En español | Are you ready for some football? The NFL is finally back, and not a moment too soon. Last season’s sparsely filled stadiums will be full again (for now), and the synthetic roar of the crowd that was piped in over PA systems will be replaced with actual human cheering. Heck, even Tom Brady is a Super Bowl champ again (although in a different uniform). Fingers crossed, it feels like a baby step toward normalcy. Which is why our Sundays — and Monday nights … and Thursday nights, for that matter — will be booked solid between now and mid-February. For the other days of the week, well, we’ve got a list of the 19 best football movies for you to stream while you're waiting for the next slate of games to kick off.
Varsity Blues (1999)
The psychological mindset of the backup quarterback is complicated. On one hand, you constantly stand in the shadow of the team’s most important player, an understudy to greatness. On the other, a part of you must be secretly rooting for the starter to get injured so you get your moment in the spotlight. Needless to say, Varsity Blues doesn’t dig very deeply into any of that. Instead, this is a high-school romp starring a bunch of really attractive actors and actresses who are well beyond their high school years. Still, when it does try to say something bigger, it hits the mark with surprising accuracy. Dawson’s Creek’s James Van Der Beek plays a hungry, bench-warming Texas play-caller pining for a scholarship who finally gets his shot at the big time when his tough-love jerk of a coach (Jon Voight, now 82) taps him to replace Paul Walker’s fallen star.
Paper Lion (1968)
George Plimpton was the undisputed master of participatory journalism. If it meant a good story, he would spar in the ring with heavyweight champs, take a futile cut at a Hall of Fame pitcher’s fastball, or put on a facemask and get in the net to take a turn as an NHL goalie. Adapted from his book of the same title, this delightfully satiric and low-key Walter Mitty tale has Plimpton (well played by a pre-M*A*S*H Alan Alda, now 85) going to training camp with the Detroit Lions with the hope of not just getting through pigskin boot camp but actually making the team. Former player Alex Karras lends some hard-won wisdom and humor, but as expected Plimpton’s one game as a QB goes horribly and hilariously wrong.
Watch it here: Paper Lion, on Amazon Prime
The Waterboy (1998)
There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who find Adam Sandler movies insufferable … and everyone else. You already know which camp you fall into, so consider this your disclaimer. For those who have a sweet tooth for Sandler’s signature brand of sophomoric, man-child hijinks, this is an extremely solid slice of low-brow numbskull entertainment. Here Sandler (now 55) plays Bobby Boucher, a 31-year-old Cajun mama’s boy (Kathy Bates, 73, is perfect) who keeps his local football squad hydrated with “high-quality H2O” and is about as smart as a sackful of hammers. Turns out that beneath his naïve exterior, he’s actually a closet football star thanks to his lifetime of pent-up aggression. Yes, you've seen Sandler do this shtick before, but this is one of the better examples of it. Plus, you’ll want to check it out just for Henry Winkler (now 75), who plays his coach. He’s the movie’s secret weapon.
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Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008)
There have been plenty of great documentaries made about football. For my money, this is, if not the best, then certainly the strangest. Flashing back to the afternoon of Nov. 23, 1968, these two undefeated Ivy League powerhouses met on the football field to determine who would have bragging rights for the next year. The title comes from a Harvard Crimson headline that followed what would go down as one of the most dramatic, nail-biting football games in college history. With 42 seconds left to play, Yale was ahead 29-13. But through a series of flukes, Harvard came back to even the score. The real treat is watching the players recount the game years later with varying memories, including a certain Harvard player named Tommy Lee Jones (now 75).
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated comedy is only tangentially connected to football. The main plotline involves a pair of slightly damaged, lonely souls (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) finding what they’re missing in the other. It’s funny, profound and quirky. Still, what makes it a great football movie is Robert De Niro (now 78), who plays Cooper’s Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father. Sports fans — I mean, real sports fans — are a superstitious bunch. And De Niro captures the charming — and borderline deranged — absurdity of sitting in a certain chair when the big game is on and all the myriad other OCD rules and rituals that non-diehards will never get. Silver Linings Playbook has other, more “nuanced” performances, but game-day De Niro will always have my heart.
High on any sports junkie's list of the greatest sports movies ever made, Rudy is the kind of film that wears its heart unabashedly on its sleeve. And if you find that sort of emotional arm-twisting to be manipulative, you may want to look elsewhere. But if it's a lump in your throat the size of a beach ball you're after, then this is the football flick for you. Sean Astin (now 50) stars as Rudy Ruettiger, a runty blue-collar dreamer whose only aspiration in life is to play football for his beloved Notre Dame. He gets his wish … well, sort of … when he's chosen to be, basically, the team's tackling dummy at practice. Eventually, all of his teammates grow so fond of Rudy that he gets a chance to take the field. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have something in my eye.
Draft Day (2014)
Kevin Costner has starred in some of Hollywood's greatest sports movies (Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Field of Dreams), but for some reason this one gets overlooked. It deserves better. In director Ivan Reitman's Moneyball-esque procedural about the ins and outs of the NFL's annual search for the next franchise superstar, Costner (now 66) plays Sonny Weaver, the harried general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Toggling back and forth between his messy personal life and the high-stakes ticking-clock drama of draft day, this white-knuckle-tense drama gives us Costner just the way we want him: a cocky, aging jock with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a screw-it-all air of defiance.
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The Blind Side (2009)
Sandra Bullock (now 57) won an Oscar for her performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an opinionated Southern woman with a hard-candy shell and a soft, chewy center whose well-off family takes in a homeless Black high school football phenom (Quinton Aaron). Based on Michael Lewis’ bestseller about Michael Oher (who would go on to become a first-round draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens the same year this film came out), The Blind Side teaches us that, yes, football is just a game, but it can also be viewed as a metaphor for life and looking out for the welfare of others — both on and off the field.
North Dallas Forty (1979)
Based on former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent's Peeping Tom insider's account of what trouble professional football players get up to when they're not on the field, North Dallas Forty is a raucous celebration of brotherhood and bad behavior, 1970s style. Which means, there's plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to go along with the pads and pigskin. Nick Nolte (now 80) and country singer Mac Davis play NFL journeymen who sacrifice their bodies every Sunday for money and fame. (You can almost feel Nolte's bones crack as he gets out of bed the morning after a game.) Symbolic of its era, the film is about rebelling against the authority and greed of ownership while reveling in serious bouts of pill-popping, hot-tubbing hedonism. But beneath its period trappings, this is a timeless story about a profession that more often than not is over before you even have a chance to enjoy it.
We Are Marshall (2006)
Based on the tragic true story of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team that perished in a plane crash while coming home from an out-of-state game in 1970, this inspirational drama stars Matthew McConaughey (now 51) as Jack Lengyel, the coach who was hired not only to rebuild the team but to heal the community's shattered soul in the wake of unspeakable loss. Lost's Matthew Fox (now 55) is outstanding as the assistant coach who narrowly missed the doomed flight and still carries survivor's guilt. We Are Marshall is less about X's and O's than grief and resilience. And yet it's rousing, thanks to McConaughey's simmering, low-key performance. He knows better than to be showy, allowing the heavy weight of real life to tell the story.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Forget the dopey 2005 Adam Sandler and Chris Rock remake; director Robert Aldrich's down-and-dirty original is one of the peak entries in Burt Reynolds’ 1970s prime. Here, he plays quarterback-turned-convict Paul Crewe, who's strong-armed by a sadistic warden (Eddie Albert) into assembling a team of inmates to take on the prison's guards in a football game. Crewe is supposed to take a dive in order to secure a pardon, but of course the rebel in him can't and won't. In real life, Reynolds had been a football star at Florida State before an injury led him to acting, and he was rarely as comfortable on camera as he is in this gridiron riff on Cool Hand Luke. As a bonus, keep an eye out for NFL players Joe Kapp (now 83), Mike Henry, Pervis Atkins and Ray Nitschke, who drop by to lend some authenticity.
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Before H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger's best seller about the rites and rituals of high school football in the heartland was turned into a hit TV series, it was a film starring Billy Bob Thornton. And it deserves better than its current also-ran status. Thornton (66) lends his signature surly, Southern-fried gravitas to the role of the team's head coach, who's fighting to keep the team (and the town of Odessa, Texas) together after his star player is injured. Friday Night Lights is, of course, about football and the kids who play it. But it's also a poignant snapshot of a struggling community desperately trying to stay alive — even if it's just through the lives of its young hometown heroes one night each week.
Brian's Song (1971)
Time to bust out the Kleenex. Originally shown as an ABC Movie of the Week, this seminal three-hankie tearjerker stars Billy Dee Williams (now 84) as Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers and a pre-Godfather James Caan (now 81) as his teammate Brian Piccolo, who learns that he is dying from cancer. Yes, the movie lays the sentimentality on so thick you'd think it was applied with a trowel — but you'll hardly care, thanks to the moving friendship between the two outstanding leads.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
It wasn't shocking that the NFL chose not to cooperate with troublemaker director Oliver Stone (now 75) when he set out to pull back the curtain on professional football. As a result, the team uniforms in Any Given Sunday look like a bowl game matchup between rival clown colleges. But the rest of the film is so entertainingly over the top that it's hard to complain. Especially Mr. Over the Top himself, Al Pacino (now 81), who hams it up mightily as the old-school head coach of the Miami Sharks. Stone's film is a jeremiad against the money-mad corporatization of professional sports, but even so, its amped-up football scenes are so MTV kinetic and Shakespeare dramatic that resistance is futile. It's a movie that's impossible not to love in spite of itself.
The Replacements (2000)
Inspired by the 1987 NFL players’ strike, this bighearted comedy traces the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the woeful — and fictional — Washington Sentinels. Gene Hackman (now 91) stars as a crusty veteran coach who's forced to whip a ragtag squad of scabs into some semblance of shape. It helps that this particular band of misfits includes Keanu Reeves (now 57), Jon Favreau (now 54), Orlando Jones (now 53) and Notting Hill's scene-stealing Rhys Ifans (now 54) as a chain-smoking Welsh soccer player moonlighting as the team's kicker. These picket line-crossing replacements may not be “good” in the conventional sense, but their love of the game is infectious. Think of this as the football equivalent of Major League.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Thirteen years after Tom Cruise (now 59) suited up in shoulder pads for All the Right Moves, the star returned to football, this time as a high-powered sports agent who has a late-night revelation in which he finds his moral compass and loses his cushy, high-paying gig. With just one client standing by him (the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr., now 53), Cruise's Jerry Maguire rediscovers his soul, thanks in no small part to a single-mom colleague (Renée Zellweger, now 52). Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (now 64), Jerry Maguire is a great love story about doing the right thing, starting over from scratch and seeking moral redemption. Granted, that may sound like heavy stuff, but Crowe understands that only part of the reason why we love sports is because of what happens on the field.
Remember the Titans (2000)
With Denzel Washington (now 66) stalking the sidelines, it's hard to argue with this crowd-pleaser. Based on a true story about a small 1970s Virginia town where football is treated like a religion, the film traces what happens when a white high school team is forced to integrate and the locals have no choice but to face their prejudices. Washington, as the team's fiery head coach, gives the sort of rousing, righteous performance that has become his stock in trade over the years as his character builds a stronger, more tolerant community in the process. On paper, that may sound a bit pat. But trust us, on the screen it really delivers.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
OK, this is not so much a football movie, per se. But you do get to see Warren Beatty in a groovy, throwback L.A. Rams uniform. In this loose remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Beatty (now 84) plays Joe Pendleton, an NFL quarterback who's whisked off to heaven by an overeager angel played by Buck Henry (who co-directed with Beatty). The film, which reunites the star with his Shampoo leading lady Julie Christie (now 81), is about second chances — about making a mess of things and getting another shot to do it all over again. Which, come to think of it, does sound a bit like football after all. Or at least repeating fourth down and long after the ref blows the whistle and calls a penalty.
Knute Rockne, All American (1940)
Before he entered the arena of politics and went on to become our 40th president, Ronald Reagan was probably best known for his performance as George “the Gipper” Gipp in this rousing tribute to the legendary Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. While Pat O'Brien plays the gung-ho title character, it's Reagan, as the famous player who died young from pneumonia, who delivers the film's most iconic line: “Some day, when things are tough, maybe you can ask the boys to go in there and win just one for the Gipper.”
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Sept. 22, 2020. It has been updated with new movies added to this watchlist.