest Yard. A stirring sports flick as well as a stinging rebuke of the Nixon administration (what, you don't believe us? Just take a look at Eddie Albert as Warden Hazen), director Robert Aldrich's original Yard uses a number of actual, honest-to-gosh professional football players (including Joe Kapp, Pervis Atkins, and Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke) to keep the action appropriately hard-hitting, and gives us Burt Reynolds (who we'll see again later on the countdown) at the peak of his mustachioed mid-1970s power. Ferociously violent? You bet -- but so is football, and as much room as the movie leaves for old-fashioned brawn, it boasts a surprisingly witty script by Albert S. Ruddy and Tracy Keenan Wynn.
9 (tie). Rudy (1993, 79 percent)
It reads more like science fiction than the setup for a based-on-true-events football classic, but here goes: Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger was the son of a millworker and the third of 14 children who, at 5'6" and 165 pounds, turned a walk-on tryout for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish into the greatest two-down career in the history of football. Long before he was Samwise Gangee, Sean Astin was Rudy (or "Ru-dee! Ru-dee!"), and even if you've never seen the movie, chances are you recognize the iconic shot of him being carried off the field on his teammates' shoulders (another scene based on actual events, by the way). Like its diminutive subject, Rudy didn't put up intimidating numbers at the box office, but thanks to cable and the video market, it's gone on to build a sizeable cult audience over the years.
7 (tie). Semi-Tough (1979, 80 percent)
Only in the '70s could you see a movie like Semi-Tough: Part bawdy football flick, part love triangle, and part satiric sendup of the various New Age self-help fads sweeping the nation, the movie should be far too jumbled to even be watchable, let alone the recipient of enough positive reviews to wind up on this list. But thanks to deft performances from Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh, and particularly Bert Convy in a thinly disguised jab at EST guru Werner Erhard, Semi-Tough succeeds as an amiable (albeit rambling, and exceedingly light) example of the sort of late '70s romantic comedy they don't make anymore -- with a dash of gridiron action thrown in.
7 (tie). Knute Rockne: All American (1940, 80 percent)
You probably can't watch it now without laughing a little, but that's mainly because all of Knute Rockne's working parts were shamelessly pilfered and used to build all subsequent sports films. The high stakes? The oft-quoted inspirational line? The sweeping, dramatic final act? You've got Robert Buckner's script and Lloyd Bacon's direction to thank for those. It's just the story of a Notre Dame football coach, for God's sake, but you can't help feeling like you're watching Jonas Salk develop the polio vaccine. Corny, but oh so effective -- just look at Ronald Reagan, who used that whole "win just one for the Gipper" thing into a cornerstone of his march to the White House. You don't wind up enshrined in the National Film Registry for nothing.
6. Friday Night Lights (2004, 82 percent)
Before it was a critically beloved (and sadly ratings-starved) NBC television series, Friday Night Lights was a well-reviewed Peter Berg film -- and before that, it was a bestselling book by H.G. Bissinger, the author who originally followed the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas, way back in 1988, on their quest for a state championship. Hollywood took some liberties with the Panthers' story, naturally, but that's to be expected -- and at its heart, the story is still just as effective at distilling the importance of high school sports in small towns, as well as the poignant dreams of the kids who play the games, and the parents, friends, and neighbors who live through them. Perhaps it glosses over some of the finer points of Bissinger's book, but it still packs some meaning -- and some wonderfully exciting fake football.
5. Jerry Maguire (1996, 83 percent)
It's remembered today more for its catchphrases ("Show me the money," "You had me at hello," "Help me help you") than its actual content, but taken on its own merits, Jerry Maguire has a lot to offer -- including Tom Cruise at his most likable, Renee Zellweger at her most winsome, and Cuba Gooding Jr. with nary an exploding ice cream truck, team of sled dogs, or day camp in sight. Director Cameron Crowe's script about a sports agent's discovery of his own soul is certainly manipulative, and arguably takes too long in getting to its overly tidy final act -- but the sum is so much more than its parts that you can still see why Jerry Maguire was nominated for five Academy Awards.
3 (tie). Go Tigers! (2001, 85 percent)
What, you've never heard of Go Tigers!? Your loss, bub -- but here's your chance to repent of your foolish ways by getting yourself acquainted with Kenneth A. Carlson's 2001 documentary about the Massillon Tigers, an Ohio high school football team that has drawn more than 15,000 fans to each of its home games for over a hundred years. Of course, this kind of fandom only creates more pressure for the teenagers on the squad -- not to mention the school they're playing for -- and Carlson's lens catches Massillon at a particularly difficult time, during a season whose outcome seems certain to have a profound effect, one way or another, on the future of the school, the team, and the town itself.
3 (tie). North Dallas Forty (1979, 85 percent)
The idea of Nick Nolte as an NFL wide receiver might sound perfectly ludicrous to you now, but hey, he was younger then -- and this was the same sports-film era that gave us Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine as soccer players, so you've got to take it all in context. Dramatic licenses aside, North Dallas Forty -- based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, who played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, and presumably remembered enough of his experiences to know what he was talking about -- is an effective look at the seamy underbelly of pre-free agency professional football. Nolte's struggle against his aging body -- and his team's crooked management -- is played partly for laughs, but there's a sizeable element of truth underlining the whole thing, too. Just watch a few editions of SportsCenter, and you'll learn more about life after pro football than you care to.
2. Heaven Can Wait (1978, 86 percent)
Not to be confused with 1943's Heaven Can Wait, this light Warren Beatty comedy is actually a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, appropriating the earlier film's boxer-taken-before-his-time premise as the basis for the story of L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton, mistakenly shuffled off this mortal coil by an overeager angel. The solution? Drop Pendleton into the body of an aging billionaire who has just been poisoned by his wife and personal assistant. Determined to win back his starting job with the Rams, Pendleton uses his new host's money to purchase the team and...well, it all sounds pretty ludicrous already, but thanks to a great script by Beatty and Elaine May -- and a typically stout co-directorial effort from Buck Henry -- you'll probably be too busy smiling to care.
1. The Freshman (1925, 100 percent)
See? You don't need soaring orchestras to make a terrific football film. You don't need crane shots, or 400-pound linemen, or inspirational dialogue. Heck, you don't need any dialogue whatsoever -- you just need Harold Lloyd, in one of his best (and best-loved) performances. As Harold "Speedy" Lamb, the overeager nerd whose efforts to fit in on campus are roundly mocked behind his back, Lloyd helped kick off the "college movie" craze of the 1920s -- but, as The Freshman's enduring popularity attests, the film has timeless appeal. And lest you think it's just a silly silent comedy with nothing relevant to offer modern football film fans, just check out that climactic big game sequence (filmed at the Rose Bowl). How's that for influential?
All right, first things first: there are probably a handful of football films you're expecting to see here -- Remember the Titans, Invincible, The Comebacks (just kidding on that last one) -- and judging from previous lists, their absence will probably cause you to loudly question our sanity, upbringing, and taste in movies. What can we say? It's all about the Tomatometer, and the Tomatometer doesn't lie.
Also, Brian's Song appears absolutely nowhere on this list. Yes, yes, we know -- it's like the most perfect football movie ever, and the first time you ever saw your dad cry was when the two of you watched it together, it's got a 91 percent Tomatometer (which would make it number two), and we're a bunch of idiots. We get it. But the thing is, Brian's Song was a TV movie, and therefore ineligible for inclusion here. We can't break the rules, even for Brian Piccolo.
Ah, what the hell, here's Brian's trailer to send you off: