We’ve got an assignment for you. But don’t worry, it’s fun and you won’t be graded. If you’re heading to school yourself or if you’ve got kids donning backpacks and sharpening pencils, it’s important to do this whole school thing right. Learn from the professionals with 16 movies that do justice to the institution of learning and education. Pick Flick, save Ferris, and kick off your Sunday shoes—it’s time to go back to school.
Old School (2003)
“Once it hits your lips, it’s so good!”
When life in your thirties falls short of expectations, the allure of recapturing collegiate glory days is strong. Some of us buy tickets to see Wilco. Others, like the three downtrodden dudes in Old School, start their own fraternity. With the aughts’ comedy darlings Will Farrel and Vince Vaughn, and good guy Luke Wilson, the gags and impropriety flow like a freshly tapped keg. And before you think the movie is some sort of ungrounded college fantasy, remember that director Todd Phillips applied what he’d learned making a documentary on frat houses just a few years before.
Back To School (1986)
“I’ll tell you what, then. Why don’t you call me some time when you have no class?”
Despite riches and success, businessman Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) laments never having gone to college. So he buys his way in. Back to School is a showcase for Dangerfield’s one-liners and eye-rolling sarcasm, but nothing about this mid-’80s undergrad mixer feels thin. The action zips along, and every supporting player turns in A+ work. It’s also your only chance to see Kurt Vonnegut writing a college essay on the literature of Kurt Vonnegut.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)
“What are you people, on dope?”
Of course there’s a plot to this classic comedy. Sort of. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more like an overall impression of what it’s like to be in high school, wandering the halls with the nerds, stoners, flirts, sleeze balls, and jocks. It feels authentic—probably because it’s one of the few high school stories written by a dude who went undercover as a high school student. After he was a 16-year-old Rolling Stone journalist covering the Allman Brothers, 22-year-old Cameron Crowe lived a year as a high school senior, documenting it all.
Animal House (1978)
“I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”
Quotable, raunchy, and wild, Animal House is the ultimate frat house comedy. With SNL’s John Belushi as the drunken Bluto, it tells the story of two college freshmen who are rejected by an honorable fraternity and are instead taken in by the rejects at the underachieving Delta house. Naturally, the dean wants every member of the mashed-potato-spewing frat expelled, but instead of getting a montage where the ne’er do wells clean up their act and prove their worth, the Deltas refreshingly lean into their clown status and engineer pure chaos on their way out the door.
Revenge Of The Nerds (1984)
“We have news for the beautiful people: There’s a lot more of us than there are of you.”
Odd as it may seem now, there was once a time when being smart and good at science and having a retro fashion sense was seen as a drawback. Telling the age-old tale of the weak getting pummeled by the strong—but then the weak turn the tables, Revenge of the Nerds is about a group of rejected frat hopefuls who make their own house, only to get the kibosh from the popular jock frat.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
“Could you describe the ruckus, sir?”
Never have we wanted all-day Saturday detention so badly as after we saw The Breakfast Club. About a jock, a princess, a rebel, a basket case, and a nerd who spend the day getting past those convenient definitions to form actual connections, it’s a John Hughes classic for all the right reasons. Funny and sharp with ace performances, it makes you cheer the kids’ ability to get past the high school social order—even if you’re pretty sure the status quo will return Monday morning.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
“It’s a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.”
Fake an illness, put a dummy in your bed, borrow a Ferrari, and crash a parade. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off packs more than most of us did our entire high school careers into one beautiful day. It may go lighter on the introspection than Hughes’ The Breakfast Club the year before but it’s got Matthew Broderick’s charm, Alan Ruck’s perfectly beleaguered best friend, Jennifer Grey’s aggrieved sister, and a highlight tour of Chicago. A boatload of fun.
Higher Learning (1995)
“Welcome to the real world.”
If the suburban teens of a John Hughes movie went off to college, Higher Learning is what they might have seen. With Omar Epps, Michael Rappaport, and Kristy Swanson as incoming freshmen, John Singleton’s look at college life tackles each social issue in turn, unafraid to make it personal. Lawrence Fishburn and Ice Cube light up the screen whenever they’re on it.
“I’m working with some very unstable herbs.”
Anyone who’s opened multiple college rejection letters can see the logic behind Accepted. A so-called slacker doesn’t get in anywhere, so he mocks up a website, takes over an abandoned building, and makes his own dang school. The school attracts a cavalcade of other “unacceptables,” and the courses are made up by the students on the fly. Explosive flavors, telekinesis, and bumper stickers are all part of the fun—and the curriculum.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
For every ten teachers who phone it in, there’s one who has access to some internal switch in your brain that makes you genuinely interested in the subject at hand. Robin Williams’ prep school English teacher is one such character. Encouraging his students to do what all poets suggest—living life fully, thinking independently—he inevitably butts heads with higher ups who have a more conservative approach to education. If anything could make you want to pick up a book of Walt Whitman outside of a classroom, this is it.
“These are O.R. scrubs.” “Oh, are they?”
It wasn’t Wes Anderson’s first movie, but Rushmore is certainly the first “Wes Anderson Movie.” Jason Schwartzman plays Max, an irrepressibly confident 15-year-old private school student with a knack for literal theatrics. Bill Murray re-launched his career as an indie treasure playing the father of other kids at the school, who happens to prefer the company of Max. When a pretty primary school teacher captures both of their attentions, things get nasty, brother.
School Ties (1992)
We’ve all hidden something in an effort to fit in. Set in the 1950s, School Ties tells the story of a Jewish football player on scholarship to a prestigious New England prep school. He has to hide his entire background, lest his bigoted classmates turn on him. Which they inevitably do. It’s affecting and relevant, with a roster of stars before they were huge including Matt Damon, Brenden Frasier, Chris O’Donnell, and Ben Affleck.
“What’s this I see? I thought this was a party. LET’S DANCE!”
It’s a little movie about the tiny town that outlawed dancing. With Kevin Bacon in his breakout role, Footloose is the feel-good tale of a Chicago high school senior who transfers to Utah but has to fight against an over-zealous preacher to bring music, dancing, and the prom back to the tiny town. WIth plenty of tight-jeans acrobatics and daredevil tractor games, it’s a compulsively watchable treat.
“Some people say I’m an overachiever, but I think they’re just jealous.”
Imagine Ferris Bueller grew up and became a high school teacher. Now imagine, in a karmic turn of events, he finds himself in principal Rooney’s role trying to foil the plans of a precocious student. Election is darker, shparer, and certainly meaner than Ferris Bueller, and creates a perfect satire of unbridled ambition. Reese Witherspoon plays the ruthless go-getter running for student body president, with Broderick as the civics teacher who tries to stop her, making things go deliciously bad in the process.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
“There are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. Math is the great equalizer.”
Based on a real life person, Stand and Deliver tells the story of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher at a rough East Los Angeles high school who battles his student’s delinquency and disinterest with humor, tenacity—and teaching them calculus. Top-notch performances come from Edward James Olmos playing Escalante and Lou Diamond Phillips as one of his tougher students. When the students annihilate the low expectations everyone puts on them, you can’t help but feel the satisfaction.
Bad Teacher (2011)
“Yeah, and you gotta get two of ’em.”
If Stand and Deliver is the story of an exceptionally great teacher, Bad Teacher is the opposite. Cameron Diaz plays a drunken, lazy, misanthropic middle school teacher who’s only motivation is finding a sugar daddy. When a rich and handsome substitute teacher arrives (Justin Timberlake) she decides to start getting involved in school—but only through schemes that may earn her enough money for a boob job.