Interestingly, there are probably more quality films about high school — running a gamut from the comedic John Hughes flicks to Scent of a Woman — than there are ones about college. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that college is so much fun for most of us that there's really not a lot of pain and poignancy to draw upon. There are probably more lousy films about going to college than there are good ones — The Rules of Attraction, PCU and anything with Pauly Shore in it all come immediately to mind. But there have been a handful of quality films about the college experience over the years. Below are the cream of the crop.
National Lampoon's Animal House
Directed by John Landis; 1978
The granddaddy of all modern college films — based loosely on the screenwriters' real college days and responsible for an entire subgenre that includes some really dreadful flicks. But this classic is genuinely hilarious to this day, which means it's absolutely timeless; it should've won an Oscar. It's hard to know how many toga parties there were on U.S. campuses before Animal House premiered, but togas have remained an annual rite of passage in fraternity houses and on dorm floors ever since. This is also the film future generations will view to see why John Belushi was considered one of the funniest men of his time.
Back to School
Directed by Alan Metter; 1986
Sure, the premise is absurd: A crass, fun-loving, good-hearted millionaire enrolls in college in an attempt to keep his son from dropping out. But the goofiness is all part of the fun, with Rodney Dangerfield as the ringleader, making over his dorm room into a swinging party palace and letting the good times roll — including bringing in Oingo Boingo to play at a kick-ass party. Dangerfield, as Thornton Melon, also recruits novelist Kurt Vonnegut to ghost-write a paper about one of his own books; the kicker is that it gets a failing grade. College movies don't get much more fun than this. Look for a hilarious cameo by Sam Kinison as an angry Vietnam vet history professor.
Directed by Peter Yates; 1979
An insightful, engaging coming-of-age drama about a group of "townies" in Bloomington, where the University of Indiana is located. The story focuses on four working-class kids just out of high school and figuring out what they are going to do with their lives — aside from swimming at a nearby quarry and mixing it up with the college students who look down on them. One of the quartet is obsessed with an Italian bike racing team — to the point where he pretends to be an Italian exchange student as he woos a coed — and the climatic scene involves the four townies competing against college intramural teams at the annual Little 500 bike race the university holds. The guys call their team the "Cutters" in honor of workers at the area's limestone quarries. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and features a young Dennis Quaid, has you rooting for the Cutters all the way.
Good Will Hunting
Directed by Gun Van Sant; 1997
In retrospect, a lot of the characters now seem a bit unbelievable and the film not that realistic — we mean, a character named "Will Hunting"? C'mon! But, hey, it's also a genuine Oscar-winning film about college life. And where would the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck be today without it? It's also one of the best films about local residents as townie "outsiders" next to Breaking Away. Robin Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his touching turn as a therapist who helps the brilliant but troubled working-class Will find his place in the world.
The Paper Chase
Directed by James Bridges; 1973
Granted, it's about Harvard law school, but it will still hit home for anyone who's been stuck in an incredibly hard class they're afraid they're not going to pass. "Here's a quarter. Go call your mother and tell her you won't be graduating." Fuck! Plus, Lindsay Wagner was a bona fide fox back then ... though perhaps too much of a fox to be believable as the daughter of the nasty and mean Professor Kingsfield (brilliantly portrayed by onetime Orson Welles mentor John Houseman).
Directed by Arthur Hiller; 1970
Yeah, the screenplay (written by a Harvard academic who also penned the script for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine) was kinda campy and kitschy even at the time — but even more so today. But this is still the film by which all other college romance films will be forever judged ... at least until a better film about college love or a bigger tearjerker comes along. "Bullshit, preppie," became a catchphrase of its era, as did the hokey "Love means never having to say you're sorry" ... which Peter Bogdanovich would hilariously lampoon a year later in What's Up, Doc?
Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg; 2001
Christina Ricci gives a harrowing performance in this movie based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel, portraying a promising writer attending Harvard on a journalism scholarship. As the pressure of school and writing assignments builds, the depression afflicting Ricci's character worsens, and she descends deeper and deeper into a world of drugs and sex, alienating everyone who wants to help her. This is the college experience at its darkest.
The Return of the Secaucus Seven
Directed by John Sayles; 1980
It's more about post-college than it is college ... but it still fits the bill. The great John Sayles' first commercial film is a drama about a group of former '60s campus radicals reuniting for a weekend in New Hampshire to reminisce about their arrest on the way to a protest in Washington, D.C. It's been suggested that it inspired The Big Chill, although the director of that film, Lawrence Kasdan, denies ever seeing Sayles' flick. Whatever the case, The Big Chill got all the attention and pop cultural cache — but the Secaucus Seven is the better film.
Directed by Martha Coolidge; 1985
The young Val Kilmer plays a genius in his senior year who's working on a laser project for the government. A fellow genius — recruited from high school — not only helps him develop the project ... but also teaches him how to loosen up and learn to have the kind of fun that's part of a well-rounded college curriculum. There's a suspense subplot as well. An unheralded but really fun film.
Revenge of the Nerds
Directed by Jeff Kanew; 1984
If anyone doubts the influence Animal House had on the college flicks that followed it ... well, the character D-Day's perhaps most famous words in the National Lampoon flick were: "Don't get mad; get even!" This film took that battle cry and ran with it. And then some, proving there is life after nerdom ... and sometimes even the biggest of nerds can win the hottest sorority sister on campus. The first in a series, this one was the best, though the first sequel wasn't bad, either.
Directed by David Anspaugh; 1993
Based on a true story, Rudy is the best college "underdog" story about a "townie" this side of Breaking Away. Rudy (excellently portrayed by Sean Astin) is too small and too poor to attend college. Nevertheless, a gruff but goodhearted coach lets him on the practice squad ... and Rudy soon gets a shot on the big field in the big game. A Rocky for the college set.
Directed by Spike Lee; 1998
Based in part on writer-director Spike Lee's own experiences as a student at Atlanta's all-black Morehouse College, School Daze is the story of fraternity and sorority members clashing — examining the prejudices that sometimes exist within a minority itself (pecking order on campus is often decided by how "black" a person's skin is — during a homecoming weekend). We could've done without the "musical comedy" aspects of it, but, as Spike Lee joints go, this one ain't bad.
Directed by Curtis Hanson; 2000
College life as seen through the bleary, bloodshot eyes of pothead prof Grady Tripp, a one-hit wonder novelist who teaches writing at an unnamed Pittsburgh college. Taking place over the course of a booze- and drug-filled weekend, the movie — adapted from Michael Chabon's excellent book — features fine performances from Michael Douglas (in one of his best roles), Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes and Rip Torn. Offering nice location shots of the Steel City and some cutting jabs at college writing programs, Wonder Boys shows that it's not just students who can have a hard time finding both themselves and a firm place to stand as life's sands shift beneath them. Plus, there's a great soundtrack, including Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed," which received an Oscar. This is a really good movie — witty, literate, sweet and heartfelt.
Best of the rest
A Beautiful Mind: More about genius and mental illness than school, though most of it is set on a campus.
Baby, It's You: Another John Sayles' gem, more than half of it takes place in high school, though the real drama takes hold when the still-cute Rosanna Arquette heads to college.
Getting Straight: Another film about campus radicalism, with Elliott Gould as a grad student activist and Candice Bergen as his gal pal.
Gross Anatomy: Sort of the medical school version of The Paper Chase.
The Group: Explores the lives of a group of women, post-graduation, who all met at a prestigious all-girls college in the '30s.
Happy Together: We wish we'd have ended up with Helen Slater (aka Supergirl) as a college roommate, though we bet the female persuasion among us wouldn't have minded Patrick Dempsey, either ...
The Harrad Experiment: Made in 1973 and set at the fictional Harrad College, the movie offers an exploration of free love as the era's flower children were hitting full bloom.
Old School: What has Animal House wrought? Well, we guess it arguably had its funny moments ... though we'll always prefer Rodney Dangerfield heading back to college over this.
Road Trip: Ditto what we said about Old School. Why do so many directors think that what made Animal House work was solely the grossness and not specifically the comedy magic? But we guess this arguably had its funny moments.
R.P.M. (Revolutions Per Minute): About '60s radicalism, with Anthony Quinn as a liberal professor and Ann-Margret as his student.
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