Last week, for my regular “Movies” segment on The Chris Vernon Show, I ignored box office and went with another kind of topical theme, tying the list to the start of football season — or, at least the start of the NFL season, which is the only football season I really care about. The top four picks here were obvious and unavoidable. I struggled with the fifth slot, and ended up going with a childhood nostalgia pick I probably haven't seen in at least a couple of decades:
5. Wildcats (1986): Goldie Hawn is the daughter of a famous football coach who longs for her own chance to patrol the sidelines and leaves her job as a girls' track coach at a ritzy high school to take a football coach job no one wants at a rough school. Notable for being the big-screen debuts of both Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson: Yes, six years before White Men Can't Jump, they got their starts together as teammates in another sports comedy.
4. The Longest Yard (1974): No, not that dreadful Adam Sandler remake. The original, directed by veteran Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Reynolds as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a star quarterback got kicked out of the league for point-shaving and then gets 18 months in prison for driving drunk in a stolen car. In prison, he gets on the bad side of the warden for refusing to assist the semi-pro team of prison guards and eventually leads fellow inmates in a hyper violent game against them.
3. Undefeated (2011): The Memphis-set high-school football doc — tracking a season at Manassas High School — is the rare “inspirational” sports film that doesn't seem to be trying too hard. Coach Bill Courtney emerges as a real star as the team's committed but clear-headed coach. If you live in Memphis and haven't seen this, I don't know what you're waiting for.
2. Friday Night Lights (2004): This film adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's bestseller about Texas high-school football probably has the best actual game scenes of any football film and gives a good sense of the out-of-proportion community pressure coming down on teenagers treated like pros. Strong work from Billy Bob Thornton as the coach and Tim McGraw as a father reliving his own glory days through his son.
1. North Dallas Forty (1979): A semi-fictional account of life in the NFL, based loosely on the early ’70s Dallas Cowboys. Nick Nolte has one of his best roles as an aging but sure-handed wide receiver whose individualism, brains, and diminishing health put him at odds with with his teammates, coaches, and front office. It gives you the whole spectrum — film sessions, practices, training room, and the games (on and off the field). Nothing here about head trauma issues not yet understood, but otherwise well ahead of its time and still the best film treatment of our most popular sport.