Professional football, as a spectator sport, doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Never has, never will. So, as one of probably 14 people in America not watching the Super Bowl this evening, I decided to put together my list of the best football scenes from movies. To clarify: this is not a list of the best football movies ever made. Some of the films here are complete crap, while others contain very little actual football. What they all have in common, however, are sequences of fantastic game play.
I may not enjoy watching football in real life, but if it’s done well cinematically, I’m all in. Here goes.
7. Jerry Maguire (1996)
Cameron Crowe’s magical romantic dramedy dedicates very few minutes of screen time to football, but that doesn’t make its climatic Monday Night Football sequence any less thrilling. Rod Tidwell’s performance at the game will, quite literally, make or break Tom Cruise’s down-and-out sports agent. So when Cuba Gooding Jr. scores the game-winning touchdown, we revel in celebration. And when we discover that he is unable to get up, we share a collective horror with Maguire and Tidwell’s family who watch from home.
It’s a great, albeit brief, moment of play. And it’s worth noting that the scene contains my favorite shot of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s career. Watch when the trainers knell over Tidwell, trying to wake him up. There’s a moment when the trainer claps his hands in front of Tidwell’s face. The camera dips to slow motion, the stadium lights flicker above. It’s fucking beautiful.
6. Rudy (1993)
Again, there is actually very little football played in Rudy, and while the final, triumphant game is exciting and emotionally satisfying (Charles S. Dutton’s reserved performance helps with this), the main aspect to highlight from this film is its training montages.
Aside from the film that occupies the second place on this list, Rudy contains the best football practices ever filmed. The scenes use slow motion only when necessary (a complete rarity among sports films), develop its lead character remarkably, and highlight some of the best original score ever recorded for a sports flick. You know the music. If not, prepare to be humming it for the next few days.
5. Remember the Titans (2000)
If you went to grade school in America in the year 2000, then you were most likely shown Remember the Titans at least a dozen times (you know, because it’s all about overcoming adversity, and understanding each other... or something).
Point is, I’ve seen this movie so many times that I have grown completely sick of it. And while I take issue with the heavy-handedness of its can’t-we-all-just-get-along sentimentality, the movie definitely gets its football scenes right.
Denzel’s sideline pep talks, his refusal to conduct “trick plays,” and his ultimate relent to doing just that; it all works so well that you wish the movie would never have to take the time to show anything else than what’s on the field.
4. Varsity Blues (1999)
A few of my friends could kill me for this, but I hate most everything about Varsity Blues. I think it’s immature, forced, and completely unsexy, which is fine for a sports film, except when the movie is trying so hard to not be all of those things.
Its football scenes, however, manage to be everything the rest of the film is not: thrilling, amusing, and, at times, pretty damn funny. Sure there are a few too many plays of convenience that result in wins (the movie makes the blocking of a punt look as though it can be done on command), but for the most part, it captures its football games with enough intensity to keep me interested. Which, given the rest of the film, is one hell of an achievement.
3. Friday Night Lights, TV Show (2006-2011)
Speaking of plays of convenience, the Friday Night Lights television show was all about The Final Play. I haven’t actually counted, but I bet 80 percent of the football games depicted over the show’s five seasons were won or lost on the final play of the game. It builds tension, sure, but the tactic definitely gets old after a while (especially during marathon viewing sessions via Netflix).
No matter, the football scenes are much to thank for Friday Nights Lights' greatness. Although the outcome was often predictable, the actual game play was consistently thrilling. Also, I could dedicate an entire post to the best locker room speeches in film history. There have been many, but no one has had to convincingly pull off as many as Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. That’s goddamn right.
2. Friday Night Lights (2004)
I wasn’t expecting a whole hell of a lot the first time I saw Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights. But from its first practice scene, I was completely hooked. The jumpy (yet fitting) editing, the handheld camerawork, the Explosions in the Sky on the soundtrack, Derek Luke’s abs, Billy Bob Thornton’s scowl, Tim McGraw’s rage – it all works in a way that no other film (or show) about high school football has been able to best.
And that’s just the damn practices, because when it’s game time, Berg shows us that he has the ability to display serious command of his work. It’s a power that he hasn’t even alluded to in any of his other films. Point in fact, the championship game is nearly the best football scene ever captured on film. Nearly.
1. Any Given Sunday (1999)
Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday is the best film ever made about football, so it’s fitting that it contains the best football scenes in cinematic history. I could talk for hours about the strengths of the football in this film. The restless cutting, the rapidly shifting music, the slow motion, the focus of the camera (it manages to find a ball on the ground, a cheerleader on the sideline, and a player reading a newspaper, all with equal skill), and, of course, the entertaining trash talk.
As Steamin’ Willie Beamen, Jamie Foxx (then known only for his comedy), is a revelation to sports movie acting. He’s selfish and cocky about his limitless skill, yet able to exercise restraint when necessary. Without him, the battles on the field would work, but they would be lacking in charm.
The final game in this film (which is so epic it appears to take place in real time) is the best football game ever filmed. It’s long, engaging, riotous, and is equipped with such a satisfying conclusion, that I can watch it again and again and never grow tired of it. Forget the Super Bowl, Stone’s vision trumps anything found in real life, and then some.