Football is a game of inches, and each of these movies inch viewers closer to understanding this complicated, beloved game. The stories are diverse and the characters determined, but whether the films are set on or off the field, based on history, fantasy, or a fusion of both, they all share a common love and appreciation for the sport. So suit up, grab some Gatorade, and prepare to lose yourself in EW's ranking of the 25 best football movies of all time.
25. <i>Little Giants</i> (1994)
'90s kids will tell you there's only one definition of an ice box: It's the nickname given to Becky O'Shea (Shawna Waldron), the athletic tomboy in the sports comedy Little Giants whose exclusion from a Pee-Wee football team inspires her dad (Rick Moranis) to start coaching — and square off against the entire league. Moranis is typically adorable as Danny, the well-meaning father and sports ignorant, oft-overlooked younger brother of Kevin O'Shea (Ed O'Neill), a Heisman Trophy winner and local football hero. With rules stating that each town is only permitted one team, it's up to the challenged players who comprise the Little Giants to defeat a stacked Cowboys team and prove they're worthy of respect. Highbrow comedy this is not, but Little Giants is a gridiron film for the underdogs, outcasts, and anyone who knows how it feels to be underestimated.
24. <i>Knute Rockne, All American</i> (1940)
Decades before he was elected President of the United States, a young actor named Ronald Reagan appeared in Knute Rockne, All American, an elegy to Notre Dame's titular famed coach (played here by Pat O'Brien). The story of Rockne's ascent from Norwegian immigrant to Fighting Irish legend was beloved by critics and fans upon its release, and while Reagan's part as freshman halfback George Gipp may have been small, but he made a big enough impression to make "Win one for the Gipper" a pop culture quote for the ages. Knute Rockne is no Rudy, but as far as Notre Dame-based sports biopics go, O'Brien's performance (and fake nose) make this one well worth your time.
23. <i>North Dallas Forty</i> (1979)
An unofficial predecessor to Any Given Sunday, North Dallas Forty is a late '70s sports film that highlights the more hedonistic elements of the NFL. Emphasizing the drugs, playboy players, and corporate greed that have slowly corrupted the purity of the game, North Dallas Forty focuses on aging wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte), whose injuries and ambivalent attitude have relegated him to the bench and left him dependent on painkillers. Similar to Varsity Blues, the North Dallas Bulls are led by a coach who sees his team as less than human — and is more than happy to offer their bodies up as sacrifices to his winning streak. A cynical but realistic look at professional sports, North Dallas Forty is funny, fascinating, and far ahead of its time.
22. <i>The Blind Side</i> (2009)
The Blind Side may have received a Best Picture nomination and earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar, but the film is not void of criticism. A biographical sports drama that tracks the relationship between Michael Oher — a homeless high school student brimming with athletic talent — and the Memphis-based Tuohy family who took him in, the movie received heat for its flat depiction of Oher and its White Savior overtones. More recently, the film and its characters were embroiled in controversy when Oher — now an alumnus of both the University of Mississippi and the Baltimore Ravens — filed a lawsuit claiming the Tuohys tricked him into a conservatorship rather than an adoption and exploited his likeness for their financial gain. The family drama might be more compelling than the film's plot, but The Blind Side is still worth a watch, if only to see Bullock's pitch perfect performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy.
21. <i>Horse Feathers</i> (1932)
The Marx Brothers blend sports and slapstick in this century-old movie about college football. Featuring the group's signature silly, physical, and often musical style, the film uses its 68 minute run time to stage a game between two fictional colleges, which is compromised after the president of a university (Groucho Marx) accidentally recruits two icemen (Harpo and Chico Marx) instead of the professional players he intended to hire. Also starring Zeppo Marx as the president's son who convinces him to bring in the ringers, Horse Feathers is classic comedy at its finest (and beloved for its inclusion of Groucho's now infamous song "Whatever It Is (I'm Against It)").
Where to watch Horse Feathers: Not available to stream
20. <i>Remember the Titans</i> (2000)
In Virginia, high school football is a way of life, and in Remember the Titans, the sport helps unite a city. A biographical drama produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and based on the true story of Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) — a Black football coach tasked with integrating a 1971 high school team — this Disney film definitely relies on tropey, preachy moments. But thanks to its excellent cast of young Hollywood charmers (Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst, Donald Faison, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Gosling, and Kate Bosworth), the movie defies its heavy-handed messaging to create moving, memorable moments — and some pretty good football plays. Also starring Will Patton and Nicole Ari Parker, Remember the Titans captures the divisiveness of the '70s South while also embracing the power of sports to transcend racial lines, establish lifelong bonds, and create progress where none seems possible. While not even close to Denzel's best movie, his Gettysburg monologue is not to be missed.
19. <i>The Longest Yard</i> (2005)
The 2005 remake of 1974's The Longest Yard is inarguably the weaker and more defanged version of the two films. But with a cast that includes Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, James Cromwell, Nelly, William Fichtner, and the return of Burt Reynolds, it's still notable in the sports subgenre (if only for comparison and nostalgia's sake). Updated for the 21st century and directed by Peter Segal, the remake features the same plot — a former football star (now Sandler) goes to jail and is recruited to lead a group of convicts in a game against the prison guards — only this time, there are 100% more pop culture references. Reynolds takes on the role of convict Nate Scarborough, a former college football star turned coach for the inmates' side, and while his involvement isn't enough to recreate the original film's sense of danger and anarchy, it's always a treat to see the veteran actor take the field.
18. <i>We Are Marshall</i> (2006)
Another sports movie based on a historic true story, We Are Marshall takes a 1970 catastrophe and transforms it into a vehicle for Matthew McConaughey to shine. The drama chronicles the aftermath of a plane crash that kills 75 people associated with Marshall University's football crew — including the majority of its players, coaching staff, boosters, and trainers. With the team almost completely decimated, University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) is inclined to cancel the program, but a new coach (McConaughey) and pleas from the remaining players (one being Anthony Mackie) convince him to allow the team to forge ahead. A film about tragedy, grief, and legacy, We Are Marshall may have been criticized for its kitschy direction, but McConaughey's charisma and leadership are enough to win over viewers.
17. <i>Brian's Song</i> (1971)
Debuting in 1971, this ABC Movie of the Week is only 74 minutes long, but that's more than enough time for Brian's Song to reliably reduce grown men to tears. Following Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan), the first interracial roommates in the history of the NFL, this highly-acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning film was so beloved when it premiered on television that Columbia Pictures decided to give the project a theatrical release as well. Based on a true story of friendship — and the tragedy that befell the entire Chicago Bears team when Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer in his mid-20s — the film manages to celebrate the love and support between these two players without ever veering into overly-sentimental or preachy territory. A charmed bromance that just happens to be about two excellent athletes, Brian's Song is a piece of vintage TV cinema that still moves audiences to this day.
16. <i>Invincible</i> (2006)
Philadelphia has long been gripped by Eagles fever — but one man notably got to live the dream of potentially becoming a player. Invincible tells the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old bartender with just one year of high school football experience, who somehow managed to make the cut at the team's first ever open tryout. Guided by the franchise's new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), Vince struggles to channel his heart, grit, and love for his hometown team into an NFL career. An underdog football film for people who love triumphant, heartwarming movies like Rudy, EW's critic describes Invincible as "a true-life gridiron Rocky." Wahlberg is completely believable as a rookie athlete with imposter syndrome and a neverending drive to succeed, and the movie boasts a '70s soundtrack that could turn a cynic into a nostalgist.
15. <i>The Longshots</i> (2008)
Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst is probably the last person one would expect to direct a film based on the true story of Jasmine Plummer, the first girl to play in the Pop Warner football tournament. But somehow, he pulls it off. This odd couple movie stars Keke Palmer as Plummer and Ice Cube as her former football player uncle who returns home to blue collar Illinois and discovers his niece has a serious arm on her. In typical sports comedy fashion, Jasmine's team consists of a ragtag group of untalented boys who don't want to embarrass themselves by playing under a female quarterback, but who quickly change their tune once their team starts winning. Juggling themes of family, confronting the past, and breaking barriers, The Longshots has its formulaic moments, but the chemistry between Palmer and Cube — plus solid direction from Durst — makes it a win in our book.
14. <i>The Waterboy</i> (1998)
Adam Sandler built a name for himself in the '90s with funny voices and lovable loser characters who find strength — and success — in spite of their obvious shortcomings. Such is the case in The Waterboy, the story of the socially awkward, 31-year-old Bobby Boucher (Sandler) whose greatest strength is doling out hydration to college football players. That is, until he's had enough of being bullied and snaps, discovering a hitherto unknown talent for sacking quarterbacks. Suddenly a rising defensive star, Bobby must learn to stand up to his ultra-religious mother (Kathy Bates) and fight for the life he's always wanted. Also starring Henry Winkler, The Waterboy is typical Sandler-style comedy: quippy, quotable, always anti-cerebral, and reliably entertaining.
13. <i>The Express</i> (2008)
A biopic based on the inspiring true story of college football legend Ernie Davis — the first Black player to win the Heisman Trophy — The Express might skew saccharine for some viewers, but that doesn't diminish the power of its messaging. Directed by Gary Fleder, the film is set in the 1960s and stars Rob Brown as Davis, an aspiring young running back who is recruited to play for Syracuse University by coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), only to face racism and discrimination from the team's fans when he commits. Representing Chadwick Boseman's film debut, The Express may drag at the end, but it still manages to walk the line between inspirational sports drama and educational time capsule.
12. <i>Draft Day</i> (2014)
A front office sports drama not unlike Moneyball or Jerry Maguire, Draft Day takes the NFL's team selection process and condenses it into one man's 24-hour trial. Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, the Cleveland Browns' general manager who, on the morning of the 2014 draft, is fighting with his mother (Ellen Burstyn), dealing with his pregnant girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), and mourning the recent loss of his father. After acquiring the league's number one pick — and all of the pressures and problems that come with it — Sonny spends his day wheeling and dealing, attempting to select the best possible prospects for his team while simultaneously trying not to piss off his boss and the Browns' easily upset contingent of loyal fans. The film may be a fictional account of the NFL selection process — and, according to some critics, not a realistic one — but EW's critic writes that "thanks to Costner's sly, dry-aged charisma, it marches down the field and scores."
11. <i>Palmer</i> (2021)
Palmer isn't your traditional sports movie, but football informs the plot and characters in a profound way. After former high school star athlete Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is released from a 12-year prison sentence, he moves in with his grandmother and attempts to rebuild his life. There, he forms an unlikely friendship with Sam, a young boy from a troubled home with a passion for all things feminine. A film about gender, masculinity, and the ways in which love conquers loss, Palmer is a moving character study rooted in the deep connection forged between two unlikely parties. Directed by Succession's Fisher Stevens, EW's Maureen Lee Lenker writes that Palmer is an effective drama and "a lovely meditation on the unexpected bonds we form and the healing they can provide."
10. <i>Varsity Blues</i> (1999)
A late '90s football movie that provided teenagers everywhere with the perfect quote to wield in arguments with their parents (the now iconic "I don't want your life!), Varsity Blues centers on a Texas town where — to quote Ted Lasso's Dani Rojas — "football is life." James Van Der Beek stars as Jonathon "Mox" Moxon, an academically minded, athletically ambivalent second-string quarterback. After starting QB Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) ends up injured, Mox is promoted, putting him in direct conflict with the authoritarian Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), whose ruthless coaching style produces results but compromises the physical and mental well-being of his players. Now tasked with leading his team while also pursuing his own scholastic goals, Mox must juggle the pressures of pleasing his football loving town and family at his own expense. Van Der Beek nails his character's charm and Voight is terrifying as the Machiavellian coach, whose "ends justify the means" approach inspires a team revolution.
9. <i>School Ties</i> (1992)
Serving as one of Brendan Fraser's breakout film roles, School Ties is a coming-of-age period drama set in the mid 1950s and concerning one student's struggle with anti-semitism at an exclusive prep school. David Greene (Fraser) is a working class Jewish teen and star quarterback who receives an athletic scholarship to attend St. Matthew's Academy. Upon enrolling, Greene quickly realizes the depths of her peers' prejudice and chooses to conceal his religious beliefs — but his success on the field isn't enough to protect him from their ire once the truth is revealed. A veritable who's who of '90s up-and-comers, School Ties also stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, and Chris O'Donnell as Fraser's classmates — and includes more than its fair share of football and fighting.
8. <i>The Longest Yard</i> (1974)
Prison violence becomes even more brutal — and competitive — in Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard. Burt Reynolds stars as former NFL player Paul Crewe, who was kicked out of the league for shaving points and thrown into prison for stealing his girlfriend's car and leading the police in a drunken chase. Now stuck behind bars where his cheating and celebrity work against him, Crewe soon assembles a team of prisoners to face off against the guards in an exhibition game. Reynolds is excellent as the morally corrupt Crewe, who rediscovers his integrity and love of the game through his alliances with his fellow inmates. Mixing violence, comedy, and cultural commentary, The Longest Yard feels dangerous through and through.
7. <i>Any Given Sunday</i> (1999)
A gladiator film set thousands of years after those historical fighters all perished, Oliver Stone's football opus is arguably as action-packed and war-torn as his Vietnam epic, Platoon. Centered on the fictional Miami Sharks, Any Given Sunday stars Al Pacino as an aging coach desperately trying to hold his NFL team together while battling the aggressive owner (Cameron Diaz), who thinks he's lost his touch. Also starring Dennis Quaid and Jamie Foxx (whose experience as a former high school quarterback helped him land the role), the movie offers a gritty yet grounded look at professional sports. According to Stone, the story is intended to serve as a metaphor for his own career as a director, and the material prompted a spat with the NFL, who hated the way the league and its players were depicted in the script.
6. <i>Heaven Can Wait</i> (1978)
A late '70s screwball comedy that managed to snag nine Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), Heaven Can Wait is unlike any other film on this list. Headed up by Warren Beatty — who co-directed the project with Buck Henry, co-wrote the script with Elaine May, and starred in the leading role — this sports fantasy tells the story of a Los Angeles Rams quarterback (Beatty) who is reincarnated as a recently murdered millionaire after a mix up perpetrated by his guardian angel (Henry). The answer to the question of what would happen if you crossed It's a Wonderful Life with an uplifting sports movie, Heaven Can Wait is funny, zany, earnest, and in a league of its own.
5. <i>Monday Night Mayhem</i> (2002)
Fans of Max's Winning Time might be interested in the origin story of another iconic sports franchise: the creation of ABC's Monday Night Football. A TNT television movie released in the early 2000s, Monday Night Mayhem chronicles the 1970 launch of the historic sports show, dramatizing the ways it revolutionized how football is played, filmed, and commentated. John Turturro stars as Howard Cosell opposite John Heard, who portrays legendary TV executive Roone Arledge. The dialogue skews stilted — possibly because the screenwriter was attempting to capture Cosell's unique speaking style — but EW's critic promises that "Monday Night Mayhem captures the spirit of a TV format being created literally on the run."
4. <i>Friday Night Lights</i> (2004)
Before the Dillon Panthers took the field on NBC in 2006, Friday Night Lights debuted in the form of a film. Directed by Peter Berg — who co-executive produced the TV adaptation — the 2004 movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines (who was renamed Eric Taylor when Kyle Chandler took over the part). Inspired by the true story of a West Texas football team in the late '80s struggling to win a state championship, Friday Night Lights was lauded as a stirring and rousing sports drama, although critics did note that it shied away from addressing the race relations depicted in the non-fiction book that served as source material. Connie Britton provides continuity, appearing as the coach's wife in both the film and TV series — although her talents are far better served in the show — and a critic for EW writes that "Billy Bob Thornton is splendid."
3. <i>Concussion</i> (2015)
Many fans live for football, but some players die for it. Set in the beginning of the 21st century and based on true events, Concussion follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a brilliant Nigerian-American morgue pathologist in Pittsburgh. While examining the brain of a recently deceased professional football player, Omalu discovers a sports-related head trauma that he dubs CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Concerned, he takes his findings to the NFL — only to discover the league will stop at nothing to keep his research from the public. A David vs. Goliath narrative that also features Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Stephen Moyer, and Albert Brooks, EW's critic calls Concussion "a story that would be deemed too outrageous to believe if it wasn't true."
2. <i>Rudy</i> (1993)
Nearly a decade before Sean Astin showed his heart as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, he bared his soul on the field as the title character of David Anspaugh's Rudy. Inspired by a true story, this sports drama follows a young man who is determined to play football for Notre Dame — in spite of his small stature, poor grades, and lack of athletic abilities. Rudy Ruettiger is the perfect Astin character, hellbent on willing his dream into existence, while Angelo Pizzo's script can be counted on to score an emotional touchdown with viewers. An instant classic that's guaranteed to have you chanting his name through tears by the end, Rudy is well-deserving of its number two spot on this list.
1. <i>Jerry Maguire</i> (1996)
It's the movie that launched a million quotations. Written, directed, and produced by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), Jerry Maguire's script is based on two separate incidents that occurred in the '90s: the 1991 release of a 28-page memo by Disney's head of motion picture divisions, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the NFL's introduction of free agency in 1993 (which created an experience for a player and his agent not unlike the one depicted in the film). Tom Cruise stars as Jerry Maguire, a young sports agent who's cut loose from the industry after he's fired from his fancy job. Left with only one client — the talented but high-maintenance wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) — Jerry must find a way to advance the player's career if he's to keep himself in the sports management game. Meanwhile, he struggles to balance his relationship with his family (Renée Zellweger and child star Jonathan Lipnicki, whose delivery of lines like "You had me at hello" and "Did you know the human head weighs eight pounds?" will forever be associated with the film).