Let’s face it: It’s August, and the summer is slipping inevitably into fall. For a lot of us, this means heading back to school for another year of toil in the salt mines of the intellect. It’s vitally important that you be mentally prepared for what awaits you in those hallowed, ivy-covered halls. Oh, sure, you could do something practical like brushing up on your term-paper skills, but we’ll leave the practical recommendations to others — our job is to fill your head not with Socratic philosophy, but quality light entertainment, and to that end, here are a few of our favorite movies set at (or near, anyway) college and high school. Yes, they will be on the final exam.
There is an ancient legend, or a curse, or something like that, that says that anyone who writes an article about school-related movies has to start off with “Animal House,” lest the enraged Gods of Film cast lightning at your house and short out your DVD player. John Landis’ ensemble comedy is still the quintessential college romp, led by John Belushi’s unforgettable performance as drunken, out-of-control maniac Bluto Blutarsky, the wildest member of Faber College’s wildest fraternity, prone to starting food fights in the cafeteria, kidnapping the horse of the campus’ mean ROTC instructor, and expressing his opinion of folk music by smashing the guitar against a wall and then mumbling a contrite “sorry.” If the movie sometimes goes past the bounds of good taste, that’s probably the price it pays for its spirit of rebellion at all costs — or, as one of the characters puts it: “This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.” Welcome to college, my friends.
First-year film student Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) is struggling to find his way in New York and deal with an arrogant, demanding professor — difficult enough for any young man, but he gets both unexpected help and mind-boggling new complications when, by chance, he’s befriended by a powerful mobster named Carmine Sabatini. At least, that’s the name the film gives him, but movie buffs know who Sabatini really is, since actor Marlon Brando gets great comic mileage by capitalizing on his association with the most well-known capo in filmdom: Vito Corleone, the Godfather himself. Corle — I mean, Sabatini goes out of his way to “help” his new favorite, much to Kellogg’s horrified anxiety, by sending Kellogg’s prof a silkily threatening “opinion” that Clark is an A student, and by hiring him for a strange pickup job involving an endangered lizard. Brando and Broderick are both very funny, with a relationship that’s a clear forerunner to the milquetoast-vs.-mobster dynamic of “Analyze This.”
‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’ (1982)
Cameron Crowe, who later directed movies like “Almost Famous,” “Vanilla Sky” and the forthcoming “Elizabethtown,” made his first big splash into movies as the screenwriter of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” which he researched in the most direct way possible: pretending to be a teenage transfer student, he enrolled in a high school, the better to observe real-life students. In director Amy Heckerling’s hands, the laughs are much more prominent than Crowe’s sociology and drama. Future brooding Oscar winner Sean Penn has an unforgettable turn as stoned-out surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, whose slacker attitude eventually puts him at loggerheads with hardnosed history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston, best known previously as the title character in the 1960s sitcom “My Favorite Martian”).
Indie-film darling Wes Anderson teamed up with his friend Owen Wilson on the script for this wonderfully quirky, smart comedy. Jason Schwartzman stars as Max Fischer, a hyperkinetically driven 15-year-old named who cares less about failing his classes at prestigious prep school Rushmore Academy than a series of wildly ambitious extracurricular projects, including some hilariously over-the-top stage plays (his high-school “Serpico” is a masterpiece). Along the way he befriends a lonely industrialist — played by Bill Murray, in the role that relaunched his career into movies like “Lost In Translation” and the new “Broken Flowers” — and both of them fall tragically in love with Rushmore’s new elementary teacher.
‘The Paper Chase’ (1973)
“Animal House” is the definitive look at college partying, but no film better captures the high-pressure environment of serious academic life than this coming-of-age drama starring Timothy Bottoms as James Hart, an ambitious Harvard Law School freshman. John Houseman steals the show as the ice-cold Professor Kingsfield, who demands perfection and inspires Hart to push himself as far as he can to win the prof’s respect, only to find himself pulled in a completely different direction when he falls in love with Kingsfield’s daughter (Lindsey Wagner, best known as the Bionic Woman).
Though it’s old enough that one of its major scenes takes place in a Prohibition-era speakeasy, “Horse Feathers”remains one of the Marx Brothers’ funniest movies, which ought to be enough of a recommendation for just about anybody. It was made just before “Duck Soup,” the brothers’ high point on film, and the parody of university life and college sports is jam-packed with anarchic verbal wit. When Groucho somehow gets himself appointed president of Huxley College, he vows to save the institution by junking the academics and bulking up the football team. (See, it’s still pretty modern after all.) When his flabbergasted faculty asks him where the students will sleep if he goes through with his plan to make room for a new stadium, by tearing down the rest of the college, he gets off one of the movie’s best lines: “Where they always sleep — in the classroom.”
‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’(1969)
Maggie Smith is possibly most familiar to filmgoers these days as Harry Potter’s stern but sympathetic teacher Minerva MacGonagall, but she won an Oscar for her portrayal of another teacher with a quite different personality in this film based on the novel by Muriel Sparks. Edinburgh teacher Jean Brodie is a free spirit out to motivate her impressionable group of young girls to future greatness with pearls of wisdom such as “Goodness, truth and beauty come first.” (It should be noted that Brodie is far from all-wise — the film, set in the 1930s before the start of WWII, makes clear Brodie’s naïve approval of Mussolini.) Her flamboyant disregard for convention endears her to her students and two romantically inclined male teachers, but makes her a threat to the school’s authority figures, leading to a catastrophic confrontation. Brodie falls into the category of sentimental weepers about the struggles of inspirational teachers that also includes “Dead Poets Society” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but a smart script and Smith’s performance make it a memorable example of the genre.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French thriller is the greatest thriller Alfred Hitchcock never made — that’s because Clouzot bought the rights to the source novel before Hitch could get his hands on it. The movie takes places at a dilapidated boarding school run by a bullying boor who’s mean to everyone — the children, his chronically ill wife and his mistress. The two women join forces and kill their tormentor, dumping his body in a murky swimming pool, but things (as they often are in murder mysteries) are not what they seem. If you’ve ever wondered what your teachers and professors are really up to when school’s out, give this one a try.
‘The Blackboard Jungle’(1955)
Remember when rock ’n’ roll was dangerous — really dangerous? You have to go back a full half-century, to this high-school drama whose opening credits, anchored by Bill Haley’s song “Rock Around The Clock,” helped launch the rock era. Glenn Ford plays an idealistic English teacher who discovers that his new school is run by gangs of juvenile delinquents (including Sidney Poitier, in one of his earliest roles). A battle of wills ensues as Ford tries to enforce order among a student body who don’t have any respect for him or his authority. Though it’s become inevitably somewhat dated, “Blackboard Jungle” was nominated for four Oscars and was hugely controversial in its day for its gritty take on urban violence.
Remember, a huge portion of your college admission tests are based on pattern recognition. Train yourself by watching all these worthwhile movies set in colleges and high schools, and see if you can figure out what they have in common.
‘X-Men’(2000): A group of students at a school for kids with mutant powers get into all kinds of adventures.
‘Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone’(2001): A group of students at a school for kids with magical powers get into all kinds of adventures.
‘Sky High’ (2005): A group of students at a school for kids with superpowers get into all kinds of adventures.
‘Real Genius’(1985): Scientific research is always more fun when when it involves filling up your professor’s house with popcorn.
‘Re-Animator’(1985): Scientific research is always creepier when it involves bringing your professor back from the dead.
‘Clueless’ (1995): Jane Austen’s “Emma” in a high school.
‘O’(2001): “Othello” in a high school.
‘She’s All That’(1999): “My Fair Lady” in a high school.
‘Cruel Intentions’(1999): “Dangerous Liaisons” in a high school.
‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’(1989): “Dr. Who”in a high school.
‘Three O’Clock High’(1987): “High Noon” in a high school.
‘Donnie Darko’ (2001): “Harvey” in a high school, if the invisible rabbit were actually a harbinger of the apocalypse.
‘Election’(1999): The trouble with democracy in a nutshell, in a high school.
‘Mean Girls’(2004): A bitchy clique of popular girls terrorizes a high school until beautiful misfit Lindsay Lohan shows up.
‘Heathers’(1989): A bitchy clique of popular girls terrorizes a high school until beautiful misfit Winona Ryder and her homicidally angry boyfriend show up.
‘Carrie’(1976): A bitchy clique of popular girls terrorizes a high school until homicidally angry, telekinetic misfit Sissy Spacek shows up.