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Game Film: Roster cuts

Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the greatest football movies of all time. But first, trimming the entire field down to just the top 10.

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The offseason brings plenty of dead time, and with it, a chance to think outside the box a little bit. Thus comes the Game Film series. The goal of this project was simple enough: To rank the best football movies of all time. But first I had to decide exactly what I was looking for. To do that, I expanded my focus to look at what makes a sports movie great.

With any sports movie, I want drama, but I’d also like to laugh. I want a true appreciation of the sport, which includes seeing what the game means to the characters involved. I need game action, too — ideally including a climactic sequence which gives me goosebumps. And a rousing speech certainly doesn’t hurt -- one which reminds you just why we care so much about a game.

That being said, football movies are particularly tough to judge. Ask me my favorite movie involving most other sports, and I’ll answer before you finish the question.

Basketball? Hoosiers.

Hockey? Slap Shot.

Or Miracle, if you’re ruling out comedy — mainly for this scene.

Wrestling? Vision Quest, which might have my favorite scene in a sports movie that doesn’t feature actual competition — a meditation on what sport can mean to those who watch:

(Is it getting dusty in here, or is it just me?)

Cycling? Breaking Away, which is one of my favorite movies about sports — or anything else for that matter — and provides a master class on how to edit a climactic sports sequence.

Boxing? Rocky III, though I might have to turn in my film elitist card for not choosing the original.

Baseball is tougher because of the vast spectrum of choices -- which proves how much easier it is to pull off (a by-product of the fact it’s played by regular-looking people, and the choreography of the sport, which allows for no more than two or three people in any given shot, performing activities which don’t require elite athleticism). I’d probably go with Bull Durham, but if we’re ruling out rom-coms, I’d happily switch to The Natural. In either case, I’d feel bad about snubbing the other -- not to mention Major League, Eight Men Out, and Moneyball.

Football, however, is by far the hardest to pull off. To make it realistic, you need actors you believe could actually compete -- lots of very large men, and several who at least appear to be extremely athletic. To stage it, you need lots of bodies, and the choreography involves not only a lot more planning and synchronicity, but athletic and often dangerous action. And that’s before you address the much larger crowds, necessitating copious extras, cardboard cutouts, or CGI.

So then it shouldn’t be a surprise there aren’t many great football movies which tick off all the boxes of a great sports film. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of highly entertaining movies with football as an element. But the combination of true “football movie” and quality film is rare. That’s why I made it my aim to only pick movies which didn’t just use football as a jumping-off point or subplot, but ones with football not just in their DNA, but in their very soul.

Another goal I set for this project was to come in with an open mind. I didn’t want to assume a movie was on the list just because I remember loving it. As a film lover, I’ve learned movies age very differently, and some once-great movies just don’t stand the test of time. Sure, there were movies I was almost certain would make my top 10, just like I was almost certain before the season that the Patriots would at least make the AFC championship game, but we need to see it play out, not automatically advance them.

With all that in mind, I found a comprehensive list of football movies, checked it twice, and started watching. Once I did, I realized there were some really good movies, and some damn entertaining ones, which couldn’t make the list. It’s much like a college football top 25 poll, where beneath it is the “Other Receiving Votes” section. Think of the movies listed below as that.

Most of them fall into one of three categories:

Not football enough: They’re mostly quality films, and you’d probably recommend them to a friend, but you have a hard time calling them a “football movie.” The football element is usually very small, incidental to the plot, or just not very well done.

Examples include: Silver Linings Playbook, Against All Odds, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Concussion, School Ties, The Best of Times, Big Fan, Black Sunday.

Not good enough: Pretty simple. They’re about football, and many are entertaining, but it’s a stretch to call them most of them “good.” And the ones which are don’t rise to that elite level. You’d totally watch if you found them channel-surfing on a rainy day, but you’d probably hesitate to recommend them to a friend — at least not one with good taste.

Examples include: Everybody’s All-American, Invincible, Leatherheads, The Express, We Are Marshall, Necessary Roughness, Wildcats, Gridiron Gang.

Not available enough: Football movies I’ve enjoyed in the long-since past, or heard were good, but which were not on cable, or available on demand. You may say it’s a cop-out not to include them for that alone, but I believe there’s a reason they’re hard to find: They didn’t resonate enough to stay readily available.

Examples include: Semi-Tough, Paper Lion, The Freshman, Horsefeathers, Knute Rockne, All-American.

Honorable/Dishonorable mentions

Some movies fit the above descriptions and don’t even merit a mention. Others merit that, but nothing more. But some deserve a little discussion. We just entered the section where I do that.

The Last Boy Scout (1991) — Highly entertaining, if more than a little over-the-top, but this is a perfect example of a film which gets included in the “football movie” category despite only using football as a way into the story. Yes, it’s behind the scenes of a team, featuring a corrupt owner and a suspended player, but the only real football in the movie is in the opening. But boy, what an opening!

The Blind Side (2009) — The most overrated football movie of them all. Remember how I said I didn’t want to go into this project with any pre-conceptions? Well, I threw that out the window for this film, which I was absolutely determined to not have in my top 10.

I read and absolutely loved the fantastic Michael Lewis book, and the true story it told was amazing, so I had high hopes when the movie was released. I was thoroughly disappointed. The biggest crime, at least from this biased Niner fan’s point of view, was removing all the real football stuff about Bill Walsh’s part in making left tackle a premium position.

It may have been a huge hit, and Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for her performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, but the film uneven and cheesy. It’s Hollywood at its crowd pleasing-at-the-expense-of-quality worst. A schmaltzy, sugary-sweet, double mocha frappuccino of a movie filled with glaring flaws. Hell, Michael Oher didn’t even like it, and it’s about him.

Heaven Can Wait (1978) — One of the very few films involving football that was not just a hit with moviegoers, but also critically, receiving nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It’s a light, funny, and very enjoyable movie, which works on just about every level but one -- as a football movie. There’s not much actual football in the movie, and what’s there occurs almost completely in practice — and isn’t very convincing. Warren Beatty does his best to look like an NFL quarterback, but his exaggerated windup and glaring lack of arm stretch give him away.

The only game action featured is comprised of four plays, all in the Super Bowl -- filmed in the Los Angeles Coliseum at halftime of an actual Rams game -- and all far from believable. The movie’s main football bona fides resides in an almost unbelievable life-imitates-art twist: The fictional Super Bowl features the Rams playing the Steelers in a game that takes place in Los Angeles, and the very next season that exact scenario actually took place -- the only difference being that the game was played at the Rose Bowl rather than the Coliseum.

Football merely serves as a MacGuffin, spurring the plot along. Two pieces of evidence: 1) The film is a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which centers around boxing rather than football. If it ever gets re-remade, they’ll have to change it again because Warren Beatty is placed into the body of the Rams QB (who’s died on the field), springs back to life, and re-enters the game to score the winning TD. Nowadays, he wouldn’t be allowed back into the game with a concussion, let alone after being dead. 2) The film’s trailer doesn’t contain a single reference to football:

The Program (1993)Critics see its flaws, viewers love its cheesy entertainment. Along with the following year’s Blue Chips, it explores the vices which come with running a major college sports program through the eyes of a beleaguered coach struggling to turn around his once-proud team (James Caan moving from former classic sports movie player to coach just as Nick Nolte would).

David S. Ward wrote and directed, but couldn’t come close to matching the heights he did with Major League. The on-field action is colorful but unrealistic, though not as much so as their QB’s hairline — probably because 33-year-old Craig Sheffer played him (possibly inspiring Chris Weinke).

The off-field action is cliche and overwrought, yet enjoyable. And it’s nice to see the casting of sports movie stalwarts Caan, Halle Berry (in her second football movie after The Last Boy Scout), J.C. Quinn (star of the Vision Quest scene above), and Omar Epps in his first of five sports movies — Major League II (baseball), Higher Learning (track), Love and Basketball (duh), Against the Ropes (boxing).

But the movie is best remembered for a controversial scene where players lay in the middle of a busy street. It was deleted from the film after multiple incidents where teenagers were seriously injured or killed re-enacting the stunt.

Draft Day (2014) — This movie was meant to appeal to lots of people, not just football fans. People who just like Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, or glossy, heavily-produced major motion pictures — some of whom don’t know the in’s and out’s of pro football. So they need every little thing explained to them — what the draft is, how trades work, etc. That makes sense. It just doesn’t make for a good football movie.

You also get the sense the people who made this don’t know a lot about football, and that’s a major turn-off. So are the three ridiculous trades Costner makes, each more ludicrous than the last. But nothing is more ridiculous than the Browns owner making it from the draft in New York to the Browns main offices in Cleveland in the span of six picks without a transporter.

The Waterboy (1998) — Do I really need to explain why an Adam Sandler movie didn’t make my top 10 (even if it’s much better than his other football movie, which is an affront to all things holy)? Like all things Sandler, this played much better in the 90’s. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t laugh out loud more than once.

I don’t want to get all high-brow and stuffy with this list, but I don’t want to get all low-brow and sophomoric either. And while I don’t think broad, silly humor disqualifies a movie from the list, I do need some sense of realism. Movies don’t have to be strictly realistic, but they need to have one foot in reality. The Waterboy fails that test.

Varsity Blues (1999) Teenspoitation! Another low-brow and over-the-top entry, but a damn entertaining — and much more realistic one. The trailer says it all:

I do think you need at least one non-serious film on the list, even if the laughs are mainly meant for high schoolers, so I thought this had a shot. As it turns out, there is one comedy on the list -- at number 10 -- it’s just not this one.

Why not? Much of the humor isn’t intentional, and what is has aged as poorly as the baggy jeans the kids wear and the Collective Soul playing in the background. Scott Caan alone sings playfully about breaking a girl’s jaw, and promotes date rape. That wouldn’t fly today -- nor should it have then, or ever.

Still, while the movie is raunchy and crass, it also tackles serious issues — like the debilitating nature of concussions and football’s barbaric tendency to expect players to play through them. Simultaneously dated, and ahead of its time — in the climactic game, the team runs a spread formation reminiscent of what many teams run today. Though it also featured a final play nobody would ever run.

Next up

The list kicks off with an upset entry at No. 10. A hint: It’s inspired by NFL history, and features a sports movie legend.