Happy September, y’all!
For our latest bLISTerd installment, we turned to the silver screen to come up with our favorite school-related movies. As you can see from the list below, there was a bit of lively debate as to what constituted a “school-related” movie, but in the end, we think these 11 movies are a pretty good representation of what Hollywood has had to offer over the years as far as flicks about the educational system.
In addition to polling our staff, we reached out to our sister site Popdose and got a few of their writers to participate as well. Check out the list below and let us know if your favorite placed!
10. (tie) Clueless (1994)
Many movies try to capture the carefree, anything-goes mentality of the alternative-nation ‘90s. But few sum up the decade’s cultural touchstones, fashion choices and social conscious more than Clueless. “Wait,” you might be saying. “Clueless? The satire-laden movie based loosely on the Jane Austen novel? The film about the spoiled, self-centered rich girl who learns to help others—who eventually gets together with a baby-faced Paul Rudd—has deep meaning?” Well, yes. Although best known for making Alicia Silverstone a star (and for combining Valley Girl lingo with wildly creative slang), the movie is a rather good encapsulation of what it was like being a teenager during that decade. The stoner/jock/preppy/popular crowd cliques pretty much nail the high school divisions back then, while the cultural touchstones (references to Beavis & Butt-Head, Ren & Stimpy, save-the-earth sensitive dudes, etc.) are spot-on. And the soundtrack? The mix of Radiohead, Cracker, the Muffs, Counting Crows, Luscious Jackson Coolio and Mighty Mighty Bosstones—just to name a few—is representative of how diverse modern rock really was back then.
While the dated nature of these references is obvious when watching Clueless today, the caricature-like nature of the movie has kept it from aging badly—and means its comedic barbs are still pretty much intact. But more important, Silverstone plays Cher as a character full of endearing, earnest naivete (not vapid stupidity, as many might assume). That, when combined with the sincerity of the movie’s relationships—especially the one between Cher and her father (Dan Hedaya), as well as the Dionne (Stacey Dash) /Murray (Donald Faison) coupling—gives Clueless a sweet, funny core that’s timeless. (Annie Zaleski)
10. (tie) Sixteen Candles (1984)
If you were of high-school age in the 1980s, chances are Sixteen Candles was the first movie you ever saw that depicted something approaching your real life. Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker is just like someone you knew, or maybe someone you used to be: she’s good-looking and has friends but otherwise passes through the high school halls largely unnoticed by everyone except the dork with the crush on her … and of course gorgeous Jake Ryan, the senior who holds her heart in his hands and doesn’t even know it. In Sixteen Candles as in life, the freshman blues aren’t confined to school. Sam feels just as unseen and unappreciated at home, and when we watch her laugh as she realizes “They fucking forgot my birthday!” we recognize the pain she’s hiding. In fact, Sam’s life is positively spilling over with anxieties and humiliations, from the helpless envy she feels seeing Jake Ryan’s girlfriend naked to her sigh of resignation when Long Duk Dong somehow leapfrogs her in popularity. But Sixteen Candles, unlike its followup The Breakfast Club, never forsakes humor and good spirits, and in the end, John Hughes has too much affection for his young heroine to deny her the sixteenth-birthday present she so richly deserves. (Dan Wiencek)
9. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
Booze, debauchery, gratuitous nudity, more booze, more debauchery, rinse, repeat – sounds like a typical college weekend, right? No movie has captured that college experience better than National Lampoon’s Animal House. The movie became the blueprint for how you wished your college years would be (because nobody would green light a film about cramming for midterms and pulling all-nighters for papers). Heck, my first night on campus, the RA’s put Animal House on in the TV lounge in my residence hall. At every hall dance I went to, sooner or later, the DJ put on Otis Day and the Knights’ version of “Shout”, and we all dutifully got “a little bit softer now” (umm..).
Animal House is a movie that’s entered the collective pop culture consciousness. Admit it, you can’t go a couple of days without quoting lines like “fat, dumb and stupid is no way to go through life, son”, “double secret probation” and “my advice to you is to start drinking heavily” (not to mention references to your cucumber). John Belushi’s pep talk (“was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor”) is a staple of arenas and stadiums when the home team got behind.
Set as a portrayal of college life in the early 60’s, Animal House is really the basic story of anti-establishment underdogs versus the status quo. In this case the underdogs are the members of Delta House, “the worst house on campus”, and the establishment embodied by Dean Wormer and the “Hitler Youth” of Delta’s rival, the Omega House. But within that archetype is a well-paced, written and especially acted work of manic slapstick. Along the way are dead horses, food fights, toga parties (“it’s not an orgy!”) and the destruction of an entire downtown.
Animal House launched numerous careers, including co-writer Harold Ramis (the film’s based on his college experiences), producer Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters with Ramis), director John Landis (Blues Brothers, Trading Places, “Thriller” video), Tom Hulce (nominated for an Oscar in Amadeus), Kevin Bacon (six degrees of everyone), Mark Metcalf (Twisted Sister videos), and a lot of other “that guys”.
But Animal House made nobody a bigger star than Belushi, who’s performance as the slovenly drunken wild man Bluto Blutarsky, is comedy genius. Belushi’s funniest moments com without his saying a line, and instead from casting knowing looks, stuffing his face and tray in the cafeteria, peering and leering in the sorority window, or simply slathering himself in mustard. Every move, look and line is perfect. He literally steals every scene he’s in.
Animal House was made for under $3 million, the movie went on to gross over $141 million at the box office. Although the film got generally mixed reviews overall, it got some notably strong ones as well, with Roger Ebert putting it in his top 10 list for 1978 and on Time Magazine’s list of top films. The American Film Institute but Animal House on it’s list of top 100 funniest American Flims. And, it’s also stop down watching when it shows up on cable. So “grab a brew; it don’t cost nothin’”, flip on this classic college movie and relive your own wildest college moments vicariously with Animal House. (Dennis)
8. Back To The Future (1985)
There was some spirited debate (okay, not that spirited) as we compiled our list of top school movies as to whether Back to the Future counted. Those against pointed out (somewhat rightly) that while many scenes take place at a school, particularly the climactic Enchantment Under the Sea dance, the heart of the movie is time travel, not the ins and outs of high school life. And sure, compared to something like The Breakfast Club, the case for Back to the Future is a bit tenuous. But if you strip away the shiny Delorean and the sci-fi time travel conceit, Back to the Future isn’t a film about the consequences of breaking the space-time continuum; it’s a movie about the oft ignored reality that every generation goes through the exact same high school trials and tribulation, whether in 1955, 1985, or 2015.
Structurally, Back to the Future is a textbook high school romantic comedy. Sure, it ratchets up the stakes by making Marty’s very existence hinge on their ultimate hook-up of two strangers at a school dance, but the beats are the same. Boy and girl run in different circles. Boy must prove his love to the girl. Girl sees the inner beauty of said boy. The two live happily ever after.
But the real brilliance of the movie, beyond its crazy set piece stunts and tongue-in-cheek anachronisms, is how it juxtaposes the high school experience of two generations at once. We like to think (or at least I do) that our parents have always been just that: our parents, the serious, mature, and wise rocks on which we build our lives. Kids sneak drinks, chase girls, swoon over guys, and giggle with their friends; adults don’t. Marty, as a stand in for all of us, watches this illusion shatter firsthand through the course of the movie. Take, for example, the pivotal scene in the car before the big dance, when Marty can hardly believe his mother is drinking, smoking, and (in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in all of film) making a sexual pass at him. We like to think we alone experience the impulses and trials of high school, but in reality, there is nothing new under the sun.
So sure, few other high school movies feature time machines and crazed scientists. But Back to the Futures’ heart lies in its high school romance and commentary. For that reason alone, the famed cultural touchstone earns its place on our list. (Stephen)
7. Rushmore (1998)
There are so many movies about how hard it is to be different in high school, where the pressure to conform comes from the teachers and students alike. Rushmore spins that premise into the story of Max Fischer, a 15-year-old who doesn’t fit in because he’s spectacular. Jason Schwartzman plays it with equal parts earned arrogance, unearned arrogance, and a broken heart, as the motherless boy of a kind barber father he can’t relate to because he attends a top-notch prep school on scholarship. We all have much to learn from young Max, who blooms where he’s planted, joining and/or creating probably every club on campus, truly seizing the day, even falling in love with a beautiful teacher (Olivia Williams), only to lose her to a sad businessman (Bill Murray, in the role of a lifetime). His hubris gets the best of him and he screws it all up, gets expelled, and sent to a bland public high school…where he blooms again, starting more clubs and putting on a play. Rushmore was Wes Anderson’s second film and breakout hit. With his film, he established a lot of his pervasive themes, voice, and even sound (British invasion!) in an elegant, beautiful, and deeply moving work about, honestly, being a good person and trying to do your best. (Brian Boone)
5. Election (1999)
Teachers are often painted as caricatures in films that center on life in school — especially high school. With Election, the tables are somewhat turned by looking at the high school experience through the mid-life crisis of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in this 1999 film about the drama surrounding the election of a high school student body president. Broderick brings the right amount of midwestern sincerity (laced with a deep-seated dissatisfaction with life) to the role. Reese Witherspoon, as Tracy Flick, reveals layers of emotion to what could easily have been a one-dimensional character, and proves to be an devious and effective foil to McAllister’s efforts to teach Flick a lesson in humility. The film succeeds because it presents both students and teachers as fully formed characters — even though there are cartoonish and over the top elements to their lives. At bottom, though, Election presents a simmering rage against social climbing, class resentment of privilege, and mid-life crises in such a way that it’s easy to laugh while the characters are clearly in pain. (Ted Asregadoo)
4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is, in every respect, a fantasy film rivaling even The Lord Of The Rings in its straining of the margins of reality. Only in the movies could you have someone who is, let’s be honest, as plainly schlubby as Ferris Bueller also be such a beloved master manipulator. His family lives in a house they consider “middle-class,” although that seems an understatement by sight. His parents are blissfully ignorant, stereotypical ’80s go-getters who never had to go into the principal’s office to say, “My kid would NEVER do something like that,” but are so terribly blind and deluded that they totally would say that. Bueller has a best friend who will ably justify his ever bad impulse and a hot girlfriend who hangs around even when he pulls the most insane stunt of the moment. In Bueller’s world, even when nothing works out, everything works out.
Which is why we, as Eighties teens, were dutifully loyal to our man Bueller. Nothing was working out for us. Not only could we not get anything past our parents, they treated us as though we were dumber than deer on a racetrack. The world of Wanna-Be-Gordon-Gekkos didn’t see us as a threat and weren’t about to let us into their club. The Soviets were going to blow the U.S. straight to hell. We were too fat, too skinny, too uncoordinated, ugly, greasy, pimple-faced and couldn’t dance. But we had Bueller, and were grateful. He said to the parents and adults who dared watch the film, “See? Your precious, dimwitted little angel may be smarter than you think,” and we loved him for that.
The big question is: is this really a school movie? Sure, Bueller’s being hunted by the principal for his blatant truancy. Sure, we get the frequent cut-ins of the school fearing for the welfare of a “Bueller at death’s door.” But considering he spends most of the time out and about in the city, does it fit this list? Listen, the ultimate responsibility of the prisoner is to escape. I know it. Bueller knew it. Now you know it too, so any school movie worth its Friday pizza slice must address those that got out. So yes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a school movie (without much actual school in it), and Bueller is our Cooler King.(dw. Dunphy)
3. Heathers (1988)
Director: Michael Lehmann • Writer: Daniel Waters • Cinematography: Francis Kenney • Editor: Norman Hollyn
“Now there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.”
Dan Waters wrote this ABC Afterschool Special from hell while working in a video store. At the time, the script was a three-hour epic with a potentially awful ending (a prom in heaven). Director Michael Lehmann, a USC grad helming his first feature, and novice producer Denise Di Novi assembled the perfect team to pull off this comedy about teenage suicide, date rape, disconnected parents, peer pressure, pyrotechnics, turbo dogs and cherry slushies.
25 years later, Heathers hasn’t aged a day because its characters speak their own language, dress in a fashion that is and yet never was in style (girls in blazers!) and make little to no references to anything that can be dated (technology, celebrities, politics, etc.). Worried that teen slang such as “rad” had a very short shelf life, Waters created his own vivid and inspired vernacular:
“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” — Heather Chandler (fuck you)
“Quit pulling my dick.” — Heather Duke (don’t lie to me)
“Call me when the shuttle lands.” – Principal Gowan (keep dreaming)
“What’s your damage?” — Veronica Sawyer (what’s your problem)
Then, there’s the brilliant use of color in Rudy Dillon’s costume designs (and matching croquet sets): envious Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) wears green; meek Heather MacNamara (Lisanne Falk) wears yellow; all-powerful Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) wears red; anti-heroine Veronica (Winona Ryder) wears black and blue; menacing JD (Christian Slater) is in nothing but black. Even innocent Betty Finn (Renee Estevez — yes, of that family) wears a bleach white prim and proper blouse.
“God, Veronica. My afterlife is so boring. I have to sing Kumbaya one more time…”
Even if Heathers 2 gets made, many of the Heatherverse’s key players are already at that big prom in the sky: Kim Walker (Heather Chandler), William Cort (Veronica’s Dad), Jeremy Applegate (Peter) and Glenn Shadix (Father Ripper) all died way too young. One of Walker’s final film appearances was with fellow Heather (Falk) in the Say Anything kegger before curfew scene.
Like his antihero, JD, Dan Waters went on to make many bombs throughout his career (Hudson Hawk, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Sex and Death 101 — with Ryder). In the win column, his Batman Returns (the Tim Burton-helmed Penguin movie) was one of my favorites in that series.
For years, Heathers has suffered a lot of comparison to Mean Girls, which was directed by Mark Waters (Dan’s brother). Outsider infiltrates and brings down the most popular girl clique in school while having repetitive small talk chats with mom and dad on the patio. Someone gets run over by a truck. “Fetch” is the new “Very.” But alas, nothing can top the original. Heathers was and is so very. So very indeed. (Keith Creighton)
The 1980s was a boom-time for high school movies, and Fast Times is arguably the best of the lot. The movie was written by future director Cameron Crowe about his experiences going undercover in a San Diego high school for a Rolling Stone article. Directed by Amy Heckerling, the film was marketed as a wacky stoner romp featuring Sean Penn’s iconic Spicoli character (who clearly inspired the spacey likes of everyone from Bill and Ted to Pauly Shore to Crush the turtle in Finding Nemo). But it was much more than a one-note weed flick. It follows a group of high school students through fumbling attempts at love, sex and success. The movie veered wildly from off-the-wall comedy to a heartbreaking pregnancy sideplot. Other than Spicoli, Fast Times avoided archetypes and made the rest of its characters likable and believable.
Fast Times featured a terrific ensemble cast that introduced America to the likes of Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates, and featured cameos from Nic Cage, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz and Forest Whitaker. The soundtrack includes a who’s who of early ‘80s AOR stalwarts such as Sammy Hagar, most of the Eagles (Henley, Walsh, Felder and Schmit all contributed solo songs), Billy Squier, Quarterflash and the Go-Gos. But the most ubiquitous was Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” which was played non-stop on the FM station I listened to at the time. Better songs that were played in the movie but didn’t end up on the soundtrack included Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo.” Although there was an egregious error made when Robert Romanus’ Damone recommends playing side 1 of Led Zeppelin 4 when making out and then the film cuts to Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which as any fan will tell you is on Physical Graffiti. A surprising mistake, given Crowe’s close relationship with the band. Still, a minor quibble in what is a true American classic. (Jay Kumar)
1. The Breakfast Club (1985)
I can’t believe, with all the remakes and lousy adaptations of lame TV shows, that Hollywood hasn’t started remaking the late John Hughes’ films. And I’m not saying they should, but if they did then The Breakfast Clubis a likely starting point. Really, the only things that tie it to the ’80s are the hair, the slang, and the music. In every other way, it’s a timeless and surprisingly poignant exploration of the stifling yet unspoken high school caste system.