If you ask any of my last four important girlfriends what my favourite movie genre is, they will answer “American Football films”. Not because I made them watch “A LOT” of them, ok, well, maybe a cursory handful so they knew the glory that can exist in the world. But because for the last fifteen years I have fantasised about two scenarios.
1) The UK redevelops The Dating Game (1965-1986) (a game show I only know about because of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), which was the third cinema date I went on with the greatest woman who ever existed), and for some reason I apply with my partner at the time, and the final question is “What is Al’s favourite genre of movie”
2) The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997) scenario happens to me and Russian/Chechen/Cuban terrorists/spies are torturing me/my partner, and to prove we’re a couple they ask a series of questions to see how well we know each other, and one is “What’s Al’s favourite movie genre”
It’s basically the same scenario, but the stakes are a higher in one, and one of them is phrased grammatically inferior-ly.
Watching American Football films eventually lead me to loving American Football.
For the duration of the article I will simply be calling it “Football”, because I know it annoys people and that amuses me. But mainly because we British have another name for football, and that is soccer. It doesn’t matter who invented it (it was actually the Chinese, so if anyone gets to decide on correct name its them) if two people have a name for the same thing, but one of those people has an extra name for that thing, why not separate them like that. Imagine you worked at a place with two Geoffs. Geoff Biggs, and Geoff Ovsklovian. Some people call the first Geoff “Geoff” and some people call the first Geoff “Biggsy”. But everyone just calls the second Geoff “Geoff”, because “Ovskly” doesn’t roll off the tongue. Eventually you don’t have two “Geoffs”, you have a “Geoff” and a “Biggsy”. That’s the perfect world that I hope for “Football” and “Soccer”.
Football films are typically formulaic. A ragtag team of misfits that shouldn’t win gets a new coach/quarterback must learn to work together with the new member, someone has a relationship issue/shitty dad or someone is black/gay/poor, the team helps mend the relationship, the final game of the playoffs they’re losing at half-time, but in the final play there is a hail-Mary and they win. Small divergent of the theme is to have an excellent players who goes through some tragedy that they have to overcome, but these are the weaker films.
It’s a fucking classic. Just like every action/horror/rom-com follows its own rules, and occasionally one plays with the tradition, football films know what they are and seldom break the mould.
But that shot of the slow motion spiral-spinning football, the wide receiver finding the space and making the catch, and the voiceover commentator shouting “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”, if that doesn’t give you chills better than the airport run in a rom-com, then you’re dead inside. The action film will have the cutting of the red/blue wire, the horror film has the call-back to a Sumerian chant, the rom-com has the misunderstanding that gets rectified. Football films have the final play.
That “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” is actually from the last two minutes of a Detroit Lions vs Tennessee Titans game from 2012, when we came back to throw three touchdowns through interceptions in the final two minutes. And that’s why I love football. The large proportion of games actually end with exciting twist comebacks that will pump your blood. Think of the 1966 World Cup “They think it’s all over… It is now”, but 10 times a week. It all comes down to that last play. Unlike soccer which can have the whole last half hour with nothing happening.
There will be a couple of examples not listed here that you might expect, so I will address these briefly. Although if you’re not generally a fan of the genre, or American, you might have no idea about them anyway. And my bitch editor has just told me that this has to be a top TEN. Apparently the Buzzfeed model of picking any random number for a “top” list is akin to giving every kid a trophy. So here goes.
Rudy (1993) is a staple when talking about football films. It is referenced in loads of other media. Friends (1994-2004) and Psych (2006-2014) are two shows off the top of the thunder dome that mention Rudy as a classic film that makes people cry. It is based on a true story about a pathetic Sean Astin that wanted to play for his college team, but they made him the towel boy or something. Then in the final game of the season he gets a walk-on and makes a great play, and the rest of the team carry him off on their shoulders. What actually happened was the team were miles ahead on points in the dying minutes, Rudy’s play meant absolutely nothing to the outcome of the game, and the rest of the team carried him on their shoulders as a joke. They were mocking him. So no, Rudy does not belong on this list.
I’d love to add School Ties (1992) because it combines two of my favourite things. Jews overcoming persecution, and Ben Affleck. But there’s not nearly enough of the latter, and Jews still haven’t quite made their full comeback, and there’s simply not enough football for it to qualify.
Wildcats (1986), again combines some wonderous things. Goldie Hawn. That is the end of the list. But you could pretend that this was a prequel to White Men Can’t Jump (1992) because the two main stars of that meet here. But the film is awful, save for this closing title rap.
Brian’s Song (1971), and The Blind Side (2009) are left off because the struggle of black people overcoming adversity shouldn’t be shown through the prism of white people who helped them. It’s almost as egregious as Marty McFly stealing rock and roll from Chuck Berry just cos his cousin Marvin watched him in the first incident of cultural appropriation.
However if I could have an 11, it would be The Express (2008) because it’s a beautifully tragic real-life story of bumbling nice guy that exemplifies the true spirit of team-work and perseverance. But I’m not allowed an 11, so forget I mentioned it (or at least, don’t tell my bitch editor, lest she fire me from my unpaid job).
There are so many great films that should be on this list. And if you want to debate me, you will win, because I will simply say “Yeah, you’re right. Brian’s song is excellent” or “I know, you could imagine that ‘The Replacements’ was a prequel to ‘Point Break’”. But if you don’t know your shit and want to experience my desert island discs of football films, and maybe immerse your toe in the glory that is the greatest genre of films, here goes. Bear in mind it is NFL season, and at the end of January everyone in the UK is going to pretend to know what they’re talking about when the Super Bowl comes around. Why not get a head-start on their bullshit…? Watch these ten films. You might not be able to pick a winner, but you’ll learn a thing about third down conversions, interceptions, and hail Marys, which is way more important than “Tom Brady has sex with Gisele Bündchen”.
Dawson as the pretty-boy quarterback. Jolie’s dad as the hard-ass coach. A fat guy as the friendly defensive lineman. High school drama questions of “will this all matter later in life?!” It ticks all the boxes of the football film. If you grew up in the 90’s this was basically every high school drama we saw, a la My So-Called Life (1994-1995), Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), Party of Five (1994-2000), etc. when viewed through the eyes of an angsty youngster you’ll identify with all the main characters, and support their eventual rebellion. As an adult you’ll enjoy feeling disenfranchised when the youth overthrow their patriarchal warden. He was just trying to teach you how to win and be a survivor in the real world. Or was he just being a dick? Enjoy your lives of mediocrity. Fucking Millennials.
The first of two films only tangentially associated with football films. Set on the lead up to the first day of the draft, which is the NFL’s day where all the teams pick who they want to join their franchise from their college teams. It doesn’t sound exciting, but if you’ve ever been a part of a fantasy football league you’ll know the excitement of picking the guys you want, and knowing why you shouldn’t pick other players. I’ve ran a fantasy league for 6 years now and draft day is a two-hour nerve-racking affair. You want the best players, but you want the ones that haven’t recently been beating their wives, or been caught drink-driving, or been involved in international arms smuggling. It doesn’t matter if they can run the ball for 100 yards per game if they’re also constantly re-tweeted by the head of a Guatemalan militia. How does Kevin Costner deal with the stresses of making sure his team is built of the right stuff? Well, he’s typically known for his baseball films, and that one golf film, but he sure knows his shit about separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of professional football. It’s a little behind the scenes look about every job you never got because the interviewer checked your Facebook profile. But really compelling watching.
The second of two tangentially related football films. Big Fan follows Patton Oswalt as a diehard New York Giants fan. He’s essentially on the other side of the coin from Costner in the previous entry. LOVES his Giants. They are his team. They bring meaning to his otherwise pointless existence. Some people love their kids, some people love their job, Oswalt’s character just loves the Giants. Maybe I wouldn’t love this film as much if I didn’t respect Patton as a comedian. But every comedian worth their salt has to play the awkward gritty drama character at some point, and you can’t help but feel for the guy even though you’d hope to share none of his characteristics. For a little context of juxtaposition against his usual comedic performances, here’s two of my favourite clips of him in different comedic projects. He was a secondary character on The King of Queens (1998-2007) for its entire run, and one day decided to stand awkwardly for a whole scene because his character was superfluous to requirements. And he’s also a Tim and Eric associateTim and Eric associate, amongst so many other great performances throughout his career. But this is an awkwardly enjoyable film about a fan’s dedication to a world that needs him, but doesn’t understand or respect him.
A group of wayward kids living a life of crime who are brought together through the juvenile rehabilitation system. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the tough coach tasked with teaching them how to get out of their gang lifestyles, learn some teamwork and overcome their differences. And it’s based on real life events (which most of these films are, because there’s SO much drama in the LBC, and in football). It’s a perfect football film. Why isn’t it number one? Because all of these films could be number one, but you have to take a stance. They’re not playing in a professional league, so the stakes are lower. But we’re given the standard “what did they do afterwards” montage during the credits where you get to assess who got very lucky in the actor choice to play them. The Rock’s real life character was probably livid when Patriots Day (2016) came out and Mark Wahlberg portrayed the goofiest guy alive. Until then he was the most generously represented man in all of cinema.
If for nothing else, you should watch this film to enjoy the line “I’m gonna score a touchdown for your momma” which is said un-ironically, and meant as a compliment.
A huge percentage of football films are based on real events. Are they 100% accurate to the actual events? Probably not. But they take the core aspects and manipulate the real life events in a way that will make you emote.
It’s not a film about just building a football team, it’s about reconnecting a whole community after their local team Buddy Holly’s themselves out of existence. While Terminator 2’s son was one of the beloved lost athletes, is the town ready to rebuild and park their sports flag on the map again? Only Fool’s Gold can make that happen…
While heart-warming, the “WE. ARE. MARSHALL” scene gives you something to remember, but goes on a little long. Chanting is the lazy man’s story telling.
It also has a closing “That guy looks nothing like McConaughey” slide show.
A far superior story than Rudy. A fat kid is told his entire life that he’ll never be good enough to play football. Instead of just hanging around the real players, he works his weight up and down as it is required, and motivates the rest of the team.
And unlike The Blind Side there is no magical benefactor that supports his journey. He does it because he believes in himself.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the real life outcome, it is apparent from the Neal McDonaugh scenes of how it all ends. But getting there is completely engaging.
The only downside of the film is the use of a song that is also in the soundtrack of The Lost Boys (1987). It’s a great, classic 80’s track. It just seems unnecessary. They were clearly counting on audiences not recognising it. But they didn’t count on me. And my brother owning The Lost Boys soundtrack on cassette.
No good deed goes unpunished. Brandon Burlsworth exemplifies the true blue hero that the American Dream was based around. It’s the kind of film that reminds me of two things.
1) If it was easy, everyone would be doing it
2) I never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it.
And so it ends with the answer to the question of why we all exist. Spoiler Alarm, there is no point.
But the Burlsworth Trophy was established off the back of this lad’s story. Go Pig Suey!
Before “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”, Friday Night Lights was a film. Extremely similar to the first season of the popular show. Billy Bob Thornton isn’t quite as charming as Coach Taylor, but this isn’t about the life of the coach as much as the series. It’s about the pressures that a football town puts on kids who don’t have the emotional maturity to handle them. When you hear about millionaire athletes getting arrested for drink-driving, beating their wives, releasing candiru fish into swimming pools… that mentality outside of what would be considered the norm all starts from being treated like gods and indentured servants during adolescence. Friday Night Lights is a glimpse in to that world.
It doesn’t matter what Derek Luke is in from now on, he’ll always be Boobie Miles to me. His story becomes Jason Street’s when its converted to the small screen. It’s heart-breaking.
We see the invention of “yo momma” jokes, and the exact moment when white people and black people realised they could work together. Sport has done more for ending racism than music ever will. But music in the locker-room? Ooh-wee, that’s some good miscegenation right there. Disney has to make a buck, but I’m always glad when they do it by going back on their The Fox and the Hound (1981) message of different types of people don’t belong together.
There is a tiny amount of white-man’s support that discounted earlier mentioned films, but that’s not really what it’s about.
It’s an all-star cast… Denzel “King Kong ain’t got shit on me” Washington, Will “Why’d ya bring a gun into space?” Patton, Donald “Turk Turkleton” Faison, Ryan “Young Hercules” Gosling, Wood “Avon Barksdale” Harris, Ethan “It’s not a scooner, it’s a sailboat” Suplee, Ryan “Opie Winston” Hurst, and Hayden “Klitchko’s future fuck puppet” Panettiere.
Another film based on the real life events of an actual star. In an alternate universe where I am paid to write these articles I might have to succumb to journalistic integrity and admit that this is the best football film. But we live in the universe where Walt Disney was an anti-Semite, so it gets marked down.
You might know the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-) episode where they try out for the Eagles. That episode was based on this film, which was based on real life. It’s just an average guy (Mark Wahlberg, you know, the most average of all men) working hard to further the team he loves and his community at large.
It’s nice. It’s really fucking nice. Invincible scores so highly because regardless of your sports knowledge or cultural upbringing, you could put this film on at 3pm on boxing day with your whole family…. parents, grandparents, kids (eww), cousins, significant others of your younger sibling that you’re pretty sure won’t be around next year… Anyone. You’ll all enjoy this film.
I wish I could give the top spot to an arty film so that you would respect me. But this entire genre (and YES football films are their own genre from general sports films, because of the specific formula noted at the top of this post) is predicated on a certain theme. We’re taught that all stories are separated between comedy (the characters get married at the end) and tragedy (the character/s die at the end) but football films have their own finale. The character’s lives go on, and we’re not always sure where they go, but we saw a snap-shot of an important time in their story.
Oliver Stone is one of those big directors whose films are important. There is almost no reason that he would direct a football film. And there’s no reason Al Pacino needed to be the head coach. But this is the Gladiator (2000) of football films.
It’s got the plucky young outsider Jamie Foxxoxoxox-gossip-girl-xoxo-love-Travis thrust in to the lime light as the reluctant hero seduced by fame. Pacino as the down-on-his-luck last-chance comeback coach leading a bunch of outsiders to victory. Cameron Diaz as the Roman emperor only focused on their own glory at the expense of her subjects. Dennis Quaid as the former hero coming to terms with his own mortality, passing the torch to the new upstart. James Woods as the misunderstood well-meaning physician that is giving the players what they want instead of what they need. It’s Shakespearean in its complexity, but fed to you in an easy to understand storyline. It’s basically the audiobook of the cliff notes for an exam that you’re going to enjoy getting an A on.
It’s the kind of story where it doesn’t matter what the framework is. If you put these characters and storyline in a cowboy western, or a 1920s crime drama, or futuristic space battle, it’s still a compelling mangle of characters with their own motivations. It just so happens that it’s about football. So you still get to see huge men performing athletic feats and slamming themselves in to each other at full pelt. It’s great fucking fun.
And Jessie Spano is there as an escort just so you can feel justified for all those years watching Saved by the Bell (1989-1992) and thinking, I’d love to date Kelly Kapowski, but I’d fuck the shit out of Jessie, as long as Kelly never found out.
Oh, and American Psycho is the best film ever made, so it gets a joint #1 on any top ten list, even though football isn’t mentioned even once during the film.
A lot of football films have dealt with the issue of race, which I love, because it’s such an important issue until it’s over. I’d like you to also enjoy this clip from the Seth Myers late night show about the recent kneeling debacle, and why sport is a perfect platform for discussing the issue.