The end of summer brings good feelings and bad ones, depending on how you feel about school. Hollywood, naturally, likes to cash in on that shared experience with back to school movies. If you’re trying to get prepped for the start of another academic year, here are the essential films to get you in the spirit.
John Landis’s National Lampoon spin-off movie literally changed all the rules for school movies. When Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman start their first year at Faber College, they find themselves pledging Delta Tau Chi, the most debased frat on campus. The clash between the Delts and Dean Wormer laid the foundation for dozens of anti-authoritarian tales, and the performances (especially John Belushi’s legendary role as “Bluto” Blutarsky) are top-notch. Even thirty-five years later, this flick is still transgressive and hilarious. It’s one back to school movie that’s often imitated, never duplicated.
Peggy Sue Got Married
Francis Ford Coppola’s unusual take on the back-to-school film takes its title character way back. Kathleen Turner plays Peggy Sue Bodell, on her way to her 25th high school reunion. When she faints at the event, she finds herself transported back to 1960 and her senior year. The fantasy of getting to go back to high school but still knowing everything we know as adults is a pretty powerful one, and the movie revels in it. It does have a typically weird Nicolas Cage performance, if that helps sell you on it.
Dazed & Confused
It’s kind of cheating a little to call "Dazed & Confused" a back-to-school film, because it takes place on the last day of school, not the first. But Richard Linklater’s brilliant evocation of 1970s Texas is so smart, funny and relatable that it needs to make this list. A huge ensemble cast of future stars including Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey drink beers, smoke weed and make decisions about their future. The soundtrack is also completely awesome, packed to the gills with classic rock.
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High
Now for something a little different. New York film production company Troma is notorious for their B-movies that overflow with sex and violence, and their take on the classic back-to-school movie is something truly unique. "Class Of Nuke ‘Em High" takes place at New Jersey’s Tromaville High, which happens to be situated right next door to a nuclear power plant. When radioactive marijuana mutates students, all hell breaks loose. This wild, cheaply made gross-out is funny and trashy and will make you happy that your high school wasn’t this bad.
To Sir, With Love
Now for something a little more serious but equally awesome. The 1967 drama "To Sir, With Love" stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an unemployed engineer who takes a teaching position at a rough East End of London high school. This is the archetypal “students come to respect their teacher” movie, and there aren’t many that tackle the trope better. At first, the roughnecks in Thackeray’s class torment him with all kinds of pranks, but gradually he realizes that if he treats them like adults, they’ll eventually behave like adults. Oh, sure, he has to kick the crap out of one of them in a boxing match, too, but that’s just the cost of doing business.
One of the grimmest and funniest high school movies of all time, Michael Lehmann’s "Heathers" skewers the sick popularity games that kids get obsessed with in murderous manner. When Veronica Sawyer is inducted into the clique at the top of the heap, everything looks good for her until J.D, the new kid in school, upsets the applecart. Originally the flick was pitched to Stanley Kubrick, which would have been incredible, but what we got is still an undisputed classic of the genre, with career-making performances from Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.
Friday Night Lights
Sports are an integral part of school life, and no movie has captured the highs and lows of the athletic experience quite like "Friday Night Lights." Peter Berg’s brilliant 2004 drama follows the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, as they struggle their way towards the state championships. If you played anything — varsity or not — in school, this will all seem familiar to you. If you thought jocks were just dumb goons coasting through on their physical abilities, this flick will actually give you sympathy towards them. Even better, it inspired an equally excellent TV series after the fact.
Back to School
Yes, that "Back to School. The “adult goes to college late” plot has been used dozens of times, but one of the best is the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy. Dangerfield, a Borscht Belt comedian who flourished in the '80s, plays a multi-millionaire clothing store owner who visits his son at college only to wind up enrolling himself. The resultant hijinks are spectacular, including hiring Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (as himself) to write a literature paper. Everything works out in the end, with father and son bonding over the values of hot girls and higher education.
You knew we’d have to put at least one stoner comedy on this list, and for our money the ultimate combo of wacky weed and school shenanigans is "How High" — the 2001 flick that first introduced the world to the comedic stylings of rappers Method Man and Redman. When mixing a friend’s ashes into the fertilizer for their latest batch of bud gets both guys into Harvard, the stage is set for a clash of cultures that involves truth serums, prehistoric bongs and old-fashioned institutional racism. A sequel has been rumored for almost a decade, but we’re not holding our breath.
Stand and Deliver
Based on a true story, this is another “teacher has to get tough” tale that transcends the norm. Edward James Olmos stars as Jaime Escalante, a new teacher at Los Angeles’s nail-tough Garfield High School. Unwilling to just sit back and do the absolute minimum, Escalante develops a summer math program to teach pre-calculus, engaging the minds of his students and shocking the world when they pass the brutal AP Calculus exam with flying colors. It’s amazing how this movie makes math the most important — and most dramatic — thing in the world.
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Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe’s legendary take on high school was written after he went undercover at a San Diego public school to see what the kids of today were up to. What’s great about "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" is the ensemble cast — it’s not just one school story, it contains multitudes. From Jeff Spicoli the burned-out surfer to Brad Hamilton and his crappy-ass jobs, every scene is interesting and true to life. Oh, and it has Phoebe Cates’s breasts coming out of a pool, one of the most iconic sexy scenes in cinema history.