The 14 Best Football Movies, Ranked

How many times have you watched a football game and thought "That's impossible?"

My bet is "many." Take Super Bowl games alone.  The Giants infamous "helmet catch" looks like CGI. The Falcons' stunning loss to the Patriots, brilliantly documented by the Secret Base team, is the stuff of sports movie fodder,  a level of ridiculous that, had it appeared on film or in a TV show, would have drawn almost universal criticism. The writers would be asked to take it down a notch. "That could never happen in football."

But it did. And it can. Whatever one thinks of football (and there are reasons to love and loathe it), there's zero question that no game is prone to wilder flights of athleticism or knife twists of fate. The very core of it is collisions and emotional sparks flying. It's why the best football movies — whether they take place on the field, in the stands, or in a pro team's front office — are often symphonies of feeling, less indebted to sense than Hail Mary tosses of storytelling. Football is just as good a canvas for Al Pacino's scenery-chewing as Harold Lloyd's screwball comedy, as right for searing anguish as redemption. Nothing is impossible.

 Here are the 14 best football movies, ranked. 

14) Varsity Blues

Howard Hawkes famously said that a good movie has three good scenes and no bad ones. "Varsity Blues," I'm sad to say, has some truly awful scenes. There's no way around it (The barbecue scene, just to name one example, feels beamed in from another Earth where humans have only been raised on "Days Of Our Lives" and all actors have two left feet). Despite being generally loved by millennials, it's worth remembering that Brian Robbins' teen comedy-drama for MTV films whiffs as often as hits.

That said: those hits. The rage that powers Coach Kilmer (Jon Voight) is palpably terrifying. And the sequence in which Mox and the West Cannan Coyotes confront — then refuse — to play for Kilmer has only appreciated in power since the picture's release, as has Billy Bob's attempted suicide. Texas' Colleyville Heritage had nine players admit to doping in 2004, all but with their coach's blessing. And while I would advise you not to Google "high school football player takes life," doing so paints an instantaneous portrait of how real the mental strain young athletes face can be, particularly when the schools they play for fail them. 

"Varsity Blues" may be operatic and silly, but the primal howl at its core is genuine. It isn't the best football or high school football movie on this list, but the great scenes and seminal soundtrack it offers are All-Pro worthy just the same. It's a good movie. 

13) We Are Marshall

I almost left "We Are Marshall" off this list, because for all intents and purposes it should be a better movie. McG directs the true story of a plane crash that killed 75 players and coaches of a college football program with all the subtlety of a neon pink sledgehammer, and most of the performances follow suit. Anthony Mackie, years before his MCU breakout, acts as though his character's life is on the line even when it isn't. Matthew McConaughey, years before the McConaissance, stretches his performing muscles and strains them. The film is frequently eye-rolling and, most of all, it's loud. 

But you know what? "We Are Marshall" also works. Anyone who's ever been to a game at The Big House or Tiger Stadium can tell you that volume is king in college football. 

Emotions run high, fast, and frequent, and "We Are Marshall" taps into this emotional rollercoaster adeptly, particularly during its manipulative but kind of gangbusters football sequences. That makes it more than worthy of inclusion on this list, even over better but less football-centric movies like "Heaven Can Wait" or "The Last Boy Scout." Those are movies with football in them. "We Are Marshall" is football. 

12) Invincible

I'm a dyed in the wool Chicago Bears fan. I cried when we lost the Super Bowl to the Indianapolis Colts 16 years ago and also when we drafted Justin Fields. I order deep dish pizza on game day, even when I'm in Brooklyn, even when we're down 21-0. The Bears are part of my soul. And I know they always will be. 

 I say all that because I've always been jealous of Philadelphia Eagles fans, who got not one but two solid movies about loving the Eagles so much that it irrevocably shapes you. One is "Silver Linings Playbook." It won Oscars. The other is "Invincible," starring the very-much-from-Boston Mark Whalberg. Against all odds, that's the film that makes this list. 

It's not just because "Invincible" is a purer sports movie; it's because Ericson Core's film, despite lacking any Philly accents, is a genuinely great Philly movie. It's surprisingly gritty for PG Disney fare, much closer to Coach Bombay's DUI in "Mighty Ducks" than the fantasy zombie onslaught of "The Big Green," and it has zero shame about being a sports movie, embracing both the inherent corniness and unabashed triumph of the underdog story at its core. In his incredible op-ed "Resist The Darkness, Support Philadelphia," Tom McCalister describes the city of Brotherly Love as a wave of "optimism and anger and reconciliation ... always either developing a hangover or trying to cure one." Against all odds, "Invincible" taps into that in its own, family-ready way — and that rocks. 

11) Big Fan

Early on in "Big Fan," Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) waits on hold. In his hands is a sweat-drenched notebook. On his mind, nothing but vitriol. When Paul's call is accepted by "SportsTalk Radio," he unleashes all of his well-rehearsed hatred about the week's coming Giants-vs-Eagles game. "Listen up, Philadelphia Phil," he sneers, "and all you other brotherly love jabronis who've been talking smack all week on this show — get out your forks because you're about to eat your words!" He hangs up and the camera pans back to reveal the smallness of his room, a weathered football poster dominating most of it.

No film, much less sequence, has ever quite captured the masculinity parade of modern football fandom. The sport is gladiatorial. Your rivals don't lose so much as perish. And fans who thrive and emerge victorious are kings of all they survey, if only for some hours. "Big Fan" examines this dynamic in piercing detail as it watches Aufiero go from the world's #1 New York Giants fan to a beaten, prison-bound reprobate without ever losing track of the loneliness and insecurity that accompany both. It also offers one of Oswalt's best performances, a harbinger for the funny but deeply felt work he'd yield for "Justified," "Young Adult," and countless other films. 

But more than anything, "Big Fan" understands that fandom and football existence in codependence and reveals the toxicity in both. It's worth cheering for. 

10) Jerry Maguire

Everyone remembers "Jerry Maguire" for the quotes. It's hard not to. There are a plethora of all-time greats in Cameron Crowe's seminal romantic comedy, from "Show me the money!" to "You had me at hello." What people forget is that "Jerry Maguire" is a solid football movie to boot, one which understands why football inspires as much as it can shape our decisions.

For starters, Rod Tidwell is, without a doubt, the most iconic and electric football player ever committed to film, one that justifiably netted Cuba Gooding Jr. his Oscar. The fact that the National Football League made a convincing "Football Life" mockumentary about the character in honor of "Jerry Maguire's" 20 year anniversary should offer indelible proof of how fully realized Tidwell is. For another, the moment where Tidwell gets knocked unconscious and inspires Maguire to race towards Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) encapsulates how sports becomes a mirror for what matters in our lives, from the passion we have for a team to who we wish to share our passions with. That's why the romantic comedy and football elements of "Jerry Maguire" don't clash. Just like an agent and his client and like sports and real life, they are perfectly in concert. It has us at hello. 

9) Any Given Sunday

"Any Given Sunday" was released two years before the Atlanta Falcons drafted Michael Vick and changed quarterbacking forever. And it was released decades before Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem at a 49ers game, sending shockwaves through conservative America and much of football fandom. I mention all of this because "Any Given Sunday"  contains a scene where Jamie Foxx, as Steamin Willie Beamen, confronts Al Pacino about the sacrifices he's made for football and utters this prescient statement: "You some scared old man ... you feel like if I play my way, I just might win ... so I'm gonna stay who I am, and I'm gonna play my way, get my dollars up so that when you wave me, trade me, or injured-reserve me ... I'll be worth ten times what I am today."

This is to say that "Any Given Sunday," in its breathlessly cynical, heavy-handed, and brutally cinematic way, anticipated our modern conversations about Black lives and sports more fully than anyone could've guessed. What is Al Pacino doing in this scene if not saying "Stick to sports" (And were those words ever said to Aaron Rodgers)? The politics of "Any Given Sunday" don't make it good (some of them have aged poorly!) but its desire to say all the quiet parts concerning race, player health, and capitalism out loud is exhilarating, as are its bone-crunching football scenes.

 It is an uneven but necessary ride worth ten times what it was 23 years ago.  

8) Brian's Song

There are few sports more hyper-masculine than football. Heck, there are few activities more hyper-masculine than football, period. Riding a bull while chewing tobacco and beef jerky at the same time has nothing on Hank Williams III croon-screaming "Are you ready for some football?" Football is the safe, steroidal-presenting vessel through which some men access their feelings, for better and often much worse.

It's little wonder, then, that "Brian's Song" is something of a "guy-cry" classic, as widely reductive as that term is. But it's worth noting that the story of the Chicago Bears' Gayle Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Cann), two football players who transcend their differences when Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer, is directed with more restraint than any game of football ever could be. Buzz Kulik's film eschews sentimentality for deep feeling, and it's that frame of football that made the movie a go-to for boomer dads everywhere. 

By extension, though, the film is also a tremendous gateway into more mature cinema. That mirrors the journey of "Brian's Song" as a pop culture curio, from its roots as a TV movie for ABC to getting picked up for theatrical release by Columbia Pictures. "Brian's Song" belongs on this list not just because it's good, but because it gets at the heart of why so many men flock to the gridiron game even as it eschews machismo and easy fan service once it does. It's a rousing, sensitive triumph. 

7) Remember The Titans

"Remember The Titans" is incisive. "Remember The Titans" is cheesy. More than any other film on this list, Boaz Yakin's inspirational football drama ping-pongs between profundity and meaty ham-fisted-ness yet emerges all the better for it because, somehow, this is a film which rings pathos from a bunch of youths in old-age makeup singing The Temptations at a funeral. In fairness, that's what happens when your adaptation of a true story is loose at best and the youths include a murderer's row of great acting talent (Ryan Hurst, Wood Harris, Ryan Gosling, and Donald Faison just to name a few). And the adults are the opposite of slouches, too.

Let's discuss Denzel Washington and Will Patton for a bit. Both actors are, to put it mildly, overqualified for the roles of Coaches Herman Boone and Bill Yoast, respectively. But when Boone exposes Yoast's micro-aggressions with pinpoint accuracy ("Which players you talking about, Coach?") or Yoast confronts an official for throwing the game in front of hundreds, the film takes on a Super Bowl-ready gravity. Washington and Patton refuse to treat the film like a regular-season game, and when Yakin rises to meet them "Remember The Titans" becomes more compelling than it has any right to be. Great teams win games in spite of themselves. That's how "Remember The Titans" plays, too. Crown it champion. 

6) Undefeated

There has been no shortage of tremendous non-fiction football television as of late. HBO's perennial "Hard Knocks" is going strong (and now has a regular-season companion!); "All Or Nothing," its Amazon Prime rival, is approaching equal levels of incision and access. And then there's "Last Chance U," the powerful and discomforting show about the East Mississippi Community College Tigers, which is soon to have its own scripted, sports drama counterpart. 

I mention all of these because "Undefeated," which released 11 years ago, is both a precursor and inferior to these programs. Like "Last Chance U," it is also set in the depreciated South and focuses on inner city youths. But unlike "Last Chance U," "Undefeated" gets saddled with a white savior narrative pretty quickly. Coach Bill Courtney is hired to turn the Manassas Tigers team around and make better men of his troubled but big-hearted players. If you're rolling your eyes just reading that, yes, it's understandable. Where sociological subtlety is concerned, "Undefeated" is no "Hoop Dreams." 

And yet: in many ways, "Undefeated" is football's answer to that Criterion-cosigned basketball drama. For all the tired cliches it traffics in, Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin's film mounts an offensive attack on one's heartstrings. It bludgeons. It gets brutal. And then it makes you believe in a hard-fought victory. The fact that it does is why "Undefeated" earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, and makes it the giant whose shoulders all non-fiction football programming stands on. 

5) The Freshman

"Do you remember those boyhood days when going to College was greater than going to Congress — and you'd rather be Right Tackle than President?" So begins Harold Lloyd's seminal silent comedy "The Freshman," which gave birth to the whole college comedy genre. You don't arrive at "Animal House" or "Old School" without it, nor "Pitch Perfect," "Neighbors," or countless other classics. Respect is due.

But the question isn't whether "The Freshman" is worthy of adulation so much as if it's a good gridiron movie, and the answer, resoundingly, is yes. Though the football played by Lloyd bears little resemblance to the padded, brutal mayhem of today's game, the film's triumphant final sequence captures the intersections of higher learning and athletics, from the aspirational to the exhilarating. Lloyd's comedic chops lend the sequence a heightened storytelling clarity that can go missing from sports movie bouts. So in its own wistful and old-fashioned way, "The Freshman" makes football as personal and visceral as any other film in cinema's canon. You might rather be right tackle than President after you finish it. 

4) Draft Day

In "Little Big League," a child manages the Minnesota Twins. In "Armageddon," Bruce Willis drills into an asteroid to save humanity. Both of these plots are far more realistic than anything that happens during the final, stunning act of Ivan Reitman's "Draft Day," a film which will live in infamy amongst analytics fans everywhere for not jumping the shark so much as punching it in the nose then setting it on fire. I could explain why, but I would go well beyond my word count (If you're interested, The Ringer did it wonderfully here).

But the point is that it doesn't matter. "Little Big League" is fun. "Armageddon" is in The Criterion Collection. And the insane machinations that Sonny Walker (Kevin Costner) employs in order to get Vonte Mack, no matter what, are the stuff of stirring and stupid legend. Even better, they get at the heart of why a draft day's so exciting. On any given draft in any given year, a single person can be offered a job in a great but down on its luck city and transform its fortunes forever. That's not just the stuff of good sport. That's the parlance of myth, and it happens time and time again, from MJ to Payton to Lebron. The draft matters.

In "Draft Day," Ivan Reitman and a sterling cast treat one NFL Draft like it's the pinnacle platform for storytelling and stick the landing even as they fumble it. That's sloppy, wonderful football. 

3) The Longest Yard

When Adam Sandler decided to remake the seminal Burt Renyolds prison football movie "The Longest Yard," some were surprised at how gritty his take was. Such people probably never saw the original. More than any other film on this list, the 1974 "The Longest Yard" plants itself at the crossroads of crowd-pleasing and crowd-challenging, taking a righteously anti-authoritarian stance that explores man's fight for dignity in a system designed to humiliate them. Eddie Albert's Warden Hazen is nothing less than Richard Nixon-light, and the movie's morally dubious messaging raises chilling questions about what it actually takes to defeat those who wield power unjustly.

If that makes "The Longest Yard" sound heavy, rest assured it isn't. Robert Aldrich was an outstanding action director, and the no-nonsense approach he brought to "The Flight of The Phoenix" and "The Dirty Dozen" carries over here. Unlike the hyperactive cuts which define "Any Given Sunday" and "Friday Night Lights," the guards vs prisoners game of "The Longest Yard" is stark and straightforward. It smacks of authenticity, as does the Georgia prison where the film was shot.

But none of this would endure if Burt Reynolds' portrayal of Paul "Wrecking" Crewe wasn't one for his career Mount Rushmore, the role that made him a movie star and international sensation. Football makes icons of many, and through "The Longest Yard" it gave Reynolds the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and boost that audiences remember for decades. No wonder Sandler wanted a shot at it, too. 

2) Rudy

Football is not a cult of personality. Though it is impossible to argue that the game's superstars aren't deliberately presented to the world as a person to be admired and revered, it also favors the unknowns. Heard of Gabriel Davis? You hadn't before last week, when he scored four receiving touchdowns for the Bills in that playoff game mentioned earlier in this post. Davis is now the stuff of Buffalo Bills legend, and there's no one on Earth who would've penned "a new playoff record" as his narrative.

What I'm getting at is that football, with some frequency, makes stories like "Rudy" possible. If it's not actively creating opportunities for a walk on like Rudy Ruettiger (who wanted to play football at the college of Notre Dame but had neither the grades nor tuition to make that possible) to find a moment of glory, then it's inspiring dreamers to seek it out. "Rudy" felt improbable upon release. It still does. And it plays like gangbusters, to boot. 

Why? Three iconic actors (Ned Beatty, Charles Dutton and, of course, Sean Astin) giving it their all. Director David Anspaugh, meanwhile, has a knack for "improbable Indiana sports movies," channeling the Midwest's quiet but pervasive optimism in hope that almost feels mythic, just as he did in the classic "Hoosiers." It's ironic in the best way that "Rudy," for elevating one unknown to legendary status, is clearly a team effort. Football wouldn't have it any other way. 

1) Friday Night Lights

If you say "Friday Night Lights" to anyone — a friend, a stranger, even a football neophyte — they think of that score. You know the one. You're likely humming it to yourself now, the memory of those reverb-flecked guitar notes blooming in your heart. Explosions In The Sky's contribution to Peter Berg's 2001 classic is one of the all-time great compositions for sports TV or film, but its also the Rosetta Stone which unlocks why Berg's film soars. More than any other art ever realized, "Friday Night Lights" understands how football makes you feel. If you've played the game, this movie gets you. If you've ever watched football with awe, passivity, or horror, this movie gets you. And if football has ever shaped the gravity of your universe, then this film is maybe less eager to get you, but it does. 

Just look at the sequence where Boobie Miles cleans out his locker due to injury never to play football again, realized with career-best intensity by Derek Luke. Just listen to Coach Gaines' speech about "two more quarters", which stares down the existential dread of playing a game that can break your body and weaponizes it for transcendent performance. It has clear eyes, a full heart, and cannot lose, even as it catalogs unimaginable loss with brutal honesty. "Friday Night Lights" is every facet of football realized as cinema and it also birthed a near-perfect TV show.

 It is the best football movie by 100 yards. Turn that score up.