The best football movies capture the grit, the drama, the glory, and even the absurd comedic potential of the sport. To that tight end, we’ve huddled together the 10 Essential Football Movies, as fine a lineup of critics’ and popular fan choices as you’ll ever see.
Filling the roster of Rotten Tomatoes full list of essential football movies are classics synonymous with football flicks (Remember the Titans, Rudy), comedies to tackle the funny bone (The Waterboy, The Replacements), industry insiders (Jerry Maguire, Draft Day), and the inspirational tearjerkers (Brian’s Song). And it’s an all-ages club, from elementary (Little Giants), to high school (Varsity Blues), to college (We Are Marshall), and, of course, the winding road to the pros (Invincible). Whether they’re set on the field, in the locker room, or in the halls, these movies capture the spirit of football in its complex glory. These movies are not ranked by Tomatometer scores but by their stature and impact inside the arena of sports cinema. So even if some critics gave these movies a hard time, the fact that they’ve been accepted by audiences and fans as film ambassadors to the football life was the true weighing factor.
So welcome to Rotten Tomatoes’ Essential Football Movies. No need to review the play on this one: We guarantee you’re seeing a big dogpile of the gridiron movie greats
#10 Undefeated (2011)
Critics Consensus: It covers familiar sports documentary territory, but Undefeated proves there are still powerful stories to be told on the high school gridiron.
Synopsis: Since its founding in 1899, Manassas High School in North Memphis has never had a football team win a playoff game. In 2004, former high-school coach Bill Courtney offers to help turn the Manassas Tigers around. Nurturing his players' physical and emotional strengths, Courtney's efforts pay off in 2009, when the Tigers, led by their star player O.C., seem to have a chance to break their school's 110-year losing streak and finally win a playoff game.
Starring: Bill Courtney
Directed By: Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin
#9 The Longest Yard (1974)
Critics Consensus: Equal parts tough and funny and led by a perfectly cast Burt Reynolds, The Longest Yard has an interesting political subtext and an excellent climax -- even if it takes too long to get there.
Synopsis: An ex-football star doing time is forced by the warden to organize a team of inmates to play against his own line-up of guards. The warden tries to blackmail him into throwing the game, but the convicts have their own ideas and see the game as an opportunity to repay some of the brutality they have endured.
Starring: Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter, Michael Conrad
Directed By: Robert Aldrich
#8 Varsity Blues (1999)
Critics Consensus: This is a predictable football movie that lacks intensity.
Synopsis: In West Canaan, Texas, high school football reigns supreme. When starting quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) turns up injured, the Coyotes' ruthless coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), must promote benchwarmer Jonathon "Mox" Moxon (James Van Der Beek) to lead the team in its quest for a divisional title. Suddenly thrown into the spotlight, Mox must deal with the pressure of carrying the aspirations of an entire town on his shoulders as he struggles to pursue his own very different dreams.
Starring: James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Paul Walker, Ron Lester
Directed By: Brian Robbins
#7 Any Given Sunday (1999)
Critics Consensus: Sometimes entertaining, but overall Any Given Sunday is a disappointment coming from Oliver Stone.
Synopsis: Four years ago, DAmato's (Al Pacino) Miami Sharks were at the top. Now, his team is struggling with three consecutive losses, sliding attendance, and aging heroes, particularly 39-year-old quarterback Jack "Cap" Rooney (Dennis Quaid). Off the field, DAmato is struggling with a failed marriage and estranged children and is on a collision course with Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), the young president/co-owner of the Sharks organization.
Starring: Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, James Woods
Directed By: Oliver Stone
#6 We Are Marshall (2006)
Critics Consensus: Matthew McConaughey almost runs We Are Marshall to the end zone, but can't stop it from taking the easy, feel-good route in memorializing this historic event in American sports.
Synopsis: In 1970, Marshall University and the small town of Huntington, W.Va., reel when a plane crash claims the lives of 75 of the school's football players, staff members and boosters. New coach Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) arrives on the scene in March 1971, determined to rebuild Marshall's Thundering Herd and heal a grieving community in the process.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie
Directed By: McG
#5 Jerry Maguire (1996)
Critics Consensus: Anchored by dazzling performances from Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Renée Zellweger, as well as Cameron Crowe's tender direction, Jerry Maguire meshes romance and sports with panache.
Synopsis: When slick sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) has a crisis of conscience, he pens a heartfelt company-wide memo that promptly gets him fired. Desperate to hang on to the athletes that he represents, Jerry starts his own management firm, with only single mother Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger) joining him in his new venture. Banking on their sole client, football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Jerry and Dorothy begin to fall in love as they struggle to make their business work.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger, Kelly Preston
Directed By: Cameron Crowe
#4 Brian's Song (1971)
Critics Consensus: Buoyed by standout performances from James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, Brian's Song is a touching tale of friendship whose central relationship transcends its standard sports movie moments.
Synopsis: Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) are teammates on the mid-1960s Chicago Bears. At a time when professional football still bears a certain amount of race-based segregation, the growing friendship between the white Piccolo and the black Sayers, as well as their wives, Joy (Shelley Fabares) and Linda (Judy Pace), becomes a symbol of harmony during the civil rights era. That bond grows stronger still when Piccolo receives some shattering and unexpected news.
Starring: James Caan, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Warden, Shelley Fabares
Directed By: Buzz Kulik
#3 Friday Night Lights (2004)
Critics Consensus: An acute survey of the football-obsessed heartland that succeeds as both a stirring drama and a rousing sports movie.
Synopsis: A small, turbulent town in Texas obsesses over their high school football team to an unhealthy degree. When the star tailback, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), is seriously injured during the first game of the season, all hope is lost, and the town's dormant social problems begin to flare up. It is left to the inspiring abilities of new coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to instill in the other team members -- and, by proxy, the town itself -- a sense of self-respect and honor.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black
Directed By: Peter Berg
#2 Remember the Titans (2000)
Critics Consensus: An inspirational crowd-pleaser with a healthy dose of social commentary, Remember the Titans may be predictable, but it's also well-crafted and features terrific performances.
Synopsis: In Virginia, high school football is a way of life, an institution revered, each game celebrated more lavishly than Christmas, and each playoff distinguished more grandly than any national holiday. And with such recognition comes powerful emotions. In 1971 high school football was everything to the people of Alexandria. But when the local school board was forced to integrate an all-Black school with an all-White school, the very foundation of football's great tradition was put to the test.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Donald Faison, Wood Harris
Directed By: Boaz Yakin
#1 Rudy (1993)
Critics Consensus: Though undeniably sentimental and predictable, Rudy succeeds with an uplifting spirit and determination.
Synopsis: Rudy Ruettiger (Sean Astin) wants to play football at the University of Notre Dame, but has neither the money for tuition nor the grades to qualify for a scholarship. Rudy redoubles his efforts to get out of the steel mill where his father works when his best friend (Christopher Reed) dies in an accident there. Overcoming his dyslexia thanks to his friend and tutor, D-Bob (Jon Favreau), Rudy gains admission to Notre Dame and begins to fight his way onto the school's fabled football team.
Starring: Sean Astin, Ned Beatty, Charles S. Dutton, Robert Prosky
Directed By: David Anspaugh