Best football movies to get psyched for NFL Draft

Clockwise, “Remember the Titans,” “Rudy,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Jerry Maguire” rank among the best football movies of all time. Which is number one? (WTOP collage via YouTube)
WTOP's Jason Fraley ranks the best football movies

Sports fans haven’t had much to look forward to watch lately.

So football fans are excited for the NFL Draft on Thursday night.

To get you into the mood, we’re counting down the Best Football Movies.

Let the countdown begin!

25. ‘When the Game Stands Tall’ (2014)

A decade after playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), Jim Caviezel starred as legendary real-life head coach Bob Ladouceur, who took the De La Salle High School Spartans on a 151-game winning streak that shattered sports records. Directed by Thomas Carter (“Coach Carter,” “Save the Last Dance”), the film got lackluster reviews, but it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than to see this incredible true story play out on the silver screen. Check out WTOP’s chat with the real-life Coach Ladouceur here.

24. ‘The Replacements’ (2000)

Directed by Howard Deutch (“Pretty in Pink”) and written by Baltimore native Vince McKewin (“Fly Away Home”), “The Replacements” is a crowd-pleasing romp following a pro football strike that causes the team owners to hire substitute players (loosely based on the 1987 Redskins). It also offers the chance to see the legendary Gene Hackman as Coach Jimmy McGinty and a post-“Matrix” Keanu Reeves as quarterback Shane Falco. Look also for WTOP’s Mike Jakaitis appearing as an extra playing a photographer running onto the field.

23. ‘All the Right Moves’ (1983)

Few rising stars were as bright in the early ’80s as Tom Cruise, who burst onto the scene in 1983 with the trio of “Risky Business,” “The Outsiders” and “All the Right Moves.” The lattermost cast him as a high school football star desperate for a scholarship in a dying steel town in western Pennsylvania, clashing with his coach (Craig T. Nelson) and romancing his sweetheart (Lea Thompson). “Raging Bull” cinematographer Michael Chapman made his directorial debut, creating a “teen movie” favorite that got Cruise cast in “Top Gun” (1986), Thompson cast in “Back to the Future” (1985) and Nelson cast in TV’s “Coach” (1989-1997).

22. ‘The Waterboy’ (1998)

Directed by Frank Coraci (“The Wedding Singer”) and co-written by Adam Sandler and Tim Herlihy, “The Waterboy” certainly falls into the silly comedy category — doomed with critics from the start — but I bet you everyone can quote multiple lines, from Rob Schneider’s “You can do it” to Sandler’s “high quality H2O.” The movie follows dimwitted college football waterboy Bobby Boucher (Sandler), who discovers he has unique tackling strength, causing Coach Klein (Henry Winkler) to recruit him as a squealing middle linebacker. But first, he must convince his strict bayou mother (Kathy Bates), who swears “foosball is the devil.” How would Winkler send Boucher to blitz Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw? He joked about it with WTOP here.

21. ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1978)

Exactly a decade before “Reds” (1988), Warren Beatty made his directorial debut by co-directing “Heaven Can Wait” with Buck Henry. The title was borrowed from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy fantasy, while the plot was a remake of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941). Instead of a boxer, Beatty plays a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who is accidentally brought to the afterlife by an overeager angel, then comes back to life in the body of a millionaire to buy the team and insert himself as starting quarterback for a chance at the Super Bowl.

20. ‘The Express’ (2008)

Based on a book by Robert Gallagher, the biopic drama “The Express” follows real-life college football hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, and his inspiring coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), who coached him from 1958 to 1962 at Syracuse University. Helmed by mystery/thriller director Gary Fleder (“Kiss the Girls,” “Don’t Say a Word”) and written by Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond,” “K-PAX”), “The Express” flew under the radar but is worth watching for its groundbreaking true story.

19. ‘Draft Day’ (2014)

Director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) stumbled in 2014 with the box office bomb “Labor Day,” but his legendary father, Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”), redeemed the family name, delivering a wheeling and dealing front-office football flick that was surprisingly effective. Sure, it was no “Jerry Maguire” (1996) — few films are — but “Draft Day” made creative use of split-screens as Kevin Costner cut deals as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, managing the angst and competitive spirit of his coach (Denis Leary).

18. ‘Invincible’ (2006)

Based on an inspirational true story, the pun-titled “Invincible” chronicles the underdog journey of 30-year-old Vince Papale, who rises as a South Philly bartender to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. The film catapulted Mark Wahlberg to bigger roles in “The Departed” (2006) and “The Fighter” (2010), while providing memorable turns by Greg Kinnear as Coach Dick Vermeil and Elizabeth Banks as Janet Cantrell. It also marked the directorial debut of Ericson Core, cinematographer of “The Fast and the Furious” (2001).

17. ‘We Are Marshall’ (2006)

While “Invincible” pleased summer crowds, the best football movie of 2006 arrived that December in “We Are Marshall.” It explores the real-life tragedy of Marshall University in West Virginia, where the entire football team was killed in a plane crash in 1970. The team’s new coach, Jack Lengyel, is left to pick up the pieces, rallying the surviving players to keep the football program alive. Directed by McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) and written by Jamie Linden (“Money Monster”), the film is most notable for the famous faces it helped establish, including a pre-Oscar Matthew McConaughey, “Lost” star Matthew Fox, “House of Cards” star Kate Mara, “Mad Men” star January Jones and “Avengers” star Anthony Mackie, not to mention veteran actors like David Strathairn.

16. ‘Knute Rockne: All-American’ (1940)

Football’s version of “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Knute Rockne: All American” similarly tells the tale of an American sports legend who died too young. In this case, it’s legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (Pat O’Brien), who pioneered the forward pass and the pre-snap shift. While the off-field story suffers from the aw-shucks idealism of many of the era’s biopics, the on-field action is groundbreaking, mixing live action with archival footage. The film is most famous for Ronald Reagan’s dying speech as George Gipp, later used by Reagan as a presidential slogan and voted by the American Film Institute as one of its Top 100 Movie Quotes: “Win just one for The Gipper.”

15. ‘Little Giants’ (1994)

The football equivalent of “The Bad News Bears,” “Little Giants” tells a fun, family tale of sibling sports rivalry. After scoring four touchdowns in a single game as Al Bundy in TV’s “Married with Children,” Ed O’Neill builds a pee-wee powerhouse as hometown football star Kevin O’Shea, while younger brother Rick Moranis collects the leftovers to create his own underdog squad, the Little Giants. The movie also deceptively tackled gender equality, as linebacker Becky “Ice Box” O’Shea holds her own against the boys, from golden-arm quarterback Junior Floyd to meathead tailback Spike Hammersmith. Look for cameos by John Madden, Emmitt Smith and Bruce Smith, as well as Harry Shearer as the play-by-play announcer.

14. ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” (1994)

Arguably the funniest movie on this entire list, “Ace Ventura” is best remembered as a kooky mystery with a rubber-faced Jim Carrey talking with his butt cheeks as he hunts down stolen animals. But how quickly we forget that this is absolutely a football movie, as the stolen pet in question is Snowflake, the dolphin mascot for the Miami Dolphins. Soon, Carrey and co-star Courteney Cox are embroiled in a grudge between Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and his fictional disgraced kicker, Ray Finkle, who insists, “Laces out, Dan!” Best line: “I’m looking for Ray Finkle (shotgun cocks) and a clean pair of shorts.” Carrey did three hit roles that same year: “Ace Ventura,” “The Mask” and “Dumb and Dumber.” The rest is history. Need a laugh? Alllllrighty then!

13. ‘Concussion’ (2015)

Most football movies are entertaining romps, but a rare few have the power to change the game. Enter “Concussion,” earning Will Smith his first Golden Globe nomination since “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006). He plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-American immigrant who discovered the brain degenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) during his medical research in Pittsburgh. Hoping to be accepted by his peers as he strives for the American Dream, he’s shocked when his brain research puts him at odds with the most powerful entity in America, the NFL, which “owns a day of the week.” The film is slightly sanitized for a mainstream audience, but it raises real tough issues we must address. While we shouldn’t regulate football into extinction, we should at least figure out a way to prevent players from committing suicide. That’s just common sense, or as Smith reminds us, a hard truth.

12. ‘Varsity Blues’ (1999)

Before leading the “Fast & Furious” franchise, the late Paul Walker memorably starred in “Varsity Blues” as Texas high school quarterback Lance Harbor, whose knee problems cause him to be replaced by best friend Jonathan “Mox” Moxon (James Van Der Beek). Legendary head coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight) is a mean cuss, declaring he’s won “two state titles and 22 district championships” in his 30 years coaching the West Canaan Coyotes, teaching his squad to “play like gods” in a memorable locker-room speech. The raunchy film fittingly arrived the same year as “American Pie” (1999), as a cheerleader announced, “West Canaan, sex and football. That’s all there is.” That and a crowd-pleasing finale where overweight lineman Billy Bob scores the game-winning touchdown on an improbable hook-and-ladder.

11. ‘North Dallas Forty’ (1979)

Baseball has “Bull Durham” (1988), hockey has “Slap Shot” (1977) and football has “North Dallas Forty” (1979), a simultaneously hilarious and brutally realistic tale loosely based on the 1970s Dallas Cowboys. Nick Nolte shines as Philip Elliott, a broken-down wide receiver who makes the most of each moment he’s called off the bench. The laughs include locker-room bathtub jokes and pool parties where meatheads describe the “quarterback sandwich.” More importantly, “North Dallas Forty” was perhaps the first film to expose the dirty, pill-popping world of professional sports, where painkillers are your playbook and cortisone shots are your teammates. The film’s journey is not a glamorous portrait, but rather a character study of a man who learns he doesn’t need the sport to be happy, refusing to catch a pass in the final freeze-frame.

10. ‘The Longest Yard’ (1974)

Few stars were box office draws in the 1970s like Burt Reynolds. Smack dab between “Deliverance” (1972) and “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) came his classic turn as Paul Crewe in “The Longest Yard.” Director Robert Aldrich was given a smaller roster than “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), coaching 11 players on a football field, only this was a collection of prison inmates. His ragtag group, The Mean Machine, takes on the prison guards in a brutal game for sheer pride. Reynolds returned for the 2005 remake starring Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Michael Irvin, Bill Goldberg and Nelly, but there’s no matching the charm and originality of this 1974 classic.

9. ‘The Program’ (1993)

Film critics were reluctant to embrace it, having never played a day in their lives, but “The Program” remains a stirring favorite among actual football players. Written and directed by David S. Ward (“Major League”), the high-octane flick stars James Caan as the head football coach of a fictional Division I university similar to the Florida State Seminoles. In addition to Halle Berry, the movie features a string of memorable players: smooth quarterback Joe Kane (Craig Sheffer), speedy running back Darnell Jefferson (Omar Epps), snot-bubble linebacker Alvin Mack (Duane Davis) and steroid meathead Steve Lattimer (Andrew Bryniarski), who memorably exclaims, “Starting defense! Place at the table!” Consider it the “Top Gun” of football movies.

8. ‘The Blind Side’ (2009)

Sandra Bullock earned an overdue Oscar as the white adoptive mother of black teenager Michael Oher, who comes to live in her family’s middle-class suburban home in “The Blind Side.” Big Mike was born to play football — all it takes is some motherly coaching by Bullock, who asks him to pretend he’s protecting their family each time he protects the quarterback. Tim McGraw also turns in a fine performance, playing the opposite of his alcoholic father in “Friday Night Lights.” While the film is often dinged for its “white savior” theme, it proves that social change does not always come from picket signs but also by average small-town folks who speak up against the prejudicial “ladies who lunch.” It also speaks to local sports fans, opening with Lawrence Taylor’s career-ending “blind side” of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and closing with the where-are-they-now knowledge that Oher went on to play for the Baltimore Ravens and other NFL teams.

7. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ (2012)

Seven years after his “Wedding Crashers” teammate proclaimed, “Crabcakes and football, that’s what Maryland does,” Bradley Cooper proved he could really act in “Silver Lining Playbook.” He earned his first Oscar nomination playing a bipolar Philadelphia Eagles fan who has a metaphorical tendency of spiking the ball on life’s one-yard-line (à la wide receiver DeSean Jackson, whose jersey Cooper wears throughout the film). Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar as his pill-popping soul mate, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver earned nominations as his concerned parents and filmmaker David O. Russell earned nods for writing and directing before reuniting with Cooper and Lawrence for “American Hustle” (2013). Who knew Cooper would go on to become his own Oscar-nominated filmmaker directing “A Star is Born” and producing “Joker?” Excelsior!

6. ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)

Oliver Stone wrote gangster words for Al Pacino in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” (1983), but he gave him the best halftime monologue in movie history in “Any Given Sunday,” turning a sports cliché (“game of inches”) into a goosebump-inducing locker-room speech. Pacino plays the gruff, aging coach of the fictional Miami Sharks, run by owner Cameron Diaz, who appears just a year after dating Brett Favre in “There’s Something About Mary” (1998). The star-studded cast includes acting and football royalty: Jamie Foxx, Dennis Quaid, James Woods, LL Cool J, Lawrence Taylor, Jim Brown, Terrell Owens, Aaron Eckhart and Charlton Heston.

5. ‘Friday Night Lights’ (2004)

Based on the best-selling novel by H.G. Bissinger, “Friday Night Lights” follows the true story of Permian High School’s 1988 run at the state championship in Odessa, Texas, where football is king and bleachers serve as sanctuary pews. The film was so powerful that it inspired Peter Berg’s Emmy-winning TV series of the same name. Anyone who’s ever put on the pads will bawl the minute Billy Bob Thornton gives his final halftime speech, articulating those fleeting moments of youth athletic glory: “Most of you have been playing this game for 10 years. You got two more quarters, and after that, most of you will never play this game again as long as you live. … I want you to take a moment and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever, because forever’s about to happen here in just a few minutes.” Goosebumps.

4. ‘Brian’s Song’ (1971)

Twenty-two years before playing the coach in “The Program” (1993), James Caan gave his breakthrough performance in “Brian’s Song.” It follows the real-life relationship between legendary running back Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and his Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo (Caan), who died of cancer a year before the film’s release. The made-for-TV flick suffers from an admittedly syrupy flavor, but it remains a five-hanky tear-jerker as the football equivalent of “Love Story” (1970). Not only did the film get Caan cast as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972) and Williams cast as Lando Calrissian in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), it provided the inspirational blueprint for all interracial buddy flicks to follow, be it Gerry Bertier and Julius Campbell in “Remember the Titans” (2000) or Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in “42” (2013).

3. ‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996)

Arguably the best romantic comedy of the past 25 years, the seeds of “Jerry Maguire” were planted back in the 1980s, when Tom Cruise played a high school quarterback in “All the Right Moves” (1983) and writer/director Cameron Crowe penned a linebacker rampage for Forest Whitaker in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). When the two collided for “Jerry Maguire,” it was a real-life case of “help me, help you.” The result was one of the all-time great date movies, from front-office free agency (“Show me the money!”) to tearjerking romance (“You had me at hello”). “Jerry Maguire” earned an Academy Award for Cuba Gooding Jr. and a Critics Choice Award for Renee Zellweger, remaining the only football flick to make the AFI’s Top 10 Sports Movies. Expect future listmakers to be “Ambassadors of Quan,” using the film to represent Crowe’s prolific output from “Say Anything” (1989) to “Almost Famous” (2000). Said the best list to the sports movie: “You complete me.”

2. ‘Rudy’ (1993)

After creating the best basketball movie of all time in “Hoosiers” (1986), writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh reunited for an underdog sports classic. “Rudy” tells the true story of Dan “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin), a 5-foot-nothin’ whose sole life dream is to play Notre Dame football. Through sheer determination, he overcomes physical and academic limitations to finally set foot on the field — only to be carried off it. With an uplifting score by Jerry Goldsmith and a supporting cast that includes Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty and Vince Vaughn, “Rudy” was ranked the AFI’s No. 54 Most Inspirational Movie of All Time. In the land of sports flicks, “No one, and I mean no one, comes into our house and pushes [‘Rudy’] around.” The secret to life, ladies and gents, is right there in Rudy’s unstoppable inner drive and unrivaled work ethic. Hear my chat with Astin here.

1. ‘Remember the Titans’ (2000)

When Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for “Training Day” (2001), you could argue that it was off the strength of his previous year’s performance as the best football coach ever put on film. Based on a true story, Herman Boone coaches the first racially-integrated football team at Virginia’s T.C. Williams High School, where white and black players bond over Motown jams and cheers of “left side, strong side.” The film launched countless careers, from Ryan Gosling (“The Notebook”) to Wood Harris (“The Wire”) to Hayden Panettiere (“Nashville”). Who cares if the on-field action is occasionally unrealistic and the tone slightly Disneyfied? There’s no denying the film’s timely power as Boone takes the Titans on a minicamp jog through Gettysburg: “50,000 men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today. … If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed.” In the end, assistant coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton) admits, “I know football, but what you did with those boys. You were the right man for the job,” to which Boone replies, “You’re a Hall of Famer in my book.” How do you choose No. 1? Denzel.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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