Back to School Special * Intro to Film 101: Top 10 Movies About School & Higher Education

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 643   By: Mark Leffler

23rd August, 2007     0

With books being bought and lap tops charged, it's that time of year when attentions turn to that topic known as 'education'.

As part of a well-rounded education, The Review has assembled a list of the Top 10 Films about the educational experience - no easy feat considering the vast number of films that have been made about the high school and college experience (there just aren't that many flicks about elementary school, aside from Kindergarten Cop and Daddy Day Care).

I've spent the past week bending the ear of anyone within earshot at work, online and in the streets, asking for input to help me remember some of the better movies that have been made about matriculation and the various forms of higher education.

So study up!  The test will be forthcoming

1) Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986): Outside of my almost constant viewing of National Lampoon's Animal House (and you Dear Reader would be completely within your rights to want to beat me with a Louisville Slugger the next time I work an Animal House reference into a Review article) this is probably the most recent movie I've rented on this list.
Of the half dozen or so movies Michigan native John Hughes has directed or written about the high school experience, this is Matthew Broderick concocting 80's coolness personified as he glides effortlessly through his perfect day playing hooky with his girlfriend Sloan and best bud Cameron.

If you get the right DVD version of this movie the notoriously reclusive Hughes will treat you to a commentary track. All the major and minor parts are perfectly cast from the leads down to such minor but unforgettable roles like Charlie Sheen as a charismatic hood and Ben Stein as a hapless teacher taking attendance ("BuellerŠ.Bueller")

2) Pretty in Pink (1986): With its title taken from a song by the wonderful 80's band The Psychedelic Furs, this is another Hughes movie that perfectly captures the experience of high school in the 80's. In fact, its enduring popularity can be credited with Hughes ability to understand the universal feelings of angst, alienation and insecurity that teens have always felt.
Molly Ringwald has said that this is her favorite movie. This is very likely due to the immense empathy Hughes managed to show when creating such a nuanced and complex role for a teen girl in the age of Porky's and other such T & A jiggle fests.

Hughes movies always had incredible soundtracks and this is no exception. Watch for a scene where Duckie sits in his room healing a broken heart by listening to the lesser-known John Lennon solo tune "Love".

3) Breakfast Club (1985): Its hard to pick a favorite of Hughes high school classics set in his mythical Shermer, Illinois (fans of Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back will remember that the hapless stoner pair set off initially on a road trip to Shermer, only to have it pointed out that there is no such town in the Lincoln State. Hughes made it up.)
As in all the movies in the Hughes oeuvre, adults are almost always clueless and domineering and just don't understand. This may be the most loved of all the Hughes school comedies because of the sensitive portrayal of all the archetypes: The Hood (Judd Nelson), The Princess (Molly Ringwald) The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), The Jock (Emilio Estevez) and The Loner Goth Chick (Ally Sheedy). For once a movie doesn't take the easy path of pitting jocks against nerds or sensitive plain girls against preppy snobs.

4) Good Will Hunting (1997):  Now that Matt Damon is beating the hell out of the C.I.A. in his Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum flicks and Ben Affleck is busy playing Mr. Mom, it might be time to revisit this touching film about friendship and the healing possibilities of therapy.

Damon plays the titular role of Will Hunting, a genius level math whiz who grew up in foster homes and works nights as a custodian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Director Gus Van Zandt did an excellent job of helming the brilliant script which was written by Damon and Affleck and which won several prizes including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

5) The Lords of Discipline (1983):
If you know anyone who is considering attending a military academy, or even just threatening to send their juvenile delinquent progeny to one, screen this movie first.

Although much of the movie is taken up with a grim portrayal of the first attempt to racially integrate a Southern military academy loosely based on The Citadel, the rest of the film is a dead-on depiction of the brutal and sadistic hazing of underclassmen that takes place at most, if not all military academies.

Conroy was a cadet when the institution was integrated and both the book and the film succeed at evoking the era. The film is set at the fictional Carolina Military Academy and was shot in England because no American military academy would allow the movie to be shot on their campus. Gee, go figure.

6) School of Rock (2003):  What a splendid gem of a film, with as many laughs and as much heart as a John Hughes movie.

The inimitable Jack Black (this generation's John Belushi) plays Dewey Finn, a down-on-his-luck rock and roller who is kicked out of his band and is living with his pal (screenwriter Mike White) who is a substitute teacher.

One day while his friend is gone Dewey takes a call from a school that needs a sub and he fills in teaching the only subject he knows (how to Rock) to a class of gifted fifth-graders.  Black's performance alone is worth the price of a rental, but the kids almost steal the show as they slowly but surly become mini-monsters of Rock.

7) To Sir with Love (1967): It's time to jump in the wayback machine in order to revisit this timeless classic.

Sidney Poitier, who had a major role in The Blackboard Jungle as a hoodlum, here portrays Mark Thackeray, a black engineer who takes a position teaching at a London inner city school because he can't land a job in his chosen profession.

The juvenile delinquents he is assigned to teach push his buttons, hoping to break him. Thackeray finally decides to throw out the academic lesson plan and teach the soon to be graduated students the life coping skills they will need to be productive and functioning adults.
Along with Blackboard Jungle, it launched the genre of "inspirational teacher with dysfunctional students" films. The title song is a 60's classic and when Lulu performs it at the final graduation dance, it never fails to bring tears to this jaded critic's eyes.

8) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): Former Rolling Stone wunderkind reporter Cameron Crowe graduated high school at fifteen and by nineteen he was already a seasoned rock journalist. But he still looked young enough to pass as a high school student, and he came up with the idea of going back to high school "undercover" to report on the real lives of teenagers in the early 80's.

His fictionalized story became the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which had studios bidding for the movie rights before it was even in the bookstores. Crowe went on to write the mostly forgettable Wild Life about post-high school partiers and the unforgettable Say Anything, Jerry McGuire and Almost Famous, a fictionalized retelling of his youthful days writing for Rolling Stone.

Like the John Hughes youth themed movies, Crowe's script and Amy Heckerling's direction captured to a "T" the various archetypes and subcultures of the southern California youth scene. Especially memorable are Sean Penn's stoner dude Spicolli and Phoebe Cates's topless slow motion bikini romp, which inspires the most awkwardly hilarious scene of self gratification in movie history.

9) Paper Chase (1973): Just as All the President's Men inspired a few generations of would-be Woodward and Bernstein's, this movie based on the novel by John Jay Osborne, Jr. inspired countless law school applicants. The key to the movie's success is the depiction of the Socratic method of teaching law, memorably practiced by John Houseman's Professor Kingsfield. "You enter with a skull full of mush, and if you're lucky (dramatic pause) you leave here (longer dramatic pause) thinking like a lawyer.

10) National Lampoon's Animal House (1978): Okay, get ready to beat me with that Louisville Slugger now, because I'm about to gush about this greatest of all campus comedies once again.

I guess the first thing I'd like to point out is that there is a lot of subtle societal satire going on that gets lost when people categorize Animal House as a "gross out comedy" based on antics like the dead horse in the Dean's office, Flounder throwing up on Dean Wormer, and the food fight in the cafeteria.

Dean Wormer (one of many lovely names created by script authors Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller) is actually a stand in for recently disgraced President Richard Milhouse Nixon. When he cites a "little known codicil in the Faber by-laws that allow the Dean to take special measures in times of campus emergency" you can almost see the Nixonian five o'clock shadow on his face.

The second point I'd like to make is that as Otter says after beaning Neidermeyer with a golf ball "the main thing is to have a good time." It's all about the joy of breaking the rules and disobeying authority that is trying to force conformity for conformity's sake.

Rent it again soon and I dare you to count all the memorable lines. "Over? Who said it's over? Was it over when the German's bombed Pearl Harbor?" "You f---ed up. You trusted us." "It's gotta work better than the truth."

Other Movies featuring a school theme for you to browse: The Substitute, The Principal, Class of 1984, Kindergarten Cop, Dangerous Minds, Porky's, School Ties, School Daze, Drumline, Stand and Deliver, Taps, Back to School, Real Genius, Freedom Writers, High School Musical, All the Right Movies, High School Confidential, Reefer Madness, Weird Science, Mr. Holland's Opus, The Nutty Professor, Revenge of the Nerds, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.


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